What is Occam’s Razor? It is probably the single most accepted piece of guidance on how to decide what is the best explanation for something, which proof is the most accurate. There are various ways to explain the principle. Perhaps one of the most common non-philosopher ways to say it is that, “other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.” But, let me give you a fuller quote from the Wikipedia:
The principle is often incorrectly summarized as “other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.” In practice, the application of the principle often shifts the burden of proof in a discussion. The razor states that one should proceed to simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power. The simplest available theory need not be most accurate. Philosophers point out also that the exact meaning of simplest may be nuanced.
Solomonoff’s inductive inference is a mathematically formalized Occam’s razor: shorter computable theories have more weight when calculating the probability of the next observation, using all computable theories which perfectly describe previous observations.
In science, Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic (general guiding rule or an observation) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models rather than as an arbiter between published models. In the scientific method, Occam’s razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result.
The principle actually has a long history both inside and outside Christianity. For instance, Ptolemy stated in the 1st century, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.” Saint Thomas Aquinas stated, “it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many.”
There are various caveats to this theory. For instance, as it is mentioned above, you look for the simplest explanation until and unless you arrive at such a point that a slightly more complex explanation actually let’s you explain better what you have observed. For instance, in cosmology, string theory is actually a more complex explanation or the universe than the previous explanation. In medicine, some of the explanations have turned out to be more complex than original explanations. In criminology, the reason family and friends are always the first to be considered during a murder investigation is because statistically they are the ones most often guilty. But, if someone is being “set up,” the more complex explanation may be the better one. In science there are some very clear examples in which the use of Occam’s Razor actually misled people into initially rejecting some discoveries such as DNA. So, Occam’s Razor does not prohibit complex explanations per se, but it does force all of us to think more logically by ensuring that we consider the simplest possible way to explain something.
What does all this have to do with conspiracy theories? Well, almost inevitably every conspiracy theory is a long and complex explanation of events that can be more simply explained by other means. I was reading about the truthers, who claim–depending on which variation–that the destruction of the World Trade Center was actually a government plot. The reasoning necessary for that involves various steps, but the most difficult one is the involvement of dozens, maybe hundreds of people, who are able to keep a hermetic silence before, during, and after the events. In the same way, birthers have to suppose an entire range of events, which include the deliberate falsification of events by people in several states, in both public and private organizations, in foreign countries, and all without anyone breaking the hermetic silence. As some wag commented, these theories make the theories concerning President Kennedy and the grassy knoll positively simplistic.
But, this type of conspiracy thinking can also extend into the Church. For instance, dispensationalists are well known to engage in newspaper exegesis. Everytime they read the newspaper, they try to connect that to some prophecy or another of Scripture regardless of how tenuous the connections. Sadly, whenever we Christians get involved in this type of thinking, in building conspiracies theories that involve the almost impossible or the extremely complicated, we get ourselves into trouble.
I would go on, but this post is already long. What is the bottom line? Learn how to think carefully. Learn to look for the simplest explanation. And, if an explanation seems almost incredible, it probably is.