Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler

This quote, usually attributed to Einstein, is often used as an appeal to make a subject as easy as possible to understand, though of course not so easy that it becomes meaningless.

It’s not hard to understand why this quote is so often attributed to Einstein, whose theories are (rightly) famous for their breath-taking economy and the astonishing simplicity of their founding principles. The quote is also exactly the kind of rhetorical ear-candy for which Einstein is known, short and informal, yet affecting a casual profundity with its little antithetical twist. (See footnote)

In fact, there is no record of Einstein saying the words above. Though, he is on record as saying,

…the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

For Einstein, simple does not (necessarily) mean simple to comprehend. Einstein uses simple in the sense of pure, unalloyed and elementary. Far from just grabbing hold of Ockham’s razor and hacking our subject down to something our minds can finally digest with ease, Einstein is telling us to grapple with the full complexity of our subject, but to build our understanding using as few and as simple elements as possible.

We may call Einstein’s simplification a virtuous simplification. Virtuous simplification provides a unifying framework that collapses complexity and reconciles apparent ambiguity. Virtuous simplification contains its complexity, so while the simple formulation mediates immediate insight, the full complexity of the subject can be unfolded from those simple precepts. Virtuous simplification can be understood by the uninitiated, and it cannot be faulted by the expert.

Virtuous simplification’s evil twin is vicious simplification — brute reductionism that ignores complexity and blinkers itself to ambiguity. Where virtuous simplification illuminates and generates knowledge through the creation of new perspectives, vicious simplification deludes, occluding knowledge by ignoring or obfuscating facts, while seducing us with its apparent, but unwarranted, simplicity.

Virtuous simplification gives us integrated paradigms that reconcile diverse perspectives from different disciplines and drive value because the unified narrative they create provides deeper and more dynamic insight than individual perspectives from which they are built. Our need for virtuous simplification has never been greater. Unfortunately neither has the temptation of short-cutting the hard work of virtuous simplification for the quick fix of its vicious counterpart.

Some more of Einstein’s (actual) ear candy:

“To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate has made me an authority myself”

“It is difficult to say what truth is, but sometimes it is easy to recognize a falsehood”

“Wisdom is not a product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it”

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds”

“a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”

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