Philosophy, Top Stories

Complexity and Understanding

Do humans understand each other? Any honest attempt to answer this question will need to consider some profound and important facts. The question is broad, but worth asking repeatedly. Modern writers and thinkers fail to fully appreciate the merit in marrying science and philosophy, which the great psychotherapists of the 20th century (and many great philosophers before them) did rather admirably. Their writings shed light on the under-explored depths of our humanity. Historically, the inevitable faults of humanness are recurrent; the whims of our finite, imperfect human nature.

Mutual misunderstandings run deep and at times prove to be dangerous. It is neither feasible nor especially useful to pass over the various reasons we fail to understand one another. There is also nothing novel or compelling about listing the countless examples of human misunderstanding such as war, tribalism, and political polarization. It is more useful to proceed with a relatively narrow focus, in an attempt to fully articulate one specific reason why humans do not truly understand one another. That reason is complexity.

In the face of the ineffable complexity of the universe—language, geopolitics, economics, the unique neurophysiology of individuals, the fundamental constituents of matter (quantum physics), and history itself—we are left to navigate oceans of uncertainty. It is therefore true that what we do not know—or cannot know—far outweighs what we do know. We are finite beings in a world of seemingly infinite complexity. It is well beyond our capacity to understand or explain even our own consciousness.

According to some, such uncertainty is the basis of existential panic, or what Søren Kierkegaard described as “anxiety.” Uncertainty leads to feelings of powerlessness, meaninglessness, insignificance, and according to Erich Fromm, explains why some individuals are drawn to the orderliness and certainty of authoritarianism. In his book Escape from Freedom, Fromm makes the distinction between freedom from (e.g. tyranny and oppression), and freedom to (e.g. to do whatever you wish). He then argues that both forms of freedom can be terrifying. This feeling of human inadequacy is often supplemented by religiosity or secular ideology.

It is understandable that humans require intellectual scaffolding. We need, regardless of our scientific literacy, to accept a variety of things as “true” by faith. However, we should be cautious as to how fully we know any given thing to be true. There are always multiple variables at play, dynamic from one moment to the next.

John Locke and Bertrand Russell were proponents of classical empiricist liberalism, or the tendency to reserve judgement on all complex matters, at least until more evidence is provided. This is to practice intellectual humility, which denies the possibility of tyranny. History shows that tyrants speak in absolutes and with conviction, which helps them to seize the power that becoming a tyrant requires.

One extreme response to complexity is moral relativism, which is nested in postmodernism. A postmodernist would posit that nothing can exist outside—or independent of—language and text. This is true, at least insofar as our thoughts are nested in language, and enshrined in the individual words that we know.

A postmodernist would further argue that, because there are an infinite number of ways that a given text can be interpreted, everything is open to interpretation—the notion of objective truth is illusory or delusional, and nothing can be ranked as better than anything else, lest we be biased. However, not even postmodernist writers behave as if truth were whimsical and infinitely relative. We are all built upon some variety of metaphysical foundation, which we might call morals or conscience. We need something to believe in.

How then does this relate to our mutual understanding? Humans appear to be obsessed with labels, with which we simplify things and individuals. Often we simplify to the level of groups. One problem with our proclivity to categorize is that it allows us to believe we understand some meaningful aspects of other individuals a priori. For the most part, labels provide a fallacious sense of knowing others without the requisite of having met them.

Some labels seem largely benign, such as “doctor” or “mother.” But what does it mean, precisely, when a person is “insane”? Are there any essential differences between those deemed, throughout the ages, to be “imbeciles,” “psychopaths,” “lunatics,” “crazy,” “insane,” “maladjusted,” or even “possessed­­? Many people employ the word “insane” haphazardly, without considering its connotative weight or the fact that it remains ill-defined.

These kinds of labels vastly oversimplify those individuals whom we have no intention of genuinely understanding. We scarcely know ourselves, and yet we presuppose knowledge of others. The “insane” are those considered to be “beyond repair.” Although compassion is a by-product of genuine understanding, we do not endeavor to understand.

Ultimately, we are tribal to a fault. We simplify the world into false dichotomies; into us versus them narratives; “sane” or “insane.” As a result, sports-team rivalries, identity politics, and social identity theory carry disproportionate weight. While there is value in drawing a sense of personal identity from one’s particular group memberships, there is no reason why the human group should not be of utmost importance. We scarcely understand one another, but we scarcely try.

We might begin by becoming more psychologically and philosophically sophisticated, and more historically and scientifically literate. We ought to read more, read first, and then generate our opinions later. During this era of band-wagon rhetoric, in which nobody reads and everybody has an opinion, it would be an admirable first step.


Travis Kirkwood works in the fields of Mental Wellness and Public Health policy for Canada’s First Nations. 


  1. While I’m aware of how much I don’t know, there is one thing I know for certain, something we all do, with increasing certainty. We die. I think that knowledge rather frenzies the rest of our thinking.

  2. Most people have an aversion to thinking which goes beyond the basic left brain practicalities which help them get through the day. As soon as political, economic, psychological or spiritual issues are put out on the werld-wide-webz, most comments are either ad hominem or so simplistic, it makes you wonder whether 9 of 10 people everywhere are bona-fide Dunning-Kreuger members. Reality isn’t quite so bad, though. I’ve found that when a conversation is over someone’s head, they’re too embarrassed to participate in any definitive way. They may be dubious on someone’s well-though-out opinion, but at least they shut up about it. Online, most everyone’s ‘brave’ and over-confident.

  3. Once again, love the topics Quillette writers address. This article, however, is a horribly simplistic gloss over a bunch of important ideas.

    Where it was clear the whole thing was going wrong was that by the 3rd paragraph, there was no definition whatsoever of what it could mean to “understand” another person. That is an incredibly complicated idea and I was hoping the author might address it, but no luck. The author also never even considers that tribalism (or war, political polarization, etc.) might not actually be the product of a lack of understanding but an intentional decision for specific purposes.

    The author goes to a common but problematic assertion, “we need something to believe in.” This hits me as the fundamental problem with this article and with this type of thinking. A much more powerful way of rephrasing this is, people need to be able to predict the future with some degree of accuracy.

    Believing something can be helpful at a psychological level, and in terms of group inclusion, but if the beliefs don’t lead to any level of ability to predict or control the future, it doesn’t help much. Whether you think that Helios drives a chariot across the sky dragging the sun or that the earth revolves around the sun, both allow you to count on the sun coming up tomorrow. The author is correct that we live in a world of huge uncertainty and that taming uncertainty is a crucial task for all living creatures, humans especially. But beliefs have much less predictive utility than understanding of tendencies and patterns.

    One of the primary goals of labeling, an action the author decries as unsophisticated, is to help deal with the overwhelming uncertainty we face on a daily basis. Labeling or chunking is a strategy built into our visual system and built into most human information processing, based on millions of years of data analysis and essential to creating useful high level data from the sea of less useful data. Of course it makes errors and is an imperfect system, but this is where the article could have taken on the truly important question, what’s a better option?

    The author throws out an idea at the end that sounds great, “read more”. The math and data analysis on how much information one needs to make good decisions, the type of information and the sources of information are all critically important issues that are there to be addressed, but sadly pretty much untouched by this piece.

  4. An interesting aspect of human psychology which Jonathan Haidt highlighted in The Righteous Mind is that whilst conservatives are very good at predicting what a liberal might think on a particular subject, liberals are terrible at understanding conservative motivations. Although the idea that YouTube is somehow radicalising people towards the Right has been thoroughly debunked, it does look as though Liberals might naturally sort themselves towards Left-wing content by searching social issues, whilst conservatives are more likely to want to research economics, which generally tends to sort them towards conservative or libertarian content.

    This is telling because it means that a fairly well-informed Liberal will know that the US spent $4 trillion on the bail out, and that the US economy generates about $22 trillion a year, but they are far less likely to possess the conservative’s knowledge that the US Government has already committed to $150 trillion to mandatory spending on entitlements. Liberals would have you believe that conservatives are necessarily more fearful, but a fairer observation would to say that they are perhaps more threat aware. It’s one of the reasons why people suddenly tend to become somewhat more conservative as soon as they become parents.

    This natural caution is probably why conservatives gravitate towards economics rather than social issues on YouTube, financial imprudence on either an individual or national level is probably seen as a threat. It’s likely also the reason why conservatives see Government as more of a threat than big business, because Government has a far longer history of oppressing it’s citizens than any business. My own view is that we should be wary of both, as it is only relatively recently that any business has gained the ability to threaten the average citizen with any degree of true scope and power.

    Whether it’s the unprecedented ability to control all the information we have access to, the ability to expose huge numbers of people to significant injury and risk of death through malfeasance, or the purchasing of political power by lobbying and alignment with one side of media or another, then business has never been so powerful. Unfortunately, trying to use Government to restrict this growth in private power could be described by some as setting the wolf loose to guard against the fox.

    I was thinking about this the other day, in relation to learning that, of all Death Row inmates, 4.1% were Not Guilty on the basis of the veracity of the evidence presented at trial. I wanted a cheap and easy way to drastically lower the incidence of these cases. Luckily, in the UK, we already have a solution. Anyone can apply to the Court of Appeals and volunteer to take a lie detector test. Whether guilty or innocent, against a skilled operator, even the most talented dissembler can only shift the result to inconclusive. An honest response that suggests innocence, triggers an investigation by a team of highly skilled experts in their fields.

    The true benefit here to the American System of Policing and Criminal Justice, is that in many way the knowledge of a potential investigation if the accused is innocent, acts as a form panopticon (although I am loath to quote any concept discovered through Foucault). Even the most politically ambitious prosecutor, or officer convinced of a suspect’s guilt, will baulk at the prospect of this sort of personal exposure. Plus, it would be cheap by comparison to the costs of litigating and settling these miscarriages of Justice.

    So what does this mean in terms of Government regulating Business? Well first, be very careful. Second, always chose the route most likely to secure minimal cost and process. Third, ensure that all costs are borne by the general tax system, to guard against the potential for expanding rent-seeking bureaucracies. Most importantly, make sure that you don’t introduce a systemic tilt that favours big businesses over new competitors and small businesses- otherwise you risk clogging the natural efficiency of the market and precipitating the true cause that sparked the American Revolution itself (the Revolution was largely caused by Mercantile monopolies, not tax)- as well as numerous bail outs and subsidies for the East India Company, in it’s day the original too big to fail. And if none of this sounds like your Government- well that’s an indictment of it’s abject failure to act in a rational and reasonable manner in the past.

  5. And taxes…so says the aphorism and we do seem to all know for certain. Of course, I know there will always be another person to claim “we need a law” too, as if new actual types of crime are increasing beyond physical harm, economic/property harm and fraud.

    It is disappointing that the thought of death creates a frenzie in so many as it’s clearly the norm for all life, that we pop in and out of physical existence. It’s like frenzie watching a sun set (or rather, you spin until the sun is out of view), or declaring every birth a miracle.

  6. Because I’m a quibbler…

    Whether you think that Helios drives a chariot across the sky dragging the sun or that the earth revolves around the sun, both allow you to count on the sun coming up tomorrow.

    Earth revolving around the sun is annual; it’s just Earth’s spin that creates the appearance and disappearance of the sun from our daily view.

    You are upset about the author’s notion of understanding another person – which is mostly just our bias and thinking assigned to another, similar to anthropomorphism. But I wonder what you suggest are “the truly important questions” that we can answer but haven’t yet.

  7. People decry corporate monopolies, but fight and vote for government monopoly powers despite the constant evidence it’s not on our side, lies to protect itself, and never seems to stop growing. It’s weird, as if a monopoly that cannot force you but has all the power over some market segment is evil, while a monopoly that can force you to act or not act is somehow good. There are no monopolies in free markets, just those created by government.

    The USA might fix many social issues if it just stopped giving preferences to corporations, breaking capitalism of free markets into corporatism with special interests that corrupts the politician and creates complex tax laws and anti-competitive laws on the bequest of corporations, with corporations not only magically gaining all of the constitutional rights of mere human persons, but never having to die or be imprisoned or called to fight in wars and being able to write off expenses from revenue. Any human who isn’t a corporation is a chump.

  8. Everyone understood my dad. He would even tell you, “you know damn well what I mean!”

  9. Humans confabulate, meaning we make up narratives that are based in ignorance or is ill-grounded.

    Also, there is this: “…gene-culture coevolution has influenced many of our learning biases, including providing psychological mechanisms by which cultural and social pressures can override firsthand experiences and rational thoughts.”

  10. “Some labels seem largely benign, such as “doctor” or “mother.” But what does it mean, precisely, when a person is “insane”? Are there any essential differences between those deemed, throughout the ages, to be “imbeciles,” “psychopaths,” “lunatics,” “crazy,” “insane,” “maladjusted,” or even “possessed ­­? Many people employ the word “insane” haphazardly, without considering its connotative weight or the fact that it remains ill-defined.”

    As a paranoid schizophrenic, let me explain - a doctor is either someone who’s attained the highest recognized degree of learning in an area of scholarship, or who’s been granted permission to practice medicine professionally by their society’s relevant authorities, whereas a mother is a woman who’s had a child.

    These are both titles applied based on whether a certain individual has done a certain thing or not. Whereas “insane” is a psychological condition, indicating that someone’s interpretive schema and/or sensory perception varies radically enough from the objective physical phenomena around them that their ability to survive is adversely effected.

    “Are there any essential differences between those deemed, throughout the ages, to be…”

    Yes. Some of those are indeed synonyms, but many of those words have their own specific definitions and refer to essentially different things. Actually, I’m afraid I’ve got tell you that, based on my experience, very few people share your difficulties in understanding the difference between, say, a pervasive developmental disability and and something like psychoses. I’m insane, and yet I’ve never been mistaken for an imbecile.

    Lastly - you’re right, spoken languages are not as precise as pathological taxonomies. That’s why doctors use a specialized professional patois for making diagnoses, and the rest of us use words with normal level of ambiguity,

    All of which is to say - crazy people here, asking that you please resist any urges you may feel to advocate for us in any future think pieces you happen to write. We don’t need your help. But even if we did you’re really, really bad at it.

  11. Looks like you correctly scented the malodorous whiff of postmodernism, most likely Foucault.

  12. Where you mention Foucault, Geary, he was the one in favour of the insane, in fact he asked himself (and tried us to agree) whether, maybe, we ourselves are the insane, not them. There is a grain of truth in that, of course, but not more than that.
    Other scientists with original ideas about the challenges of complexity, for science and politics: Funtowics and Ravets in their 1990s - The worth of a songbird -. They made a distinction in old fashioned science of (rather) unquestionable facts of the old natural science (of labs and isolated cases) and the post-normal science of mission oriented science for a better world, whatever that may be: complexity (climate, ecology, diets) doesn’t make things easier, but more challenging, certainly.

  13. Good catch on the detail about earth revolving around sun instead of saying it rotates on its axis. I’m a school teacher and I pay my students school money when they catch mistakes I make. It’s a good habit to keep them on their toes and keep me humble :slight_smile:

    I get the idea behind your point that understanding other people basically boils down to “just our bias and thinking assigned to another”, but I don’t actually think it’s that simple. Religion, gender, race, social status, work, politics, age, looks, behavior, etc. all play significant roles in how we think about other people, way beyond thinking everyone is basically like me.

    In terms of the important questions that affect how we understand other people, I’m intrigued by thinking about it as an information problem. I listed some of the key factors at the end of my comment - how much information is enough to make a good decisions, the kinds of information you need and the sources. But much of this issue has to do with how one “operationalizes” the idea of understanding. If what we’re really talking about is predictive utility, information science is a great starting place. If we’re talking more about the emotional, relational, philosophical aspects of understanding another person, then we need other ways to understand what it means to understand …

  14. Failure to consider the complexity and lack of understanding in human relations is what confident and successful people do best. This is a paradox. To a terrifyingly large degree, it is exactly that which makes such people thrive. Those who question and doubt are inevitably at their mercy. This may be why I instinctively distrust all confident people – I know that they have not “done the math”; they have not considered all of what is important and essential in life. Yet, in the end, we realize someone has to step up and lead in any given situation. Basic human survival depends on it. At the very minimum we need to trust someone confident enough to manage food and water supply, before we get into the even more complex matters of public safety (defense, law enforcement, justice). Those who ponder and question too much will perish, while the foolish (the presumptuous, the over-confident) will recklessly charge forward, bravely, and wrest control from the less bold. Confident people will thus be the ones who are standing tall at the myriad rallying points we doubters establish; and we’ll always seek safety in numbers. It is only safe in the group. This should be obvious. The most foolish thing of all is to be outside a group.

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