Saturday, 13 December 2008

Occam's Razor

The principle of Occam's Razor is actually fairly simple.
And yet it is, of course, probably the most important principle ever introduced into human logic.
One thing people often don't really comprehend, is how, at a nuts and bolts level, we- humanity- come to decisions, or come to conclusions.

Over time, human beings have developed a general SYSTEM for establishing how we fit together frameworks of ideas. How we formulate together workable ways of explaining what's happening. How we decide which theories to follow, and which ones we reject.

Over time, a generally accepted framework of establishing what is and isn't so, has been brought into play.
A hypothesis remains a hypothesis until it becomes a theory. When does it become a theory? Well, when it fulfills certain criteria. The most generally accepted criteria for judging a theory, is that it is FALSIFIABLE.

For example, I can come up with a theory that says that somewhere is another universe where stars are square. It's a great hypothesis. But it can never be a theory. Because it can't be proved WRONG. All you can say about it is, it could be true.
What's more is, there is no reason to accept it as true. Nothing in our current universe, is dependant on another universe existing with square stars. So the fact is, this hypothesis can never be a theory.

For a hypothesis to be a theory, it needs to explain facts that other theories don't, and also provide a way that it can be refuted, if false.

In other words, a good theory says 'This theory explains why this is so. But if true, than such and such must necessarily be so'.
And that of course, is when it becomes a theory. When such and such ACTUALLY turns out to BE so.

Now this, of course, is where opponents of theories often say 'This theory is not proven'.
This is often pretty ridiculous. It is not possible to PROVE conclusively that the Battle of Hastings happened, but most of us accept it did.

Occam's Razor.

Because it is possible that the Battle of Hastings never happened and was made up, but looking at the available evidence, assuming a vast conspiracy to rewrite history, is the more far fetched explanation.

Occam's Razor is the most important analytical tool humanity ever invented. It's basically the premise that you always assume the explanation which involves the smallest number of variables. The theory you adopt, is in which you have to assume least.

Creationists and supporters of intelligent design say that evolution is an untested theory. Well, by it's very nature, it's a set of assumptions. But the assumptions in fact aren't many, and importantly, every time a piece of evidence is found, it fits in. The theory makes definite predictions, and has had one hundred and fifty years of existence to be DISproven by an inconvenient fossil, and it hasn't. In spite of numerous attempts by Creationists to allege human footprints alongside dinosaurs, hammers in Ordovician sediment, and other such clearly refutable wishful thinking. The fact is, the theory tells us what sorts of creatures we should find where in the fossil record. And guess what- we do. We find things we weren't expecting, yes. We find whole Phyla that we had no idea existed.
What has never happened, is finding creatures that really COULDN'T have existed, or couldn't exist when they did. Evolutionary theory tells us, we won't find winged horses. Not quadrupeds with wings. They couldn't have evolved. Nor we will find Mammals in the Silurian.

Since the fossil record fits in with what we expect, then any other theory doesn't fit the criteria. Intelligent Design is a bad theory by comparison, because it relies on MORE assumptions than the theory of evolution. So we reject it. We reject it, because it isn't the simplest explanation. It adds in factors which we don't need to factor in, we've already got a theory explains things perfectly well.

To compare. I leave my window open, just a notch. I leave a cup on the side. I go into the kitchen, and I hear a crash. Returning to the room, I see the cup on the floor.
Now I can't prove what happened. Maybe I COULD get Gil Grissom in to prove it, but I could just make a theory. A gust of wind blew it off the table. There is a another possibility. That someone put their hand THROUGH the window and knocked it off. But how did they reach?
Were they a pixie?
And now I have a new problem; motivation.
So whilst the pixie theory might well be interesting to ruminate on, it actually asks new questions and in fact, isn't the most likely explanation. It COULD be right, but with the gust of wind theory there in front of me, I'm best going with that.
The same really is true of the Evolution versus Intelligent Design debate.

But it goes wider than that. The difference between the search for truth and the search for things to ruminate on, is application of Occam's Razor. There is a tendency for overactive imaginations to get over-excited by apparent patterns and complex explanations for apparently mundane things.

A simple one: The Yeti. There really are only two theories here. One, there IS a yeti. The other; there isn't a yeti.
Now I suppose you could say, we don't know. And you're right. But if we have to choose between which of those two theories is correct, which do we go for?

Well, the non-existence of the yeti theory explains the total absence of any evidence for yetis, like the fact no one has actually ever caught one, or even brought back a dead one, or found a dead one, or found a footprint, faesces, clawmarks or any other physical manifestation clearly belonging to a creature a bit like a large primate, but otherwise unknown to zoology.
These facts are quite well explained by the theory that the yeti doesn't exist.
So it's the best of the two theories.

The theory that the yeti exists doesn't explain these facts so well. It relies on assumptions that are less likely, additional assumptions which the non-existence of the yeti theory doesn't require.

Now I'm going to run through a few theories and demonstrate why they don't actually make sense. Some are generally thought to be stupid by most people, but some are widely held, even though as theories, they fail to pass the Occam's razor test. And I'll show why.

  1. You have an immortal soul. Great theory. Especially when we knew nothing about electromagnetic impulses and how the brain works. Thing is, we do. So the theory that there is a mysterious spirit in there, is no longer necessary. We can explain your sense of persona without needing a soul to do it. Furthermore, assuming you have an immortal soul, means you now have to explain how it seemingly escapes the normal laws of thermodynamics. How something is coming from nothing, something that will never dissipate, and will somehow survive heat death. So in fact, it's a bad theory.
  2. UFOs are Alien craft. UFOs exist, to be sure. But the evidence to suggest that any of these Unidentified Flying Objects are crafts piloted by visitors from other worlds, is circumventing a whole range of more realistic possibilities. The fact is, we DO know of ONE species capable of making flying objects. So if we see strange objects in the sky, even ones that are clearly artificial, even if no one owns up to them being there, the sensible explanation is that the one species we do know of that can fly, is doing the flying. Saying 'No craft known to human technology can do what that craft did', is making an assumption. It's showing a lack of imagination, which is then cancelled out by the huge leap of imagination that it was piloted by visitors from Andromeda. The fact is, most craft reported doing things 'No human craft could do', generally do things that craft admitted to by the more advanced air forces of the world ACTUALLY do several years later. Sensible conclusion? Governments tend to keep shtum about their prototypes.
  3. People are abducted by Aliens. Many people report this. There is also a well known and common experience called sleep paralysis. Do I even need to bother going any further with this? Why? Think about it. If Aliens did come, why WOULD they abduct people? The theory only works by coming up with increasingly imaginative and bizarre suggestions. And if they want to create a hybrid race, why don't they adopt far easier ways of doing that? Ones we might notice them doing? If they can cross space to get here, they don't need to bother about our sensibilities. The theory is stupid beyond degree. It's even less plausible or sensible than the immortal souls idea.
  4. Vast shadowy and sinister organisations whose aim is to take over the world by stealth. People aren't that patient. No one sits down in 1776 and hatches a sinister plan to take over the world with a three hundred year agenda. If these shadowy organisations are that powerful, they'd have struck long ago. Generally, when people have power, it goes to their head. They use it. They also know they need to act. Because if it goes on long enough, documented facts will leak out. People who believe in the Illuminati, Majestic 12, The Elders of Zion, etc, have to explain how it is we don't actually have the body of circumstantial evidence we'd EXPECT to have. These are groups of men. Men fall out with eachother. They conspire against eachother, especially when power is involved. Factions develop. There are betrayals and backstabbing and leaks. Not in the Illuminati or the Elders of Zion it seems. The theory fails to explain this, and therefore fails the Occam's Razor test.
  5. The Western World is governed by true Democracy. This is falsifiable, by simply making a key set of statements we can predict would be so if this theory was correct. Firstly, if it were so, we wouldn't find states in existence where ninety five percent of material wealth was controlled by five percent of the population. Because the ninety five percent of the population NOT in control of the material wealth can outvote the five percent, and simply take possession. If you think about it, a true democracy by definition, couldn't have such a situation, people are selfish, but that selfishness actually means that, in their votes, their selfishness would cancel eachother out. We would not expect to find huge disparities in material control in a true Democracy; so it's quite clear that the votes don't control the government and policy at all, control of the material wealth does. The theory that plutocracy, not democracy is in FACT the mode of government, fits the facts better and allows us to make definite predictions. Such as that if a Dictator sits on a reserve of oil, any excuse such as, he's Muslim, is a good excuse to invade, whatever the people think, but if the country he's decimating is an economic basket case, he can go on forever.
  6. Practising homosexuality is wrong. This one so CLEARLY fails the Occam's razor test. It fails the Occam's razor test, because it offers no facts at all to back it up. The theory that homosexuality isn't wrong, has no case to answer. The theory that it is, needs to make definite statements as to the harm done to society and the individuals concerned. This it fails to do. It asserts that God doesn't like it, but fails to offer much to prove that, except yet another assumption, that Moses said God said that. Hearsay evidence at best.
  7. Drugs should be illegal. Ultimately, this theory depends on the assumption that more people would use drugs if they were freely available and that more people would die. It makes a number of assumptions, most of them untested, in the cases of drugs such as Ecstasy, and it assumes for some reason, that if legalised, the number of people dieing from taking dirty black market cocktails of heroin mixed with brickdust, or Cocaine mixed with baby laxative would stay constant. Furthermore, it doesn't offer any explanation why the one time we actually had the chance to compare the difference between a situation where a popular drug was totally illegal, to one where the same drug was widely available, the second situation caused less deaths from the drug in question and much less crime. It also raised much more revenue for the country concerned, and meant less taxation was needed to go into policing. The drugs should be illegal theory doesn't explain why what turned out to be true regarding alcohol prohibition wouldn't be true with any other drug there is a market for. The legalise all drugs theory, doesn't have that problem.
  8. Capitalism can go on for ever. This is just the dumbest theory ever. It boils down to maths. It boils down to interest. However you look at it, the amount of money is finite. Banks always charge interest over and above the rate of inflation. It is impossible EVER for a year to go by in which the total amount of money in existence that isn't either IN banks, or owed to banks, increases. There is no way this fact can be disputed. No year is EVER going to go by, in which the proportion of money IN banks, or owed to banks DEcreases. So it stands to reason, it does end one day. When the total amount of money in existence is either IN banks, or owed to banks. That is the simplest interpretation of how long Capitalism can go on. To say otherwise, means you have to attribute to the invisible hand of the market, powers way beyond even a Wall Street trader on LSD can't dream up. Sure, material prosperity can seemingly increase in a boom . But never forget, when people get richer, the banks get richer at a far faster rate. And when people get poorer, the banks don't. They may not get paid, they might even seemingly go bust. But another bank inherits their credit, and so banking as a whole, NEVER gets poorer. The Capitalism can go on forever theory implies that somehow we can find a way to continue to charge interest and have an economy dependant on interest, without the total proportion of the World's wealth controlled by banks increasing every year. And it doesn't come up with a theory to explain how this could happen. So it's not just a bad theory, it's falsifiable.
  9. Communism has been tried and proved not to work. This is a good theory. The problem is, it fails. It fails because, for it to work, it would have to demonstrate a society where Communism had been tried and found not to work. And there are no such societies. What it can prove is that societies exist where Capitalists were expropriated, where the robbing from the rich bit was done. It has yet to show a society where the next bit happened, the handing over of the expropriated infrastructure back to the people. It can't show such a society, because such a society never existed. It proves that Capitalist societies where monolithic party organisations decide they are better at running what are still commercial operations tend to do an even worse job and exploit people more than people just in it for the money. However, in terms of proving that Communism has ever actually been tried, it fails. And it certainly fails to prove it doesn't work. It fails because, it's not falsifiable. The Soviet Union called itself Democratic. It wasn't. Nor was it Communist. Calling a society a Communist society, doesn't make it Communist any more than calling it a Democracy makes it a Democracy, it just proves that a large number of people were successfully duped into believing it was, in spite of the actual evidence to suggest that what was actually in place, was not Communist at all, it was a Capitalist system in which the state became the sole trader. By the same token, it's not provable that Communism works better either, but since it's not actually been tried, we don't know that. If we accept the Capitalism can't work forever theory, coupled with the theory that we live in a plutocracy not a democracy, then actually we're now leading to several indicators which suggest that the 'Communism WOULD work if we ACTUALLY tried it' theory, isn't a bad working theory at all. It actually satisfies the conditions of Occam's Razor.
  10. The Terror Network. Really, do I have to go into this? I kind of think I have, several times. It just stretches the bounds of any reasonable person's credulity. Bin Laden lived in a cave. Not an underground citadel, like a Bond villain. If Al Queda had above a hundred members, I'd be surprised. And I doubt it still exists. Angry Muslims, yes. Hatred of America in the Muslim World, yes. Lots of disaffected, alienated European Muslims, yes. But these facts don't need a Terror Network or Axis of evil theory to explain them. Much more sensible theories exist.

The important point about Occam's Razor is this. Plenty of theories seem strange at first. Plenty of ideas seem radical at first. But the way humanity has learnt to test the accepted theory against the new theory and judge which one was valid, has been Occam's razor. Which theory offers the simplest explanation, the one which is most easily falsifiable if wrong, and which requires the least amount of additional assumptions unwarranted by evidence.
And it is Occam's razor which makes most of us decide that evolution happened. Or that in fact, aliens don't flit across our skies.
But we need to apply it more than we do.

Because our whole life is affected by it. Because we live in a world where people with material wealth and power WILL lie, cheat, manipulate and deceive to achieve their objectives.

And if we ever want to free ourselves, we need to realise we ARE BEING DELIBERATELY MANIPULATED. But only by using Occam's razor can we get to the truth.

So I'm going to leave you with a very simple theory.

It's not, in fact much of a theory.
But it's the only real truth you need to know.

There is no shadowy conspiracy. No Illuminati, no elders of Zion. No Devil. No afterlife, no Aliens, no Terror Network.

But there are no free people either. No people freely choosing to govern themselves, no government existing for the benefit of the people, no democracy.

Government by the banks, for the banks, of the people that slowly hand over the wealth of the world, to the banks.

The banks run Planet Earth.
No one else. The rest is all for show.

And the great thing about this theory is, it satisfies every criteria of the Occam's Razor test...


vicariousrising said...

Ahhhhh... if it were only that simple... :)

sparsely kate said...

Great post...I liked the bit about the pixies.

Seriously! I have to tell myself sometimes when I get all irrational and scared and there was something weird or out of place... either there is a logical explanation for it or the pixies came and moved it.
the logical explanation usually wins out. thank god :) otherwise you'd probably have to call me to the mental ward.

gingatao said...

Yes it is does, Crushed. This is one of my favourite posts of yours. Clear, focussed, stays within the bounds of it's argument and makes it's point with persuasive force. Occam's razor is a very important tool in terms of writing style too.

akai said...

Your last theory sounds very familiar. I came across this website which mainly deals in conspiracy theories (regarding feminism, homosexuality and communism). These theories (hypotheses really) are mostly bad theories, but they do have a common thread with your idea: that the banks rule the world. The banks do have a firm grasp on the Western world. I think that if everyone withdrew their money from the banks, the banks would collapse before everyone could get their money out =/

Gracchi said...

Crushed- what about Hume's argument that you can't infer a value (homosexuality is wrong) from a fact (the kind of thing that Occam's razor deals in).

Incidentally when it comes to the banks running everything- do you think they consciously know they are or are unconscious of that control- and do you think that there are ways in which governments act against the interests of banks or do you think they always act for those interests (if so what do you make of when banks protest against government action.)

Crushed said...

VicariousRising- That's the great thing about Occam's Razor. Nice and simple ;)
The truth usually is.

Kate- I was feeling especially flippant when the pixiers came into play...

Well, I've kind of come to expect that things disappear round here. I'm always picking things up and leaving them in strange places.

Gingatao- It kind of wrote itself, or lets say, it kind of started off and then seemed to drive where it was going.

I think the overall thrust is clear, and I think if people cut through a lot of the crap they're spun, reality is there for all to see.

Akai- Well, it's fairly simple. Control of the system which controls movement of resources, ultimately means control, period.
And the people don't have it.

I think you'll find the banks now own more than the people. Most people owe more out than is in their accounts, mortgages and all. It's not like 1929. If everyone reclaimed what they were owed, we'd have lots of empty homes and everybody living in cardboard boxes. except we wouldn't. We'd just stick two fingers up and all be squatters :)

Gracchi- well, there has to be some empirical factors in place to determine a value. and I would argue that the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number, is the only criterion by which you can do that.

Depends what you mean by conscious. Yes and no. I don't think they sit there and think about it and deliberatly act in a malign way for the sake of it. But they are aware of the power at their disposal and use it.

Obviously, the relations between corporations and government aren't clear cut. and sometimes governments may well apparently take action that might seem in the short term to work against banks. I suppose you could say, it's checks and balances (not meant as a pun, but you can take it as one if you wish), but ultimately the voters depend on the banks as much as the government does. The fact is, the government will only take banks on if they're reasonably sure that in doing so, whatever actions the banks subsequently take won't render the customers of the bank worse off and therefore likely to blame the only people they CAN sack, the government.
By virtue of being unsackable yet having millions of voters beholden to them for the management of their exchange tokens, governments can only act against financial interests if they're sure the banks can't retaliate.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Good Subject and post. I figure your main point about Occam's razor is good and valid.

Some of the conclusions/arguments I don't think quite follow and I think I spotted a straw man maybe on his way to Oz in there somewhere also ^_^