Practical Philosophy

The Essential Complexity of Life

I spend most of my professional effort these days working on and thinking about software and computer programming. I enjoy it, and it casts a whole interesting lens on lots of other things. One topic I recently discovered — I even wrote about it in the software context — is the difference between essential (or inherent) complexity, and accidental (or incidental) complexity.

On the surface, you may already understand the idea, but if not let me elaborate quickly. A piece of software will have two sources of complication: the part about the problem it solves that is just hard, and everything else. Tax law is hard, and so software that deals with tax law has a large amount of inherent or necessary complexity to it. If you’re selling in a country like the United States where many local areas have many different taxes and regulations, just pretending that there exists a simple percentage tax in effect throughout the whole country is unlikely to be workable. This unworkable difficulty of the problem is said to be essential or inherent.

Incidental complexity, on the other hand, is much of the actual difficulty with most software in the world. And this complexity isn’t coming from the complexity of the problem, but the mistakes fallible humans make while trying to solve it using computers. Some of this will come because the programming system is inadequate, some of this comes because people misuse the programing system, and some of the issue comes when people use the right tool but in the wrong way.

So what does any of this have to do about the world outside of software? A whole lot. Life is pretty simple really. All life on earth only requires a few basic elements to flourish and multiply. It needs space. It needs a supportive environment in temperature, wetness, and shelter. It needs an energy source: food and water for us humans. And it needs others of its species with whom to learn, socialize, and procreate. And that’s just about it really.

It doesn’t really need a loving relationship with its father. It doesn’t really need to have a nice car. It doesn’t really need a fancy TV or nice clothes, or even a very nice shelter. It doesn’t need to know what its future holds. It doesn’t need to have a beautiful body or a hunk of a husband. Sure those things are nice, and surely they have benefits, but we count them as essential and we’re mixing in the incidental complexity of what we want with the essential complexity of what we really need.

The more time I spend with the idea that life is simple, the truer it feels to me. Maybe this is just a long strung-out trip of self-delusion, but I think it’s actually a deep and profound truth. Life is stupidly simple. If you’ve got food, water, shelter, and health, you don’t need much else. That is a stable base from which you can draw tremendous feelings of strength, well-being, and stability. Other things you could have may make those feelings easier to cultivate, but they are not necessary.

We like to look past how few things are really essential in our life because it’s so humbling to see. We’d rather tell stories of our heroism, or victimization, or ongoing struggle. They give us a supporting narrative which can feel quite compelling. But they’re not really a necessary part of our life. Very little is.

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