Are you an Occamist?

Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The remark was meant as a put-down, a sort of "Yeah, what do you know?" To which Quine is said to have responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth." Quine was an Occamist.

On the other hand, I have heard that in an episode of The X-Files, Fox Mulder dismisses Occam's razor by renaming it Occam's Principle of Unimaginative Thinking. Let a thousand paranormal and pseudoscientific flowers bloom. Mulder is an Anti-Occamist.

Interesting post on Occam's Razor here.


b said...

i recently realized after reading about why one must conclude there was in fact a moonlanding in 1969(?). occam's razor is apparently something that is quite central to scientific "proof". i always thought that it was quite silly. i interpreted it as something like
"the most likely explanation is the most likely".

i haven't read the article linked yet, so forgive me if i'm saying something stupid or obvious if you've read the article.

Pienk Zuit said...

I'm an Occamist most of the time. "the most likely explanation is the most likely" - how do you decide which is the most likely? Occam's razor says simplicity is a good guideline to deciding on the most likely explanation.

b said...

the way i understood it doesn't really make sense, yes. that's why i thought it was silly.

Anonymous said...

Well, my PhD is all about Occam :) It is sometimes possible to measure the simplicity of theories and compare these measures (in my case statistical models). The description of the model and the data given the model should together be as small as possible - then you have a good model.

Incidentally, Occam is God's deathblow. A description of Nature without God is simpler as one including God, given the lack of empirical evidence otherwise. (Actually this is a can of worms not to be opened lightly, as many descriptions of natural phenomena could be reduced to "God did it".)


liezl said...

You'll find Occam's razor at work in just about every bit of scientific thinking. It doesn't prove that a theory is correct; it is just one criterion among others (such as non-contradiction, coherence, etc.) of what makes a theory or explanation good. (There's an episode of CSI where the best explanation turns out to be the most complicated one.)

But Occam's razor is not simply about simplicity. (Arguably, 'God did it' is simpler than competing theories.) What it says is that the best explanation of something is likely to be the one that makes the fewest assumptions. Consider, for example, two (logically) possible explanations a boy could have for why his tooth disappeared from under his pillow and a coin appeared:

1. The tooth fairie did it
2. Mum did it

Explanation 1 requires a long list of assumptions (that the t. fairie exists - and positing the existence of an entity no-one has ever seen is a biggie -, that it needs my tooth to built its house, that it somehow knew I lost a tooth, that it managed to get into the house even though all the doors and windows were closed, that Mum always tells the truth, etc. etc.), whereas Explanation 2 only makes 2 assumptions (Mum did it while I was sleeping; Mum lied about the t. fairie.)

Non-Occamists are very creative people, and the world would be a less colourful place without them. But they should stick to writing fairie tales and not try to pass themselves off as scientists.

So yes, I am an Occamist, and so is my son.

Suzie said...

Yes, Occam is not all there is to being rational. It explains why simple lies are more often believed than big long one's, but it doesn't explain why the simple lie is nevertheless a lie.

Anonymous said...

"Incidentally, Occam is God's deathblow."

This is an epistemological position that is increasingly difficult to defend, in view of strong theistic counterarguments by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig.

These render the naturalistic position more unparsimonious than the theistic position, in that they highlight formal weaknesses in the metaphysical doctrine of physicalism, with respect to cosmology, epistemology, teleology and moral philosophy.

Atheist philosophers now stay clear of the law of parsimony in contending theism in view of these problems.

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