Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Terminology Tuesday: Occam's Razor

Occam's (Okham's) razor: One of the main axioms of nominalist philosopher William of Occam (c.1300-1349), namely, that principles employed to explain any phenomenon should not be multiplied without necessity. In the modern era Occam's razor was used to eliminate the supernatural from view. Hence critics argued, for example, that we need no longer appeal to demonic possession to explain what is better referred to as some purely human malady such as epilepsy or mental illness.1

1. Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki & Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 85.


Anonymous said...

From what I've read, the Razor wasn't Ockham's. See www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/ockhams-razor-is-a-modern-myth.

bbrown said...

I think that the 'Razor' has created more confusion and obfuscation of truth than it has prevented. There is no reason I can see, logically, why simplicity should imply truth. And it is so often stated as an a-priori given (unthinkingly, it seems)in argument.

The more I, as a scientist and physician, learn about the universe inside a cell, or of the universe outside our solar system, the more I appreciate the mind-boggling complexity and creativity of the Creator.

--Wm. Francs Brown MD
Forest, Virginia

Ex N1hil0 said...

Occam’s Razor (OR) is an often-useful rule of thumb for those investigating the causes of events and phenomena.

Greg Koukl has often employed an illustration that makes use of this principle on his radio show: One person will claim that, at sea level, a pot of water will boil if we add enough heat to it. Another will claim that the pot will boil if we add two things: enough heat, and a leprechaun. Now, will it boil if we add only heat and hold the leprechaun? Yes. Then why do we need the leprechaun? We don’t.

Of course, there are cases where OR will point you toward the wrong conclusion. For example, John has two dogs. He comes home after work to find that one of the throw pillows, which he had left on the couch, is now on the floor; torn to pieces. OR would suggest that one of the dogs has done this deed. Stan might be tempted to think that both dogs were involved; but OR cuts off the second. Now, since this is not the first time something like this has happened, John had a camera running in the living room and recorded the event. The recording reveals that the dogs teamed up against the pillow. OR has failed us.

So, OR can sometimes be useful in sorting through the details of a mystery we are trying to solve. It can perhaps help to put us on the right track. But the track on which it places us must be investigated further. It cannot be assumed that OR will give us the right answer.

As Dr. Brown has pointed out, OR is often presented, or merely assumed, to be some sort of infallible rule. As if violating it was a logical fallacy.

That said, at times I do enjoy pointing out to naturalists that OR cuts off millions of years of undirected evolutionary processes and trillions of alternate universes, as unnecessary to explain what we see around us.

bbrown said...

Thanks for the reply ExNihilo.

I do believe that what you said reinforces my point, that there is no logical reason to suppose that Occam's Razor is valid. Why should greater simplicity be any better explanation for something than greater complexity? We are conditioned to believe this from hearing it over and over, but I can see no good reason why it should be so.

That said, of course we should strive to remove aspects of any explanation that are extraneous, distractions to clarity, tangential, or of no explanatory value. But that's not the point of OR, which states that the simpler explanation is better or closer to truth.

Brian said...

I think that dog illustration is not a good use of Occam's razor. I'm not sure someone would assume that one dog is more likely than both. If it's anything like the animals I know, it's more likely that multiple animals were involved! : )

The principle, as I understand it, is saying that you simply prefer to posit only explanations that are necessary to explain a phenomenon, rather than more than necessary.

Perhaps the trick is knowing when to use Occam's razor rightly. And I think a good use is simply the idea of not assuming a multiplicity of causes as a starting point. You build deductively from simple to complex and work your way up as needed.

For instance, if you were at a murder scene, you wouldn't start with the assumption that there were multiple killers. You'd start simple, assuming only one killer to begin with. But if the evidence warranted it, then you would "multiply entities" or causes as is warranted to explain the phenomenon.

bbrown said...

I am not sure if the Razor has not casued more trouble than not. I've heard theologians and philosophers (in debates) make the statement: "well, according to Occam's Razor"......fill in the blank. The Razor is treated as a truth, when I cannot see any reason why that should be assumed.

Brian, I have seen the process of searching for the best explanation work in either direction. Sometimes we start from too much comlexity, but often we start from too much simplicity, and it can go either direction from there, with further investigation over time. I have done a number of years in molecular biology research (control of DNA transcription) and I think that, more often than not, the research goes in directions of increasing complexity, not the other way around.

It's my opinion that Occam's Razor serves no useful purpose and is thus not useful.

Sorry to beat what is looking like a dead horse.

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