Monday, September 23, 2002

Occam’s Razor

The Franciscan William of Ockham made possible a great deal of evil with his so-called razor. Though he died in the 14th century, the echoes of his blasted tool continue down to today. But only today, for I intend to shatter it.

Occam’s razor requires that a person not multiply the assumptions beyond the minimum number necessary to solve a problem. The classic example is a system with two points: the fewest number of assumptions about that system would cause you to connect the points with a straight line between them. Though an infinite number and complexity of possible curves can also connect them, the Razor shaves everything down to a single, short, straight line.

This is of course useful, but being useful does not necessarily make it true. Until Newton multiplied his assumptions, one might have held a belief that one could connect those points with a piece of string that would be, properly tightened, perfectly straight and—with the limited sensitivity of the scientific instrumentation of the day—one would have appeared to be perfectly correct. But gravity will exert a miniscule force on that string, warping it however slightly. And until Einstein multiplied his assumptions, Newtonian mechanics were the be-all and end-all.

In metaphysics, the danger is even worse. Greg Popcak has recently felt my wrath over the notion that we can consider anything about human behavior “mathematically proven.” (He is unrepentant, of course, but he also called his wife a “muddle-headed woman” on the HMS Blog, so I think we need not take him too seriously in the cognitive-skills department…) An honest person will tread gently on the razor blade, and acknowledge that human behavior does not follow strict mathematical laws, but the Razor often gets used as though the simplest explanation is true.

My son, being five, sometimes tells lies reflexively, without having considered the merit of truth or fiction. One day, he told me an obvious lie, one that needed no checking at all to be seen. Ruthlessly applying Occam’s Razor, I might have come to the conclusion that my son had in fact done what he stood accused of, for why else would he have lied about it? But the truth was, he didn’t do the bad thing (which has now escaped my memory) but he did not expect to be believed in his denial, and feared the consequences of: a) the original act (of which he was innocent); and b) the lie he expected us to believe he had told (but did not). The result was, Little Guy was entirely innocent of the original crime, but effectively concealed that innocence with a lie.

The simplest explanation was very, very far from the true one.

I agree, when plotting a curve between two and only two points in an abstract system, that the most probably true curve is the short, straight line. And, however obtuse you thought I was being a moment ago, I also understand that it is the slow accretion of knowledge that builds up reasons to question whether you have trimmed away rather too many assumptions—thus allowing an Einstein or a Newton to build a new thesis.

What I am complaining about is a narrow, rigidly enforced system of applying Occam’s Razor in a way that does not allow for it. Paradoxically, the area where the Razor is most narrowly, rigidly enforced (metaphysics) is the one where it is least likely to be true. It has been used to bring the world nominalism, materialism, reductionism, logical positivism, and just about any other philosophical –ism that denies something essential about human nature.

But still, I wonder what would happen if Occam’s Razor were left alone in a room with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Maybe EWTN can run that as a pay-per-view steel cage grudge match sometime.


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