Yay, me! I finally finished reading Johnjoe McFadden's book, "Life is Simple: How Occam's Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe."
It took me longer than expected, because I didn't find McFadden's lengthy descriptions of the life and times of historical figures in science, starting with the ancient Greeks, to be all that interesting. I guess he felt he needed to do that in order to buttress his case for how science came to embrace the adage of William of Occam: "Entities should not be multiplied without necessity."
This doesn't mean that the world is simple, just that in attempting to understand the world, our models of reality should be as simple as possible -- which in some cases, could mean being quite complex, if reality is complex.
I liked the end of the book more than the rest of it. That's where McFadden discusses modern science such as relativity theory and quantum mechanics. I'll probably write another blog post or two on those subjects.
Here's excerpts from a section called The simple truth?
I like McFadden's skepticism about ever knowing ultimate truth. "Ultimate reality" has always been a term that appealed to me. But his argument below about the apparent impossiblity of ever being able to know that we've contacted ultimate truth makes sense to me.
According to postmodernists, science merely takes its place alongside other belief systems such as religion, mysticism, witchcraft, folk beliefs, astrology, homeopathy or the paranormal. Each has, they claim, its own truths and none can claim any monopoly on the truth.
...William of Occam would surely have disagreed. He insisted that there was a stark difference between science and religion, as science is based on reason, religion is based on faith. Yet the postmodernists disagree.
Many of their arguments are heavily influenced by the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951).
...In 1921, Wittgenstein published his hugely influential Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in which he examined the relationship between language and reality and, at this stage of his career, appears to accept (philosophers still argue about the meaning of much of Wittgenstein's philosophical statements) that science can make statements about the world that are verifiably true.
Thirty years later, in his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein seems to abandon the quest to discover how language represents the world and instead argues that there are only different ways of using language or 'language games', whose meaning is derived solely from their use.
This argument seems to have much in common with William of Occam's nominalist insistence that words refer to ideas in our heads, rather than universals or essences that exist in the world.
...There is, however, another postmodernist insight that is both true and crucial to the role of Occam's razor, though it does not lead down the path taken by the postmodernists. Truth really is, as they argue, unknowable.
This is something that is shocking even to scientists who are generally taught that science is an inexorable march towards the truth.
Imagine that science were one day to attain the blissful state of knowing everything, i.e. 'the truth'. How would we know? Knowledge of ultimate truth presupposes some means of peeking behind the curtain of evidence provided by our senses or scientific instruments to see the 'real' world rather than the one viewed through our senses or scientific instruments.
It supposes that there is some knowable, complete, and perfect world, a world of idealised Platonic forms, the very view of the world Occam disproved so many centuries ago.
If like Occam we reject this view of the world we have to rely instead on our sensory inputs and a potentially infinite variety of models of the cosmos that could fit that data and explain our place in it. Yet that does not mean, as the postmodernists argue, that all models are equal.
When drawing up a horoscope, today's astrologers do not consult accounts of the moodiness of the god Mars or the lustful habits of Jupiter. They instead turn to planetary tables based on Kepler's simple model of the solar system.
Believers in the paranormal organise their meetings by phone and email, not telepathy; and, if the meetings are overseas, they fly by plane, not levitation.
Science may be a language game or model but, unlike the vast majority of models, from alchemy to feng shui, homeopathy and the indecipherable postmodernist tracts that dismiss science, its models actually work because they are simple and thereby deliver accurate predictions.