How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

Making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is not particularly hard. But if I say

Put peanut butter and jelly on two slices of bread, then put them together

you could use those instructions to make any number of things that are not peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

These instructions aren’t particularly helpful until you know how to unwrap loaves of bread, unscrew peanut butter jar lids, and apply spreads with a knife. If you’re particularly na├»ve, you may also need help acquiring bread, peanut butter, and jelly from the store.

If you’re a reasonably competent human being fluent in English, it suffices for me to say “just put peanut butter and jelly on some bread and put them together”. If you aren’t well-versed in human culture, I have to use many more words.

I have to say “spread the peanut butter on the bread”, or you might just sit the whole jar of peanut butter on the poor slice. I have to say “unscrew the cap first” and “put the knife in through the opening where the cap was”, or you might ram your knife through the jar. I have to say “put the slices of bread together so that the peanut butter and the jelly are facing each other”, or it won’t really be a sandwich.

Constructing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is fairly simple, but my words are powerful. They say more than I want them to. If you lack cultural knowledge, I have to use a bunch of extra words to narrow down exactly which simple actions I’m trying to get you to take.

If I have a very specific way that I want you to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – chunky peanut butter, whole wheat bread, grape jelly – then I have to use even more words to describe how to make the sandwich. That doesn’t mean that a whole wheat chunky peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich is more complicated. Quite the contrary: Peanut butter sandwiches in general are more complicated than whole wheat chunky peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. The general category of “peanut butter and jelly sandwiches” it includes white bread sandwiches and strawberry jelly sandwiches and so on. The phrase “whole wheat chunky peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches” is more complicated, but the meaning is simpler. It describes a smaller portion of reality. It is more well-defined.

Descriptions of narrow things require more words.

There are hundreds of stories of zen masters saying many things with few words. This is possible because words are powerful. It’s easy to sound profound by saying less. It’s hard to say simple things.

The rules of reality are simple, but they are also quite narrow. It takes many words for me to single out the specific way that reality works among the myriad interpretations.

For that reason there will be a significant amount of text describing the laws of nature. Do not become intimidated: the rules themselves are simple. You can understand them.

Textbooks aren’t lengthy because reality is complex: they’re lengthy because it’s hard to say simple things in just a few words.