Parsimony Part II: Philosophy!

A post from Jeremy

I will now take the law of parsimony baton from Karyn, and as she mentioned in her post, attempt to run with it along the track of philosophy. Luckily she has set me up with some interesting ideas to explore.

What struck me most about the definition Karyn found for parsimony was that it was defining it in terms of a person, and of personal desire. If we look at parsimony in terms of the desire for simplicity or thriftiness for only one part (humans) in a much larger system that comprises many parts (all of the things the human wants and the actions necessary for realizing that human’s desire) we are bound to come out with a skewed definition.  By concentrating all of the simplicity in one part of the system, it leads to a lopsided amount of complexity in the other parts of the system.

Since Karyn already talked about parsimony in terms of our daily needs such as water and power, I will roll with that example to show what I’m talking about.

Let’s consider someone who is not living off the grid and is particularly fond of electronic gadgets. They like electronic gadgets because these products make their life much, much, simpler. Why go to all the trouble of doing anything manually when there are constantly new inventions and improvements in technology able to relieve that burden from our weary shoulders?

In the morning our figurative person might have all sorts of things preset and ready to get the on started for the day. Perhaps this person is someone like Pee Wee Herman and his system is something like something like the breakfast machine:

They might have a coffeepot that starts brewing automatically, or a microwave into which they can put a frozen breakfast. This is all much simpler than waking up and having to make an entire breakfast from scratch. A microwave meal in five minutes rather than a homemade one in forty five. It is much simpler, at least, for that person.

But clearly we are missing some parts here. What about the microwave, the coffee maker? They are not whisking away the difficulty their owner abhors and sweeping it into nothingness. Rather, the burden is simply being transferred to them (to speak of parsimonious explanations – this concept has been explained nowhere better or in plainer terms than The Cat in the Hat and its pink spot).

Pee Wee could have made all that food himself, and the amount of energy he would have had to exert would have been minimal. In terms of calories required to do the physical actions of making breakfast, a piece of fruit would probably have been sufficient. A piece of fruit, which incidentally could be considered a part of the breakfast toward which its energy was being used. All very tidy, self-contained and… simple.

This is not the case with the aid of the breakfast machine. Its parts require energy and manufacturing, and all this must come from somewhere. In order for the microwave to run, it has to be hooked into an electrical outlet, which gives it electricity. For there to be electrical outlets there has to be a whole infrastructure for electricity; for producing it, directing it, etc. And furthermore there are the physical requirements of making a microwave. It contains all sorts of materials that are not simply accessed, and so there must be another whole infrastructure of production and sales of microwaves.

Not so simple anymore? Is it, PEE WEE!?

So the dictionary may make an example of me and Karyn, and say, “they are so parsimonious about their breakfast; they spend forty extra minutes making food just to save a few extra watts of electricity.”

As I have argued, the goal of a truly parsimonious lifestyle, one which Karyn and I are trying to live, is not to find the simplest way to meet our needs. Rather, a true act of parsimony might be to find a place in the larger system of which we are a part. By seeing that part in the whole we can then visualize simplicity more completely, sending it outward. By finding the natural role of simplicity, we support simplicity at the larger scale. By simplifying our lives, we take strain off electronic items, off their makers and production cycle, off the grid, and we become more connected to our choices.

That being said, we still manage to run out our day’s supply of solar energy by keeping the fridge plugged in all night. We do try to fill it with local food, none the less. Perfectly simple, doesn’t appear possible.

Please share your thoughts, all are welcome and will receive a thoughtful response.

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