Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Limits of Occam's Razor


Occam’s Razor, also called The Law of Parsimony, is a principle that we shouldn’t add more explanations for a thing than absolutely necessary.  However, popular interpretations of this principle usually go something like “The simpler explanation is to be preferred over the complex one”.  While this does sound appealing on the surface, it is actually a distortion of Occam.  Even worse, this interpretation itself is open to rhetorical abuse.  This is particularly true when people are unwilling to do the actual hard work of considering the totality of the facts, deciding which facts are relevant, then deciding what the facts mean.

The truth is that Occam’s Razor applies only to explanations that account for identical sets of facts.  If the simple explanation takes into account eight relevant facts while the complex ones also take into account those same eight facts and only those eight, then Occam’s razor applies.  However, if the complex explanation takes into account even nine relevant facts, including all eight of the previously stated ones, then we should at the very least not dismiss the more complex explanation from the get-go simply because it’s not as simple as the one that takes into account only the aforementioned eight facts.  The complex explanation might still be wrong anyway, for any number of reasons.  Even so, if it is wrong, it is certainly not due to its complexity; for the explanation takes into account one more relevant fact that the simple one does.  

Occam’s Razor is also easy to abuse rhetorically, especially in light of the above.  This is particularly true with regard to highly complex issues that vex practically everyone – religion, politics, economics, psychology, morality / ethics and so forth.  As emotionally charged as these issues are, these spheres are especially fertile ground for demagogic rabble-rousing.  In these situations, while it may appear the speechmaker seems a master at making the complex clear, it is at least as likely he or she is engaging in oversimple explanations – whether because he or she truly believes their own explanation or merely to provoke people into becoming outraged enough to given them support.  In either case, it is best stop and take a healthy skepticism toward any viewpoint that seems to explain a lot of things, especially about “human nature” issues.   If history and personal experience teach anything, human nature and human actions are often not easily reducible to one simple neat explanation.

So while Occam’s Razor, properly used, is often a powerful tool for discerning the truth of a matter, it’s very appeal as a supposedly simple method of discerning truth from lies makes it very vulnerable to abuse.   Therefore, like any other tool, we should learn what it can and cannot do for us before we actually use it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Living for the Sake of Living is a Myth

It’s a common myth that we seek to live simply for the sake of living. However sensible this may seem on the surface, there is a lot of evidence against this; most noteworthy are suicides in the conventional sense (both attempted and successful) and “heroic sacrifices”. Further evidence comes from the “death with dignity” movement, which pushes to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people. This is especially true if they are likely to experience intense pain or debilitation in their final days.

In the opposite direction, it's safe to assume that most people with extreme disabilities do not want to die; for most do find pleasures in life not dependent on the physical or mental ability they lack (e.g. hobbies and interests, having favored company in their presence, etc). Also, many people say they do not fear death. By this, it’s safe to assume they mean the precise event itself (as opposed to the probably painful process leading to their deaths). Therefore, it’s likely more sensible to say people live for the sake of experiencing new pleasures rather than life per se.

Regarding the pain we will likely experience just before our deaths, it’s said pain exists to warn us of threats to our lives. While this is true, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Imagine we have a machine, drugs, or other means to fool our nerves into thinking that we’re being stabbed, beaten, burned, cut, whatever. Further suppose that researchers are conducting some kind of experiment in which experiencing intense pain is a relevant part of the experiment. They fully inform the prospective volunteers about what they will experience during the experiment and in all other ways conduct the experiment that exceeds all the highest ethical and legal standards. Then, when the person is hooked up to the machine, administered the drugs, etc. they will experience pain more excruciating than they ever experienced in their life – to the point that they actually want to die at that moment. Never mind that they know fully well there is no actual agent threatening their lives. They just want the pain to end right now (!!!!!). This is the clich├ęd “fate worse than death”.

The same goes for not having enough pleasure in life, even if we don’t experience physical pain, social rejection, poverty, or other commonly-considered “social ills”; for that creates boredom. This is also a pain, a psychic one to be sure, but a real one nevertheless. Therefore, it’s likely more plausible to say that people avoid pain not so much to avoid danger as it is to avoid pain for its own sake.

For these reasons, I think we don’t so much seek life as we do seek pleasure and avoid pain. In other words, life is only a means to an end – the end is experiencing pleasures to the extent those pleasures can mitigate pain. Excuse the anthropomorphism, but both are tricks our DNA uses to perpetuate itself as long as it can possibly do so.