The Philosophy of Simplicity
The premise of a simplifying philosophy
Looking back, maybe I would have been a philosopher or even a quantum physicist.
Unfortunately, a single year of college religious studies wasn’t enough to get me there. Not that I had any worthy goals at the time. Because I didn’t, other than to not be a minister. I was a preacher’s kid, and based on my experience and observations I just didn’t see how I could make it okay within myself to spiritually advise and lead others.
Regarding science, I didn’t like all the formulas that physicists chalk out. Traditional mathematics was never my strong point. But I’ve always had something that physicists and philosophers share: Curiosity and questions, which are neither shackled nor necessarily set free by education.
It’s far too easy to be guided by the misguided
Sometimes curiosity is guided by misguided sages, sending it this way or that. Which doesn’t always end well. If you’re fortunate, you may end up burrowing into networks of well-connected people and resources who can help you bridge some early gaps. But there comes a point where bridges don’t exist. Yet the gaps and chasms still do.
I’m nothing but ordinary. I’m not out to prove that I’m smarter, faster, wealthier or better. But doesn’t that make you wonder? As to where the ordinary man or woman ends up finding outlets for their curiosity? And how they might go about building bridges into the unspeakable, were they to be empowered? Because far too often they are shoved aside, or somehow intellectually marginalized, held hostage by self-proclaimed scholars, prosperity gospel gurus and best-selling authors telling the lot of us how to live. Or even how to dream.
To make matters worse, often our most brilliant or insightful minds stumble with embarrassing clumsiness when it comes to explaining their realizations to anyone outside their closely guarded gated communities. They talk to the rest of us in a parlance suitable only to their particular club, contained by dialects of separation and unintended exclusion.
We need to be much more inclusive in our explanations. Part of my Jiu Jitsu training included an entire curriculum built around the skills of instructing. Instructorship was a four year program itself, in addition to Jiu Jitsu training. One of the things I was required to learn was the ability break things down into decipherable bits and chunks. My teacher explained,
“If someone, maybe you, is rushing through a technique, they are usually covering up what they don’t know. Their speed is a subconscious attempt to fool you, to distract you. Because if you really know your stuff, you should be able to slow a technique down to a crawl and still be spot on.”
His point was that until you can make your technique so ‘clean’ that it has no hitches or hiccups in it — even in slow motion — then you will always be muddy when it comes to helping fellow students unravel where their own application of technique is getting off track.
In time, I came to find ways to cross-relate his insights on the Jiu Jitsu mat into everyday life situations. (Which helps explain why this site exists.) I found, for example, that metaphors and analogies were now my best friends when it came to “breaking things down into decipherable bits and chunks.” If someone wasn’t understanding, or if I was doing a poor job of explaining, then the problem was with the messenger, not the audience.
Simpler means more fundamental
One of the biggest problems we have, when it comes to explaining existence or matters of consciousness, is that it’s not been simplified, explained in ways that are simple and comprehensible to everyday guys like me. This is an issue that permeates both our sciences and our normal daily interactions.
Everything has its own language. To be clear, artist talk theirs, and construction workers talk theirs. And also to be clear, there are cases of physicists and philosophers who have strived to talk simply. My point is, we need to keep finding ways to bring complex things within the grasp of the rest of us.
We are so used to accepting the inexplicable as inexplicable, that we stop trying to explain it and stop trying to understand it. Which makes finding everyday things to practice on all the more essential. Everyday life practice is convenient, because we have an endless supply of situations which call out for simple analogies.
We are so used to accepting the inexplicable as inexplicable, that we stop trying to explain it and stop trying to understand it.
For example, we have a hard time explaining something as seemingly simple as relative humidity. We are told that warm air can hold more moisture than cooler air. Which makes the amount of moisture in the air relative to the air temperature. But because most of us are not engineers, we tend to nod without truly comprehending. But comprehension starts by breaking things down into simple, digestible bites. So if I say a bottle is 66% full of water, the actual amount of water in the bottle is relative to its size. In other words, a 32 ounce bottle has more water if it’s 66% full than a 16 ounce bottle that is 66% full. But they are both 66% full.
Similarly, with issues of consciousness or of right and wrong, we overlook the relative nature of things. Most of us live in a world of right and wrong. We’re conditioned to judge things one way or the other. We look at things as though they were a light switch: they are either on or off, up or down, black or white, right or wrong. But one day it occurred to me that some rooms have dimmer switches installed. Dimmer switches represent a world beyond the simplicity of on or off. They incorporate a world of gradients… the gradual transition from dark to light.
Inner and Outer
In reading ‘inner journey’ accounts, I’ve often come away with the sense that the writer has become convinced that their view of the universe or their life-after-death epiphany is a definitive truth. Truth, as in “I’ve seen something you haven’t seen, which somehow means that my powerful revelation has elevated my experience from opinion to fact.”
Having had powerful inner experiences myself, I’ve been both overwhelmed and cautious. Cautious not so much because they were life-altering and intensely subjective occurrences, but because objectivity demands it. In other words, I’ve found that I am unable to say, with 100% certainty, that I’ve observed and experienced a deeper reality, although it certainly has seemed that way. That being said, my neck hairs stand up whenever we begin to speak in terms of certainty. Far better to embrace uncertainty.
Of course, in certain circumstances a large degree of certainty exists. Newtonian physics has given us the certainty of a working set of mechanistic processes: We ‘know’ a bridge won’t fall down if we follow certain physical principles in design and construction. We ‘know’ our hand will get burned if we thrust it into an open flame. But there’s far more unknown than known, an opinion shared both by generations of mystics as well as unfolding discoveries in the at-times-confusing nature of quantum physics.
No one knows with certainty what lies beyond the edges of the observable universe. Nor can we say with certainty that the mind itself is or isn’t limitless. At best we have opinions, experiences and contradictions. Further research into the nature of consciousness seems promising.
But how do you simplify a phrase such as, “Further research into the nature of consciousness seems promising?” What’s that mean in practical terms for the everyday person?
David Bohm (1917–1992) was “an American scientist who has been described as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century.” Bohm’s brilliance was often compared to Einstein, although he never achieved similar public fame. It was Bohm who came up with the terms “implicate order” and “explicate order.”
To be clear, these terms are explained, but they are explained in ways that quickly cause my eyes to glaze over. So, we need the means to break things down so that guys like me can comprehend the terms. And in the effort to simplify, we discover that metaphors can bridge the gaps that have no bridges.
As I understand it, the implicate order describes a unified or unfolded state. So if we want a simple way of understanding the concept, think of the folding paper game that children play.
When a kid closes her fingers, the game is closed, unrevealed. That’s the unified or unfolded state. When she opens her fingers, and the game starts to reveal its questions and answers, that’s the explicate state. The explicate state can be described as the unfolded or separate state, the state in which things become revealed. But in a sense, the folded or implicate order is always still there. In a sense, both the implicate and explicate exist at the same time. In the same place.
With the use of this simple yet powerful analogy, we are able to find a way to rationalize some very complex concepts. With our children’s game we gain a basic insight into the implicate/explicate order, and we also transcend time and space to discover that two things can exist in two different states simultaneously. To be clear, I’m not suggesting I possess some unique insight here, or that there aren’t some flaws in my explanation of Bohm’s terms. After all, I’m not a quantum physicist. That’s not the point. The point is, we need to break things down in a way that makes them comprehensible for the rest of us.
For example, there’s the implications of a holographic universe, where “as above, so below” is as equally valid as, “as below, so above.” A place where all things are present in all things. A place where just as the implicate or unified order unfolds into the explicate or separate order, we are now able to find metaphors which allow us to comprehend that the implicate or oneness is still present-even in our separateness. A place where all of time — past, present and future — may exist within a single moment or event; an ever-present singularity. Like salt water taffy, it just keeps folding in on itself. Yet it stretches. But it never truly separates as it’s being pulled this way and that.
Like salt water taffy, separateness and oneness just keeps folding in on itself.
Why make the complex accessible?
I’m fascinated by the commonality of things. The prismatic nature of religions and philosophies, what with the constant etching away by nature on the jagged surfaces of beliefs. It’s the concept of water eventually wearing away the stone. Of mountains getting eroded. Of confusion becoming clarified.
Religion and philosophy have a jaggedness that nature is constantly etching away, forever toiling to wear down the rough stones of our disagreements, leaving a polished gem for us to hold, care for and treasure.
The pursuit of philosophies and physics can lead us to develop a sense of the things that are just out of view. It’s like being the animal in the forest who stops mid-stride, poised and alert because the entire forest has suddenly fallen deathly quiet.
It’s that certainty of feeling, of knowing how much more could be understood if we could but peek around the corners of quiet inferences. It’s an intuitive sense that, but for a small tweak here or there, certain things would instantly fall into place.
In 1929, Swedish physicist Oskar Klein peeked around the corner in discovering something called Klein’s Paradox. But when I go to find an explanation of what that means, inevitably I’m directed into summaries that assume I have a technical or educational background that enables me to be conversant in languages that are far from plain English. Which puts certain thinkers and some of the world’s most insightful observations out of reach.
I have to wonder if I could better understand that “electrons found in graphene can tunnel through energy barriers regardless of their width and energy height; a phenomenon called Klein tunneling” — that I might, as an experiential philosopher and student of the metaphysical, hypothesize a similar relationship in consciousness: the tunneling through virtually any barrier under particular circumstances. Because “as above, so below.” Who knows?
Questions lurking behind the walls of the monastery
Do we not have a responsibility to place science’s most probing questions and discoveries into the penetrating minds of our everyday philosophers? Shouldn’t all of these disciplines, in a sense, be living together in the world of the dimmer switch?
Instead our objectivists and subjectivists tend to live worlds apart, separated by their self-imposed polarities of science and reason versus meditations and insights — much the same as foreign languages and regional dialects tend to isolate us, one group from the other.
It’s a lot like immigrants, isn’t it? Immigrants first move into their own neighborhoods, isolated in large part from the mainstream for at least one or two generations. At first, the barriers of language and custom are too great to overcome. But once they begin to erode, a greater collective culture emerges.
I am by no means letting the philosophers off the hook, here. Trying to get a feel for Kierkegaard can be just as befuddling as deciphering David Bohm. And because of that, I think some of us can do little more than dream. Which can make us question what’s worthwhile, or who’s worthwhile. Are dreamers worthwhile? Are dreams something to value? Because we all dream.
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations —one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it —you will regret both.” –Søren Kierkegaard, Either/ Or: A Fragment of Life” from “The Quotable Kierkegaard” by Soren Kierkegaard
Monasteries are generally thought to be the homes of contemplatives. So where are the quantum physicists, and their clear explanations of insights, observations and discoveries? They are far more contemplative then perhaps they care to admit. Contemplation, in any form, is a subjective exercise. And the figurative monastery, if nothing else, welcomes thinkers.
As for me, my philosophy is simple. I try to represent the forgotten picture you remember from your childhood. In a sense, it’s that simple.