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Not So Simple

Things are not so simple. We know this when we’re in the presence of a child. Three questions––that’s all it takes. While in a car with a parent, a seven–year old child might ask: why do we age? “Because as time passes, we grow older.” The child asks: why? “Because our cells, our DNA, sustain damage over time.” The child asks: why? “Because…” ––and already, after three questions, we’re at a post–graduate level of complexity, discussing inflammatory cytokines, somatic mutations, and oxidative stress at the cellular level.

Simplification is an inherent hazard in any law contest. We seek out certainty so we gloss over those aspects which give rise to complexity or ambiguity. 1. Physical levels/sensory levels. The basic facts as seen or heard. 2.Mental levels/perceptual levels. Recognition of at least some aspects of reality based on sight or sound alone. 3. Theoretical/intellectual levels. Understanding the true order of things once reason and thought take hold, supplanting/replacing the tangible and physical.

Law cases do not come precast in a mold. Rules exist, but the application of a rule to a set of facts gives rise to areas of uncertainty, including what meaning to give to the rule and what significance to ascribe to the facts.  A successful Plaintiff’s case matches closely a rule to a set of facts, making it easy for others to conclude that the required elements have been met. This correspondence, akin to aligning the edges of two (or more) transparent frames, is achieved by combining the actual with the abstract.

Induction, inferring general conclusions from particular instances; deduction, inferring particular instances from general conclusions. In either instance, we encounter the potential for error. Multi-branched complexity works against clarity since it does not take long for one factual variable to transform and mutate. There’s the “multiplication” problem––one line tends to morph into many. There’s also the “division” problem––many lines tend to morph into one. Neither phenomenon provides a particularly accessible pathway to insight and understanding.

Can you reason using premises and conclusions without reliance on either induction and deduction? Not in the normal sense, but perhaps we can hypothesize in a limited legal context a somewhat figurative method. We’ll call it “affirmation.” We’ll define this term as follows: “Affirmation is a process of reasoning where premises and conclusions are collapsed into a single potentially verifiable statement.” What does this mean? It means you’re not relying on the validity of the steps in your reasoning to establish the truth of the matter claimed. Truth can be arrived at by other means.

So, what are some other ways to arrive at the truth? Well, you can stipulate or define something as being true. You can test something to be true, suggesting there are times when you can prove something to be true. Also, you can argue something to be true––ah, you’ll say, we’re now back to square one, relying on that ever-trustworthy relationship between premises and conclusions.

Then it hits you––we at some point have to choose our baseline, and that baseline we want to be as fundamental, solid, and strong as we can possibly make it. A good question is therefore to ask: how strong is your baseline? Fixate on this question for a while and you’ll see that this single inquiry can take you a long way, perhaps too far. In any event, it provides a good place to start.

This attempt to simplify, of course, is nothing new. Philosophers have long studied the field of “reductionism” consisting of at least three areas: “ontological reductionism: a belief that the whole of reality consists of a minimal number of parts;” “methodological reductionism: the scientific attempt to provide explanation in terms of ever smaller entities;” and “theory reductionism: the suggestion that a newer theory does not replace or absorb an older one, but reduces it to more basic terms. Theory reduction itself is divisible into three parts: translation, derivation, and explanation.”[1]The important point is that a mindset which seeks to simplify may at times be of potentially great benefit.

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.” ––Frank Herbert. We should probably at some point stop insisting that everything has to make perfect sense. Collapsed arguments using only a single layer may actually provide from time to time a welcome break from the endless welter of complexity. Three questions––that’s all it takes. Complexity exists, far more than we care to contemplate. We know things are not so simple––it’s up to us to at least strive for some degree of clarity.