Science, Truth and Ockham's Razor

A fourteenth century Franciscan friar, William of Ockham, proposed a scientific principle that is now called Ockham's Razor.  Although Friar Ockham's principle has been variously explained over the centuries, a common formulation is:  If two competing theories explain natural occurrences equally well, the simpler of the two is the better theory.  Constantly selecting the simpler theory confers a key advantage to a scientist pushing the boundaries, but there is no proof that a bias toward simplicity brings us closer to truth.

A well-known example of the utility of Ockham's Razor takes us back to Copernicus.  In his time, virtually every scholar and scientist assumed that the Earth was at the center of the universe (called the geocentric model).  An extraordinarily complex set of formulas was used to accurately plot the seemingly erratic paths of the Sun and the other planets as they traced their paths around the Earth.  Copernicus postulated that the Sun was at the center of the universe (called the heliocentric model).  His new formulas for the paths of the various planets around the Sun were ridiculously simple when compared to those associated with the old geocentric model.  That dramatic increase in simplicity eventually drew every scientist into the heliocentric camp, and today it is the universally accepted model to plot the paths of planets.

Shortly after Copernicus' work was adopted by the world's scientists, Sir Isaac Newton developed the underpinnings of modern gravitational theory.  As innovative and brilliant as Newton's work was, it would have been virtually impossible if the accepted theory of the universe had not changed from geocentric to heliocentric.  It is one thing to move from Copernicus' simple planetary ellipses to Newton's proportionality of gravity to the square of distances.  It would have been quite another to reach the same conclusion based on the cycloids and retrograde movements embedded in the pre-Copernican theory.  The fact that the odds of Newton's discoveries were greatly enhanced by the choice of the heliocentric model is no accident.  It is the very reason for Ockham's Razor.  Scientific discovery is excruciatingly difficult under the best of circumstances.  Ignoring best practices makes it virtually impossible.

Lost in the strictures of Ockham's Razor is whether either the Earth or the Sun is truly at the center of the universe.  Because the universe extends further than our telescopes can see in any direction, we do not know where its boundaries or its center might be.  It is possible that the Earth or the Sun is truly at the center of the universe, but neither has any better claim than any other point in the known universe.  It is also possible that there is no such thing as a center of the universe.  However, even if it is later determined that the Earth is at the precise center of the universe, Ockham's Razor would still tell our scientists to continue doing their calculations as if the Sun were at the center.

The primacy of formulaic simplicity over possible truth tells us more about science than it does about truth.  Science is not in the "truth" business.  It is in the explanation and prediction business, and its tools reflect that.  Although some scientists have postulated that nature is inherently simple and that Ockham's Razor not only makes things easier but also brings us closed to the truth, their views cannot be confirmed by observation or experiment.  The correlation of simplicity and truth may be an interesting assumption, but it is not science.  Indeed, as scientists begin to address complexity and chaos theory, nature appears to be far more complex that we had previously assumed, and it is possible that the elegant, simple theory is the exception rather than the rule.

Removing the burden of truth from our scientific theories pushes them away from the center of political and religious stages and frees them to quietly do what Friar Ockham originally intended.  If scientific progress is to continue, we need a totally unfettered flow of ever-improving scientific theories and the sharp edge of Ockham's Razor to slice the better ones away from the rest.  If we allow non-scientific beliefs and prejudices to restrict that flow, we will all suffer.