For several years now, I’ve been thinking about the complex, interrelated matrix at the heart of things—ideas, history, health, the fall of the Roman Empire, the biosphere, personality, decisions, etc., etc. With all due respect to Occam, his Razor (relate to the “The Law of Parsimony”) seems to encourage a reductionist approach to understanding. I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea of choosing the simplest option—the one that requires the fewest assumptions. This is grounded in logic and reason.
But the elegance of the Razor is seductive. Most us neglect the full context of his assertion. Consciously or unconsciously, using practical reductionism or ignorant simplification, we start to gravitate towards a fallacy, a convenient misinterpretation of his maxim. Ignoring the larger considerations of logic or assumptions, we abridge the wisdom to satisfy a craving for simplicity, concision, or cleanliness. He never says avoid complexity; Occam admonishes us against making too many assumptions. But if there are grounds for acknowledging complexity, then we should. It may complicate matters or make the journey lengthy and arduous, but it might also give us a fuller understanding of a system and a clearer understanding of a small fragment of reality.
The reintroduction of the grey wolf to Yellowstone bears this out. One might assume that reintroducing this apex predator would spell doom for the ecosystem. [Flawed] logic might lead us to conclude that the wolf might over-predate and ultimately lead to the decline and demise of the natural system. In reality, the matrix underlying the Yellowstone ecosystem is intricate and reveals relationships not instantly obvious. Check out the details for yourself. Suffice it to say, when I learned that the reintroduction of the grey wolf, after a near century of regional extinction, caused the trees to grow taller and the rivers to change their course, I was awestruck. Incredible. The system was slightly modified, and all of its components displayed profound changes.
Very little exists in isolation. Even if material connections aren’t evident, invisible forces tug at everything! Even the smallest bodies exert gravitational pull on their neighbors.
Dr. Bobby Milstein, of ReThink Health in Boston, spent some time with us on Wednesday. Listening to Dr. Milstein chat—on any topic—is like unpacking the complexities of Joyce’s Ulysses. He sees the trees and understands how they combine to create the forest. His experiences are numerous, and his clarity of perception profound. He sees the world as sums and relationships, understanding that we exist in aggregates that are connected—not just amassed. Dr. Milstein spoke at length about the idea of well-being, specifically how it is the result of optimized choices, investments, legacies, and unseen forces. He asked our students, for context, to reflect upon their own well-being. How much does agency matter? Can we compensate for a less-than-ideal home life? How much does feeling like you’re part of something matter? What is the relative weight of physical or mental health? Why is access so important?
There were numerous take-aways, and many of us—students and faculty—left claiming that we’re looking at the world differently. But what resonates most to me, in this year spent reflecting on human rights, is the recognition that human rights themselves are more than just a declaration of entitlements that a bunch of our predecessors agreed upon; they are a complex system, with each both a component intricately wed to the others and itself being an ideal, a sum—the composite of myriad factors. If we apply Occam’s Razor to simply, we might be inclined to say that delivering food to the hungry is the best route to stopping hunger and asserting a person’s right to fundamental health. But, investigating more deeply, we realize that we must think about logistics, infrastructure, traditions, dependencies, empowerment, etc., etc. Air lifting non-perishables sounds good in isolation, but it is a band-aid to a larger, more systemic problem. We must see both the whole board and each piece individually.
Whether we’re debating pay equity, access to quality education, or religious freedom, we must be open to the complexities of reality if we hope to find any authentic, lasting solutions. Neat, tidy packages are convenient and speak to our need to simplify and control, but they often deny the true nature of things. In denying that nature, we waste money, create systemic inefficiencies, jeopardize our environment, and do ourselves and our human neighbors a huge disservice.
Director, Global Initiatives
This blog is the collective voice of every person involved in the Global Initiative. Just as the globe hosts billions of disparate voices, we hope this space will embody and embrace the same diversity.