16 December 2008

Ockham's Razor

"Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate."

I found this the other night, which attempts to define the concept behind "Occam's Razor." It's a fairly good description of the concept, if glorified. ("And yet it is, of course, probably the most important principle ever introduced into human logic.") But it made me realize that I have never explained Occam's Razor or it's relationship to this blog. I did some research which is actually pretty interesting.

Occam's Razor (you could probably just read the blog entry or this to understand it but whatever) is basically the premise that given a theory or set of theories, human logic will lead one to trust the theory which requires the fewest assumptions. An easy, but inaccurate, way to say this is that the simplest theory is always true. The simplest theory may usually true because it makes the fewest assumptions, but if one of those assumptions is outrageous, one would have to trust a more complex theory. The weird thing about Occam's Razor is that it's pure philosophy; it will never prove anything concretely.

For example (one that's a bit more specific to my blog than the examples in the link), I'll use the JFK conspiracy. There are basically two theories, though the conspiracy theory popularized by Oliver Stone's movie etc. can have a lot of different nuances. One is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating JFK. The other is that Oswald was a patsy (as he referred to himself in a press conference) for a massive conspiracy that went all the way up to Lyndon Johnson. So if you apply Occam's razor, you have to look at the assumptions that each theory takes to determine which is more probable. One assumption you have to accept for the lone gunman theory is that Oswald was a capable enough marksman to hit Kennedy from the sixth floor of the book depository with 6.5 millimeter Italian carbine rifle and four-power scope. This is hard to believe, but impossible to finitely falsify. For the conspiracy theory, you have to assume that Jack Ruby was hired by the conspirators to kill Oswald in order to keep him quiet. As a possiblity, this is sort of easy to believe, especially considering that the motive Ruby gave was that he wanted to spare Jackie Kennedy from having to testify. But it's difficult to prove. It's also difficult to falsify. But both are just one of many assumptions that both theories require, though the conspiracy theory would probably have many more assumptions.

Okay, long-winded example.

After the jump I want to do a quick summary of the history of the principle, and then I'll explain wtf it has to do with this blog.

The principle is attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th century logician. Some people claim that a bunch of other people invented it, including Thomas Aquinus (my bff) and even Plato (or was it Aristotle). He was a controversial figure with the Catholic church because he basically denied the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. Both require a lot of assumptions. He was an important contributor to the philosophy of Nominalism, to which he contributed his theory of universals, which was that they don't exist. Basically the original skeptic. In some cases he was a little to skeptical, like he denied the comlexity of human biology. But in other cases he was pretty awesome, ie he was one of the first people to advocate the seperation of Church and State.

What's also funny is that there's writing on the "Myth of Ockham's Razor" which denies that he came up with the concept of that it has attributed to him by later scholars. And that it's not really important. That paper is actually really dense, so I don't reccomend reading it, I didn't get very far.

Applying Occam's Razor to conspiracy theories in the literal sense is not really what I'm interested in doing with this blog, so the title is a bit inaccurate. What I'm interested is the narrative form that conspiracy thoeries use. But the principle is important, because it gets to the heart of what is fascinating about conspiracies, which is that they can't be proved, but present a set of assumptions which can be more believable that the theory accepted as status quo. Granted, conspiracies are exploitative, they take advantage of people's natural fears and insecurities to convince us that there are powers in the world greater than what we see in our everday lives. If Ockham were alive today he would undoubtedly scoff at most conpiracies, some of which take on an almost religious role in our lives, requiring belief and even faith in certain ideals, mainly "the truth", in order believe things we would otherwise write off immediately.

I am obsessed with fiction, and I see conspiracies as a sort of counterpoint to fiction. I'm not going to be able to express this very well at this point in my life (maybe one day I'll write a dissertation (which would have to come after my Roth dissertation)), but I think the idea is apparent. Conspiracies are basically fictions that are applied to the real world. It's not a lot different from history and the news, which often contain elements of fiction, but it's much easier to see the fiction and narrative making behind it.

A funny example of a conspiracy that fictionalizes reality is the World War Crew, from Richmond Virginia. I don't know them personally, but my sister dated on of them, and I've been close to people who do know them, so I sort of know what their deal is. Basically, they're a bunch of teenagers who live in Richmond and graffiti things and do random pranks. But the police decided that they were a gang, and actually went the kid's houses and confiscated their computers and suspected them of being much more criminal than they actually were. I heard they had a whole task force dedicated to the World War Crew, which is pretty hilarious considering that Richmond has one of the highest crime rates in American for a city of its size, and the police were focusing their energies on a bunch of kids in a hard core band.


dbow said...

Bowman's Razor: Advocates the theory which involves the fewest and most plausible assumptions, but the most egregious factual inaccuracies.

For example, Bowman's Razor postulates that JFK died in a car accident.

James said...

What I find hilarious about that blog post you linked to is that it uses Occam's Razor to dismiss "vast shadowy and sinister organisations whose aim is to take over the world by stealth" as paranoid, while at the same time using it to assert that:

1)Western capitalist governments have concocted the idea of terrorist networks and that Al Qaeda probably doesn't even exist anymore.

2) "The banks run Planet Earth. No one else. The rest is all for show."