Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor

Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor (OR) seems to lie at the very core of the worldviews of naturalism and materialism. It demands only few imagination to realize the pair would completely collapse if the razor were cut off.

Also called principle of parsimony, it exists in two forms: a methodological form and an epistemological form.

Methodological Razor: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, it is preferable to use the simplest theory for the next investigations.

Epistemological Razor: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, the simplest theory is ALWAYS more likely.

Here, I won’t address the validity of the Methodological Razor (MR) which might be an useful tool in many situations.

I am much more interested in evaluating the Epistemological razor (ER), since it is under this form it most always plays an overwhelming role in philosophy, theology and the study of anomalous phenomena.

Nowadays, the most popular argument for atheism looks like this:

  1. It is possible (at least a priori) to explain all facts of the Cosmos as satisfactorily with nature alone as with God

  2. ER: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, the simplest theory is ALWAYS more likely

  3. God is much more complex than nature

  4. Nature alone is much more likely to be responsible for reality than God

Of course, since neither God nor nature can explain their own existence, ER stipulates that the existence of nature as a brute fact is much more probable than the existence of God as a brute fact.

ER is employed in a huge variety by proponents with diverse worldviews. This is the main reason why most scientists believe that UFO cannot be something otherworldly.

Despite the voluminous literature related to ER, it comes as a surprise that only a few publications deal with its justification. And unlike the expectations of its most enthusiastic proponents, such a demonstration proves a formidable task due to its universal claim to always hold true.

In this entry, I’ll show why I’m under the impression that nobody has been able to prove ER without begging the question in one way or the other.

One common way to argue is by using a reductio ad adsurbum.

Let us consider the following realistic conservation I could have with a UFO denier.

Skeptical Manitoo: „I was really shocked as I learned you believe all this non-senses about flying saucers!“

Lothar’s son: „Actually, this isn’t quite true. I do believe most of them can be traced back to natural or human causes. I’m just undecided about a small minority of them. I consider it possible that something otherworldly might be going on…“

Skeptical Manitoo:„What??? How dare you utter such lunacy before having drunk your third beer? The UFO hypothesis is the most complex one, therefore it is also the most unlikely one!“

Lothar’s son: „And how the hell do you know that, all other things being equal, simpler explanations are always more probable?“

Skeptical Manitoo: „And how do you know otherwise that the traces on the field stem from some wild living things rather than from elves?“ he replied bitterly.

At the point, the skeptics expects me to recognize this is silly indeed, AND that the only way to avoid this madness is by believing ER, so that I’ll end up agreeing with him.

But this is only a pragmatic argument, it has no bearing on the truth of ER whatsoever.

What if I stay stubborn:

Lothar’s son: „I believe your elfic intervention is also within the realm of possibilities, even if it is more complex.“

Skeptical Manitoo: „What? And would you also tolerate the presence of a Flying Spaguetti Monster which has caused the rain shower which fell on us previously?“

Lothar’s son: „„Of course!“

Skeptical Manitoo: „What? And do you also believe in a flying Dick Cheney who threw bombs upon the civilian population in Iraq?“

Reaching this level of insanity, I might very well be tempted to nod in order to escape the ordeal.

But it is important to realize that this whole discussion only shows, at best, a pragmatic MR to be valid.

If there is no INDEPENDENT ground for rejecting the crazy situations my imaginative friend has mentioned, anti-realism seems to be true, which means we can never have any kind of knowledge.

To justify the Epistemological Razor, one clearly needs non-circular arguments which might come from pure philosophical considerations or experimental inferences.

A very commonly used one is the alleged inexorable progress of science towards the simplest explanations.

There are many problems with this argument. The history of science is full of examples of complex theories who were wrongly dismissed because of their lack of parsimony, tough the future vindicated them in the most triumphant way. Continental drift and the reality of ball lightnings are only two examples on a long list.

But let us suppose for the sake of the argument that during OUR ENTIRE history, the simplest theories always proved to be the most likely.

Would this show that ER, as I’ve defined it above, is true? Not at all.

All this would prove is that we live in an universe (or perhaps even ONLY a region of an universe) where things are as simple as possible.

But modern science seems to indicate there exist a gigantic (perhaps even an infinite) number of parallel universes out there. And as Max Tegmark pointed out, these are not only limited to those resulting from chaotic cosmic inflation and string theory, but include as well quantum universes (Everett’s theory) and perhaps even mathematical universes. Simulated universes can certainly be added to this list.

So ultimately the justification of Occam’s razor would look like that:

  1. in our universe, simplest explanations are always the most likely to be true
  2. if it is true in our universe, it is also probably true in the other 10000000000000000000000000000000000…… universes we know very little of
  3. therefore, in the entire reality, simplest explanations are always the most likely to be true.

I hope that most of my readers will realize that premise 2) is an extraordinary claim, an interpolation based on nothing more than wishful thinking.

I know there have been many elegant attempts to ground ER on bayesian considerations. Like philosopher of mathematics Kelly I believe all are hopelessly circular because they smuggle simplicity into their definition of reality.

I’d be glad to learn from my reader if they know ways to justify ER which don’t presuppose the existence of a simple multiverse in the first place.

Finally, I want to point out a further problem one should have using ER against the existence of

God.

The Kalham’s cosmological argument (named after a great Muslim theologian) tries to establish the existence of a transcendence as follows:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. the universe began to exist
  3. therefore the universe has a cause

Due to the overwhelming experimental and theoretical success of the Big Bang theory, atheist apologists can no longer deny premise 2)

Consequently, they typically deny premise 1), arguing like Jeffrey Jay Lowder that it is not always true.
Lowder agrees it would be absurd to believe something in our universe could pop into existence, and this is the case because all our experience allows us to INDUCTIVELY conclude this is never going to occur. But he also emphasizes that this inference is only valid for things taking place WITHIN our universe, and not outside.
Since the grounds for believing in 1) are limited to our experience in this universe, we’ve no warrant to assert it is generally true.

But this is exactly my point about Occam’s razor or the principle of parsimony.

It might (or not) be true it holds in our universe, but this gives us absolutely no justification for believing it can be applied to transcendental realities (or to rule them out).

So, this was admittedly a very long post, and I hope to receive lots of positive and negative feedbacks!

15 responses to “Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor”

  1. Lvka says :

    Perhaps the best thing would be to remind the people in question that Ockham himself was a Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher.

  2. lotharson says :

    Hi Lvka, thanks for your comment!

    It’s true enough Ockham was himself a monk, and he seemed to see no contradiction with his belief in God.

    It is also not clear if we saw his razor just as a tool to converge towards truth, a pragmatic methodology or a general principle of probability.

    It is this latter use (whether historical or not) I criticize, for I think it is utterly unwarranted and unjustified.
    It was important to go into the details since this is arguably the most popular argument for atheism nowadays.

    Lovely greetings from Germany.

    • Innerbling says :

      The problem with Occam razor is that the simplest explanation is always some form of a Boltzmann brain. Hence it fails as an absolute epistemic criteria when put into reductio ad absurdum test.

      • lotharson says :

        Hello Innerbling, this is an interesting objection to ER.

        But how do you know that a Boltzmann brain would be always the simplest explanation?

        There are string theorists out there who try to argue that one can predict that there would only be a small numbers of Boltmann’s brains in the multiverse…well, an infinite number actually, but small in comparison to an even greater number of infinite objects…

        I’m not sure how I should make sense of that anyway.

        Lovely greetings from Germany.
        Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

        Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
        https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  3. donsevers says :

    Of course there’s no way to show that ER always holds, but that level of confidence is not reasonable to expect or necessary to be useful. Science deals in probabilities. ER is a good way to assess relative probabilities.

    Here’s how I would state the ER:

    All other things being equal, greater complexity is less likely than less complexity.

    This helps to show that the ER is just another way to state the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Highly complex (high entropy) scenarios are not impossible, just less likely than low entropy ones.

    • lotharson says :

      Hello Donservers.

      First of all, many thanks for having taken the time to read my long article and payed heed to my terminology!

      Your proof of ER seems to be as follows:

      1) in every possible word, the second law of thermodynamics has to be valid for EVERYTHING
      2) the second law of thermodynamics entails that complex systems are less likely to exist than simpler ones
      3) thus ER is true

      I won’t dispute 2) (tough the concept of probability it involves might not be an evidential one) but take issue with 1).

      Why on earth should we think there cannot exist things not underlying the second law of thermodynamics without begging the question?

      Maybe you’re defending a version of Occam’s razor whose scope is much more modest than ER as I’ve defined it.

      Kind regards.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

      • donsevers says :

        Since the 2nd Law doesn’t forbid anything, (it simply says entropy usually increases with time), what would it mean to say something could exist that doesn’t obey it?

        Suppose you want to say: “The 2nd Law does not rule out highly complex entities”.

        This is fine, because it doesn’t. It just says they are less likely.

        So, what do you want to say? I’m guessing it’s something like:

        “It is not impossible for a highly complex thing to be more likely than a less complex thing”.

        I think the 2nd Law would allow that, too. Although such situations would themselves be rare!

        So, if we state ER reasonably, it holds.

        But the main reason ER holds is that complicated theories introduce greater, additional explanatory burdens than simpler theories:

        The Big Bang theory is better than the ‘Big Bang theory plus God’ because God does little or no additional explanatory work and creates a huge additional explanatory burden.

  4. lotharson says :

    Hi Donsevers.

    Maybe I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough, this isn’t what I meant.

    The second law shows us that in our UNIVERSE, physical things which are more complex than others are less likely to exist.

    However, it fails to show us that in EVERY possible universe, more complex things are ALWAYS less likely.

    “But the main reason ER holds is that complicated theories introduce greater, additional explanatory burdens than simpler theories”

    Actually, it is a reason why MR might be true. You have the burden of proof to show, in a non-circular way, that an additional explanatory burden means a smaller likelihood to be true, in order for ER to hold.

    While he doesn’t use the same names, philosopher Kelly makes the same dinstinction as I:

    http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/kk3n/homepage/kelly.html

    His point seems to be that if you compare a complex and a simple theory, you cannot say that the simpler one is the most likely, but just that it is better to pursue it in order to converge towards truth in the long run.

    This is of course assume you’re going to find all the evidence necessary to understand the phenomenon, which in the case of the very existence of the universe is rather doubtful.

    Kind regards.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  5. Crude says :

    But he also emphasizes that this inference is only valid for things taking place WITHIN our universe, and not outside.

    What an arbitrary distinction.

    He may as well say it only applies within our visible universe, and outside of our visible universe (but still within the ‘same’ universe) it applies.

    Or it only applies to things we can see, not to things we can’t.

  6. labreuer says :

    Well done; I don’t find very many people who differentiate between methodological and epistemological versions of Okham’s razor; well done. A year or two ago, I realized that only the methodological razor was valid, and only because the structure of reality is vulnerable to successive approximation.

    There is a difference between science and relationships: in science, you want to be able to predict everything; in relationships, you want to be able to predict some, and be pleasantly surprised by some. When the Christian thinks God is like A, and yet finds out that he is more like B, the scientist is tempted to say that the Christian really isn’t interacting with a being at all, but merely imagination. We don’t say this when we’re interacting with other people though, and our predictions are falsified. This makes me think that many atheists view God more as a force than a person. Okham’s razor doesn’t really apply to people.

    • lotharson says :

      I would go farther and say there might be impersonal processes which don’t obey it, for instance in a parallel universe.

      Cheers.

      • labreuer says :

        Sure; there is deep stuff about Okham’s razor which relate to intelligibility. The human mind seems only capable of learning so much at once. Fortunately, reality is such that it will teach us a bit more, and then a bit more than that, and then even more. It’s all in digestible chunks, though. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine a universe which does not present us intelligible chunks. M-theory is actually a hint of this, as it currently needs parameters which cannot be computed in reasonable time (the search is NP-complete if not NP-hard).

        Research into [strong] AI will tell us more about what is required for a system to be ‘learnable’. What I am incredibly curious about is whether we have strong reason to think that our reality is infinitely ‘learnable’, or whether most realities (or parallel universes) tend to have some sort of ‘ceiling’, through which no rational mind which could exist in such a universe would have the cognitive power pierce.

        The concept I’m trying to describe should be immediately recognizable: when you’re teaching someone a topic, you have to take small enough steps so that he/she can bridge them in his/her mind. But what if the step is just too large? This could provide a permanent impediment to learning.

      • lotharson says :

        Interestingly enough, Richard Dawkins conceded the point there might very well be extremely evolved beings we could only see as Gods, our brain being able to only grasp a very small portion of their being.

        But if that is the case, his atheism seems to stand on shaky ground. For if God is defined as the greatest being who exist, there necessarily exist a God which almost infinitely outshine our own reason.

        And if God is defined as the greatest being who can possibly exist, He would almost certainly also exist given the infinity of the multiverse.

        I like science fiction and fantasy. I have written a novel (in English) concerning a parallel world called Magonia (from a French legend), a high-tech civilization, eerie creatures capable of violating the laws of physics at will.
        It is currently being corrected.
        I touche on such subjects and I will certainly publish it, perhaps on the Internet.

        Lovely greetings from Lancashire (UK).

      • labreuer says :

        And if God is defined as the greatest being who can possibly exist, He would almost certainly also exist given the infinity of the multiverse.

        This isn’t sufficient for Christian theology as I understand it; God’s existence precedes (logically, not temporally) the existence of everything else. If it were not for God, nothing would exist. There is no universe in the multiverse for which one could say, “God does not exist.”

        That being said, the above is a bit fun and not so much practical. I don’t think God wants us to believe in his exact nature nearly as much as he wants us to trust him when he tells us what human thriving is and what it isn’t.

        Let’s posit that we, being finite beings, can only ever come to a finite conception of God, who is infinite in description (not just like a repeating number, 1.333333, or 1.1010010001…). What this tells us is that no matter how well we understand God, there is more to understand. However well we learn to treat our fellow human being, there is a better way to treat each other. We are never ‘done’ on either of these research projects: research into how reality works, and how to treat one another.

        Somehow, mixed into these two research projects, is our relationship with God. Our personal relationship with another person, albeit on the other side of infinity. In Knowing God, J.I. Packer says that he thinks in heaven, every Christian will get as much of God as he/she wanted. While this statement doesn’t seem quite right (see Jn 17:3), there is something profound in it. There is always more to know about God, more intimate ways to know God. (I omitted the ‘about’ intentionally.) Should we ever falter and stop knowing God better, I think we start growing distant from him, just like happens when we no longer pursue a relationship with another human being. And yet, this is the very danger when we say we’ve “reached the end”—either that there is no more science to be done, or the current society is the ideal society.

        It seems to me that bad uses of Okham’s razor threaten to do the very bad thing which I say it is so important to avoid. Such uses threaten to say that at some point, we will reach the ideal society because reality is as simple as it can be. Such a society, while it might initially seem excellent, would ultimately grow stale and terrible and turn into a system of slavery—something Satan would love. Atheists and skeptics love to accuse theists of thinking they have everything figured out, but I see the very same threat from those atheists and skeptics, and unlike theists (at least Christians), they have no infinite God who they can remember is calling them to him. They can just say, “Sorry, this is all life has to offer, make the best of it.” That’s exactly what you’d say to a slave to keep him/her from rebelling.

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