#13 On trumping our instincts

Dear Mat,

Sorry I’m late. Can I blame Trump?

Anyway, as for your last letter, not bad. It’s like the reduced randomness = better art idea. It reminds one of Kolmogorov complexity. As you know, that’s where the complexity of a string of information is proportional to the length of a computer program that could reproduce it. A string of 6.66666… could be of infinite length but is not very complex at all, because a tiny computer program could describe it. A sequence of random digits, however, cannot be easily summarised or programmed and any algorithm that would do so would be at least as long as the sequence itself. Of course, that makes complexity something close to randomness. This accords with the idea that the signal with the most information in it is actually white noise. This in turns leads us to think of art as occupying some sweet spot between simple order and outright complexity. That’s an observation that has been made many times before.

Another idea I have is that another way of thinking about what makes some artistic expressions better than others is a tension between strangeness and plausibility. By that I mean good art is strange (novel, out of the ordinary, unintuitive) like Hamlet and unlike a soap opera, say Home and Away. But it can’t be completely strange. Some totally wacked out fantasy novel might have things happening in it that don’t follow any conventions of how we think life and the world works and it would therefore I think be uninteresting. It doesn’t have to be realistic (it can be science fiction or fantasy), just plausible (anchored to the world in some way).

The next big question is, whether we’re looking at an order/chaos balance or strange/plausible balance or whatever, why do we prefer certain qualities or certain balances at all? An evolutionary explanation cries out, saying that it would be advantageous to perceive novel differences in the environment and be excited by what isn’t humdrum, because the humdrum doesn’t require much expenditure to react to it: you already have a default. Likewise we evolved to discern patterns in our environment, ones that tread the line between total chaos (a tangled web of vines) and boring regularity (ants all look identical). Instead we notice the symmetry of a predator’s face, the leaves of an edible plant, the landmarks that guide the way home.

This much is certainly plausible. But now for the strange part: some of us love stuff that’s way more multi-layered or complex than anything we evolved specifically to identify. Art works, ideas, mathematics, now go beyond superficially strange. Why do we find it pleasurable to have our ideas, categories, assumptions smashed to pieces by some strange and difficult notion? Why is even the idea of Trump being president a mixture of terrifying and darkly fascinating?

This urge towards the sublime seems like a noble open-mindedness when it comes to art, or nature — the shit I love. But it sometimes seems like a similar impulse is what inclines people to religious end times thinking, nuclear deterrent policy, or horrible spectacle — the shit I hate.