Occam’s razor can leave you bloody
by Steve Douglas
June 28th, 2012 | 5 Comments
This will be a fairly short post — more of an excuse to rant than anything else. But I’m seriously tired of the common misuse of Occam’s razor.
Occam’s razor merely states that the simplest explanation is the best one. It’s roughly based on a law of logic that maintains that it is fallacious to posit more than what fully accounts for something as part of its explanation. This works extremely well for items of discernible composition: four quarters make a whole, and any more than that is not part of the whole, but something in addition to it.
What I object to is its use as an aesthetic masquerading as a principle of dispassionate logic. Too often people snip things away after unconsciously making assumptions about the composition of the thing being explained. Occam’s razor can easily cut out too much, and without analyzing those assumptions, it will never be noticed.
For instance, it’s often simply accepted that immediate causes and composition sufficiently explain. But that’s an aesthetic, not a precept of rational analysis: sometimes we would like to know more than the structural composition of a thing to understand it. Describing the raw materials is only enough when all you’re looking for is raw materials. But this is why Occam’s razor is useless for grander subjects: it frontloads the endpoint in question, styling the haircut (so to speak) after a preconceived, predetermined pattern. There are assumptions that go into what you think is necessary to explain things, and Occam’s razor is really handy for excising everything other than what you expected to find.
People wielding Occam’s razor to trim away everything but what they find personally interesting is not the same as saying that everything they trim is spurious, bogus, or otherwise worthless. When I walk into my back yard, see a shed that I didn’t know about, and ask my wife, “Where did this shed come from?” and she answers, “I got it from Big Lots,” I am fully enlightened only insofar that I wanted to know only the source of the raw materials. But it doesn’t answer, “Why is it here? Who assembled it? And where did the money used to buy it come from?”
Similarly, theologians and philosophers are always about answering more things than science answers. So when a materialistic scientists announces, “I’ve explained the natural causes of the universe! No need for the God hypothesis anymore!” we can safely say that they have taken Occam’s razor to everything but what most interested them.
And that’s ok–they can do a fine, parsimonious job of explaining that stuff. Just don’t let them try to tell you that there are no other questions worth asking.