The Second Apocalypse

Miscellaneous Chatter => Philosophy & Science => Topic started by: sciborg2 on June 09, 2019, 08:07:22 pm

Title: The Tyranny of Simple Explanations
Post by: sciborg2 on June 09, 2019, 08:07:22 pm
The Tyranny of Simple Explanations: The history of science has been distorted by a longstanding conviction that correct theories about nature are always the most elegant ones. (

Here the implication is that the simplest theory isn’t just more convenient, but gets closer to how nature really works; in other words, it’s more probably the correct one.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that. But it’s what Francis Crick was driving at when he warned that Occam’s razor (which he equated with advocating “simplicity and elegance”) might not be well suited to biology, where things can get very messy. While it’s true that “simple, elegant” theories have sometimes turned out to be wrong (a classical example being Alfred Kempe’s flawed 1879 proof of the “four-color theorem” in mathematics), it’s also true that simpler but less accurate theories can be more useful than complicated ones for clarifying the bare bones of an explanation. There’s no easy equation between simplicity and truth, and Crick’s caution about Occam’s razor just perpetuates misconceptions about its meaning and value.   

The worst misuses, however, fixate on the idea that the razor can adjudicate between rival theories. I have found no single instance where it has served this purpose to settle a scientific debate. Worse still, the history of science is often distorted in attempts to argue that it has.
Title: Re: The Tyranny of Simple Explanations
Post by: Wilshire on June 10, 2019, 03:19:51 pm
I think its part of the "layman" mistrust of science that complex things cannot always be explained simply. The fetishization of Occams razor is kind of a symptom of this too - its just nice to imagine that simple things are better.

I do particularly like the articles mention of vilifying incorrect theories. It seems human nature to make things not just wrong, but WRONG, once a correct answer is apparent. This has the unfortunate affect of making a culture of people afraid to be wrong, and less likely to overturn or correct RIGHT answers in light of new evidence.

Its definitely an easily observed phenomenon, this Tyranny of Simplicity. Unfortunately, I don't see a way around it.
Title: Re: The Tyranny of Simple Explanations
Post by: H on June 14, 2019, 02:36:45 pm
Well, I think this last part is a major key to this:

But this is all just special pleading. Occam’s razor was never meant for paring nature down to some beautiful, parsimonious core of truth. Because science is so difficult and messy, the allure of a philosophical tool for clearing a path or pruning the thickets is obvious. In their readiness to find spurious applications of Occam’s razor in the history of science, or to enlist, dismiss, or reshape the razor at will to shore up their preferences, scientists reveal their seduction by this vision.

Because Occum's Razor tells you absolutely nothing about something's actual "truth value."  Perhaps, like much of "philosophy" that enters in to something like "popular culture" the whole notion is somewhat misunderstood and then misapplied.  To my primative mind, the Razor only tells you to apply the minimum necessary to get "explainative" results.  So, for example, there is no need to say 2E=mC²/2 becuase that is literally just adding reducible terms in there for no real reason.

However, I think this might speak to something of a vary "human desire" to render things "simple" in the sense of "comprehendable."  This is plausibly what all of philosophy "really is" a sort of "creative" way of taking something (the universe) and making it "sensable" to human minds via some conceptual framework, which is really, in every case, necessarily simplification.  It seems no wonder that it would "fail to get things right" because it must, by it's very nature, fail to capture the full complexity of the thing at hand, which could be nothing less than the entire universe.  All that could capture that complexity is the universe itself, it would seem to me.

OK, I might be off the rails now...