Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ockham’s Razor – a reductionist trap? :: oneiricum

Facebook, on which I was a late newcomer, has led me, via a friend's blog, to an article by Dieter Gernert called "Okham's razor and its improper use" published, among others, by Journal for Scientific Exploration.
Well, when one sees "reductionist" and "materialist" used as many times on a single page, it must have something to do with flying saucers, psi phenomena, or religion. Googling for "reductionist trap"  finds a fair amount of literature on all of the above, and there is nothing wrong with that. Any model that can describe any phenomena should be, in principle, admissible. Not to mention the fact that the motives of the people involved are presumably very respectable. What I have an issue with are  apparent logic leaps to the desired results:  there seems to be a disjunction between the - correct - examples of improper use of the "razor" as proof, and examples of its purported harmful effects.
What Gernert labels as "improper use" of the "razor" is indeed improper: the "razor" (for any of its formulations) definitely proves nothing and can not be used as grounds for refutation of anything. However, this is not to say that the method is invalid. This is where I think Gernert's argument brakes, because the examples of  the "razor" being harmful in the article are, I think, in fact the examples of its good and proper use: it was quite fair to err on the side of caution and not introduce new explanations until the evidence became compelling. It ended up right, after all: Gernert wouldn't be writing about it if it did not.
Here's the rub: the "razor" (however sloppily formulated and used), or any of the rules mentioned by Gernert that could be used instead, are not criteria for choosing the right solution. They are just ways to err less in average when choosing the next working hypothesis in a - potentially - endless chain of them. This is achieved precisely by what the author thinks is the main defect of the method: promoting "orthodoxy". Ptolemaic theory of epicycles is a case in point, as are some of the author's examples of  incorrect explanations having been chosen over the ones that were proved correct later. What Gernert does not emphasize is that the correct ones ended up chosen when the number of facts that contradicted the orthodoxy and could not be explained away achieved a critical mass. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the orthodoxy, as long as people don't get burned at the stake. Another century or two, and recognition, fame, and research grants will all be forthcoming. Or not.

Another thing that strikes me as odd - admittedly, this does not exactly apply to the article, but I have a right to my pet peeves, too - is that the people on crusades against "materialism" and "reductionism" frequently seem to be reductionists themselves. Reducing an event to a few "supernatural" factors in many cases more "reductionist" than trying to find a "natural" explanation from physical science, because modern science is constantly aware of different levels of interactions. Supernatural explanations are, as a rule, exceedingly simple, if vague. Their true value is in replacing the unexplained with the desired and easy to understand. What one sees behind the spiritual smoke and mirrors is usually reducing the world to a few crude forces acting on a grand scale, and going into minute detail about purported effects of those forces; refusing to explain how those forces work does not make the approach address the whole, it merely makes the reductionism simpler. When confronted with objects like the human brain, quite possibly more complex than your average galaxy, this is, to my mind, the crudest reductionism in a lot of the cases.

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