Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Occam's Ninja (essay)
Perchance you have heard of Occam’s Razor, perchance you haven’t. Regardless, I find it most key to define it, and so shall do so forthwith: assume the most probable.
So, if you’re studying the pyramids and notice that the images resemble purported alien life from the Yucatan; then yes there’s a chance that the Anunnaki built the pyramids, but the chances are far and above more likely that they were built by humans, so you should assume that.
Needless to say, I mislike Occam’s Razor. I mislike it precisely because of its highly presumptive nature: the most probable is the most probable, not the definite.
For example (since practitioners of Occam’s Razor value evidence and tell us that it increases probability exponentially), say a friend of mine and I chose to go for a walk in a thunderstorm. I went in a tee and slacks and she sat astride a warhorse in full medieval plate with her iron lance raised to the sky.
Now, she is far more likely to get hit by lightning than I am, but this does not mean that it is improbable that I will be hit too. In fact, while lightning probably will not hit the same place twice, the most probable is not definite: we could both be hit at the same place, or at the same time and by the same bolt, or perchance she should live and I should die in flame and thunder. All are possibilities and, while not the most probable, must be considered.
Another concern I have with Occam's Razor is its dictionary wording (I used paraphrasing), which pertains to rejecting methods which require the least assumptions. For argument’s sake, let’s state an assumption to be any statement not grounded in fact. In such a case, it is important to remember that we as a species always have a reason for assuming something: this reason being that our assumption correlates with our reality.
Take Vitalism, for example. Due to our lack of knowledge about disease, it was highly natural for us to assume that diseases and spoiling occured naturally, via spontaneous generation. It was only the challenging of this assumption that let us discover germs. Conversely, our society assumes that the cell is the smallest unit of life because we haven’t found a smaller one. But this is not to say there isn’t; future societies might discover that atoms are, in fact, intelligent.
I could also point out that while Vitalism made the assumption that there was nothing smaller than the eye could see, it required the assumption that this was wrong for us to disprove it, but I have neither the time nor the space to conduct such debate on the nature of logic so I’ll just let that thought germinate and turn to matters that require less assumptions on my part.
The last flaw I’d like to point out is Occam’s Razor as it is practiced in real life versus how it is used in science, its primary field of use. The examples I have laid out above are primary ones that apply on a day-to-day basis, and while they are applicable to science there is something else that must be considered.
Science does not use Occam’s Razor. Sciences believes in falsifiability, which is similar but with a subtle distinction: assumptions are acceptable in science, so long as they are provable assumptions. (eg. atoms not being intelligent life, because there is no evidence for it and a great deal of evidence against - quantum physics.) In this way, science falls behind the principle I am about to endeavour to explain to you.
This is not to say that Occam’s Razor is wrong, just that it must be accepted only with moderation. To this end, I would like to propose the Ninja Potential Theorem: never discount the exceedingly unlikely.
This theory’s name acts as a reference to its most extreme example, a spontaneous attack by ninjas. There is always a chance that, one fine day in the warmth of spring one will, while harmlessly wandering the streets in search of tasty coffee, be suddenly set upon by a vicious pack of ninjas and slain on the spot.
Now, these chances are obscenely small, and so one should never assume it will happen (because that would most likely cross the line between prudence and paranoia), but the chance can be confirmed to exist, if only in the purely theoretical sense (its probably more likely than winning the lottery, but then most things are).
This brings me to the crux of my argument, which is that one should never countenance the Ninja Potential Theorem either. The chances are just too small: while, if I may bring this back to the Lightning Bolt and the Armour analogy, there is still a chance of my being hit by lightning regardless of whether or not I’m wearing armour, the chances of my being hit are drastically smaller (in slacks) such that it would be considered highly prudent not to wear medieval warplate when strolling in the thundering winds.
Since the Ninja Potential Theorem shouldn’t be considered necessarily correct as it applies to practicing it in real life, this means that the most probable (but not definite) course of action would be to create a counterargument or, if you will, an Anti-Ninja: never consider the exceedingly unlikely.
Herein a practitioner of the Razor may disagree with me, on the grounds that in theory Occam’s Razor already does this. If practicing Occam’s Razor successfully, then one should presumably consider bizarre and outlandish first and discount them almost immediately as the bizarre and outlandish theories they are. To this I have two replies;
i) Firstly, discounting is different from not considering. You never need to consider baseless theories or absurd arguments as fact, but it cannot harm you to remember their existence. After all, all lies are predicated in truth (at least to some extent, however tinily), and so no theory would exist unless someone had some reason to believe in it (however absurd that meaning may seem to you).
ii) Secondly, it is always important to remember why an argument is outlandish. Sometimes the reasons you cite may not be as effective as they first seem. For example, one of the main arguments against alien life on earth is that it would have been seen in modern times. But, and consider seriously, if you had the choice then would you rather be here or elsewhere? The answer, unless your most important character trait is selflessness or you style yourself a bodhisattva, is probably elsewhere.
I suppose, therefore, the base of my argument is balance. Occam’s Razor exists as a sort triangle, itself the point, with the Ninja Potential Theorem and the Anti-Ninja the base. When one debates the probability of a given event, one must neither discount nor consider the exceedingly unlikely, but rather be aware of it. Be aware of it in the distance, like one is aware aware of the despair of love, or the righteousness of the dragon over the knight, or to the chaining of the moon.