Philosophy - Part 14 - Keep it plain and simple

Philosophy - Part 14 - Keep it plain and simple - by P.K.Odendaal - July 2012

Life is so complicated ... or is it ... or do we only make it so? I think we are the real complicators, not life. And we make it complicated in our effort to make it easy.

Let us say I have to carry water from a stream to my house. Now this is very easy and monotonous and tiresome. However, I can take this burden from me and install a pipeline with a pump set - and then I will have an almost unlimited supply of water to my house at no sweat. Who worries about the extra cost when there is a thing called debt? After some time the pump set breaks down or the electrical supply is stolen - the latter being standard practise in our country.

What have I done? I have complicated matters. After a time there is no water in my house, because of this breakdown or interruption in power supply. What is the problem? Certainly not the fact that the electric motor broke down or the power line was stolen. The real problem is that there is no water in the house. If I want to get to a lower level of abstraction, I can say that I will be going hungry today, as there is no water to cook a meal. There are maybe even lower levels of abstraction (no - not of water - sorry).

All I have now done is exchange one simple problem for a more complex one. My life is becoming more and more complicated as I devise the one labour saving device after the other, as my laziness, leisure time and living standard increases. I should have kept it plain and simple.

The analysis of the real problem is done with a method called abstraction. To understand abstraction better, I give you another example.

Our family are going on holiday. I, as the head of the family, tells everyone to get into the car at 6 o'clock sharp tomorrow morning, otherwise I will leave without them. That is my level of abstraction. My son knows that he cannot just get into the car. He will have to carry the suitcases from the house and pack the car. That is his level of abstraction. My wife knows that she cannot just give him the suitcases - she needs to pack them. That is her level of abstraction. Our housekeeper knows my wife cannot just pack the suitcases - she must first iron the clothes - her level of abstraction. When some of the members of the family are not in the car the next morning, I can't just shout at my son for the suitcases and people who are not in the car. I need to go to the lowest level of abstraction to find out what went wrong.
This example tells us how to organise our lives. If something in our lives go wrong, then we need to go back to where it started to go wrong, and work forward from there.
Now we also need to look at generic and custom considerations.
I did not buy a suitcase for my pair of shoes, one for my suit and, and one for my shirts and one for my toothbrush. I might have, and it would have been fine, but then suddenly I would realise that I need to pack four suits in my one suit suitcase, for the upcoming conference. I cannot now put the extra suits in my shoe suitcase. I should have known better and bought generic suitcases instead of custom suitcases. I can put anything I want in a generic suitcase and that will suit (pun not intended) me for every occasion.
When I want to buy a car, I want it exclusive and custom made, so that people can see how smart and rich I am. The only problem is that this sports model does not have a roof and it rains sometimes. Had I been more careful to buy a standard and generic car, I would not have this problem.
So, it all starts with me. I am the one who complicates my own life. People working in computer programming, like myself, will understand the virtue of these last considerations. It keeps us from rewriting our programs each time a new situation arises.
I do not mean we have to go back to the days of carrying water to our houses. I have a problem with all the new gadgets that does nothing other than keeping us up to date with things we do not need to know and in touch with people we do not know. We are so preoccupied with being in touch with I know not what. Who cares who we are and what we do with the possible exception of family and friends - but then again, those you would see regularly. You do not need iPhones and Webservers and Twitters and Facebooks to keep in touch with those. If you do, it is maybe time to delete them from your list of contacts and phonebook.

I grew up without telephones and electricity and computers and televisions - and I can tell you it was pure bliss. Why are we escaping on safaris and other adventures these days, just to get away from what? We had picnic at the dam on the farm for a holiday and that was it.

Ok, ok, ok - we need our luxuries. I most of all. But at what cost do they come?

And then I cannot help but go back to our philosophers of old. They devised all sorts of complex explanations and expositions and hypotheses to explain who we are. Why did we want to know that? Back then we all knew exactly who we were. Our names and birthdates and how much money we had in our savings tins, we could recite from memory when you woke us up at night. These days I cannot even remember my bank account or PIN numbers, or how much money I am overdrawn, having bought quite a few things I did not need, just to save me some money I did not have. And now it is : I owe, I owe, I owe, it is off to work I go.

Picnicking at a quiet dam somewhere on a farm would have been much more enjoyable, but I fear I have already tasted dinner at the Ritz, so to speak, and I cannot go back.

I close this part with Occam's razor.

Occam's razor is attributed to the 14th-century English logician, theologian and Franciscan friar Father William of Ockham (d'Okham), although the principle was known earlier. Ptolemy stated "We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible", while phrases such as "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer" and "A plurality is not to be posited without necessity."

When things have become too complicated and involved, let us start again and try and base the same theory on much simpler assumptions. We will have found much simpler lives for ourselves then.

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