Saturday, 9 July 2016

Occum's Razor

Bloody smart arse

Time for another sensible post, I suppose.  

Occum's razor, or the law of parsimony, is simple in concept but powerful in application and is attributed to a fourteenth century scholastic monk, William of Ockham. This is not to say that William of Ockham first formulated the concept. It was certainly known to previous savants and is mentioned in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. However, for reasons which I will not divulge, the law is indelibly linked to our William. 

For all its so-called rigorous intellectual credentials it is actually rooted in the concept of 'simplicity'. The ancients and the moderns up to the 19th century often thought of nature as rather simple. And indeed the work of great scientists such as Newton (look at Newton's three laws of motion and tell me this is not so) seemed to confirm this. Simple laws seemed to underpin the universe. No one thinks this way today. Since Einstein, the rise of modern physics and modern biology, the universe appears astonishingly complex, convoluted and perhaps impossible to fully grasp with our limited intellects. A simple universe has an aesthetic that a blackboard full of differential equations can never have, unless of course you are a mathematician. 

We must be clear on one thing: Occum's postulate doesn't state that the explanation has to be 'simple' just the least complex of competing explanations. That aside, we have to ask, and ask in a hard-headed fashion, is the postulate of parsimony of any merit when we come to examine our existence? Or in other words, other things being equal, are simpler explanations generally better than more complex ones? Could it be that we are beguiled? Mayhap simplicity is no more than a theoretical virtue. Is it really self evident or a mere short cut for our lazy intellects? Elegance is not necessarily synonymous with truth.

It is to be accepted as axiomatic, that for any phenomenon there is an infinite number of explanations. Many will be intricate and complex and almost all will be incorrect. However, we must bear in mind, that as fallible humans, we are often drawn to 'simple' explanations rather than the complex mainly because they are within our intellectual grasp. An explanation of any event or phenomenon, if it has any intrinsic merit, should in some way be testable. There should be predictions which can be either validated or falsified. 'Simple' constructs are easier to validate than their more complex cousins. Or according to the musings of the Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, they are easier to falsify. Furthermore, the more elements to an explanation the greater the probability that it will fall down due to its inherent complexity and therefore, fail to remain coherent. 

Be appraised: This but a simple foray into the topic. Blogs (such as this) do not do due justice to the topic in hand. Indeed, the topic is more complex than noted here; isn't that the ultimate irony. Arguments for and against can become very technical. However, I am more than happy to discuss and elaborate according to comment.  

Regardless, of any philosophy, as a practicing professional scientist, I have found the 'Law of Parsimony' useful in my research. Sometimes we over think to our detriment. 

And finally, here is something else to ponder. Our models of nature are imperfect and always open to review or rejection. We strive to understand nature but we always fall short. Think in terms of Newton's description of gravity. When first postulated it explained the natural world extremely well. The motions of the planets were finally mastered and understood. However, with more accurate measurements minor perturbations and inaccuracies became manifest. Einstein's theories of relativity plugged the gap. Einstein's genius works for us, now. But this may change and a new postulate might do better, if only we can find another Einstein.......


  1. A sensible post..."
    Have you run out of red wine?

    1. As you know Mr D, I do not indulge of the grape as often as I used to. One glass a week is my limit these days. Arse.

    2. But what size is the glass? 🤔🍷

  2. You got me there Ted, hic.....