I have been talking about Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that helps people choose what is the right explanation for a series of events or a series of experiments. Yesterday I commented that the basic principle is that, “simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones.” Many conspiracy theories can generally be put to rest by using the Razor. However, it is also true that there have been more than one case and/or scientific explanation in which the most accurate explanation appeared to be the more complex one. As a result, some scholars, philosophers, novelists, etc. have come up with “anti-razors” to balance out Occam’s Razor. Among them are:
Hickam’s Dictum — “Patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please”. This anti-razor is used to warn physicians that it is quite possible for a patient to have multiple diseases at the same time, and that symptoms need not be ascribed to a single disease process.
Chatton’s Anti-Razor — A contemporary of Occam, he said, “If three things are not enough to verify an affirmative proposition about things, a fourth must be added, and so on.” This was to caution against making simplicity into more than a helpful principle. The caution here is to not be afraid to look at more complex explanations. Simplicity is not a requirement, just the best method.
Law Against Miserliness — “Entities must not be reduced to the point of inadequacy” and “It is vain to do with fewer what requires more.” — Karl Menger. This is a caution, particularly for scientists, against trying to aggregate too much data under a particular principle, otherwise you can lose explanatory power.
“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” — Sherlock Holmes. This is a caution that while you can use methods such as Occam’s Razor in order to lower the number of possible explanations, you must never so use the Razor that it prevents you from positing what is “true.”
In other words, the anti-razors are most often warnings to scientists, mathematicians, and secularists, against the dangers of over-simplifying the data to the point where they actually misunderstand what is the actual explanation of the data or the events. Why is this an important warning? Well, the following quote comes from a paper written in Germany:
The philosopher of science Henry H. Bauer (1992, p. 74-76) disputes the common view that scientists are open-minded and strive for new cognition and insight. By way of contrast, he states that open-mindedness for the new exists only as long as the new things are not too new. Bauer makes a distinction between the “known unknown” which can be derived from secured knowledge (and hence is suitable for research proposals), and the “unknown unknown” that cannot be expected on the basis of the state of knowledge. … So it becomes understandable why the existence of meteorites and ball lightning originally was rejected. The scepticism against reports supplied by laymen (Westrum, 1978) induced a persistent deterioration of the faculty of judgement, such that later on also substantiated evidence and expert’s reports – like specimens of meteorites and chemical analyses – were dismissed under the same prejudice. Being accustomed to categorize phenomena within the usual conceptual and explanatory schemes, scientists easily run the risk of a reductionist trap, finally being content with a sloppy categorization, however wrong it may be.
You see, if conspiracy theorists suffer from overly expansive and ridiculous explanations, scientists can be so focused on explaining the unknown by what they know that they are often unable to be creative enough to really see “new” truth, or any truth that does not come somewhat close to their already accepted theories. That is, an overly energetic use of Occam’s Razor, at least the variation of the Razor that has been propounded by some scientists, actually prevents some from reaching correct conclusions. It is this weakness that is exploited by conspiracy theories to claim that no one can judge them because everyone is limited (but the conspiracy theorists).
At the same time, this weakness of scientists is exploited by groups such as Young Earth Creationists to claim that scientists have such a bias that they simply are unable to see the truth. Sadly, and most obviously, so must all their fellow Christians who agree more with the scientists than with the YEC folk. In other words, only the YEC folk can think correctly. And yet, they actually do have a point! The point is that all too many scientists misuse Occam’s Razor in such a way that it keeps them from either seeing new possibilities of from considering the possibility of spiritual phenomena. What does make science successful, however, is that in the realm of technology scientists may be resistant at first, but ultimately they are willing to change.
So Occam’s Razor and the anti-Razors. Are you beginning to understand that learning to think logically and correctly is a much more difficult matter than most think?