Freedom in Mind

Chapter 8
The Great Complexity Con

Want a simple answer to any argument? Here it is: "Simplistic!"

"A free government would defend my rights, and otherwise leave me alone." "That is too simplistic! Things are more complicated than that."

"If slavery is immoral, slave labor is immoral, so it's immoral for the government to take part of my salary." "Much too simplistic! You cannot apply moral slogans in such a simplistic way. The real world is more complicated. Reality is complex."

What does it mean to say that reality is complex? It means there's a lot of it. That's something you know that your dog does not know. It is said that a dog can detect a wind-borne scent from miles away. That's why dogs have to be trained or physically constrained: a dog will react to an attractive scent with no notion of distance or difficulty or any of those complex considerations we take for granted.

The dog learns by association and repetition. It doesn't learn much, and it doesn't learn fast. People who try to use that method have a standard lament: "Why oh why do I always have to learn everything the hard way?"

Animals learn the hard way or no way. Their reactions are severely limited by the number of things they can be aware of at the same time. It's a hardware problem: perception can handle only a few things at once. That's why your dog gets confused so easily. So would you, if you had no way around the perceptual limitation.

To see the way, look at your shoes. Your dog sees two objects; you see one pair. It's so simple: not two gloves but one pair. Not a pair of shoes plus a pair of pants plus a shirt plus a pair of gloves plus a hat, but one outfit. You put things into a class, and then regard the class as a unit. Sorry Fido, you lose.

You can make a unit because your consciousness is not automatic. You are in charge. You can regard your shoes as separate things, or as one unit. Or, you can regard one shoe as made up of separate units: the sole, the upper, the tongue, the lace, and so on. You can mentally take things apart and put them together. That is, you can think.

Thinking is differentiation and integration—taking things apart and putting them together. You take things apart by finding differences, and put them together by finding relationships. When you find an objective similarity, you can integrate a range into a concept. Then you can integrate ranges of concepts into broader concepts. To treat everything there is as a unit, you form the concept "universe".

It's still true that you can hold only a few units in mind at once. But now those units can embrace all of reality. It no longer matters that you can directly compare only a few units; any amount of complexity you need can be reduced to those few units.

In other words, the whole point of thinking is to handle complexities by reducing units. To say, "Don't simplify," is to say, "Don't think."

When you integrate a range of similars into a concept, so the whole range can be treated as a unit, then the individual characteristics of the similars are all dropped out of consciousness, right? Wrong. That is the mistake of those who claim that concepts limit your awareness rather than enlarge it. To see the mistake for yourself, think of the concept "friends". To form it, you use a relationship between yourself and some others: a relationship of mutual esteem. The similarity is objective; it can be measured. The best friend, the casual friend, and the distant friend share some degree of mutual esteem, from faint to intense. By omitting the degree, you form a unit and hold it in mind by thinking "friends." You settle in your mind what you are combining and how you are combining by making a definition: friends are people I like who also like me.

Does the definition contain all you know about your friends? Hardly. It contains the one thing you know which you use to make the classification. Your memory contains all the things you know about all your friends, along with all the things you know about everybody. By thinking "friends", you zoom in on everything you know about all your friends, not just some of the things you know. The concept makes it easier to take into account all the complexities you know about, by keeping a context in which you can pick out as few or as many details as you need for the moment. The various degrees of mutual esteem were not used to form the concept, but they are used to think about specific referents of the concept. That is, you think about your actual friends, not some mental substitute.

If you put all your legal papers in one drawer, you would not expect that to wipe out the legal complexities, but just to keep them sorted out for easier management. Concepts help you sort out all of reality for easier management. They make it possible to see two things at once: the overall picture and the tiniest complexities within the overall picture. To claim that concepts throw away parts of reality is to get tangled in contradictions. Without concepts, how would you reveal what parts of reality were thrown away?

In an argument, the word simplistic is a trick. To see it, analyze. "That's too simplistic!" uses the concept "that" to refer to an entire argument, including all its details. That's what any concept does: it refers to a range of similars, including all the complexities of all within the range.

Suppose my argument is: "Slavery is immoral, so slave labor is immoral, so taxation is immoral." It could be restated: "If we agree that slavery is immoral, then one of the complexities to be taken into account is that slave labor is, by definition, part of that immorality. If we agree on what taxation is, then a complexity needs to be taken into account: it is not voluntary. It is forced payment. Forced payment is a complexity of labor: it is a kind of labor. It is the same kind of labor that slaves do. It is slave labor, so it shares the immorality of slavery."

All the complexities of the restatement were included in the simpler statement. The simplification was formed the same way concepts are formed, by zooming in on a similarity, immorality. If I wanted to restate it again in even more complex detail, I could do that by exploring further the context kept in mind by the simple statement.

The complexity con pretends that conceptualizing fails to include all the details within a context. If you fall for that, you get confused by details thrown at you without context—without knowing what they are details of. "Of course you're confused," says the trickster. "Reality is too complex to be grasped your way." The unstated conclusion is: "You'll just have to take my word for it."

The complexity con is often used to argue against freedom, while pretending to argue for freedom. Here's an example:

"Freedom is a complex subject. It is too simplistic to say that freedom is the absence of coercion, and just let it go at that. Freedom needs a better definition, taking into account the complexities of real life, and the many kinds of freedom. Real people want different freedoms, not always the same simplistic single freedom. What about a man whose idea of freedom is to walk down the street naked? What about a women's freedom to sell her body? What about a junkie's plea for freedom from his addiction? Only when these and many other complexities are taken into account can we claim to support freedom."

If you agree to argue about nudity, prostitution, and addiction, you have fallen for the con. You have dropped your concept of freedom, and accepted a different concept, formed without objective similarity—a fake concept arbitrarily combining the presence of some things with the absence of other things. To free a junkie from addiction, something must be done by somebody. It is a sneaky form of the famous "freedom from want". It sneaks in the idea that addiction, like want, is a claim on somebody's effort.

The complexity confidence man does not care whether or not you win or lose the argument. By engaging in the argument, you have adopted a new, self-contradictory definition of freedom: freedom is the absence of coercion, and the presence of slave labor.

The advantage of defining freedom as the absence of coercion is that it lets you examine complexities without falling into contradictions. The method of the complexity con is to lead you into contradictions by calling them complexities. It disguises the trick by changing the context.

To have a discussion, we must have a topic. We must agree on what to discuss. If we begin a discussion by defining freedom as the absence of coercion, that sets the context so that we are both talking about the same thing. We may talk about different details and complexities, but as long as we stay in the context set by the definition, we are both talking about different parts of the same topic.

Suppose I notice that the discussion is leading straight toward a contradiction in my thought. I could be grateful for the chance to correct an error, or I could look for a way to conceal the contradiction. I could ask myself, "Is there some other context in which this discussion would not head straight for my contradiction?" Then I could look for a chance to switch the context. For example:

"But there's something missing here. We're being simplistic. Freedom from coercion is well and good, but what about freedom from fear, and pain, and hunger? Do we want to make freedom into a heartless void? Is freedom a positive thing, or just a negative thing, an absence?"

You might reply, "But the absence of a negative is a positive." If so, you are right, and I have successfully switched the context so we are discussing definitions instead of freedom.

Most discussions of freedom change the subject often, because they start and end with everybody trying to conceal the same contradiction: slavery is a moral abomination, and slave labor is a moral imperative. You must not be enslaved by me, but you must work part time for my benefit. We restate it, qualify it, make it poetic, trivialize it, disguise it, and sometimes flatly deny it. But the contradiction remains: slavery no, slave labor yes.

It's the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. We cannot conceive of living as slaves, and we cannot conceive of living without slave labor. What about the poor? What about the old? What of orphans, and stray dogs, and victims of crime? We must make everyone help out, or see chaos and moral depravity take over.

The specters of starvation and depravity are invoked to conceal another contradiction: man thrives by cooperating, and man must be forced to cooperate. This contradiction defies not only logic but observation. Slaves cooperate to get out of work, but free men cooperate to get more work done. There is no evidence to suggest that free people do not want to cooperate to provide help where it is needed. There is abundant evidence that they do provide help. One can watch it on TV every day. It is absurd to claim arbitrarily that men will let other men starve unless they are forced to help.

Since all the contradictions cancel out, the real irresistible force must be the conviction of non-thinkers that they cannot make it through life without help, and that they are not worthy of help. Without slave labor, they are doomed. So they devote their lives to justifying slave labor—or at least renaming it. Their aim is not to cooperate with others for success, but to succeed by controlling others.

The joke is on them. If they succeed in creating slaves, they are doomed anyway, because the slaves can cooperate against them. The quest for power over others never succeeds, because no amount of power can be enough. The real immovable object is free will: self-regulation of the mind.

When the irresistible force of the desperate meets the immovable objectivity of the self-reliant, the moral crisis of our time appears: the crisis of altruism. Altruism is the doctrine of duty to others: it puts you to work for me. Its moral imperative is slave labor. Freedom is the moral imperative of reason: it puts you to work for you.

Government is eager to resolve the crisis by taking over, and putting you to work for me. It thinks slave labor is good because slavery is good—as long as the name is changed, and there are checks and balances. It ignores the paradox of claiming that things are too complex for you to grasp, but simple enough for me to run.

A government that believes in slavery does not believe in free will. If you do, you have an advantage. You personally can decide, if you choose, that slavery is bad, so slave labor is bad. For altruism you can substitute benevolence—a labor of love. Instead of force, you can use reason. To counter the complexity con, you can point to one simplistic fact: when freedom is tried, it works.

Freedom does not work by accident, but because it conforms to man's nature. A society is made up of individuals who think and choose for themselves. If coercion is absent, then a division of labor can exist. Whoever is best at handling some particular complexity makes a living by handling it. When cooperation is possible, any amount of complexity can be handled by dividing up the labor.

Those who try to defend contradictions love complexity, because it provides great hiding places. If you want to "soak the rich", and get accused of wanting to force the rich into slave labor, well, that is so simplistic it's laughable.

"The next thing these simplistic fools will claim is that redistribution is stealing. Redistribution sounds so much nicer, and emphasizes the complexities. Does anyone anymore see social justice as putting you to work for me? Surely we have learned to contemplate more complexity than that!"

There are those who have learned to sort out complexities by thinking, so they can do more than contemplate complexity. They can understand it.

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