Complexity Aversion

(Spectrumbot) #1

Life is complicated and we cannot handle too much – especially complexity that is not essential in our day-to-day activities. Thus we quickly and often subconsciously search for the minimum complexity necessary to navigate daily life so we are not paralyzed in decision making. In so doing, we remember and catalogue past evaluations so we don’t have to repeat the laborious process each time we encounter sufficiently similar situations. On subsequent occasions we typically do just enough recall and analysis to decide “this is like that” and, if we once successfully determined how to handle “that”, we’ll just repeat the same approach now for “this”.

Such simplification is almost mandatory for life navigation. And we achieve this reduction in various ways. One technique is the use of “models” in our thinking and problem solving. We strip away complexity, trying to retain the essential components, while removing the “noise”. Another is to defer to authority. We extend the range of our experience by leveraging the work and reasoning of people and groups we have confidence in.

Thus smoothly and validly navigating the multitude of choices and situations in modernity involves the delicate balancing act of “dumbing down” each situation as far as it legitimately should be simplified, but no farther. Otherwise there is a risk of making a poor decision – and worse – filing away the initial decision and repeating the error multiple times because we fail to recognize a need for re-evaluation. People resist such overhead for various reasons so initial wrong turns, once made, can be difficult to correct. But having enough information and using valid reasoning to get the autopilot-formula creation exercise right, is in itself complicated.

In addition to the reality that some things in life are complex, not everyone has the same amount of tolerance for complexity and ambiguity. And if we don’t realize that we have been creating simplifying models all along the world can appear to actually be a simpler place than it is. That is comforting, but delusional. When something novel occurs a frequent human strategy is to force-fit it into some of one’s previously derived life rules. For many, complexity aversion is significant, and we risk hammering situational “round pegs” into paradigmatic “square holes”.

As a trivial example, consider this comment I randomly noticed on the website several months ago:

“I don't even know what an ETF is. But I would never get into the stock market. It's one big gamblin…”

Here the writer announces lack of literacy on the subject (an ETF is a very basic investment vehicle), then immediately makes a sweeping pronouncement about the subject as a whole. I don’t mean to pick on this individual (who will remain anonymous) but likely we can all recognize this sort of opinion formation – endemic in our world. People taking minimal data, simplifying it into a rule, (likely based on questionable, even unrelated criteria), jumping to a sweeping conclusion, then cataloguing it for future reference. And, with a sweeping rule confidently put into place, the likelihood of later re-evaluation is somewhat diminished. Now, in this example, minimal harm is done. No one is going to be convinced by such a statement although someone’s existing preconception might be slightly reinforced by it. However, there are areas where unrecognized complexity and accompanying aversion can cause serious damage. And one such arena is in a religious community’s doctrinal dialog.

Consider the following hypothetical dilemma. One of Adventism’s ongoing dialogs is how to interpret Ellen White’s writing. Suppose one takes a very expansive position – Ellen White’s writings are to be considered as normative as the Bible. The question remains: how ought one to act in response to the messages? Here are some categorical Ellen White statements on temperance[1]:

·“For a time after the great earthquake along the coast of California, the authorities in San Francisco and in some of the smaller cities and towns ordered the closing of all liquor saloons. So marked were the effects of this strictly enforced ordinance, that the attention of thinking men throughout America, and notably on the Pacific Coast, was directed to the advantages that would result from a permanent closing of all saloons. During many weeks following the earthquake in San Francisco, very little drunkenness was seen. No intoxicating drinks were sold. The disorganized and unsettled state of affairs gave the city officials reason to expect an abnormal increase of disorder and crime, and they were greatly surprised to find the opposite true. Those from whom was expected much trouble, gave but little. This remarkable freedom from violence and crime was traceable largely to the disuse of intoxicants.” – Temperance,p 26.

·“Because of the wickedness that follows largely as the result of the use of liquor, the judgments of God are falling upon our earth today.” Temperance,P 27.

·“Lawmakers and liquor dealers may wash their hands as did Pilate, but they will not be clean from the blood of souls.” Temperance,P 28.

A more exhaustive quote mining effort would easily add to this small sample. Now, would you conclude from this that Ellen White would have supported Prohibition in the U.S.? Would you – if you were an Adventist in 1919 and held a “high” view of EGW’s inspiration – have been a supporter of the Volstead Act, which instituted that social experiment? And, ought a modern Adventist, with the same view of inspiration, support any modern effort to institute similar laws in their particular country?

Of course, there is almost surely not going to be any revival of Prohibition – anywhere. Why? Because history has shown clearly that it had serious unintended consequences. Organized crime arose to control liquor distribution, people typically ignored the law if possible and collectively this reduced the moral suasion of law generally. And, by 1929, it was estimated that more liquor was being consumed in America than before the law went into effect. I wonder how Ellen White would have evaluated the whole history, had she lived it out. A simple principle, illustrated by San Francisco’s experience, applied in a more sweeping and complex context – then delivered quite problematic results.

As for us, how far ought we to take inspired statements in practice? People understandably want such counsel to be normative. But the correct application of even the most apparently obvious normative statement is not always so simple in real life, except in hindsight.

Now my above example needs to be understood merely as illustrative of a broad principle. We ought not to be side-tracked on concerns about Ellen White’s inspiration, liquor consumption or other Adventist doctrinal issues. This is a generic question that any believer faces in transitioning from a given inspired counsel – articulated in time, place and culture – to an application in one’s personal life and present social context.

There are many religious issues where one of the points of conflict is the degree of complexity admitted into consideration. Three of the most frequently discussed on this website are: homosexuality, the age of the earth and women’s ordination. One of the apparent divides in each of these subjects is also the degree of complexity allowed for consideration. And one needs to recognize that admitting too much (and thus possibly inconsequential) complexity is potentially just as fraught with difficulty as admitting too little.

Consider homosexuality. The texts always referenced are uniformly negative. But does their prohibitive scope actually apply to everything moderns attach the label of homosexuality to? Might the Bible be silent on some sub-categories? How ought we to understand any possible silence? Must prohibition of a subset necessarily get extended to the full range of possibilities or should silence be examined case by case? I find that often when potentially extenuating circumstances are brought up for consideration, many people are adverse to even allow for the possibility that there might be legitimate alternatives to a simpler, albeit sweeping, conclusion.

One of the potential values of Spectrum – as a place where Adventism is re-evaluated and the margins are tested – is a meta dialog about whether and how much complexity is appropriate for a God-honoring perspective and corresponding template for personal ethics. But one of the many difficulties we also have in the church is an aversion to giving complexity due diligence.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Kim Green) #2

When the Adventist preference (i.e. truth) is for black (sin) and white (truth)- shades of gray are not appreciated nor wanted. It truly is a simple formula.

(Allen Shepherd) #3

Life is complex, deal with it?

I am not sure that complexity would change how we should look at the issues that most concern Spectrumites. We all know of the complexities, and have been arguing them ad nauseum. Saying that a principle is a complex one will not change the debate. The example of possible interpretations of the texts on homosexuality cited has been thoroughly discussed, with all the possibilities addressed including the chance that there could be some subsets of folk not covered by the texts.

But of course the Bible is rather simplistic in its prohibition, stating it as a simple prohibition of action. That action is forbidden. So in a sense, the Bible has dictated a simplistic view of the matter, a black and white one, you could say. It would seem to me that those seeking to make subtle distinctions would have the onus on them to show why that was necessary.

(k_Lutz) #4

Thank-you, Allen, for so eloquently illustrating the point that Rich was making.

Trust the Process.

(Rich Hannon) #5

I think you are quite wrong in declaring “Bible has dictated a simplistic view of the matter, a black and white one”. That is an interpretation you have chosen. It is true that the Bible has not elaborated on all nuances on various ethical topics. But lack of elaboration has to then be inferred to mean the statements are categorical and not focused on one particular aspect or context.

You ought to investigate why you would choose to make the inference you have.

(Allen Shepherd) #6

My “inference” is hardly and inference, but a plain reading of the text. That is a rather simple hermeneutic. “What the text says, it means.” I believe it was Jesus that let you yea be yea and your nay be nay, all the rest of of the Devil…

As I said, I think the onus is on those who would be subtle about it. They have to give a reasons why they wish to elaborate on contest or aspects.

The command, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is simplistic as well. No context, no special aspect. And Jesus makes it even worse, by including lust in the command. That removes quite a bit of wiggle room!

So, the onus is on those seeking nuance to show why some subtle aspect should be considered. I don’t feel I am required to do any explaining, it is clear.

(Kim Green) #7

Just “who” is seeking nuance, Allen?
What you are calling a:

just isn’t always so. Just 'cause you say so, isn’t good enough.

(Carolyn Parsons) #8

Certainly the definition of adultery has shifted culturally and has nuance.

(Allen Shepherd) #9

Well, I’m NOT seeking nuance, the text seems clear: Thou shalt not lie with a man as you lie with a woman. A simplistic hermeneutic would say same sex relationships are forbidden (at least between men). What is not simple about that?

I say it is simplistic, you say it isn’t. We are just making our own assertions. My evidence is the statement above. You would have to give evidence that my simplistic assertion is incorrect.

(Allen Shepherd) #10

What is the shifting that has occurred?

(k_Lutz) #11

I cannot imagine the ignorance that persuades one to twist an admonition against appealing to authority into a hermeneutical device. Considering that this advice was given directly by God I would think that anyone with any sensitivity to Him would know the dangers of taking His name in vain, as this statement so blatantly does.

Trust God.

(Carolyn Parsons) #12

In the Old Testament adultery did not apply to men having more than one wife, woman, concubine, for example.

Edit, adding example:
King David had lots and lots of women but it was his stealing of another man’s wife that is featured in the Bible as a moral lesson.

(k_Lutz) #13

You may want to remember, Carolyn, that some see scripture as given in a vacuum, wherein there is no context, and possibly that God is just being arbitrary, again. The evidence shows that some find God as no more than that frustrated parent which despised you for intruding upon their reverie.

Trust the Process.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #14

In about 1965 Loma Linda experience an earthquake of about 5 , It shook everyone out of bed, the water sloshed over the swimming pools and water closets. that Sabbath morning the early church was packed, as usually early church goers. we were happily surprised to see all our friends.

If one remembers 9/11. for days people were very polite. closing the liquor stores has little effect on post earthquake.

The real issue is the hysteria following the Great Disappointment. They were not going to deny their ecstasy, So they rewrote Scripture, poorly I might add. Tom Zwemer

(Kim Green) #15

Okay, Allen…are you also following not mixing of fiber, etc. There’s plenty in the bible that we don’t do that I know that you are aware of. So, the only conclusion is that we pick and choose, so to speak, for various reasons.

(Steve Mga) #16

The Woman who was the CEO of her household in Proverbs 31 is commended for her “Wine” business.

(Steve Mga) #17

Since the days of George Washington the government has attempted to fund itself on Vices.

  1. Alcohol and it began with the Whiskey Rebellion.
  2. Tobacco products. On the one hand the government has to hope people DO Not stop smoking and chewing, and on the other pretend to want people to stop.
  3. Marijuana. Local governments that were once opposed to it, now look forward to the free and legal use of it. They want to TAX it at up to 90%. So they are hoping that more persons will switch to Marijuana in the future.
    And these are only 3 of the Vices that Government gets money from. Not to mention gambling machines, and “other businesses”.
    I dont ever see groups of Religious or Moral persons demand that Government get out of the Vice business altogether. Vice is a money maker for Social Services of a community.

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #18

. . . as has the working definition of “Sabbath,” “kill,” “honor,” and many other “non-negotiables” in The Decalogue. This is why we have had Jewish scholars and interpreters for millennia—this is what a rabbi does: interpret according to cultural requirements or reasonable human expectations. And what about “no other gods before me”? The Israelites could have a bevy of secondary ones, then—just not anyone but Yaweh calling all the shots? If the commandments and Levitical Law were so clear, we wouldn’t have two hundred different Christian denominations and several Jewish communities who differ on a good share of them. In most cases, simple determinations are made by simple minds. And I’ll give this to Sister White: Almost all the advice she gave took the circumstances of the people she was advising in mind (including faulting a husband for not even allowing his pregnant wife an occasional glass of red wine for her health’s sake). Human beings are complicated, and no one over the emotional age of fourteen believes otherwise.

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #19

Adultery then was an issue of ownership—both women as property and their children, whose parentage would not challenge a family’s lineage and inheritance. In Esther’s time, women in a hareem were allowed sex with the eunuchs who cared for the owned female community, for example—no challenge to heredity there. The probable reason Esther was treated with myrrh, a uterine lavage, for six months before she was allowed into the royal household proper was to ensure that she could not have been carrying anyone else’s issue. It’s all about the issue. At least, it was then. The notion of adultery is still rather fluid.

(David Read) #20

Ideally, alcohol should not be legal; it is certainly far more harmful than many substances that the government has banned. Our society would be better off without the health problems, traffic fatalities, abusive parents and spouses, broken homes, poverty and squalor, and ruined, wasted lives that go along with alcohol consumption. Certainly a society without alcohol is an ideal.

Our lawmakers reached for that ideal and passed prohibition. It didn’t work, because the people just kept on drinking; our attachment to alcohol was too strong. And to the usual problems of alcohol consumption were added a new set of problems–rampant criminality, murderous gangs, official corruption, and thousands of deaths and permanent injuries from tainted bootleg product. Prohibition soon had to be repealed; we had erected a higher standard than was workable, given the ingrained habits and mores of the American people.

So was Ellen White a false prophet because she pointed toward a high ideal? Isn’t the role of a prophet exactly to urge us to be better than we are? Isn’t that what all the biblical prophets did–urge the Hebrews to be better people than they were? I would say that Ellen White’s advocacy of prohibition is one of the proofs of her status as a prophet.