iSoul In the beginning is reality

Beyond Occam’s razor

This continues a previous post on Occam’s razor, which it was pointed out is a principle that is arbitrary and biased. With what should it be replaced?

Every science has at least two schools of thought. These reflect well-known tendencies to ascribe more significance to one of two contrary explanatory factors. For example, there are lumpers and splitters in every classification endeavor. In every historical science there are those who emphasize continuous change and those who emphasize discontinuous change. Social sciences have their nature-nurture poles.

From a larger perspective, there is the importance of subjective vs. objective methods. Which comes first, facts or theories? That is, do scientists discover facts and develop theories to explain them or do they construct theories and seek facts that follow from them? Is the “view from nowhere” better than a self-aware view from somewhere? Are final and formal causes (explanatory factors) more important than efficient (mechanistic) and material ones? Is the spiritual more important than the physical?

It should be clear by now that these extremes are all partly true but too extreme. The truth is somewhere in the middle or in a combination of the extremes. Instead of expecting one side to win and the other side to lose, we should allow them both equally. Let them compete. Let them compromise. Let them jointly come up with something that is acceptable to both.

There are a few examples of friendly competition. The corpuscular theory of light developed by Isaac Newton and the wave theory of light developed by Christiaan Huygens competed for years. The quantum mechanical solution is to accept both. Atomic theory developed by John Dalton competed with the known natural kinds of substance. The periodic table solution joins both in a combination of common atoms and distinct chemical elements.

There are a few examples of monopolistic science in which one side sought to marginalize and ban the other side completely. Since the late 19th century those espousing gradualist theories of historical science have worked to banish their one-time colleagues who promote the importance of discontinuous change and difference. The control of educational positions, funding, and prestige have enabled much one-sided and weak science to persist. Science is the loser in these wars.

Each science needs to work out the compromises and combinations that are best for it. A genuine pluralism is possible and should be sought earnestly. The replacement for Occam’s razor is a razor that allows multiple criteria, minimizing both quantities and qualities without sacrificing accuracy.

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