Those who have studied a bit of philosophy will likely recall the term "Occam's Razor." And, if you're like most, you've likely forgotten what in the heck it is . . . I mean, that final exam was a long, long time ago. Well, to refresh our memories, William of Occam (or Ockham) was a 14th century Franciscan friar and logician known to history for a single statement: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem -- literally, "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." To flesh it out just a tad, what Occam's Razor (rule) teaches is that "The simplest explanation is probably correct." Or, as my wife would have it, "Keep it simple, stupid!"
In paying attention to how people respond to such highly complex issues as immigration reform, the prospects for peace in the Middle East, gun control, health care, structural unemployment, America's collapsing infrastructure, income inequality -- among many, many others -- one hears echoes of Occam: The simplest explanation is probably correct. I mean, how often do we hear people in public life proclaim that "In order to solve X, all we have to do is Y?"
Want to solve the problem of health care in America? One side says "Let the market decide." The other, "Make it universal."
Want to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? One side says "Stop building settlements in the occupied territories, end the embargo of Gaza and quit standing in the way of a Palestinian State." The other side says "Disarm, recognize Israel's right to exist and get rid of Hamas."
Want to effect a major overhaul of our failing public school system? One side says "Pay teachers far more than they are currently earning and spend far more per pupil." The other side says "Eliminate teacher tenure and increase choice through creating more charter schools."
Want to cure what ails us politically? Both sides say the same thing: "Elect us . . . then you'll see!"
Let's face it: when it comes to dealing with our era's most complex and challenging problems, we're addicted to simplicity. To my mind, this addiction is a natural outgrowth of living in an age of heightened polarization. We have become so terribly fractionalized that it is all but impossible to work with the "other side" in the search for solutions to what ails us. When even the idea of working together becomes a nonstarter, simplicity takes over; our solution is the only one that will work; yours will lead to wreck and ruin. H.L. Mencken well understood this sociopolitical train wreck when he wrote, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
One concomitant byproduct of this addiction for simplicity is gross impatience; if the problem cannot be solved, the challenge not be conquered lickity split, we throw our hands up and begin looking elsewhere. But the repair or rectification of problems and challenges created over years and decades (and in some cases -- like the Middle East -- millennia) is something which occurs over the long haul . . . not the short run. We expect everything to occur instantaneously . . . like online banking and microwaveable meals. Sadly, when one adds gross impatience to an addiction for simplicity what one gets is frustration, stultification and paralyzation.
Frustration, stultification and paralyzation are, historically speaking, distinctly un-American. For most of our history we have been a "can-do" people; folks living, growing and succeeding in a land blessed with a national dream. But over the past generation or so, we have been witness to revolutionary advances in technology, economy and communication. Our human response has yet to catch up to all these changes. To a great extent, we respond to early twenty-first century realities with mid twentieth century sensibilities. Over time, we will catch up; we will once again learn how to work together to create solutions over the long haul. But until we do, we will likely continue our addiction to simplicity.
When William of Occam promulgated his razor back in the 14th century, he was dealing exclusively in the ether of philosophy and theology, not the hardcore realm of technology, economics, politics or international relations. He would likely have been aghast -- if not utterly perplexed -- by the application of his rule to the more temporal sphere. Complex situations rarely admit of simple solutions. And those who pretend they do -- like people running for office -- are either fools or charlatans.
Perhaps what we need is an update.
How does "Occam's Laser" sound . . .?
©2014 Kurt F. Stone