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Enigma Issue 14: Ockham's not-so-close shave, or.... How to blunten his Razor.

by Paul Vigay | Summer 1997

One argument often touted by sceptical thinkers and debunkers when faced with the implications of crop circle and UFO research - indeed any account of paranormal phenomenon - is that of Occam's Razor.

I thought I'd write this article to try to illustrate the thinking behind this line of attack, the origin of the phrase itself and the various flaws in it's logic.

William of Ockham (as his name was correctly spelt) was born in 1270 and belonged to the Order of Franciscans, an order of friars founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, who believed in the personal and corporate poverty of it's members. This order has survived as a missionary and charitable branch of the Roman Catholic Church to this day.

He was mainly responsible for the philosophical doctrine of nominalism (those who regard "universals" or abstract concepts as mere names without any corresponding realities) and claimed, in effect, that science is about things whereas logic, philosophy and religion are about terms or concepts (the platonic tradition).

However, his most famous legacy has been "Ockham's Razor" which states "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter neccessitatem", or "Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity". His actual words were more likely "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer" although it amounts to the same effect; If everything in some science can be interpreted without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it.

Sceptics like resorting to this line of logic because it avoids having to handle any unexplained concepts. To use a common example, namely crop circles....

To apply Ockham's Razor would be to discount the seemingly far-fetched concept that they are made by aliens or some higher intelligence and, instead, opt for the simpler solution that they are all man-made, or hoaxed.

This would seem a sensible, and logical, deduction since if I lose my car keys I automatically apply Ockham's principle and assume I've put them down somewhere I can't remember, rather than some race of aliens have teleported them away.

However, there are a couple of fundamental flaws one can find in it's application to different specific cases.

Firstly, the Razor takes no account of time or epoch when making its cuts. For example, what may sound needlessly complicated today may be simplicity itself tomorrow.

To use an analogy, consider the following example; In the middle ages, had someone demonstrated a modern-day television set one onlooker may have described the experience as spiritual, or the face of God looking out from a mystical casket. Had another onlooker described the event as a video and sound recording converted into a form of electromagnetic radiation and transmitted along a piece of bent metal and then hundreds of miles through the air and then decoded and re-formed as a sequence of electrons fired at high speed towards a phosphorus shield known as a cathode ray tube, then I'm sure they would have been dismissed as needlessly complicating matters - and probably also scolded for daring to dismiss the 'vision of God', maybe even punished for heresy.

Just because the more complicated explanation was hard to understand, not even discovered or, dare I say it, unexplained at the time doesn't mean that it should be discounted. This is what science and discovery are about. Exploring all possibilities.

Hoaxing may be the simplest explanation to come to terms with regarding crop circle origins, but should we not leave some room for exploring new research and investigations?

If, for argument's sake, aliens landed their mothership on the White House lawn or Parliament Square and proceeded to create a perfect pictogram in the grass, with hundreds of witnesses, then the hoaxing hypothesis would immediately become the more complicated one - considering that no hoaxers have managed to recreate the complex floor lays, bent nodes, perfect geometry and other aspects of the crop circle mystery - all in the dark of night, making no mistakes and not a single person ever being caught.

To apply Ockham's razor is almost arrogant, assuming that the person wielding the razor is capable of being the judge and jury as to what is the simplest explanation.

Ockham's Razor is at best a subjective comment based on an individual's interpretation of what may or may not be a simple explanation. Who is to say who decides which explanation is the simplest?

I may decide that one particular hypothesis makes more sense than another, which someone else may agree or disagree with.

I may find algebra easy to comprehend whereas another person may find it impossibly hard. Just because someone may find something difficult to comprehend shouldn't mean it should be discounted for others who don't find it a problem.

Sceptics often think that they have a monopoly on scientific thinking and that they are somehow guardians of established thought and teaching.

It is my view that Ockham's Razor itself should be cut away, allowing people to carry on open-minded research, exploring all avenues and possibilities without fear of ridicule or stepping outside the established 'world view'.

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