Who is Occam?
And, why does he have a chain saw?
And, why did we let him get away with a massacre?
Patience. We will address these questions presently.
First, who is this Occam anyway?
Wikipedia provides a pretty succinct summary.
There are some interesting details, however. The most important detail is that what is “simplest” or “requires the fewest assumptions” depends on the representation system that you use and upon the assumptions that are so basic that you don’t even count them as assumptions.
Let’s take a look at flowers. Why flowers? Because they are nice to look at. I could make the same argument with anything else, so why not pick something beautiful?
Let’s say that you land on planet earth from a flowerless planet. You wander around and you see this flower — a yellow rose. You observe this flower over time and you see that it emerges from a bud. Then, it grows bigger. Eventually, the petals fall off.
Now, you see another flower. It is in full bloom as shown here.
What will happen in the future of this flower? We have stipulated that this is only the second flower that you’ve ever seen. Right now, it’s in full bloom. Is it more parsimonious to believe that it too will lose petals? Or, is it more parsimonious to believe it will forever stay in its current state?
If you came from a planet in this universe, your overwhelming experience will be that most things change over time. Some things change quickly and some things change slowly, but all of these “things” change over time. From that perspective, even if you don’t know that all flowers eventually lose their petals, you might well think it most parsimonious to think that it will change somehow on some time scale.
Now, you see more flowers and observe them over time. In every single case, flowers grow from buds, they blossom and eventually they lose their petals. Now, you come upon your 4000th flower. You see it in the steady state shown below.
Is it more “parsimonious” to think it too will lose its petals? Or, since you have no direct evidence about this flower’s future, do you think it more “parsimonious” to think: “Oh, no, it will stay in this state forever.”?
Now, let’s change the situation slightly. You don’t just see flowers. You see thousands of different life forms on earth. Some of them live to be thousands of years old. Some of them live for days. None of the individual life forms you see live forever. Now, you come upon a life form you’ve never seen before; e.g., a snail. This is your first snail. Interesting. It moves rather slowly, but it does move and respirates and if you study it closely, you will eventually discover that it ingests food, excretes waste, mates, and dies.
Now, you come upon your first lizard. It looks quite different from a snail. Do you think it will die? Is it more parsimonious to believe it will eventually die or more parsimonious to think it will not die because you don’t see it dying? Do you think it more parsimonious to think that it mates, breathes, eats, grows or do you think it’s more parsimonious to think that none of those things are properties of lizards because you’ve never seen one mate, breathe, eat, or grow?
When it comes to your own experience, you notice that your experience is related to external and observable behaviors and states. When you haven’t eaten for a time, you feel hungry. If you feel hungry for a long time, it’s rather unpleasant. If you eat, you notice that you feel better. If you have been exercising hard and sweating, you may feel thirsty. If you drink, you feel better. If you are awake for a long time, you begin to nod off. Your mind begins to wander. You feel like sleeping.
So, when it comes to you, you notice that there are fairly reliable experiences that correlate pretty well with repeatable external events. These are not perfect correlations. I observed a child once with a hypothalamic tumor who was starving to death but did not feel like eating. As people age, they need to be more careful to stay hydrated because felt thirst becomes a less reliable signal of their bodies need for water. We feel desperate to breathe when the carbon dioxide concentration in our blood increases, but what we really need is oxygen. A lack of oxygen, per se, does not cause us to “feel” the need to breathe more. Early pilots went up into the sky and failed to put on their oxygen masks and died. On Everest, many have died from lack of oxygen. If you get dunked under water, on the other hand, your carbon dioxide will build up and you’ll feel a desperate need to breathe. But if you suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning (which you prevents your blood from taking up oxygen), you will not feel such a need.
Despite these exceptions, in general, our subjective experiences are related to external events. We do not question whether we ourselves have subjective experiences. What about others? Do they also have subjective experiences? Most of us believe that other humans also feel hunger, thirst, pain, etc. And, most of us believe that others feel more subtle experiences as well such as love, hate, curiosity, pride, humiliation.
We may feel empathy for others, but we do not directly experience what they experience. We infer what others feel based on their actions and external signals. If you’ve studied science at all, you will also know that other people’s internal structures including their bodies, brains, nerves, hormones, and so on are much like ours — not just in terms of the organs but also in terms of the cells and the DNA and RNA within the cells.
When it comes to a dog, you may know that they have pretty much the same body we have. We do many of the same basic behaviors and we have the same basic internal structures. Our brains are generally bigger. We generally stand on two legs and they generally stand on four. Which is more parsimonious? Is it more elegant to believe that they do feel pain or to believe that they do not feel pain? They certainly do get excited about having sex. Is it more elegant to believe that they enjoy it or to believe that it is just a reflex and declare that “we have no idea” whether they enjoy it. They take care of their puppies. If a puppy is taken away from its mother at an early age, it acts as though it is suffering. Is it more parsimonious to believe it is suffering or is it more parsimonious to believe that “we know nothing about his or her feelings”?
Mammals share most of their biological history with us.
Mammals share most of their genes with us.
Mammals have most of the same organs and tissues as we do though they are of different sizes and shapes.
Mammals exhibit the same kinds of behaviors that we do in response to the same sorts of stimuli.
Mammals can learn and solve problems.
Mammals mate and care for their young.
Do you think it’s more “parsimonious” to believe that they do experience life in much the same way we do? Or do you think it’s more “parsimonious” to believe that they do not have any conscious experience?
The second and third questions, I believe, are best considered together because the answers are inter-twined. Occam has a chain saw, and not just a razor, because humans are generally greedy. Like height, weight, running speed, and virtually every other characteristic of humans, the greed variable shows variability. Variables, variability, vary. It is quintessentially life that there is such variability. Some people grow up to be taller than others. This is partly due to genetics and partly due to the environment. Similarly, some people grow up to be more curious; some are less curious. Some people grow up to be better sprinters than others. Again, this is partly due to genetics and partly to environmental pressures. Partly, it is due to their own choices. A person who runs fast in grade school, for instance, may think of themselves as fast and run more than a person who runs very slowly. They may seek out coaching. They may join a track team. Their choices impact the environment they put themselves in and this in turn, makes them even faster.
It is the same with greed. People who have a natural tendency toward greater greed may also be born into a family or a culture of like-minded people. The people around him or her may actually admire and reinforce greed. So, they become greedier over time. There is, however, one huge difference between height, intelligence, running speed, and most other characteristics and greed. A very tall person cannot make themselves still taller by buying the height of others. A very intelligent person may, to some extent, buy a good education which will make them a bit more intelligent. But they cannot buy a doubling of their IQ. A person who runs well may attract, and be able to afford, better coaching. In that way, they will learn to run even faster. But not twice as fast. The best coaching and nutrition in the world will not turn a 10.0 100 meter dasher into a 5.0 100 meter dasher.
An extremely greedy person, however, may relish and thrive in environments that gain them wealth and power. They can do much more than merely double their wealth and power. They can have ten, a hundred, a thousand, or even a million times more wealth than others. They can leverage the greed of others to gain much more wealth and power for themselves. In the process, they will likely become greedier still. While “trickle down economics” is simply a myth to rationalize the flow of wealth from your wallet to the wallets of the very richest, “trickle down greed” does work, at least to a considerable extent.
The greediest, wealthiest, most powerful people can afford to buy the services of the best lawyers, the best accountants, the best managers, the best politicians from amongst those who themselves have a statistically outsized amount of greed. That is largely why they can end up far, far wealthier and more powerful than “average” people. This is not to say that the very best lawyers, accountants, managers, and politicians can all be “bought.” There are undoubtedly some excellent lawyers who won’t take a lucrative case for a known criminal sleaze bag. But the richest and most powerful people will always be able to choose from among the most greedy people on the planet, those who are particularly skilled at anything.
Humans can communicate and cooperate with each other. That is a good thing, in general. But it also puts a very strange “kink” in “survival of the fittest.” In a small tribe of humans who are trying to cooperate, imagine one among that tribe who was always trying to steal much, much more than their fair share. Such a person would not be likely to thrive. First, they would be easier for a predator to bring down. Second, people could see the outsized greed on display every day and the tribe may exile such a person or kill them outright. If an entire tribe arose which was overly greedy, they might easily hunt and gather and fish the local food supply into ruin and all starve. At a very local level, an exceptionally high level of greed is self-destructive.
In a complex society however, it is possible for extremely wealthy and powerful and greedy people to insulate themselves from the natural destructiveness of wanton addictive greed. Such people can “buy” publicity, governmental exceptions, and hire some of the best manipulators money can buy so that, instead of the vast majority of people being upset with the very greediest amongst us, their natural resentment and anger are instead steered toward the very short, the very tall, the slowest, the fastest, the darkest, the lightest, people who like different food or wear different clothes. The possibilities are nearly endless in terms of the details but the basic strategy has been the same since the time of the earliest “ruler class.” Take, take, take and use what is taken to build castles, hire knights, mislead, mis-educate, etc. in order to rationalize and protect the outsized greed.
The protection garnered from outsized addictive greed is time-limited, however. In the long run, nature wins. The outsized greed of a few, if unchecked, will destroy humanity, including the greediest. But for millennia, most of the negative impacts of greed have hit the people who have the least. As the planet cooks and poisons spread through our water, air, and food supply, everyone will eventually be hurt including the richest and most powerful.
Why, you may be asking yourself, did we take such a long detour into the nature of greed when we are talking about parsimony? The real reason that people have moved away from the stance of natural economic use of resources and a felt kinship with all of life is that our current disconnection from life and the sentience of other life forms is that it feeds the greed. In other words, it is a convenient rationalization to think that “science shows” that other life forms don’t “really” feel pain in the same sense that we do. If we were to recognize that all life is related; if we were to recognize that all life is sentient; if we were to recognize that all life is precious — then it would be much harder to hunt for sport, to force feed animals for slaughter, to treat animals as just another kind of tool.
Conversely, when we treat other life forms badly, it not only provides a rationalization for killing more of them than we “need” — it also provides a convenient rationalization for killing, torturing, and exploiting other humans. After all, “they” are not fully human. If “they” look different or speak differently or dress differently or worship differently or make love differently, to a civilization that is used to exploiting other life forms and wantonly killing them, it is a short step to being able to rationalize being cruel to these other humans — to “them.”
There may be cases where we should use Occam’s Razor.
But we should not be giving Occam a chain saw.
He has used that chain saw, not just to get rid of epicycles on epicycles or to erase phlogiston from thermodynamics. He will use it to cut us off from our larger family of all life on earth. He will use it to rationalize the belief that — despite animals being like us in every conceivable way that is fundamental — they have no real feelings. He will use the chain saw to rationalize the belief that irrational and addictive greed are just fine and that people who speak differently or dress differently or have different skin color don’t have any feelings that actually matter.
What do you think?