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Explaining Occam's Razor

Stuff To Blow Your Mind

11:43 min | 2 years ago

Explaining Occam's Razor

"Today we're going to discuss a problem solving principle that many of you probably heard of and we've we've definitely referenced on the show before and that is autumn's razor that's right. It's it's one of the classics one of the hits of like the skeptical toolkit and I think it's a really one to get into because it's something that is widely known but in different ways and often To whatever extent it actually does have value. It often gets deployed in ways that do not actually make use of its value right like like an actual razor blade. It may be misused from time to time. Yes now. What one specific place that. I know we've talked about it before. Is that is in the context of Carl? Sagan's recommendations for the the tools of skeptical thinking he these out and one of them is autumn's razor. He writes all comes razor this convenient rule of thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler. Okay now why did we end up talking about this today? We we were in the studio the other day Discussing upcoming episodes. And you said that. Seth had mentioned this our producer Seth Yeah. I was in here and set a nickel Johnson was working on. A crossword puzzle was at the New York. Times he tells us it was the New York Times And he he asked me how to spell. Autumn is in razor and I took a guess at it and I can't I can't remember. I was correct. I was probably wrong but also probably hit one of the multiple acceptable spell things for razor But anyway we started talking about it and I was like. Oh Yeah we we could do that as an episode and so here we are. I'm very glad we picked this because I think one of my personal favorite genres of of critical thinking is is being skeptical about the tools of skepticism. You know is sometimes people who identify skeptics can ca- can I get a little cocky. You know they get a little too sure of themselves about what the reasoning tools they use and it's worth putting those tools to the test. Giving them a closer look. Yeah absolutely now I have to say I definitely remember. The first time I encountered the concept of outcomes raise or at least the first time I encountered it and it on some level stuck with me and that was when viewed the Nineteen ninety-seven film adaptation of Carl Sagan's novel contact the movie. I can't watch without crying. Oh Yeah Yeah Yeah well. Why does it make you cry? Oh God there's no point especially the first part where you know it. Zooms out from the earth and you're hearing the radio signals go back in time and then and then it shows the young. L. E. Airway experimenting with the Ham Radio and her dad's helping her and get so emotional. Yeah Yeah it's it's been a very long I. I haven't seen it since initially came out and in fact the main thing I remember from it is seen in which jodie foster's character. Eleanor Airway has having this conversation with Matthew mcconaughey as character. Who How old was Matthew mcconaughey at this point? I don't even know how old he is. Now is this ageless demon but anyway. Here's this character He's scared Palmer. Joss in the scene in question foster's character brings up autumn's razor in a discussion on the nature of God she. She says well which is ultimately the simpler hypothesis that an all powerful God exists or the human beings made got up in order to feel better about things and then this ultimately comes back around is kind of flipped on her later on film regarding her characters encounter with an extraterrestrial intelligence right. Is it more likely that she really had the experience? She thinks she had with With all these aliens or that. She like hallucinated. Something that would give her emotional closure. Yeah and so. Yeah I think I was in high school at the time so it was. It was interesting concept especially in the context of of atheism verses of faith in a creator deity inserted to suddenly have this tool from the chest. Skeptical thinking just thrown up on the table and you and seemingly used by both sides. Well Yeah I think this is funny. This is a great example because it highlights some of the most common features of all comes razor as it is actually used to like. It's often invoked in a kind of fuzzy way without an objective measure Just kind of invoked to back up your intuitions about the probability of something right but another thing is that this example shows how. It's not always easy to find a way to compare the simplicity of two different propositions like is the existence of God a simple hypothesis or a complicated one that I think that really depends on kind of how you feel about it like like what kind of objective measure can you come up with to evaluate that question right. It's GonNa depend so much on your like your background your culture what you grew up with. And you know how you how you've come to view the possibility of Of God's existence. Is it just kind of the bedrock of your your worldview or is it this thing from the outside that you are contemplating and also how do you view it at like the coherence of the idea? Do you view it as something. That's like That's full of all these little kind of ad hoc accommodations or something that is a holistic coherent Sort of like fact about nature. Yeah you know I it's I I think this is a perfect example. That shows like win. People used the idea volumes razor in a way that is not helpful and doesn't really doesn't really get you any closer to figuring out what's true now if you're if you're still questioning what the concept really means. Don't worry we will get to some. I think some very understandable examples of how it can be a used properly and used improperly. But let's go ahead and just start about the concept itself the the word autumn You know where this comes from. We'll get to the origins of autumn's razor so Oxfam's razor is also known as the principle of parsimony and parsimony means a tendency towards cheapness or frugality. So I like that. It's like the principle of parsimony is like you. You want to be cheap with your with your logic right yeah. I don't need more than two steps of logic between me and the solution. Don't give me one with four or five. And it was named after the Medieval English philosopher William of autumn. Of course William of Arkham So he he lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from twelve eighty five to either thirteen seven or thirteen forty nine. I've seen different death dates given forum. I've seen different birthdates as well. Eighty seven twelve. Eighty eight looking at That's interesting so he was a prolific scholar. Franciscan friar we'll get more into his ideas in a minute. I you know one thing I've always wondered is where the heck is awesome. I've never heard of that. Well yeah because the word sound has kind of like a remoteness to it. It sounds alien in some ways. Autumn is very much a real place. It is a rural village. In Surrey England. You can look it up online. You can find that the website for the church in Oxfam for example and this area has been occupied since ancient times. It's about a day's ride south west of London and it was the birthplace of the individual who'd come to be known as William Volume now beyond that beyond the fact that he was born here. We don't know a lot about William's life We don't know what his social or family background was or if his native language was French or Middle English. As Paul Vincent Spadea explains in the Cambridge companion to Arkham he was likely given over to the Franciscan order as a young boy. Before the age of fourteen and here Latin would have quickly become his language of not only writing but also just conversation Grey Friars Convent in. London was likely his home convent but later he traveled he visited Avalon he visited Italy and he lived the last two decades of his life in Germany. Now philosophically William was a Nominal List and spayed writes that the two main themes of this for William were the rejection of universals and ontological reduction in these two teams are are not necessarily interconnected like you can you. Could you could believe in one but not the other and vice versa but basically like let's get into what these mate so the first rejection of universals is perhaps best considered and this is very brief and broad Certainly you can find so much written in instead on this topic but basically think of it as a rejection of the tonic idea of the realm of forms. So that idea that all chairs that we might make design and carve a symbol are an attempt to create the perfect chair which doesn't reside in our world but only resides within this realm of forms. So all chairs that we create our like an aspiration for the ideal chair another way. I've thought about it at least as I understood it was. The nominalism is kind of the idea that there is no such thing as a chair. There's only this chair and that chair in this chair over here. There is no chair right like this. This is the kind of the situation gets too. When you you get into the genre classifications of say albums artists or movies. You care a great deal about and someone tries to limit it to a classification and say oh well that's classic rock where that's alternative rock near like. No no no no no. Don't don't try and fit there is there. Is these categories. Do not apply. There is there is only you know whatever. Your band of choice happens to be. There is only tool. There is only primis or whatever right there yeah there. There is only things not category right. Now let's move onto the second theme here. Ontological reduction this is as Britannica defines it quote the metaphysical doctrine that entities of a certain kind are in reality collections or combinations of entities of simpler or more basic kind. I think your classic example here is molecules atoms. Yeah so another example. Here's while our aristotle defined ten categories of objects that might be apprehended by a human mind. These would have been translations vary on on how you wanted to find these but substance quantity quality relative place time attitude condition action and affection. William cut these down to two substance and quality. He's really getting in there. That's the razor. That's what a razor Dutt. Cia slices away. It cuts off the fat and gets down to the meat. Spayed writes quote. Although these two strands of thinking are independent. They are nevertheless often viewed as joint effects of a more fundamental. Concern the principle of parsimony known as Oxfam's razor okay. So we're getting to the razor. Yeah so William. Devoted a lot of energy to arguing against What spade calls the bloated onto logical in inventories of his contemporaries and became well known to his peers for this as such either towards the end of his life or shortly after his death a kind of greatest hits album came out on his thoughts and ideas titled On the Principles of Theology? Now it wasn't actually by William of Arkham but it featured his doctrine as well as verbatim quotes there is no ascribed author either so later generations would often just attribute it to him as well as the notion of outcomes razor however the specific phrase was apparently never actually used by him. He never said autumn in the house. I'M GONNA get the razor out and started carving on some some some some some ideas

William Volume Seth Yeah Oxfam Carl Sagan Arkham Razor Dutt Jodie Foster Matthew Mcconaughey New York Times Eleanor Airway New York London Producer Grey Friars Convent CIA Johnson Paul Vincent Spadea Palmer Joss