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If you are serious, often you cannot always be satisfied with the simplest explanation. For there is no guarantee that the simple explanation will be the best one, let alone the correct or the only possible one. So, sometimes you have to suspect simplicity. For not every explanation can be given in six simple sentences. The converse is, of course, also true. An explanation is not satisfactory by virtue of being complex. Some explanations should be simple. Some explanations should be complex.

Then there is the demand we so often meet. Just simplify. Is it because I am a lay person that I need a simple explanation? Do I not want to overcome a bias, or even prejudice and so do not give myself a chance to understand further? If it is a lengthy but adequate explanation, I am not willing to devote the effort needed to understand it when it goes on a little beyond a relative simplicity. So you read the first paragraph of the book and make a judgement as to whether you will read the book on the basis of the demand it is making on concentration and effort.

You read two sentences of an article in a magazine and decide whether you will read the rest, often on the basis of its immediate impact. You register its difficulty and refuse the opportunity if you decide it seems the least bit obscure. Mind you there are other factors involved in making that choice. You subconsciously ask yourself, “Is it within the range of my interests? Will it prove to be interesting enough? What if I have to revise my ideas?”

Simplicity and vocabulary

I believe in simplicity, that is to say simplicity when it is appropriate.

Simplicity is appropriate as the vocabulary in which it is expressed is suited to the subject and subject matter that is being expressed.

We are often content with a simple solution to a complicated problem or with a simple-seeming statement proffered as a solution. Simplicity is most desirable where it is appropriate. We do not want a lesson in physics when the electric light goes off. But the effort at simplicity at all costs can be very misguided. If the vocabulary is limited the answer, the explanation will be short sighted. The teacher sometimes hears an inappropriate answer to a question that has not been adequately understood. The simple answer will hardly suffice to the question not understood. But one might well understand the question and still, not having considered it sufficiently, give an inadequate answer because one does not have the vocabulary to answer it appropriately. Often to direct oneself to answering a question satisfactorily one has to master a new vocabulary, even sometimes to create one. A wider range of vocabulary means a wider range of understanding. A first step to increased understanding is very often the willingness to learn new words.

By all means we should tackle a problem with the resources we have at our command. But when I make a point you did not think about, and use words you have not mastered you will have to move forward, make effort at progress toward a new understanding. If you don’t recognise the words, you will have to learn them and then move on! That is what philosophers have been saying for generations. ‘Try this set of concepts!’

It takes effort. The lazy hearer or reader will not make the effort and then unfairly blame the speaker or writer for not making the meaning clear.

O course there is a corollary. One who tries to help people understand must realise their responsibility to take their audience from where that audience is. Understanding between people requires mutual effort. But it is an unwarranted criticism to demand inappropriate simplicity, as it is unwarranted to expect understanding beyond the capacity of the audience. But a willful and deliberate unwillingness to make the effort to understand when one has the capacity is both unjustified and possibly prejudiced.

by Dr. Edward W.H. Vick, retired professor and author of Death, Immortality and ResurrectionFrom Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and FaithfullyPhilosophy for BelieversCreation: The Christian DoctrineHistory and Christian Faith and more!


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James Londis
James Londis

This is one result of a good education. Years of thinking about issues & arguments in some depth, even your own with critical feedback, softens your certainty about the benefits of simplicity