Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dulling Occam’s Razor

All students of science are taught the rule of parsimony, also known as Occam’s Razor. It’s understood to be one of the fundamental ways science interpreters the data it collects. It states that if there are two explanations for a given phenomenon, and both are equal in their explanatory power (whatever that means- we will return to this idea later) then the explanation (or theory) which is simplest, is favored over the more complex one. The value science gains from this law reflects its logical-mathematical tendencies; the logic in mathematics are about solving through simplifying. So naturally, science would adopt a rule to solve problems which favors the most simplest answer; just like in math where one answers a problem by simplifying the equation to its simplest possible form.

The idea of Occam’s Razor or parsimony can be traced back to William of Ockham. He was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher. Basically he was a logician working for the church. The idea behind using the word razor was that one should “slice thin” explanations and theories.

Now I believe that the fact that this rule fits so well with the logic found in math is only a coincidence. William was not a scientist. He was not even an empiricist. He was a subordinate of the church, albeit a high ranking one. Therefore when he came up with this idea he did not have in mind the logic of math and its usefulness in science. Instead he was thinking about finding a way of using logic to defend the position of the church, and the position of the church is god. God is the simplest explanation for anything. If anyone asks for an explanation, say god did it.

Now with all that said, I side with the instrumentalist position in the philosophy of science. Therefore I am inclined to point all this out in order to show that this rule has its origins in something very anti-scientific: defending dogma. Therefore I feel science does it self a disservice by cutting out theories only because they are more complex. The law shouldn’t be implemented only because it reflects the logic of mathematics; its origin are not scientific. The world does not reflect perfect logic, and theories shouldn’t have to either. I can understand the value in simple theories, but let us not be deceived by appearances. Complex explanations and theories may be just as valid.

Finally, what does it exactly mean to have two explanations or theories equal in their explanatory power? Is there an objective test? If so, I have never heard of it. I believe this is a major logical hole in the rule. How can we be the convinced that any two theories are equal in their explanatory capacity?

We need to rethink what it means to use Occam’s razor in light of its historical/cultural contexts and the major hole in its logic. With this in mind, hopefully, we can save possibly valuable theories that were once “sliced away”.