Notes for the Book: Simplex, Complex, Multiplex

Several themes are starting to gel, so perhaps I’ll record some of my current thoughts as they now stand. Just the act of writing a blog post helps me organize and clarify them. I still find myself learning: almost every nonfiction book I read (I’ve read about 10 so far this year, not so many, given pandemic distractions) provides some new perspective, some incidental, some profound.

Briefly, the book I’m gathering my thoughts about will be a consideration of how science fiction informs our understanding of the world, and, moreover, provides insight into potential aspects of the world that we don’t yet understand. I’m developing the notion of various hierarchies of complexity, knowledge, and understanding, and the book will review how these apply to what we already know — how what we know has changed over the decades and millennia — with science fictional examples of stories and novels that illustrate the levels in those hierarchies, and more crucially, how the best science fiction tries to look around the corner, so to speak, from what we know to what we might come to know, or what might exist and be true that we may never comprehend.

Here’s a simple hierarchy, one I don’t think I’ll use directly, but perhaps one that planted the seed in my mind, decades ago, about different ways of looking at things, when I first read the book it’s from.

The idea is from a 1966 novel by Samuel R. Delany, Empire Star. It’s short but complicated, with many incidents that reflect off each other at the end as a kind of time/space vortex sends characters traveling through time, so that we’re able to see causes and effects in many different ways. (Near the end of the book he provides variations of temporal sequences that illustrate how the same events differ in cause and effect from different characters’ perspectives.)

The running metaphor of the book is his distinction of the simplex, and complex, and the multiplex. David Gerrold, on Facebook, recalled these ideas in a long post about a month ago. (Here’s a direct link to his post) I reread Delany’s book a couple weeks ago and Gerrold’s summary of how these ideas are introduced is pretty accurate:

Two characters are standing under a steelwork bridge. One of them tells the other to look up. That’s the simplex view of the bridge.

Then he tells him to move a ways down and look up again. This is a different view of the bridge. Now he has a complex view of the bridge.

Then he has him walk along while looking up and watching the interplay of motion among the steel beams — that’s the multiplex view of the bridge.

Gerrold then goes on align these three ideas with people who live in a rural community, people who live in more than one community, and people who travel internationally; from one to the next, the perspective and understanding of the world increases. However — he goes on to state, that doesn’t mean one of these states is necessarily superior to another. They are all useful in their ways, in their contexts.

This parallels my thoughts in this blog about political divisions, Jonathan Haidt’s ideas of moral foundations theory (which I explored in this post), that differences in psychology among people help understand political differences. But that’s not to say any one perspective is more correct than another; they’re all part of the diversity of the human race, all potentially useful given whatever circumstances might challenge the race’s survival. You never know which strategy will be needed in any given circumstances; you must not therefore force the entire race to conform to some ideologically correct view.

Still, this is giving the benefit of the doubt. Can we be sure some position along a spectrum like this is not superior, depending on how we define that word, to others? Isn’t knowledge better than ignorance, for example? Well, there are people who would disagree, those who value tradition over any knowledge that would challenge it.

But my thought in revisiting Delany’s triad of “exities” is to wonder if there isn’t a fourth level. Here’s where science fiction comes in. The most ambitious science fiction tries to go beyond what we know, everything cosmopolitan and everything extrapolated based on existing knowledge, to consider if there are realms beyond human understanding. What would we call this? Cosmiplex, perhaps? I’ll think about this.

Meanwhile, a cursory Google search of these terms turn up a 2016 blog post by a Finnish post-grad student in philosophy (whose name isn’t evident). He quotes the original Delany at length, and also quotes a book by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Figments of Reality, which I have but haven’t read, as well as the same authors’ The Science of Discworld, which I have read and commented about, here, in 2015). And their comments about a proposed fourth type of mind, in a novel by David Zindell, which they reject because “the concept of omniplexity is a simplex thought”.

Hmm. I will think about this.

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