Saturday, August 5, 2006

Shaving the world

One of the more often misunderstood concepts in science and philosophy is Occam's Razor. The ignoranti take it to mean that the simplest theory is correct. But the Razor is not a tool for deciding correctness, but is better used to decide which model to prefer. Simply stated, it says that one should prefer the simplest explanation for all the facts at hand.

The key word is "all". Maxwell's demon is a simpler explanation for electrons than superstrings but the demon does not explain all the properties of electrons. Naturally, it can be seen that at greater levels of complexity and abstraction, different explanations will be preferable.

I am, I suppose, an Occamist. I tend to accept as my model whatever most simply explains what I know about things. If I find out more, I broaden my model, but I am always attempting to pare away the frills. The Razor is for doing just that, slicing away unnecessary frills to leave the bare bones of explanation.

Religion does not fare well at the touch of the Razor. Mostly this is because it is stuffed with frills and, more importantly, because it does not explain facts so much as it explains things that are ideal rather than real. In other words, it explains what we have inside us far better than it does what is out there. It explains ways to deal with fears, insecurities and emptinesses. (That is not to say it is the best explanation of those things, only that that is what it is for.)

Is it not though simple to say "goddidit"? Well yes, but the Razor does not urge us to accept the simplest theory possible, rather that which is simplest at the level of complexity we are considering. Goddidit is unsatisfying because it is a very broad, meta-explanation, which does not concern itself with trivial things such as the facts: we say God created the universe, but we do not say how, specifically, or why he created it with this bit rather than that. Not that religionists have not sought to explain what there is, but once they do, the simplicity of goddidit quickly becomes incredibly complex. The concept of a god who just does becomes complicated to one that does this but not that, until the unity of an ineffable god has become a Byzantine being, inscrutable because of the complexity of motive and ability he is made from rather than because of an innate unknowability.

Unknowability is the anti-Razor, something the Occamist in me dislikes a great deal. Unknowability is a closed door for the mind. The Razor says prefer the simplest explanation; by extension, it can be taken to say abhor the lack of explanation (I am not sure what William himself said about that but for me it is clear that saying that a thing cannot be explained is a bad thing). In the case of God, the chief difficulty with unknowability should be clear (actually, it's a good illustration of why unknowability is a bad thing for Occamists). The simplest explanation for God's being unknowable is nonexistence. Any other explanation will be much more complicated, not least because it will have to posit a being with motives for being unknowable: it should go without saying that a being with those motives is an entity more than no being at all. The Razor demands that we ask why our supernatural being should have those motives. What do they explain? The only thing, it seems to me, that is explained by your being's having some motive or other for being unknowable, is its unknowableness. Which is more simply explained by its nonexistence.

Voila! Occam's Razor slices away an unknowable god. It's easy to do so because most mystical stuff adds nothing to our understanding of the physical world (which is why we call it the "supernatural"; I am using the word "physical" in an extremely broad sense, to mean "what there is", which obviously includes things that are not physical in a narrower sense). What the ignoranti do not grasp though is that this is not in any way a disproof of God. The secular humanists of Brisbane, whom I consider religionists equally as distasteful as any fundamentalist haters, do not understand that the Razor does not decide correctness but only preferability. A rational mind should prefer explanations that do not include gods but those explanations may well be incorrect. There could be a god because neither he (or she) nor anything in the universe can be compelled not to exist just because it is a frill! The universe is not required to be austere (it would be a simpler place, would it not, were there not dozens of particles that interacted in bizarre, counterintuitive ways). The key, again, is to understand that Occam demands that we ought not to complicate explanations unnecessarily, not that we should simplify them for the sake of it.

I find this approach to life (and the philosophy of it, particularly of science understood as a way of looking at the world) satisfying but not, I struggle for the right word, warming. It is not a concept that gives you a hug. The Razor tells me that when I die, I will dissolve into sludge, oblivious, my time as short as three score years and ten or a little more. It tells me that this is a world of atoms and the forces between them, unchangeable by any but brute means, and not of mystical forces that interplay in weird and wonderful ways, susceptible to intervention by wishing them different. It tells me, painful as it is to hear, that I am nothing, not a soul riding in a body, not a consciousness, a mind sitting in a brain, nothing at all but echoes of whirling, singing strings, pointless, arbitrary, meaningless (because "meaning" is an unnecessary entity in explaining me).

But I have never quite been able to accept things as part of my understanding of life just because they make it more comfortable. (Would I if I could? I don't know because it is so alien to me, but perhaps I would take many little Pascal wagers to make life more bearable.) Perhaps life would be richer for it. I would be smaller but the world would grow by comparison. The two will always conflict in me: satisfaction at the opening of doors accepting the Razor allows and discomfort at the chill of bigness that walking through the doors entails.


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