Wit and wisdom

You have one word to describe the content of all the fundamental laws of the universe. Not what they say, but their common, defining quality. What is it?

Answer: density.

In a paper called “Driven by Compression Progress”, Jurgen Schmidhuber makes the following observation:

“An unusually large compression breakthrough deserves the name discovery. For example, as mentioned in the introduction, the simple law of gravity can be described by a very short piece of code, yet it allows for greatly compressing all previous observations of falling apples and other objects.”

If a thing is dense, it has a lot packed into it. Allowed the same space, it’s easy to see that solids are denser than liquids, and that liquids are denser than gases.
Similarly, Schmidhuber observed that a law of the universe describes a lot of the universe in a brief fashion. Laws are deliberately dense. Another way of thinking about this comes from a recent tweet by James Wang:

“How well you understand something
Can explain in a blog = good
Can explain in tweetstorm = excellent
Can explain in one tweet = god”

Wang is talking about density and compression. The logic goes that the more you understand a thing, the more you can compress it in your mind, and the denser the statements you can make about it. But here’s the problem: compression often looks dangerously similar to simplification. I’ll give you an example using something I’m relatively familiar with.

Stoicism is a philosophy that is over two thousand years old. Its purest document is often considered to be Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It is a collection of Aurelius’ exhortations to himself—they were not written to be published—to live better, to be a better man, and to align his actions and decisions with Stoic principles. It is a document of incomparable density. It is not an eight hundred page treatise on terms, meanings and implications. No, it is an accessible, comprehensible compression of Stoic philosophy. By reading it and it alone one is able to gain an appreciation of what it means to be a Stoic.

Naturally, over the years, people have tried to further distill the essence of Stoicism. They’ve tried to do it in a similar way to Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. The essence of Buddhism is often described using the phrase, “Life is suffering.” The essence of Zen Buddhism is often described using phrases like, “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.” Or “Don’t cling; don’t seek.” A similar compression of the Stoic philosophy is “indifference to indifferent things.”

Now, compare the expression “indifference to indifferent things” to “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” It sures looks like they’re saying the same thing, but they’re not. The former is a compression of Stoicism, the latter a simplification. Why?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a truism like “Buy low, sell high” or “Spend less than you make”. There’s no nuance to these statements. It’s easy to see that they are founded on shallow paddling, rather than deep dives into the subject matter. An expression like “indifference to indifferent things” however is incredibly dense. It is the compression of much study and thought. The idea of “indifference” is a subtle, complex thing central to the discipline of Stoicism. It is tied to the idea of the dichotomy of control—what is within our power to influence and what is not. It is linked to the idea of a perspective orientated to the an understanding of the entirety of time and space. A “cosmic consciousness”, an awareness of the smallness and briefness of our existence. “Indifference” is a mode of perception, a way of thinking about things. It is also a factor in decision making and action taking.

Such things cannot be said for “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” All this statement is is a simplification. Of course, the difficulty is that a simplification is not always so easy to tell apart from a compression. And that’s something I wish myself and others were more mindful of, more of the time. 

As a way to wrap this I’d like to finish with an attempted compression of the above, in the form of a practical aphorism: Don’t mistake wit for wisdom.