/ Jacques Vallee / 11 am Mon, Feb 11 2013
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  • What Ockham really said

    What Ockham really said

    In the arsenal of eternal skeptics there are few tools more dramatically and more commonly used than Ockham’s razor. It is triumphantly applied to resolve arguments about ghosts (more parsimoniously seen as misperceptions by distraught family members or the suggestible), UFOs (evidently hoaxes and mistaken observations of natural phenomena) and telepathy (a “delusion” of wishful thinking and poorly-constructed tests).

    Born in England, Franciscan monk William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) is among the most prominent figures in the history of philosophy during the High Middle Ages. The Skeptics Dictionary quotes the Razor as Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, or “plurality should not be posited without necessity," while Wikipedia defines Ockham's razor as follows:

    “Among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected.”
    And it gives the following example of its application:
    NewImage “It is possible to describe the other planets in the Solar System as revolving around the Earth, but that explanation is unnecessarily complex compared to the contemporary consensus that all planets in the Solar System revolve around the Sun.” Another often-quoted formulation of the principle is that “one should not multiply entities beyond necessity.”

    Brother Ockham, however, said nothing of the kind. Later philosophers have put these words into his mouth for their own convenience.

    Here is what he wrote, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “Nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture.”

    So let’s come back to the planets, and apply Ockham’s razor–as formulated by the man himself–to a comparison between two different hypotheses about their motion.

    The contemporary consensus states that they revolve around the sun according to the Copernican system, Kepler’s laws of motion and Newton’s model of gravity, as demonstrated by complex observations and significant mathematical underpinning.


    Our alternative hypothesis simply states that they are moved around the sky by angels, as illustrated in this beautiful painting from the Breviari d’amor of Matfre Ermengaud, where a convenient gear mechanism is gracefully activated to regulate planetary motion. Ermengaud was a contemporary of Ockham and, like him, a Franciscan friar.

    Were we to apply Ockham's formulation of the razor literally, the choice between these two hypotheses is clear. It does not favor the first hypothesis, the standard scientific interpretation. The Scriptures clearly state that angels do exist, and their reality was re-affirmed by Pope John Paul II as recently as August 1986. Since they manifest through their actions in the heavens, the second hypothesis appears far more parsimonious and elegant than the complicated rationalizations used by mathematicians and astronomers, which involve unseen entities such as the acceleration of gravity, centrifugal force, and mass, which - to this day - raise issues that science is yet to resolve. If you seriously believe in angels, then the contemporary consensus about planetary motion is a case of “plurality without necessity.”

    The second hypothesis is also more powerful since angels can just as easily move the planets around the earth as around the sun. They can do whatever they like—and thereby explain any phenomena.

    Perhaps we should be more careful when we quote ancient authors out of context, or twist their words to fit the convenient modern tenets of skepticism in the name of Reason. The Scriptures are full of ghosts, UFOs and examples of telepathy - which means that such phenomena cannot be dissected and thrown out using Ockham’s razor anyway.

    We know, of course, that the planets revolve around the Sun, an idea that would have shocked Ockham. And I firmly believe that, in philosophy and in science we should go on selecting the hypothesis that makes the fewest assumption when confronted with competing explanations, and one should not multiply entities beyond necessity -- even if Brother William never said so.

    But we should also remember that nature is not parsimonious at all.

    / / COMMENTS


    1. I’ve always seen and heard the quote stated as:

      And have always assumed it meant:

      Or even better:

      Misquoting is one of Mankind’s greatest talents!
      (and you can quote me on that)

      1. Maybe Jaques Vallee should have done a little more research than just reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article? (if you look at the context of the quote Vallee mentions in the article, it was not even intended as a formulation of Ockham’s razor, rather it was pointing out Ockham’s reason for accepting certain statements despite denying the Principle of Sufficient Reason) According to wikiquote, Ockham also said Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate which translates to “Plurality is never to be posited without necessity”, which is a lot closer to the standard understanding of Ockham’s razor (this quote is verified in note 71 on p. 458 of The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy). And wikiquote also mentions that on another occasion he made the similar statement Frustra fit per plura, quod potest fieri per pauciora which translates to “It is pointless to do with more what can be done with fewer.” (verified in note 23 on p. 18 of Okham on Concepts)

    2. The non sequitur is going from the existence of angels to the explanation of planetary motion by means of angels. There is nothing in scripture to suggest the latter, therefore, it fails Ockham’s test without further reason given.

        1. Not really. If the example Jacques had given had been using Ockham to justify creationism (as an aside, I’ll say that creationists tend to reduce Christianity to a series of absurd and indefensible claims), then there would be a case, but there’s a big jump from going from the existence of angels (which is about all Scripture asserts about them other than their purpose being messengers) to the idea that they could be a mechanism for planetary motion. You could just as simply decide that the existence of God allows for a geocentric universe on the principle of Deus lo volt. 

          1. I think that, in an interesting sense, by virtue of being infinite “God” is a maximally complex explanation for any phenomenon, and therefore always fails Ockham’s Razor.

            1. Well setting aside the interesting question of whether God can be characterised as “complex”, it is hard to see how a pantheistic or materialistic solution is much simpler. Both a theistic or non-theistic metaphysic require us to postulate a sufficient irreducible cause for everything that exists, and both require that this cause be at least complex enough to give rise to every phenomenon that transpires.

              The great difference between the two systems of course is that the God option adds personal elements such as consciousness and will to this fundamental reality – and the atheist may choose to suggest that this is wholly superfluous. Nevertheless, it is precisely these that allow the theist to do justice to those parts of the universe that the materialist account invariably explains away: things like free will, morality, beauty and so on.

              Belief in God is entirely plausible as the simplest way to account for the universe as we find it.

            2. No, GawainLavers. Beauty and morality are real and can be experienced and practised regardless of what we believe. It’s just that atheism doesn’t do a very good job of explaining them in a way that corresponds to our experience of them.

            3.  I’m pretty sure that claiming that God exists requires you to postulate a sufficient irreducible cause for the existence of God.  Who created Her?

            4. Sorry, “Nothing comes from nothing” is a great line from the Sound of Music, but in metaphysics it’s a bald assertion that is actually contradicted by physical reality.  We need no irreducible cause.  Cause appears only *after* the universe is sufficient complex to handle it.

            5. No tim b, 
              If you postulate a cause for God you are no longer talking about God. But you need not *only* be talking about God – pantheists and physicists who want to speak about fundamental forces or particles are talking the same language. 
              Or do you believe that you can keep chopping up subatomic particles forever and ever? 

            6. Hi l337n00b,
              I’m not sure what you mean by 
              “Cause appears only *after* the universe is sufficient complex to handle it.”
              Nevertheless “nothing comes from nothing” remains as solid as ever. Anything that is capable of producing something (eg. teeny particles or teeny universes) has properties and thus a nature – it is definitionally not nothing. Unless you want spell it with a capital “N”.

            7. Nevertheless, it is precisely these that allow the theist to do justice to those parts of the universe that the materialist account invariably explains away: things like free will, morality, beauty and so on.

              This is simply begging the question.  First of all, all atheist theories of mind attempt to account for these things, not “explain them away”.  Your characterization of materialism is entirely pejorative and does not take the arguments seriously. 

              Second of all, theism doesn’t really “do justice” to these items at all.  Theism just assumes that there is something that accounts for them without bothering to do all the legwork of what God actually is or how God could account for free will, morality, beauty, or so on.  The idea of God is consistent with any set of facts, not only the facts we find to be true, so God is really an explanation for nothing at all.

              Finally, materialism accounts for what we know about free will, morality, and beauty far better than theism does already.  Morality and beauty both seem to be highly subjective and dependent on personal life history — just as materialist theories of the mind would suggest.  As for free will, there’s plenty of neuroscientific discoveries that suggest that the application of will is the result of neurological events, right down to the fact that a big EM field aimed at a brain can actually suppress the will.

              You’re entirely wrong on this.  God is the biggest possible assumption, an assumption that can explain any set of facts.  Such an explanation is not really an explanation at all.  GawainLavers was exactly correct on this score.

            8. “Definitionally not nothing” — says the guy making the definitions.

              Your definition of “nothing” is also question-begging. If it’s not a logical contradiction for God not to be caused then there’s no basis for asserting that everything must be caused.

            9. Thankyou for this more thoughtful response, wysiwyng,

              But it seems you make my point while refuting it. First you reject the idea that atheistic explanations explain things away – and then, in the case of free will, you go right ahead and explain it away:-
              ” As for free will, there’s plenty of neuroscientific discoveries that suggest that the application of will is the result of neurological events, right down to the fact that a big EM field aimed at a brain can actually suppress the will.”

              There you have it, The mind is pure machine. Free will is an illusion. 

              But mark this – atheists still go on getting angry at religious bigots as if they were actually responsible for their actions.

              I’ll leave the rest for now.

            10. Now wysiwyng, as to nothing. You’re right, it’s defintional so let’s here what Lawrence Krauss (the most prominent free-lunch guy these days) says about nothing:
              “Well, it turns out that that nothing is not nothing. It is indeed nothing in one sense, but when you apply quantum mechanics and relativity, it tells us that even empty space is actually quite active, it’s a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence … empty space is endowed with these qualities, even though there isn’t any real stuff there, that makes it much more complicated, and in fact it makes it much closer to something.”
              I rest my case. 

              But you also say:
              “If it’s not a logical contradiction for God not to be caused then there’s no basis for asserting that everything must be caused.”

              That’s what I was saying. That’s what the reference to fundamental particles and forces was about.

            11. There you have it, The mind is pure machine. Free will is an illusion. 

              But mark this – atheists still go on getting angry at religious bigots as if they were actually responsible for their actions.

              This is pure straw, Moody.  Materialist accounts of free will are much more sophisticated than your lame-brained “machines can’t have free will” line.  Are you misrepresenting materialism intentionally or are you merely ignorant?

              Actually, I know what you’re trying to do — the standard neoscholastic strategy of substituting your intuition for solid philosophical analysis. Sorry, the nature of free will isn’t intuitively obvious. It’s cute how you guys always use unsolved problems as proof that God must be out there but you’d think you’d catch on to the unrelenting track record of failure for that strategy.

              Before you start crowing about your victory maybe you should demonstrate how the notion that free will is physically instantiated in the brain contradicts the experience of free will itself? (Bear in mind that cold weather causes the subjective experience of coldness — that is, a cold body makes your mind feel cold — and this isn’t regarded as any kind of contradiction. The situation with free will doesn’t seem appreciably different to me — there’s the physical reality of it and the informational/subjective reality of it.) You may have to actually perform a rigorous analysis of free will to do this rather than relying on folk psychology to do all the work for you.

              I rest my case.

              While failing to make a point.  Your definition of “nothing” contradicts the uncertainty principle — by the laws of logic, either the uncertainty principle is false or your version of “nothing” is logically impossible.  (This isn’t even getting into the ontological difficulties of talking about the “existence” of “nothing” which is where you’re headed.)  The uncertainty principle has both a philosophical and an evidential basis behind it whereas your definition of “nothing” is simply a definition; no one can point to an instance of this sort of “nothing” in the real world.

              Um, that’s what I was saying. That’s what the reference to fundamental particles and forces was about.

              So you’re admitting that it’s logically possible for fundamental particles to be uncaused?

            12. Hello wysisyng.
              I am interested to hear how you will give machines free will. Your “cold” example suggests it might be by compatibilistic redefinition? So: there is no free will – the rapist had no libertarian choice – and yet he is acting in accordance with the desire bequeathed by his genes/environment etc. and thus feels free?

              Is that it? If so, I do not deny that it is consistent with materialism. But let’s recall that my initial point wasn’t that materialism is illogical but that it doesn’t do justice to the way things feel. For example I reflexively feel that if you do a difficult and heroic thing that *you* are worthy of being honoured for it – I *implicitly* believe that you exercised a true agency and could have done otherwise. Conversely, if a man murders or molests a child, I instinctively feel that he is not simply a victim of circumstance and biology but that, somehow (regardless of whether I can explain it), he might have chosen otherwise and should be punished.†

              Do you think this is “substituting …intuition for solid philosophical analysis”? I would suggest that it is using intuition as a piece of evidence. But philosophy is often generated by reflecting on intuition (eg. the legitimacy of moral intuition) and relies on axioms that themselves can only be intuitively grasped (eg. the law of non-contradiction – try proving it without using it).

              Now maybe we are making progress on the nothing question. You speak of a nothing governed by laws and principles (that reside in what, btw?) and I say these themselves are something. You counter that in *that* case there is no true nothing and I say precisely! If there were such a true nothing then it could never have produced anything – which was my initial point.
              So let us then agree that “nothing” can indeed beget something if we limit its “nothingness” to being non-material and include things like logic, laws, potentiality, self-existence, power and fecundity. But I hope you will forgive me if I use the word “God” (or perhaps “Logos”) instead.

              “So you’re admitting that it’s logically possible for fundamental particles to be uncaused?”

              Yes – no “admission” required at all. Pantheism and Theism are both logically tenable. I thought I had made this clear.

              † Yes, I know there are people who don’t think like that anymore – some of them are currently housing Anders Breivik in a rather luxurious treatment centre: 

            13.  Although I think theologists might argue with you, I seem to remember reading somewhere that they in fact see God as simple, like, not something hugely complex over the universe but something so elemental to the universe that it’s the starting point of everything. Something like that, anyway.

            14. I’m sure most would, or else they’d have to give up being theologists.  But “God” is necessarily everything in the universe “+”, so he’s all the complexity of the universe and then some.

            15. It was something other than that. The problem here was that it was a friend who was studying philosophy and a friend that was studying theology (both at the grad level) having a conversation and I didn’t understand it well enough (or pay close enough attention to it) to remember it precisely. This was it, i think https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_simplicity 

            16.  Divine simplicity is a copout like every single concept in apologetics.  Apologetics isn’t an open-ended intellectually honest search for the truth, it’s an ideologically motivated defense of the thesis “God exists.”  “Divine simplicity” is an ad hoc and likely internally contradictory hypothesis devised to counter arguments against theism.  There’s no justification for it other than the fact that it would be convenient for theists if it were true.

        2. My freshman English teacher is a ‘known mechanism.’ That doesn’t mean it’s parsimonious for me to assume he’s pushing planets around the firmament.

        3. I was being a bit sarcastic… there are reasons the proposed mechanism is unnecessary (inertia and gravity) and unhelpful (it can explain anything and predict nothing).

        4. But Angels themselves are not a simple limited postulate.  If you can formulate an explanation that doesn’t include heavenly anthropology to describe the motions of the planets across the night sky, then it makes much more sense to do so. To invoke angels you would need to exhaust all other possibilities.

          Also what is missing from Ockham’s Razor is standard proof requires generation of new data sets to test theory. I think what people often don’t get is that with a lot of standard theory the number of verified data sets we have number in the 6 to 12 figures.  This is true for planetary motions for sure.

          1. I don’t think this is quite right.  If you can formulate two hypotheses: angels or our best understanding of physics then there is no reason to prefer one to the other based on the principle of simplicity.

            However, our best understanding of physics doesn’t just explain how planets move, it explains and allows us to do a lot of other things.  We are going to use it to inform the creation of everything from bridges to lasers whether or not we use it to explain the motions of the planets.  *That* is why physics wins out in the match of simplicity.  We have the choice between physics, or physics *and* angels.

      1. In general, anything supernatural is going to have difficulty passing through the razor.  This includes angels. 

        Now, if you have no theory of gravity then the angel explanation is the only one you have to fall back on.  It passes by default, but once you start to understand how Gravity works (or at least the laws related to it), then it gets harder and harder to accept the angel based hypothesis. 

        1. All things being equal… that analogy fails. Why? Since you can neither slice or dice the various “natural constants” or “observed laws” they are effectively that same as an “unseen angel” who has been commanded to perform the various scientific functions.

          So where does rational inquiry go? To what you believe and the assumptions that flow from your beliefs, rational or irrational.

          It has said elsewhere that it might be we are not ‘designed’ to understand the universe or its phenomena… like the creatures of flatland whe only see a portion of what is real.

          The assumption of Science or Religion may both be wrong… maybe our “laws and constants” are a daemon in a reality simulation… and we’d never be able to prove it… because of our own design limitations.

          so go about your business and don’t worry about it. Sooner or later we will all be proved wrong.

    3.  Thank-you for tackling this issue. Ockham’s razor is often stated as if it were the explanation itself in many cases. It is at best a guide, perhaps a heuristic. Whatever, wherever the truth may lie, it can be certain that it has no regard whatsoever for whether Ockham’s razor applies or not.

      1. Not really what this article is talking about, but Ockham’s Razor (as traditionally formulated) is a little deeper than that.  What it exposes is the nature of our access to “truth”, and methodologies by which we can unencumber ourselves of the distraction of the “true truth” hidden somewhere under our Berkeleyan perceptions and focus ourselves on actual, functional knowledge.

    4. Of course the common conception that planets revolve around the sun is false and is based on simplifications.  If we conceive of the sun as a stationary thing that the planets revolve around then some very weird things are going to happen.

      Since nothing really orbits another thing (things “in orbit” orbit a point between the centres of mass of the two objects), the sun is constantly orbiting all of the planets just as they orbit it.  So because the sun is orbiting the planets, if you held the sun stationary in your model then all of the planets would be constantly, very slightly, wobbling in their orbits in a way that is extremely difficult to describe mathematically.

      The planets also have gravitational pulls towards one another, and there are all kinds of comets and meteors messing things up.  Basically reality is staggeringly complicated.  When it comes to logic, Ockham was right.  When it comes to actual things, Ockham was just wrong.

      1. No, the sun isn’t orbiting the planets (which makes no sense whatsoever). It is orbiting the center of mass of the solar system (barycenter), just like all the planets are.

        1. It is orbiting the planets as much as our planets can be said to be orbiting the sun. i.e., if you say one statement is true, you have to accept the other is true as well.

          In reality, as you say, it’s better stated that all of them are orbiting a shared center of mass.

          1. No you don’t. You devalue the term ‘orbit’ by saying that. Think of it in terms of momentum and gravitational potential. One version is slightly off (because the center of mass isn’t always in the stellar core), and the other is absolutely and completely insane.

            Edit: And just to be clear, you need to focus on the gravitational potential. If you don’t look at the system in terms of potentials, then you are not going to be able to understand what is really going on here, or in any bound system. I repeat this because it is an extremely important concept in physics.

            1. The point is, whether I am devaluing the term orbit or not, that if you hold that the sun is stationary then the planets are not going to travel in pretty ellipses around it, they are going to “inexplicably” wobble slightly from those ellipses.  And all that just to say that reality involves the interaction of everything and thus is staggering complex, not simple as the misquoting of Ockham would suggest.

              I’m not actually sure what difference I am intended to understand between the concept of all the planets and the sun orbiting their mutual center of gravity vs. each pair orbiting its own mutual center of gravity.  Since the gravity between two objects is presumably not aware of the gravity between each of those objects and other objects, these had better essentially mean the same thing.

            2. I don’t understand what you are trying to say.  Ockham’s razor has nothing to say about this particular subject.  The thesis that masses orbit about the center of gravity is perfectly parsimonious and in-line with Ockham’s razor.  I see no contradiction where you seem to be claiming one.

        2. What you say is correct in the context of Newtonian gravity, using an inertial coordinate system. But we know that general relativity is more accurate than Newtonian gravity, and in general relativity there aren’t really any “preferred” coordinate systems like inertial coordinate systems in large regions of curved spacetime (though you can have a “locally inertial” coordinate system in an infinitesimal region of spacetime)–all coordinate systems are equally valid as far as making use of the Einstein equation, and that would include a coordinate system where the Earth has a fixed position coordinate while the Sun’s (and the barycenter’s) change with time.

      2. Ockham was also wrong in his logic. Appeal to authority (the sacred scriptures) is the logical fallacy he committed.

        I believe that this was the whole point of the post.

        1. Appeal to Authority is no fallacy if you accept the premise that scriptures are the Word of God, and are infallible.

          With this premise, it’s a perfectly logical argument.

    5. If you’re gonna ask what Ockham actually says and then apply it to Scripture, please treat the Scripture just as carefully. You moved from a painting with angels pushing the planets to Scripture saying they move the planets… I imagine this is how all of us got Ockham wrong as well… we don’t go to the source and actually examine what’s there. I’d love to see UFOS and telepathy that you talk about in Scripture…

          1. Hells no.  Whenever the author of this post puts something up, my bullshit detector goes haywire.   

    6. It must seriously suck to be an angel if you have to rush over and push stuff around every time something moves.

      Unless there’s an infinite number of angels, they’d have to be omnipotent themselves.

    7. Okay, Ockham did say more than is commonly reported, and his views were much more complex and multifaceted than he is known to be….

      But we just cut out all the extraneous stuff, and kept the core of the argument that we found useful to explain things.

    8. I think previous generations of scientists recognized that for what it was: the statement of a man who did not want to be burned at the stake. 

      1. Precisely. You see this sort of thing also in scientific papers written under the regimes of Stalin and Mao — reasonable scientific explanations punctuated with references to the dialectical method and the like to reassure any people in power that despite being eggheads they are still willing to bow to the authority of the ruling faith.

      2. Actually, Ockham is on record as having called the Pope a heretic. He came (reluctantly) to the conclusion while in Avignon, where he’d been summoned to be investigated for having possibly heretical leanings.  He subsequently had to flee.

        You can say he didn’t want to be burned at the stake, but you can’t accuse him of intellectual dishonesty.

    9. I like the article, but I must disagree with your logic… Even if you accept both parts of the hypothesis – A) that angels exist and B) that the planets move – there is no direction in scripture connecting those two items… Assuming that angels _do_ move the planets simply because they _could_ seems to be adding unnecessary conditions and still violating whatever it was Ockham said…

      1. Jacques Vallee exists, and planets move, so my parsimonious explanation for the movements of the spheres is that Jacques is up there shoving that shit around.

        1.  I hear Pope Benedict is going to be out of work soon… maybe “planet pushers” are the heavenly equivalent of Wal-Mart Greeters in Heaven…

      2. Thank you.  Many of the descriptions on angels in scripture refer to them having wings and being fairly frightening, but their name means “messenger”.  Birds also have wings, and there’s no more reason to postulate that angels are pushing the planets around than that birds are doing so (especially if you don’t know that there’s no air up where the planets are.)

      3. James Clerk Maxwell had a Demon… And Schrodinger had a half dead / half alive cat… can you say these are any more real than an Angel of Gravity or an Angel of Thermonuclear Force?

        Examine your assumptions– There is also no direct “provable” connection between the motion of the planets and Newton’s laws— except in the mind of some of humankind…

        From the viewpoint of a Christian “believer” in Angels [or a pagan believer in Faeries] there is no advantage to or need of these “natural laws” which are already taken care of by the Angels that are actually doing the work.

        Your laws work for you… just as their Angels work for them. You cannot banish their irrationality and “the mote in their eyes… until you remove the beam in your own”

        Rationalist logic and religious logic prove the points of their various believers [to their believers] all without multiplying their errors — simply because their adherents are unable to see their errors… The truth is– why bother to argue about it. Eventually the truth wins [we all win Sarwin awards]

        1. That is both incorrect and logically inconsistent, even in a religious framework… Neither Maxwell nor Schrodinger actually believed their demons & cats existed – they were explicitly imaginary even to them. Secondly, I again point out that one can believe in angels _and_ other “invisible forces”… the idea that things happen and motion occurs _only_ because of the Will of God (enforced, one assumes, by these angels) is not stated in Scripture – it’s a few people trying to cram an explanation of the universe into their limited minds, rather than the reverse – encouraging their minds to expand out into the universe.

    10. Now, I did this research a while back and read a different story. Ockham’s goal was to eliminate the sort of argument, common at the time, summed up as; it is true because God. His point was that if the argument could be made without referring to god in this way it was a better argument, more solid, more logical. The rest of his explanation was a good man trying to keep himself out of jail or worse. he was forced by circumstance to junk up his own argument for simplicity. Also, the idea outgrew him over the years. A reflection of the power of its message.

    11. I’m sorry, to me, the simplest explanation is that Occam actually said “The simplest explanation is probably the correct one,” so, by Occam’s Razor…

    12. ok, but ockham’s razor isn’t just a nice story about a pious monk, it’s also a valuable tool for solving problems with reason and logic.  the “proved by the authority of sacred scripture” clause is not difficult or problematic to just ignore.  maybe historians got this wrong–but the concept of ockham’s razor is no less valuable to philosophers.

    13. This couldn’t be a more mistaken argument.  The good monk did not want to be burned at the stake, so he threw in the last bit.  It is clear that the thrust of his argument is what we now know as Ockham’s Razor.

    14. Ahem. Also from Wikipedia’s article on the subject, and relevant:

      “William of Ockham (c. 1285–1349) is remembered as an influential medieval philosopher and nominalist, though his popular fame as a great logician rests chiefly on the maxim attributed to him and known as Ockham’s razor. The term razor refers to distinguishing between two hypotheses either by “shaving away” unnecessary assumptions or cutting apart two similar conclusions.
      This maxim seems to represent the general tendency of Occam’s philosophy, but it has not been found in any of his writings.[citation needed] His nearest pronouncement seems to be Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate [Plurality must never be posited without necessity], which occurs in his theological work on the ‘Sentences of Peter Lombard’ (Quaestiones et decisiones in quattuor libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi (ed. Lugd., 1495), i, dist. 27, qu. 2, K).”


      1. If I recall correctly, Ockham was associated with the principle of parsimony mainly because his formulation of nominalism was a reaction against Duns Scotus’ bewilderingly complex metaphysical system.  

        (Edit: removed what was likely a misquote of Scotus.)

    15. “The second hypothesis is also more powerful since angels can just as easily move the planets around the earth as around the sun. They can do whatever they like—and thereby explain any phenomena.”
      On the contrary, that makes it powerless: saying a process produces arbitrary results won’t help you predict anything. “We can’t see dark matter because [theological handwave]” explains away the observation, sure, but science is about continuing from that point to testable propositions.
      Until you’ve established clear ways in which you may be wrong, you are not right in any meaningful fashion.

      1. I read that phrase in the sense that to the type of person with a bumper sticker on their car that reads “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”, then it IS the more powerful hypothesis.  It can “explain” anything, albeit to a person who doesn’t really care about actual explanations.  

        Sadly, those people are very common in the United States.  In fact many of them are on the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

        Looks like many are still living in Ockham’s time.

    16. So the question isn’t “is ‘Ockham’s razor’ a useful tool in unpicking arguments and explanations?” but “did William of Ockham really formulate it in the way we have come to use it?” I’m reminded just a little of the arguments over whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. No matter whose name is on the item–the razor remains a useful implement and those plays remain prodigious achievements.

    17. This reads like an article written by someone whose entire knowledge of Ockham’s philosophy comes from Wikipedia and “The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”. 

      Trying to peg down the man’s entire philosophical program by intense over-interpretation of a single quote is an activity that looks an awful lot like biblical fundamentalism.

      1. Jacques isn’t trying to address Ockham’s “entire philosophical program” at all. Did you read the post?

        1. Well, actually he does seem to be doing so. He says that we shouldn’t take Ockham’s Razor “out of context,” or “twist his words to fit the convenient modern tenets of skepticism in the name of Reason,” — i.e. trying to suggesting that in Ockham’s actual, ignored philosophy, the scripture argument always trumps everything.

          Except that as many people have pointed out, that wasn’t Ockham’s point of view at all. His point of view really was more on the modern-understanding of the Razor side than on the angles-pushing-stuff-around side. So it’s pointless to describe the Razor without understanding what Ockham was actually trying to say.

    18. People also seem to forget that just because a hypothesis requires the fewest assumptions, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct.  Just that it is often enough that it should be surmised, barring conflicting data.

    19.  Really?  A quote of uncertain providence, lifted from an encyclopedia, and used to analyze stylized margin art from a random medieval book, incorrectly characterized as being some kind of technical portrayal of the contemporary understanding of how the solar system worked.

      It doesn’t get much sloppier than that.

      1. “Really?  A quote of uncertain providence, lifted from an encyclopedia, and used to analyze stylized margin art from a random medieval book, incorrectly characterized as being some kind of technical portrayal of the contemporary understanding of how the solar system worked.

        It doesn’t get much sloppier than that.”

        Or, one could write, “it doesn’t get much more Jacques Vallee than that.”

    20. Glad to see Ermahgerd finally getting his due on the internet.  Occam’s gotten way more than his share of the credit.

    21. Hmm…now why would Jacques Vallee, promoter of the fabulistic “many crop circles are the result of secret military UFO energy weapons testing on farm crops” [paraphrased] explanation of crop circles over the “hoaxers with a board and a layout rope admit to making crop circles and have demonstrated how they do it so there is no sound reason to think the rest are anything but more of the same” explanation, be so down on the popular usage of Ockham’s Razor…? Hmm…

      Meanwhile, Rational Wiki has an explanation:

      William of Occam often expressed the principle as Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate (A plurality [of causes] should never be posited unless necessary), but the best known version is a paraphrase by the 17th century scholar John Ponce: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (Entities are not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary).

      Its scientific application is to select priority between developing theories, although it’s by no means a hard and fast rule. The “simpler” theory with fewer (or less onerous) assumptions is probably the most appropriate one. For example, if you see hoof-prints on your local walking trail, think horses, not unicorns.”


      So, I’d say Jacques Vallee’s self-interested objections are essentially baseless and I should add that whether or not Ockham stated the popular version of “his” razor is irrelevant to whether it is a sound principle or not.

    22. “Simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones.”
          – attributed to ockham

      Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora.
      It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer
          – occam as cited by thoburn

      Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.
      Entities are not to be multiplied unnecessarily.
          – john punch (John Ponce) (1603-1661)

      If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments [if] one suffices.
          – thomas aquinas (1225-1274)

      We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.
          – claudius ptolemy (90-168)

      Wherever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.
          – bertram russell (1872-1970)

      The variety of beings should not rashly be diminished.
          – immanuel kant

      Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
          – albert einstein

      Hanlon’s razor:
      Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
          – robert j. hanlon

      (…but don’t rule out malice.  – robert a. heinlein)

      Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
          – attributed to napoleon bonaparte

      Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly a lot less frequent.
          – goethe

      1. Perfection is attained, not when no more can be added, but when no more can be removed.
         – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

    23. Keep in mind that the dark ages dragged on because of the influence of Aristotle where everything was based on assumptions conjured out of nothing.  Aristotle rejected gravity, atomic theory, probability, evolution and lots of other ideas the Greeks were toying with 300-400 BC.  Aristotle rejected universal laws based on observation in favor of assumptions about classes of objects and their “essence.” 

      1. What dark ages?

        The real dark ages had ended centuries before Aristotle. The so-called dark ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire are mostly an early-modern fiction. Justinian’s wars, the plague, and the collapse of the trade systems were real catastrophes, but they don’t fit into the usual science-vs.-superstition morality play.

        1.  I guess it depends on your point of view. Classics people tend to view it as a dark age, just like the Greek dark ages, due to the massive, massive, massive loss of classical literature, copied down through the centuries and just suddenly declining to a bare trickle. 

          1. And the almost complete cessation of scientific investigation and invention. And the end to the public education system, replaced by Bible classes. And the loss even of the basic engineering knowledge needed to keep the infrastructure of civilization running, resulting in the collapse of cities and fleeing of their populace. 

            1.  I’m not sure there was what we could call a public education system. The high estimate for literacy in the ancient world is ~10%.

        2. There’s a pretty simply way to settle this actually: did investment in scholarship and education increase, decrease, or stay constant after Justinian’s wars?

          It decreased significantly after the political power in Western Europe became decentralized and Rome the city started to decline.  The new proto-feudal political leaders were not particularly interested in building or funding libraries and as a result thousands of ancient texts were never recopied and ended up being lost to history.

          You may have a point about the “science-vs-superstition morality play” but let’s not ignore the real, factual basis for calling this a dark age.  Scholarship declined to almost nill; many of the ancient works we’ve recovered were essentially preserved by accident because Christian monks were obligated to copy texts they probably often couldn’t even read. 

          The Romans were pretty superstitious in their own right but their engineering feats are a testament to some pretty reliable scientific knowledge and the decline of Roman infrastructure during the period in question suggests much of that knowledge was lost.    This was a period in which the at least nominally educated Romans were losing political power to Gallic and Gothic tribes who had their own superstitions without the benefit of Greek rationalist influences.  Again, “dark age” seems to fit pretty well.

    24. No one uses the original version of Ockham’s razor.  Everyone uses new improved Ockham’s razor+.  It cuts closer and is more parsimonious. 

      (I did have a philosophy professor mention in passing that “the parsimony principle” is probably a more accurate name for modern formulations that go by the name of Ockham’s razor but aren’t quite what Ockham said.  Since must moderns aren’t much for traditional authority, what he personally said is only of historical interest.)

    25. Essentially you are saying that because Ockham was a monk, he wasn’t logical.   Argument from scriptural authority is not different in principle than argument from axiom.   Scriptural authority is just a set of accepted axioms.   Like any axiom, they are only valid if the participants in the debate agree that they are axioms.   So the absurdity of scriptural authority is not that one might use it as a basis for reasoning, but that one might think it could be used to prove something to someone who doesn’t accept it.

      Your angel versus gravity argument is wrong for the simple reason that no scriptural authority says angels move the planets in the sky.

      But more to the point, when fact contradicts scriptural authority, just as when fact contradicts an axiom, it is fact that must win, not scriptural authority.   Fundamentalism is the belief that this is not so; it is not a belief shared by all practitioners of religion.   It is uncalled for to attribute fundamentalism to Ockham based on the quote you have given.

      1.  It’s fair to attribute what we would now call fundamentalism to Ockham based on his cultural milieu which we know with a fair degree of certainty regarded scripture as a largely factual account of the history of the earth.

        1. Troll much?   Fundamentalism is not viewing scripture as a factual account of the history of earth.   It is regarding scripture as a factual account of the history of earth when there is clear evidence to the contrary.

    26. Mathematically speaking, the prior probability of a hypothesis – the likelihood you should assign to it in the absence of evidence either way – decreases exponentially relative to the complexity of hypothesis (the number of bits of information needed to specify it), *not* the “number of entities” as the common phrasing of Ockham’s razor says.

      A short equation is far simpler than an angel. Angels are fundamentally complicated, containing concepts like “good,” “just,” “obedient,” and “intelligent.”

    27. Vallee’s is a mysterious guest post. What is he trying to get at by ostensibly demonstrating that Ockham didn’t believe in Ockham’s razor? Why does he seem to be picking both at Ockham’s supposed position and at the modern Ockham’s razor, when his last full paragraph seems to be a clear endorsement of the modern razor? And then his last line, “But we should also remember that nature is not parsimonious at all,” is a bold and interesting metaphysical position, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the post, much less follow from it.

    28. My response to this is in the same family as my response to the theory that “Shakespeare” didn’t really write all those plays:  Ockham’s Razor no longer refers to something Ockham wrote.  It refers to the well-known principle paraphrased in the common wordings given above.

      1. You should pay more attention to the comments that people gave to that post, as they go through why that takedown isn’t really a takedown.  It would probably help if you listed specific examples of your complaints.  As it is, all I see is you complaining about valid tools without context.

    29. “The second hypothesis is also more powerful since angels can just as easily move the planets around the earth as around the sun. They can do whatever they like—and thereby explain any phenomena.”
      This is a weakness, not a strength. The theory that a coin is fair can explain any sequence of results from coin flips equally well; the theory that the coin is biased toward heads is a better explanation if you’ve observed that 983 of the past 1000 flips came up heads.

      1.  Thanks.  People consistently mess this up.  A weaker hypothesis is consistent with a broader range of observations.  A stronger hypothesis more clearly determines the scope of expected observations.

    30. It doesn’t matter what Ockham said. The common understanding of Occam’s Razor yields the most utility. The argument does not derive its power from the authority of its author.

    31. Nah, it’s easy! Just cite “The Collected Writings of William of Ockham” and add “See? Nothing there!” :)

    32. “The Scriptures are full of ghosts, UFOs and examples of telepathy.”

      Ok, now you’ve got me curious. Can you give examples, or are you just making something up?

      1. I responded to this at the top of the thread with a classic example of a biblical UFO sighting. 

    33. So angels move planets,defying gravity,yet they need wings for what purpose. And all these deities have legs,more nonsensical rubbish made up by humans who were afeared of the dark.

    34. What is a gravitational “pull?”

      Since physics from now until there is no more is highly unlikely to be a gloss on the physics of 2013, we are all living in antiquity, the Dark Ages if you will.

      We may not believe any more that angels propel the planets, but who knows what really causes them to appear to move?

      1. What is a gravitational “pull?”

        I’m not sure, but I’m pretty positive that it’s illegal outside of Nevada.

      2.  Well, general relativity implies that there is no “pull,” physical bodies simply follow “straight lines” (technically “geodesics”) through a curved space-time.  Bodies don’t attract one another, they deform space-time and then each rolls into the trough created by the other.

        This obviously leaves the puzzle of what is this space-time stuff and  why is it deformed by mass, but the point is that we do seem to have figured out a few things since William of Ockham wrote on cosmology.  We’re no longer positing anthropomorphic spiritual entities who just magically make the planets move.  Instead we have a relatively simple and elegant theory that not only models most gravitational effects as accurately as they can be measured but actually made really remarkable and implausible predictions that turned out to be true: black holes and gravitational lensing. 

        So since you seem to think we’re about as sophisticated as monks postulating that planets must be pushed around by angels let me ask you: could the “angel theory of cosmology” be used to predict any phenomenon as zany and counterintuitive as black holes?  If not it seems to me that relativity has some real predictive power over and above the angel theory of cosmology.  Maybe relativity is actually a pretty good theory.  Maybe Einstein isn’t an overrated hack.  Who knows.

        Incidentally, “dark age” usually refers to a period with no widespread scholastic or artistic movements.  I think you’d have some trouble applying the term to the 20th or 21st centuries.

    35. The Sun does go around the earth, and the earth around the sun. The idea that the earth orbits the sun is simply to make it easier to model the solar system, but it doesn’t affect the fact that the earth pulls on the sun just as the sun pulls on the earth. 

      What I’m saying here is that Geocentric and Heliocentric are worthless from a philosophical perspective. They are just frames of understanding the same thing observed from a different standpoint. 

      Yay philosophical wankering. 

      1. In some sense, sure, but “sun goes around the earth” to me intuitively implies that the sun is subject to a much larger gravitational potential gradient than the earth.  But it’s not, because the force on the sun relative to the mass of the sun is tiny compared to the force on the earth relative to the mass of the earth.  If you actually look at a diagram of the gravitational potential well of the solar system it’s pretty obvious that the sun pretty much wobbles imperceptibly in the very middle of the well while the earth does these long looping ellipses a few light minutes away from the center of the well.

        Another way to think about this is if you decide to go with a geocentric model you have to bring back Ptolemaic epicycles — the other planets have horribly convoluted orbits in a geocentric model.  Far simpler to model them as orbiting the sun.

    36. then next time i’ll use this i’ll say , “but according to the modern version of occam’s razor which is still true even if its modified, nay improved from the original…. “

    37. But the simplest reason is not always the best.  Examples abound.  One sees a rock and presumes it is a real rock.  That is the most obvious presumption.  But examine it closer — misuse of Ockham’s Razor, as skeptics use it, would DEMAND you assume it is a natural rock.

      But pick it up, and you find out it is a plastic ‘rock’, made by a factory.  The skeptics’ misuse of Ockham’s quote has FOILED the correct answer.  The correct answer  turned out NOT to be so simple, it was not the most obvious explanation.

      Skeptics will argue that once we picked up the rock, we knew immediately that it was the simplest explanation that the rock is manmade.

      Here is the rub: UFOs and other phenomena often present a very limited amount of data on themselves.  A pinpoint of light in the sky photographed can be any number of things.  That same craft landed on the ground and touched begins to imply the simplest explanation that it is man-made.  Step inside and meet the aliens running the craft, and now the simplest explanation turns out to be what?  Humans in alien suits running a gag?  Aliens?  A dream?

      For this reason, I take skeptics SKEPTICALLY, they look for the convenient EXCUSE out and arrogate it to the status of ‘correct’ answer, then spread the potential lie.  

      Given a God’s eye view of existence, we might then finally apply the false (not his original quote) Ockham’s Razor properly and it would WORK properly — given less information, we invariably make potentially false conclusions.

      1.  In neither test (Wiki, or Ockham’s) is there a guarantee that you will always be correct. Both are just guidelines. Ockham’s Razor has always just been a means of sorting unnecessary chaff.

      2.  You’re misapplying it.  You’re trying to apply it to observations but the point of Ockham’s razor is to inform theory generation not observation.

        Take your rock example.  If we only have a grainy photograph then perhaps the simplest theory about the object is that it is a real rock.  But suppose we can actually touch the rock and discern that it is plastic as in your example.  That observation is evidence that should then inform any further theories about the nature of the object.  Those further theories should abide by Ockham’s razor, however — if the plastic is of a variety widely used on earth for making fake rocks then the simplest theory would be that this rock was man-made in a fake-plastic-rock factory.

        Another way to say this: the effectiveness of Ockham’s razor is limited by the amount of evidence we have about the phenomenon about which we wish to theorize.  Yes, since we always have a limited amount of information this means that Ockham’s razor frequently fails.  That’s a feature, not a bug — that is how scientific methodology works.  Trial and error.  Guess and check.  Darwinian selection of ideas.

        Let’s take your UFO example.  Currently, the state of evidence on UFOs is:
        -no verified instance of a recovered craft
        -no verified instance of a recovered extraterrestrial organism
        -a whole bunch of grainy photographs and videos of lights in the sky
        -videos that clearly depict plastic bags blowing in the wind (not even kidding, here)
        -crop circles that are essentially all confirmed hoaxes
        -a variety of very convincing arguments that the spacecraft described by UFOlogists would be easily detected by radiotelescopes, etc.
        -usually uncorroborated eyewitness testimony (a much less reliable form of evidence than is usually believed)

        Now if we wanted a theory to tie these bits of evidence together, Ockham’s razor would suggest that human error is the most likely explanation for ET spacecraft sightings.  This is not because we definitely know for certain that these sightings are in error but because so far the evidence doesn’t warrant any stronger conclusions.  When we get more evidence we may want to update this theory.  Again, this is just how scientific methodology works.  It’s not a conspiracy to suppress your secret knowledge or anything.

    38. PROPER use of Ockham’s Razor, when it comes to motion of the planets, DOES imply, through interpretation of the Bible, that all we see is ‘maya’, illusion, a hologram, a MATRIX.  The planets and their motion, a simulation within which we reside.

    39. It’s irrelevant whether he said it or not-it’s not as if attaching his name to it somehow makes it more valid. It’s a solid principle regardless of who said it.

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