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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Gordian Knot — Occam's Razor — Maginot Line

As just one example for human complexity, take Obamacare (Please!), AKA Congressional folly run amok. It is only the latest in a never-ending series of monstrous kludges that are the usual products of fuzzy thinking by committees of occasionally well-meaning but frequently addled men and women. What, in the name of god and/or sanity, to do about such enormous obstacles to sensible solutions for difficult societal problems? There are, as luck would have it, two well-established approaches: annihilation of the complexity; and/or evasion of the obstacle.

Alexander The Great's approach to solving a knotty problem was to draw his sword and annihilate the problem. Say what you will about the brutality of such an approach, it is simple and it is direct. Your mileage (that is to say, the value of the solution) may vary. It worked for Alex, whose purpose was to conquer Asia. If we allow it, it will work for Islamic fundamentalists who crave a return to a Caliphate that would benefit their own position within the greater community of nations.

The Gordian Knot legend is illustrative of the principle of Occam's razor: the principle recommends selection of the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question. But in matters human, simplicity alone is not always the most satisfactory course of action, as any of Alexander's (or any other tyrant's) victims could have attested, had they been able to attest to anything after the slaughter.

Life and, in particular, humanity is nourished by low entropy, because the Second Law of Thermodynamics, with the great assist from dark energy, foretells of the inexorable increase of universal entropy until the perfect symmetry of heat-death obtains. Until our universe approaches such a state (in roughly 10 to the googol-power years), however, humanity can not survive on simplicity alone. We all of us are, literally, asymmetric complexity.

What else could satisfy Occam's razor but could, in principle, also satisfy a greater number of beneficiaries? Ironically, the action by minions of history's personification of evil demonstrated such an approach: evasion in support of invasion. When France constructed its Maginot Line along its borders with Germany and Italy, in the light of experience from World War I, and in the run-up to World War II, the Germans flanked the Maginot Line, and proceeded relatively unobstructed. Hitler was ultimately defeated, largely due to the incredible sacrifices made by the Russian people, but not before his ridiculously easy defeat of the French.

Both approaches incorporate the appeal of simplicity to a process that in general produces mixed results. But there is another approach that is as simple in conception and arguably as likely to produce satisfactory results for a greater number of beneficiaries than either annihilation or evasion.

Humanity has come very far in the past couple hundred millennia. In the process, we have encountered seemingly insurmountable barriers to further progress, suffered hideously inflicted acts of annihilation, as well as experienced exhilarating triumphs of spirit and the will to live. Among such triumphs has been The United States of America — not a perfect union of 300 million souls, but far and away the best societal organization produced to date. In the process, we have, without a doubt, incorporated some poorly conceived elements of our complex structure, which most would agree are in need of improvement. But because of the complexity of our edifice, we should, nay we must, find ways to accomplish the necessary improvements without mass destruction of what works. The only sensible approach that comes to my mind is one that is incremental in nature.

Image from Wikipedia
Post #1,068 Gordian Knot — Occam's Razor — Maginot Line

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