I've been making my way through Johnjoe McFadden's book Life is Simple:How Occam's Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe. It traces the history of science through the lens of Occam's razor.
William of Occam, who was born in the late 13th century, is famous for favoring the simplest solutions in theology, science, and other areas of life.
The book says, "Three centuries after his death, the French theologian Libert Froidmont coined the term "Occam's razor" to refer to William's preference for shaving away excess complexity."
But contrary to how many people look upon Occam's razor, this doesn't mean that reality is simple. McFadden says:
Kepler's next step was, albeit reluctantly, to add more complexity. This is of course perfectly compatible with Occam's razor, which, contrary to many of its detractors, does not insist that the world is simple, only that in reasoning about it we should not multiply entities beyond necessity.
If the existing entities cannot do the job then the razor gives you free rein to add as many entities as needed, so long as they are not 'beyond necessity'.
...'Entities' refers to the parts of an hypothesis, explanation or model of any particular system.
Models come in for a lot of attention in the book.
The most familiar example is the numerous epicycles in the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, which assumed Earth sits at the center of it. In order to match observations of the sun and planets, smaller circles had to keep being added on to the large circles that was wrongly assumed to be how the planets moved.
(Now we know it is an ellipse, and the sun is the center of the universe.)
What's interesting is that very different models can each be a reasonable-sounding explanation for some aspect of reality. Thus a good model is one that can be used to steadily improve our knowledge of reality, something that religious models, theologies, are utterly incapable of doing.
Our scientific model remains, not in the world, as Aristotle insisted, or in some mystical realm, as Plato proposed, but, according to Occam, in our head. The ultimate reality of what is really out there in the world will always be beyond our reach, as unknowable as Occam's omnipotent God.
...Models instantiate knowledge. They model the structure, dynamics and function of machines [among other things], usually in the language of geometry and mathematics. They can be as simple as the drawing of a steam engine, such as Newcomen's in 1712 that refers to Boyle's 'weight of air' to account for the motion of the piston.
The feature that makes them so useful is that improvements can be fed back into the model as a positive feedback loop that leads to exponential increases in performance. Yet models are useless without Occam's razor.
Imagine trying to build a steam engine if your model of how it works was based on More's 'knowing spirit'. How would you improve it? Perhaps you might pray to its spirit?
When this approach failed, your only recourse would have been the geologically slow process of trial and error that has been responsible for most innovations on our planet, including life itself, since the dawn of time.
This all changed when scientists and engineers shifted to using models that instantiated their knowledge and their scientific laws and, as Boyle had urged, were 'the Simplest it must be: at least from all that is superfluous, free'.
With razored models in hand, scientists and engineers could predict modifications that would improve performance. If their prediction was realised, then the engineer knew their model was good; if not, the engineer would modify their model until their predictions held true and they obtained the desired improvement.
Their improved model would then be a starting point for further advances. With this positive feedback loop in place, technological development went from the linear rate of improvement delivered by trial and error to the exponential advances that characterise the modern age.
Well, religious and mystical beliefs don't even improve at a linear rate. They never improve at all, at least not in regard to explaining the nature of reality.
One big reason for this is that dogmatism and blind faith prevail in religions.
So a religion isn't even capable of proving itself wrong -- with logically must be the case for nearly every religion given that religions contradict each other (or indeed every religion) -- because theological models don't include a capacity to test how well they match up against reality, with feedback providing a way to improve the theology.
Such as by discarding it as totally false.
Instead, the same old dogmas are preached year after year, decade after decade, century after century. This is why science constantly progresses and religions remain the same insofar as their capacity to explain reality.
The problem with Occam's Razor is in its use.
The real world is very complex. Far more complex, science tells us, than all the scientific knowledge we currently have.
But when it comes to scientific study, we need to control and Isolate variables so that we can tease out the real causes.
When there are two possibilities to test, go with the simplest one first. The easiest to test and disprove.
If it is disproven, then go on to the next.
Because if the more complex hypothesis may be confounded by the first, and cannot be tested separately, then testing the first is in fact a part of the control necessary to test the second.
In context, it has utlity.
But taken out of context, as some Atheists have done, as a means of explaining the world, Occam's Razor is entirely unscientific and is disproven by science all the time.
Now as to religion. These are sources of inspiration. If the awe of the Creator humbles us, we become better, more open-minded observers, better scientists. And religion has utility to our growing understanding.
But, like Occam's Razor, if religion is used to explain the world, it is hopelessly wrong and disproven daily by science.
Everything in its proper sphere.
Posted by: Spence Tepper | May 11, 2022 at 06:54 AM
If we use Occam's razor to discipline our own thinking, analysis and choices of what to test next, it has utility.
If we use Occam's razor to dismiss choices without any intention to test, we misuse it and we err.
If we use faith and belief in God to inspire us to look deeper and more open-Mindedly towards those we do not understand, accepting that our knowledge is incomplete, then that faith in a higher knowledge keeps us open minded, so that we learn to Appreciative the things we do not yet understand.
If we use the culture bound laws of religion to pass judgements on anyone, then, of course, the door to open-minded learning, understanding and appreciation of all things new and different within ourselves and around us is closed to us. The very wealth of faith and spirituality is closed because of religion, misunderstood and misused.
Posted by: Spence Tepper | May 11, 2022 at 07:09 AM
What I appreciate about Occam's razor theory is that it states the simplest theory is often the best explanation — that is, the solution that requires the fewest assumptions. Notwithstanding the scientific inquiry, the principle of the solution with the least assumptions is perhaps something that affects my own life. For example, a car drives too close behind; either the driver is not aware of the distance or the driver is trying to annoy me. There are numerous other day-to-day instances that are always occurring which invite the ego grow in satisfaction – or to cause distress.
Such assumptions possibly serve to keep us in a state of irritation or either, always looking for some personal slight – or even some supernatural explanation or to justify a particular belief. Often the premiss is not obvious owing to the amount of investment in the assumption.
As far as I am concerned the more science discovers about the universe – and ourselves – the more wondrous and grandiose life becomes. It is a joy to discover things for ourselves, such as my layman's journey into geology where the world opened up into the wonder of a huge time-scale and immensity of natural forces sculpturing the land.
Again, as far as I am concerned, religion was no help at all in revealing the wonders of life. It no doubt has a place for those who rely on faith and belief in a God and also in giving hope and help in times of suffering. But for me, understanding and being a part of the natural processes of life is more than enough.
Posted by: Ron E. | May 11, 2022 at 09:21 AM
The story of our lives is driven by our attachment to one assumption after another.
The human mind is the on-going story teller in the flow of now-ness.
All sensory data input is processed by the human brain and becomes our conditioned perception of what is happening experientially.
However, because the experience is conditioned, we assume that we are experiencing things (physical, emotional, psychological, or any combination thereof) as they are, but in fact we are experiencing things (as defined) as we believe them to be.
Subconsciously, because of our conditioning, we assume things (as defined) are permanent and substantial in or of themselves.
Another flawed assumption, that we cling to, is the idea that we can know the motivational intent behind what others think, say and do, and as a result, we assume that our unhelpful reaction to that assumption is appropriate.
Once it is realized that conditioned human perception is assumptive by nature, the attachment to being right begins to fade.
Posted by: Roger | May 11, 2022 at 10:14 AM
@ Brian : [ Well, religious and mystical beliefs don't even improve at a linear rate. They never improve at all, at least not in regard to explaining the nature of reality.]
There's some sleight-of-hand though in the use of waffle words such as
"improve'' and "reality". Their scope is limited to the material, phenomen-
ological universe, whereas, mysticism at least, purports to look behind
the curtain of consciousness to answer questions like 'who am i', 'why
did I come here', 'is there a God', 'what happens at death'.
If the scope of reality is narrowed to outward, observable phenomena
only, you could reductively assert mystical beliefs don't explain reality at
all. You could lay a broad indictment of 'no demonstrable evidence' for
any mystic claim. It'd be a valid objection. But, mystics assert there is
demonstrable evidence of reality beyond mere belief. Following a path
of mindfulness and devotion, you can experience the evidence within
one's consciousness. Age-old questions can be answered and you
improve understanding of reality exponentially.
Posted by: Dungeness | May 11, 2022 at 12:06 PM
Research tell us that what we believe to be reality is actually a series of constructions that the brain creates - and is purely to enable us to survive and navigate our environment. Research goes even further, suggesting that emotions, the mind, the self and free will are also brain constructions.
Whether this information has been arrived at through the Occam's razor theory I couldn't say, but the perceived assumption from this is that we cannot know reality. All we know is only what we believe or what our brains decide is necessary for us to exist. Even though the research shows that this is so, the way we interpret and sense our constructed realities is the reality we ultimately are presented with and have to live with; yet be at peace with both worlds – which are, in spite of our brain and its divisive thinking, are one.
This is reflected in Zen and what Dogen pointed to :- “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”
It is similarly expressed in the story of 'The Prodigals Return' :- The going away from the familiar, reveling in the new experience and the return to the familiar.
Posted by: Ron E. | May 11, 2022 at 02:03 PM
“…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”
Posted by: Rumsfeld the Mystic | May 11, 2022 at 05:31 PM
@ Ron E : [ Whether this information has been arrived at through the Occam's razor theory I couldn't say, but the perceived assumption from this is that we cannot know reality. All we know is only what we believe or what our brains decide is necessary for us to exist.]
IMO the mystic would counter that we can know the reality within by
direct perception thus bypassing the brain's dualistic thought and
imagery. In other words, reality is an indwelling unity, a oneness that
transcends space-time. Consciousness is an innate expression of this
reality and can know itself and all of what's hidden by the mind. It does
it by "looking within"... an experiential path of devotion/mindfulness.
Posted by: Dungeness | May 11, 2022 at 05:50 PM
I read this book a few weeks ago and enjoyed it tremendously.
Posted by: david lane | May 11, 2022 at 10:06 PM
William of Occam was on the cutting edge.
Posted by: umami | May 12, 2022 at 05:39 AM
"William of Occam was on the cutting edge."
Heh, nice. Indeed.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | May 12, 2022 at 06:40 AM
"William of Occam was on the cutting edge."
Posted by: Dungeness | May 12, 2022 at 07:02 AM
He argued Pope John XXII was a heretic and should abdicate. Big trouble! He fled Avignon with other Franciscans under cover of night, finding refuge in Munich, where he shifted from religion to politics.
A close shave.
Posted by: umami | May 12, 2022 at 08:30 AM
"He argued Pope John XXII was a heretic... A close shave." :)
Luckily, he wielded his RAZOR to cut away at religious-political b.s.
They say Occam's Shave has became a legend among "barbers".
Posted by: Dungeness | May 12, 2022 at 02:30 PM
barb-ers! Game, set, match, Dungeness.
Posted by: umami | May 13, 2022 at 05:39 AM
"barb-ers! Game, set, match, Dungeness." :)
Ow! Another shaving nick! I fear lest Brian ban the blood sport... a
bad Occam for all concerned.
Posted by: Dungeness | May 13, 2022 at 07:04 AM
"a bad Occam for all concerned."
Whoa. Even subtler! I need a styptic pencil!
Posted by: umami | May 13, 2022 at 08:25 AM
But he also cut off the Pope's balls with his razor. No wonder the Pope didn't like it.
When that's all your balls amount to, BS reified, then you're liable to be wary of BS-shopping sharp implements.
(With apologies for escalating your genteel nicks-and-cuts punning into more brutal slash-and-chop mode.)
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | May 13, 2022 at 03:20 PM
Chopping, I'd meant, not shopping.
My autocorrect frowns on my choice of words. Can't blame it. Chopping off balls is brutal business.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | May 13, 2022 at 03:45 PM
"But he also cut off the Pope's balls with his razor."
Yep, styptic pencils are useless there.
Posted by: Dungeness | May 13, 2022 at 04:06 PM
Apparently this fell out of the pocket of a recently discovered old Monk’s habit:
There was a fine scholar called Ockham
Who sifted the gold from the flotsam,
But in the heat of debate,
He got quite irate,
And said to his foes he’d be choppin’ em!
Posted by: Tim Rimmer | May 13, 2022 at 05:02 PM
LOL, nice, Tim! 😂
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | May 13, 2022 at 06:18 PM
Tim the Ripper!
Posted by: umami | May 14, 2022 at 04:51 AM