The Tyranny of Simple Explanations

Aug 13, 2016

By Philip Ball

Imagine you’re a scientist with a set of results that are equally well predicted by two different theories. Which theory do you choose?

This, it’s often said, is just where you need a hypothetical tool fashioned by the 14th-century English Franciscan friar William of Ockham, one of the most important thinkers of the Middle Ages. Called Ockam’s razor (more commonly spelled Occam’s razor), it advises you to seek the more economical solution: In layman’s terms, the simplest explanation is usually the best one.

Occam’s razor is often stated as an injunction not to make more assumptions than you absolutely need. What William actually wrote (in his Summa Logicae, 1323) is close enough, and has a pleasing economy of its own: “It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer.”

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9 comments on “The Tyranny of Simple Explanations

  • The Heuristic of Ockham’s Razor (anyway at the mercy of what is in or not in the system to be explained) often times sits on top of a Law, the Principle of Least Action. Here’s Feynman to explain this latter-

    In a system out of thermal equilibrium (the Earth bathed in an enormous solar flux) we know that complexity is the result, which of itself helps speed the ultimate terminal thermal equilibrium. These complexities (the Weather, Life, etc.) are indeed quasi-agents of the “Least Action” process of energy flowing in the most elegant and efficient way it can to relieve its cause. Topical Complexity facilitates Universal Elegance.

    Simplicity depends on view point.

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  • The problem with the Heuristic is when it falls into the hands of philosophers rather than its use by scientists, who are inoculated (ultimately) against error by facts.

    When reviewing so much of early modern and modern (but less so contemporary) philosophy we see it plagued by, for instance, hopelessly simplified models of human cognition or memory. This is of course a legacy of religious narratives that have woven their way into our available language and pre-constrain (intentional tautology) how we think. So though human = clay plus spirit may get nuanced (by facts) into (pancreas + spleen + heart +…..+…) plus spirit, this latter remains pathetically underpopulated with necessary “organs”, managing only to reflect earlier narratives of Will and Reason, Faith/Love and Knowing, the fallacy of composition remaining. (If you will an unwillingness to accept our mental heterogeneity).

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  • 5
    Robert Firth says:

    Philip Ball seems to have an uncertain grasp of this subject. He is unaware, for instance, that”:Ockham’s Razor” appears first in the works of Aristotle, specifically the Posterior Analytics. It was not “fashioned” by William. It is also used by Claudius Ptolemy, which rather makes nonsense of his example.

    He also seems unaware that the heliocentric system was first proposed more than 1500 years before Copernicus, by Aristarkhos of Samos.

    But his musings on Kepler annoyed me the most. Kepler’s system is vastly simpler than Copernicus’. Not only did the First Law dispose of all the epicycles, the Second Law abolished the most arbitrary and criticised feature of the previous models, the punctum equans. And ten years later, the Third Law essentially proved that all the planets were moved by a single force, so paving the way for the Newtonian synthesis.

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  • Robert Firth #5
    Aug 15, 2016 at 12:59 am

    Philip Ball seems to have an uncertain grasp of this subject. He is unaware, for instance, that”:Ockham’s Razor” appears first in the works of Aristotle, specifically the Posterior Analytics. It was not “fashioned” by William. It is also used by Claudius Ptolemy, which rather makes nonsense of his example.

    You make some valid points about the history, but surely the point of the OP, is about the application of the principle of giving priority to the simpler explanation, in the absence of definitive proof.

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  • …There are theories that lend some credence to this view (the multiverse hypothesis), but it rather lacks the economy demanded by Occam’s razor, and it is hardly surprising if some people decide that a single divine creation, with life as part of the plan, is more parsimonious…

    How is postulating the existence of an unintelligible supernatural creator more parsimonious?

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  • @OP link – It’s been said also that Darwinian evolution, by allowing for a single origin of life from which all other organisms descended, was a simplification of what it replaced.

    This claim statement shows a profound ignorance of biology, by conflating LUCA with abiogenesis. LUCA is the common ancestor of all modern life.
    There is no evidence whatever, that the early stages of abiogenesis or RNA world were derived from a single origin – or that LUCA was derived from a single origin.
    Darwinian evolution makes no such statements about abiogenesis.

    But Darwin was not the first to propose evolution from a common ancestor (his grandfather Erasmus was one of those predecessors), and his theory had to assume a much longer history of the Earth

    Indeed scientific knowledge is established by teamwork over generations. Darwin’s theory does not ASSUME a longer history of Earth. The evidence was already being established!

    than did those which supposed [assumed?] divine creation.

    Conjuring tricks (creating rabbits in hats etc.) are almost instant – essential to avoid detection of the distractions and deceptions providing the illusions.

    Sure, a supernatural creator might seem like a pretty complex assumption today, but it wouldn’t have looked that way in the devout Victorian age.

    The “devout” have been happy with simplistic magical explanations for centuries – as many still are today.

    However the scientists of that age, were forming clearer views of the age of the Earth in Darwin’s time.
    In the 19th century, scientific realms established the age of the Earth in terms of millions of years.
    By the early 20th century the Earth’s estimated age was 2 billion years.
    Radiometric dating determined the age of minerals and rocks, which provided necessary data to help determine the Earth’s age.[29]
    With this new discovery based on verifiable scientific data and the possible age of the Earth extending billions of years, the dates of the geological time scale could now be refined.
    Theories that did not comply with the scientific evidence that established the age of the Earth could no longer be accepted.

    Even today, whether or not the “God hypothesis” simplifies matters remains contentious.

    Not on the basis of scientific evidence!!
    What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence! Nobody has explained an infinite regression of evolved or created creators, and that can hardy be a simple matter!

    The fact that our universe sports physical constants, such as the strength of fundamental forces, that seem oddly fine-tuned to enable life to exist, is one of the most profound puzzles in cosmology.

    No it isn’t!!!!
    This is backwards and again lacks an understanding of biological evolution, or even stellar and planetary evolution.

    Things are as they are, BECAUSE life adapts and tunes its survival to the environments which offer it niches in which to live, breed, adapt, and survive; – or not!

    Other than by chance encounters of invasive species, environments are NOT pre-adapted for life forms.
    It is the life forms which adapt by way of evolution and selection to best fit the current environment! – or fail and leave that environment empty – as may be so on some very hot, very cold, or highly irradiated planets! – or indeed where planets fail to form!

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