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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Getting a Dull Shave With Occam's Razor

“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” – Alfred North Whitehead

Most people are familiar with the philosophical principle known as Occam's Razor, which suggests that whenever faced with competing hypotheses to a particular problem, the one with the fewest and simplest assumptions is probably best.  Occam's Razor implies that there is an inherant virtue to simplicity, even from a scientific or philosophical perspective, and that by taking a minimalist stance to a given problem the truth can become more clear. Occam's Razor has become a staple for theological skeptics and nominalists who prefer a more deliberate and palpable view of the metaphysical world.  In many respects, Occam's Razor has been wielded as the ultimate dagger against those who put their faith in the intangible.  As actress Jodi Foster demonstrates:

The portrayal of Occam's Razor in the movie Contact is probably the best known allusion to this philosophical principle in modern culture.  In fact, when most people refer to Occam's Razor they usually end up quoting the very lines that Jodi Foster used in the film: "All things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one."  And though the idea behind Occam's Razor seems simple enough, the reality of Occam's Razor is that it is far from being the Holy Grail to all logical pursuits, and in many respects is an outdated relic of a time gone by.  Of course, by no means am I suggesting that Occam's Razor is completely worthless.  I personally find much to be desired by appealing to simplicity.  However, Occam's Razor, like any blade, has two sides to it.   


The origins of Occam's Razor date all the way back to the early 14th century, when a brilliant man named William of Ockham began to challenge some of the standard orthodoxy of his day.  William was, without question, one of the greatest and most important thinkers of the Middle Ages.  Next only to perhaps Thomas Aquinas, there are few who can claim to have shaped Western philosophy and Christian epistomology more in that era than William of Ockham.  His ideas gave birth to a more deliberate, logical and nominalistic interpretation of philosophy and religion, many of which continue to this day. 

As a member of the Franciscan Order, William had become well-aquainted with the strict orthodoxy that persisted in much of Christianity.  Pious priests and monks had faithfully maintained the status quo with little resistance to the chuch's central teachings.  Most of the faithful had grown accustomed to the ritualized lifestyle of Medeival Catholicism, complete with its emphasis on faithful discipleship through humble acquiesance to heavenly guidance and passive acceptance of Vatican supremacy.  And while William of Ockham had no apparent problem with church authority (he was, after all, a devout Franciscan monk), he did have one basic character flaw: he was a genius.

It didn't take long for William of Ockham to begin questioning and revising some of his personal beliefs. As a man who prided himself upon logic and reason, William took issue with some of the doctrinal aspects of his faith, particularly surrounding the Trinity and the church's growth and dependence upon wealth.  As William himself stated in his now infamous Summa Logicae:
Plurality ought never be posited without necessity.
It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.
William was never a fan of the convoluted doctrine of the Trinity.  On many occasions, he argued that the Bible nor logic and reason would support such a view.  In addition, it troubled William deeply when he saw the massive expanse of wealth that was being enjoyed by the chief officers of the church in his day.  As a result, William embraced a minimalist view of theology in where logic and reason were seen as tools to purify one's personal faith.  As a result, William of Ockham is often hailed as being the father of Medieval Nominalism.  Needless to say, many of William's ideas landed him in trouble with the church, and eventually led to his excommunication.  But these developments did not change the fact that William's ideas were here to stay...for the long haul.

And even though William of  Ockham's contributions are praised for their reliance upon logic, reason and the pursuit of basic simplicity, it would be wrong to say that he had no room for accepting matters of faith.  As William himself stated:
Only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.
These don't sound like the words of a man who supposedly believed that the simplest ideas are always the best.  In fact, William of Ockam seemed to be less interested in the ideas of Occam's Razor (the philosophical idea that was named after him) than most people want to believe.  While it is true that he maintained many nominalist ideas, I disagree that William of Ockham was truly a nominalist at heart.  It is presumptuous for us to say that William's dependance upon logic and reason somehow negated his belief in faith and the intangible.  It did not.  Occam's Razor may be based in principle upon many of the teaching of William, but the end substance of this philosophical concept is far from being in harmony with the man whose name it now immortalizes.

William of Ockham would never have foreseen the day when the pursuit of objective reason and logic would somehow be put in conflict with a life of faith.  As a result, I wonder if it is even right for us to call Occam's Razor after William of Ockham.  After all, the phrase didn't come into existence until 1852 by Sir William Hamilton, more than 500 years after William of Ockham's death.  Since that day, Occam's Razor has evolved to become something that William would never have embraced himself.  For scientists and philosophers today, Occam's Razor has been employed as a heuristic (general guiding rule) to guide scientists in the the development of theoretical models, rather than simply being an arbitrary tool between conflicting theories.  In other words, Occam's Razor has become a nearly irrefutable principle of logic that no objective scientist would dare to question.

But the fact of the matter is that Occam's Razor is not a crystal ball to all logic and objectivity.  In fact, there are quite a few problems with this supposed gem of philosophical thought.  The bottom line is that validity of a theory and simplicity are not automatically related.  Whether an idea or a set of facts is littered with complexities or is stripped down to its absolute bare simplicity has no bearing on its veracity.  Sure, the simpler concept may be easier to understand, but it is not inherantly more correct than a complex theory.  The danger of "appealing to simplicity" is that there are many cases in which factual scientific theories and ideas are incredibly complex. The theories behind quantum mechanics and general relativity for example are so complex that appealing to Occam's Razor wouldn't be practical.  As a result, Occam's Razor can become, at times, a logical fallacy.

As one science blogger aptly illustrates, Occam's Razor can regularly fall victim to a number of pitfalls in science:
Occam’s Razor is actually a vestigial remnant of medieval science. It is literally a historical artifact: William of Ockham employed this principle in his own 13th century work on divine omnipotence and other topics “resistant” to scientific methods. The continuing use of parsimony in modern science is an atavistic practice equivalent to a cardiologist resorting to bloodletting when heart medication doesn’t work.

And it is in the life sciences where Occam’s razor cuts most sharply in the wrong direction, for at least three reasons.

1) First, life itself is a fascinating example of nature’s penchant for complexity. If parsimony applies anywhere, it is not here.

2) Second, evolution doesn’t design organisms as an engineer might – instead, organisms carry their evolutionary history along with them, advantages and disadvantages alike (your appendix is the price you pay for all your inherited immunity to disease). Thus life appears to result from a cascading “complexifying” process – an understanding of organisms at the macroscale will be anything but simple.

3) Third, we know that the even the simplest rules of life can give rise to intractable complexity. Unless you’re a biophysicist, the mechanisms at your preferred level of analysis are likely to be incredibly heterogenous and complex, even at their simplest.

Thus, the utility of Occam’s Razor is highly questionable. Theories which it would soundly eliminate are usually questionable for other reasons, while useful theories might be discarded for a lack of parsimony relative to their over-simplified competitors. The theory which states “height determines weight” can do a reasonable job of providing evidence that seems to support that theory. And it’s highly parsimonious – Ockham would love it! But the theory which says “nutrition, exercise, and a collection of more than 100 genes predict both height and weight” is highly unparsimonious, even though we know it’s better than its competitor theory. Statisticians have quantified the appropriate penalty for various theories based on the number of variables they involve, but the more theoretical modes of quantitative science have yet to catch up.
In other words, Occam's Razor is wonderful for grasping at the low lying fruit that is easy to reach, but offers little in terms of understanding many of the complex realities of the modern world.  Sure, we would all love to have simplicity reign supreme.  It makes life easier.  But sadly, this cannot always be the case.  No matter what Lynyrd Skynyrd has to say on the matter, there really are no "Simple Men."

Or simple solutions to all of life's problems.

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