Bob McGregor wrote:
> Is the favoured tool of a reductionist Occam's Razor?
Let me start by assuming everyone is familiar with that, and answer
from a colloquial perspective.
Depends on the reductionist, Bob. For some, it's so. Yet some
reductionists simply choose the single option they happen to favor,
or get paid to believe, or want to believe, and ride that pony for
all its worth, regardless of whether it stands up to the tests of
science, of logic, or history, of morality, or of common sense.
Dennis Avery is an excellent example.
Don't mistake this philosophical principle for truth or falsity. It
can be a way of ruling out certain hypotheses--the simpler a
hypothesis is to test, the easier it is to falsify, and move to the
next. Of course, what this implies is that science will tend to
gravitate toward simple-minded stuff, and leave the more complex and
interesting hypotheses to us social studies types. Grin.
Ockham's Razor, as it has been called, was an analytical principle
attributed to William of Ockham because he used it so damn much, and
it roughly goes like this:
Non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem.
Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.
Plurality should not be assumed without necessity.
Some called this the "Law of Economy," or of Parsimony. The idea was
that for any given set of observations, like how the stars move
across the sky or a frog-egg's metamorphosis, there are potentially
infinite theories to account for it.
Theologically, for instance, you shouldn't assume that you needed a
goddess and a consort to regenerate the living land and its freely
poured-out gifts through a divine marriage and careful attention to
local agricultural ritual, when a single disembodied skygod with a
priestly caste of granary-keepers will do. (I am not being flippant
here. And this is not, by the way, mediaeval theology but my own
take on one of the places we went wrong in agriculture, but I
digress. Sorry everyone...sorry.)
William of Ockham was a mostly-fourteenth-centry Franciscan
philosopher and theologian credited with founding a form of
nominalism. Nominalism is a philosophical thinking that holds that
universal concepts, like "farm" or "soil" or "seed" have no reality
apart from the individual things which the term signifies. This was
in contrast to other mediaeval theologians, who believed that terms
(language) had a reality that resided above and beside individual
things. (Those of you who have read Umberto Eco's /The Name of the
Rose/ probably know way more about this than anybody wants to. :^)
Ockham was a kick-butt logician and a rationalist. He believed that
thinkers should strive to distinguish between, say, probability and
proof, the incidental and the necessary, or evidence and conclusion.
He also believed that it was up to an omnipotent god to pour out
salvation without obligation, which balanced this cold view of human
thinking. It doesn't seem like a very warm philosophy, from where I
sit (men think, god saves--but who's watching the birds and the
children?). But anyway.
The term Ockham's (or Occam's) Razor comes from the fact that he was
trying to cut through many years of accretion of half-baked
and otherwise heated ideas in mediaeval philosophy. He was reacting
directly to the Scholastic philosophers, like Thomas Aquinas, who,
anytime they needed an explanation for something, went ahead and made
one up. A few centuries of that, and your pins are so crowded with
dancing angels, you can't use them to hold up your breeches. But what
the heck--since theories are unlimited in number, might as well.
Scientists of the time also were prone to inventing explanations for
things, generally to fit in with whatever their patron thought.
Lest something like Ockham's Razor appear to be the effete
maunderings of a guy with nothing to do all day but think, recall
what happened to Galileo. He later used a version of this basic
principle in standing before the Church, his own god, and his peers
in witnessing to the explanation that most simply accounted for
certain observed facts of how the cosmos worked. Those observations
didn't fit with a geocentric model of the solar system, but did fit
with a heliocentric one. And apart from displacing Demeter with
Apollo (always dangerous, for people who have to eat), the boy
turned out to be bloody well right, on the mechanistic level. And
died for it.
Ockham himself was embroiled in tangles with Pope John XXII. His
main dispute with him was that poverty and simplicity were necessary
to salvation--something that PJ himself didn't exactly advocate for,
but that Franciscans certainly did. Ockham argued for a form of the
Church where the faithful are organized in community, but there is
no infallible authority. Not a Pope. Not a Council. Infallibility
being the terrain of god. And the terrain of humanity being here on
earth, with faith in the divine.
He was excommunicated and eventually died in the Black Death.
Michele Gale-Sinex, communications manager
Center for Integrated Ag Systems
UW-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences
Voice: (608) 262-8018 FAX: (608) 265-3020
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