Friday, April 22, 2011

Sometimes Simple?

"Everything is more complicated than you think." - Synecdoche, New York

Is this true? No way. We can easily come up with counterexamples. Take any superstition, like some time in your youth that you were afraid of monsters in your closet and it turned out to just be a broom propped up at a weird angle. Which is more complicated--the angled broom or the hidden monster? That's a layup.

So the better question is: are things on average more complicated than you think? It sort of seems like it. But part of the problem is that we tend to simplify old beliefs to make our current ones look more intelligent in comparison. Consider the history of Dale's principle. Some authors understand this to mean that neurons can only release one type of neurotransmitter. If stated in this form, it's clearly wrong, and so newer researchers can claim credit for debunking it. But when you look at its inception, it turns out that "one neuron = one neurotransmitter" is probably not what the principle was actually meant to imply. So our intuitions about how our beliefs tend to change probably speak more to what we currently believe about the past than to what we will believe in the future.

If we could show conclusively that things in general are more complicated than we think they are, that'd be good to know, because if reality tends to deviate in some predictable way from your expectations, then you're doing something wrong. But I'm not sure that the answer will turn out to be so simple.