The Retreat to Complexity

By Luke Skinner


Having found myself on the receiving end of a certain argument through the course of countless conversations, I thought it prudent to discuss this argument and its ability to encumber one’s thinking.

Though in formal discourse this argument is known as “Irreducible complexity”, this writing concerns itself with the casual manifestations one might come across in everyday conversation which I will refer to simply as the “Argument from Complexity”.

This argument usually presents itself as an answer to a question, usually taking a form similar to any of the following:

“Life is complex. Who are we to know?”
“The world isn’t black and white. That’s why you need to find answers outside yourself.”
“Nothing is absolute. Therefore, we can’t really know what’s going on.”
“Who knows where the universe comes from? We can’t know because it’s too complex.”

One might not pass blame onto a young person for falling prey to the argument from complexity for they have no doubt heard it throughout their life from family, friends, teachers, professors, movies, TV shows, religious texts, books, et cetera. The purpose of this writing, therefore, is to examine and explain its context, purpose, implications toward principles, and its retreat from reality in the name of complexity.

Context of Usage

The argument from complexity represents the plight of a man whose endeavor for answers have come to a screeching halt. He does not have the answers, nor does he seek them. He may implicitly know that there is more to know, but in a moment of dishonesty he refuses to allow this possibility to enter his conscious. He may implicitly know that he must use reason to gain new knowledge—to ask questions in search of causality—but he knows this will require him to acknowledge premises which he would refuse to shed. He is torn inside between the reality he refuses to know and his premises which might stand in contradiction to that reality—an evasion which prohibits him from discovering reality at all.

So, he hides. He hides behind a complexity which he believes mere humans cannot possibly grasp—nor are we supposed to. He hides behind the inviolable truth that to act he must first know why. He hides from the havoc which would be wreaked upon him should he discover that knowledge is possible. In saying, “Things are too complex—who are we to know?”, he drapes himself in surrendering resignation.

It is a pathetic and cowardly outlook but one which is rampant throughout today’s society. Though one may perhaps find this error in thought remittable, a far more contemptuous evil has yet to be addressed:

The person with whom you are speaking does not want you to discover knowledge either.

Purpose of the Argument

The purpose of the argument is to shroud conversation in impotence, serving as an insidiously deliberate attack on fact and value—thought and action—is and ought. This argument tells you that life is too complex for you to know, that nothing is black and white, and that reason has limits. You will hear that there are no absolutes, that the world is too complex to understand, and that discovering life’s difficult answers is an exercise in the futility of man’s mind. The purpose of this argument, in short, is to cull knowledge.

Your discovery of new knowledge is now a threat to his evasion, the ultimate end of this argument being to successfully evade reality. The purpose of the evasion itself is to protect his ideas which may stand in contrast to reality. Unearthing these contradictions would force him to change his ideas. He resorts to this evasion not merely because he does not have the answers, but because he does not want the answers. He has resigned himself to a willful ignorance lest he discover that which he does not want to know, and your discovering the answers is a threat to his ignorance. When coming upon an idea that he does not like, he falls back on the complexity argument so as to nullify any attempts at new knowledge by either you or him.

An Assault on Principles

An implicit claim of this argument is that principles do not “work”. Such a belief leaves a person to work through every scenario in life on a case by case basis, or to simply look externally for canned answers—either from peers, media, religious texts, culture, or related sources.

A principle can be summed up as a fundamental truth which one has learned through induction and proven through deduction, and which one uses as a starting point for determining a course of action given a certain context. Informally, it could be described as an idea one has reasoned such that one no longer needs to actively think about it anymore. Punctuality, for example, is an action taking place at an expected time. Through induction, one can observe that being punctual is beneficial to one’s life, and thus in principle can consider punctuality as being no longer good or bad. It’s good—and you know that. Acting on principles is a matter of self-preservation, as well as to simplify one’s life.

He who falls back on the complexity argument does not want life to be simple. He deliberately muddies the water so he may hide from truth. He does not want simplicity because he wants life to be too complex to understand—that understanding as such is futile.

Retreat from the Inescapable

The argument from complexity is a lazy but destructive approach to knowledge—one which causes inner chaos, deprives him of understanding the world around him and thus deprives him of self-esteem, and will invariably leave him riddled with contradictions. There is no more impotent a state of a mind than one for which knowledge is a liability.

One’s pursuit in complicating the idea is one’s desire to make sure the idea remains unclear. One must only be careful of oversimplifying an idea if one rather it be complicated. One’s mission to complicate an idea is one’s mission to ignore the absolute. Needlessly complicating ideas is a retreat from simplicity—clarity—answers—knowledge—truth. The argument from complexity is a deliberate but futile retreat from that which is inescapable: reality.