Monday, January 01, 2018

certain and indubitable

One of the principles of Educational Sloyd was to move from the simple to the complex. It is through the understanding of simple things that the ability to contend with complexity arises. For instance, once I have mastered mortise and tenon joints, and hand cut dovetails, after first mastering the use of the chisel and saw prior to the forming of the aforementioned, I might combine my acquired skills to make something rather complex, a whole piece of furniture for example, each part simply made but to fit precisely in a much larger universe of parts.

There is a saying, "keep it simple, stupid." It's offered as a goal and warning among craftsmen. Complexity grows quickly thus getting "out of hand." In growing complexity, difficulty and probability of error arise. And so it is best guarded against.The saying is not, however, "Keep it simple AND stupid." The world is actually a complex organism. To gain some sense of understanding  of it, it can be divided in parts. But we'd best not forget its wholeness. We gain a sense of mastery over the universe by laying intellectual claim to small parts of it. One might say,"I get that!'"  On the other hand, the small part of something must not be mistaken for the whole thing. I go back to Descartes, quoting again the same passage from his first meditation as earlier in the week:
"So it seems reasonable to conclude that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other sciences dealing with things that have complex structures are doubtful; while arithmetic, geometry and other studies of the simplest and most general things – whether they really exist in nature or not – contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three makes five, and a square has only four sides. It seems impossible to suspect that such obvious truths might be false."
I  took his meaning in that passage as proposing that simple things have greater reality than those things that are complex, and yet the world itself is extremely complex. In his second meditation Descartes notes :
"Archimedes said that if he had one firm and immovable point he could lift the world with a long enough lever; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one little thing that is solid and certain."
A lever is not a single point in space. It requires a properly placed fulcrum, a point of sufficient strength upon which the lever's force might be applied and it requires something solid upon which the fulcrum might rest. So Archimedes' metaphor functions as  a colorful illusion but does not fulfill what Descartes attempts to make of it.

And so we seek the simple solutions to complex problems and we deny the complexity of life, just as I might break the philosophy of Descartes into simple pieces, discredit them one by one and miss something of value in whole of Descartes. It would be better that we all be trained as craftsmen in some form, whether in words or in wood (or clay, or dance, or culinary arts, or music or in laboratories or hospitals in service to each other) to serve the whole holiness of all life.

By assisting students to grow toward mastery of complex relationships (starting with the simple), we prepare them for participation in the real world, where things are not always in black and white and in which important issues are not reduced to deceptive simplifications. In a world that embraces complexity we learn to allow for the differences between us, and make use of those differences to solve real problems. There are plenty to address in the coming year.

Happy 2018. May we get better at what we must do. Build community together, listen to each other, talk to each other and make, fix and create...

No comments:

Post a Comment