The Sophomoric Appeal of Improper Reduction

When I was a sophomore in college, lo these many decades ago, I was totally stoked to be learning about psychobiology, cybernetics, and philosophy of mind. It was intoxicating to feel my understanding growing so rapidly. I could begin to see how experience might be translated into neural circuitry, in principle at least. I kept thinking, “Oh! So this is just that! Nifty!” Once that happened in respect to any particular perplexity, I could stop worrying about it, and move on. The process felt as though it gave me terrific intellectual leverage. It was exhilarating, to find that such complex things – such mysterious things – could be explained so simply.

This is I think why improper reduction is so popular. It vastly simplifies the problem of understanding reality. It makes everything easier.

It is alas a philosophical cheap shot. For, unfortunately, it does this by making everything altogether too easy, altogether too simple. It makes reality too simple, too easy. That makes modeling reality much easier, no?

It is by building an intellectual model of how a thing works that we come to feel that we understand it. The easier it is to build an adequate model of something, the easier it is to understand; and the simpler the thing you are trying to model, the simpler the task of modeling, and the cheaper the understanding you gain from the procedure.

As Einstein said in his famous emendation of Ockham’s Razor:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The simplest theories are so parsimonious that Ockham’s Razor has sliced away the very sort of entities they were in the first place intended and devised to explain.

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Ockham’s Razor, the Gordian Knot & the Thomist Marlinspike

Reality is a knotty problem. It is terrifically difficult to unsnarl it, so that we understand it. It won’t do to cut through it, as (according to the most famous version of the legend) Alexander did with the Gordian Knot. To do that is in the final analysis to surrender to befuddlement, even as one defies it and forges onward, damning all torpedoes. So while Ockham’s Razor is amazingly useful as a way of clarifying and simplifying our understanding, it is not itself a way to arrive at understanding. You want to shave with it, rather than slash.

When Ockham’s Razor cuts away entities that are inherent to the experience of understanding, it forestalls understanding, rather than facilitating it. For example, if you find that your explanation of consciousness is so wonderfully parsimonious that it eliminates consciousness from the universe altogether, you’ve cut too deep.

I used to deal with gnarly knots all the time when I was working as a whitewater boatman. [I’m not working on the River these days, but I’m still a boatman; it sticks with you.] When you put enormous tension on a knot, as happens when it is doing what you wanted it to do under stressful conditions, it can tighten so much that it becomes impossible to untie with fingers alone. It is tempting at such times to just say the hell with it, and cut through the knot. But that’s a bad idea when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest supply of line, in the deep wilderness. You never know when you might need that piece of line uncut. So an outdoorsman will never cut line unless he must.

Instead, sailors and boatmen use a fid or marlinspike:

The marlinspike is not a sharp cutting blade, but a smooth dully pointed stout poker. Poked into the interstices of a knot, a marlinspike can be used to pry apart the recalcitrant strands without cutting them, and allow for a good grip on the one that must be pulled through in order to loosen the doggone thing (sometimes pliers are needed for that).

To unsnarl the world knot, you want the right tool for the job. A razor is the wrong tool for undoing knots. What you want is what might be called a Thomist Marlinspike: neither affirm nor deny, but rather first distinguish. Once you’ve pulled the strands apart, untangled the knot, and laid it out nice and straight, then you can get to work on the line with Ockham’s Razor, shaving off the frayed bits to make things all nice and tidy, shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: More on Angels

In a recent essay, I suggested that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Platonic Forms. This in response to a few Ockhamian challenges to Plato regarding the Forms that I there adduced:

What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?

… If [the Platonic Realm is concrete], and therefore ineluctably particular, then how is it universally and archetypally Formal?

Well, OK. Stipulating to the notion that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Forms, how does that help us answer those questions?

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Archetypes, Forms, & Angels

Ockham comes in for a lot of criticism around these parts, the poor honest earnest man. And not unrightly, perhaps, given his (largely innocent and inadvertent) role in the incipience of the prevalent modern nominalism that has gutted the West (he was not really much of a nominalist, as we think of nominalism these days). But in most things he was on target (this is true of all heretics, scoundrels, sinners, and fools (or else they’d die before they could do much damage, understood by their contemporaries as mere silly kooks)). Most of all, he was right in respect to his famous Razor, which more than any of his other immense contributions to human thought will surely warrant his everlasting renown – his status, shared with only five or six other philosophers, as a household name (at least among those who consider themselves somewhat educated). Even men who know nothing else whatever of epistemology or philosophy of science have some notion of Ockham’s Razor. His Principle of Parsimony is perhaps the most important operational, practical principle of thought (the Principle of Sufficient Reason, e.g., is by contrast ontological; or again e.g., the Principle of Noncontradiction is logical; and so forth). It is the whole basis of American Pragmatism, which is to say, of the philosophy of science universally presupposed in the practice of professional scientists. It is followed in its pragmatic importance – opinions differ about their proper order – by the Principle of Elegance (the more beautiful theory is more likely to be true) and the Principle of Adequacy (theories must adequate to the entirety of their proper domain). I would add also the Principle of Serendipity – as I here now decide to name it, not knowing how other thinkers might have done so: the principle, i.e., that a true theory is likely to explain more things, and they unsuspected things, than we had looked for it to explain – things that, i.e., are outside its (expected) proper domain (huge swathes of mathematics, e.g., turn out to exemplify the Principle of Serendipity).

Ockham, then, God Bless him: All else equal, that theory is best which is simplest – which postulates the fewest types of concrete entities.

So then: what about the Platonic Forms? Ockham’s Razor – a native, chthonic tendency in my thinking from infancy – bugged me about them from the first moment I read of them. What the heck are they? Are they a different sort of thing than the things of this world? What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?

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The Great Sortition

I argued in a recent post that, because of its militant, totalitarian presumptions, Islam must sooner or later be destroyed if any other cult – including the cult of the Living God, YHWH our Lord Jesus – is to survive. Because God in Jesus assured us (Matthew 16:18) that his cult simply *cannot* be destroyed (which would only make sense, it being the cult of the Omnipotent One), we may be sure that, sooner or later, Islam certainly *will* be destroyed, or else by some mass apostasy of Muslims simply wither and vanish, as insane cults are wont eventually to do.

Insanity, after all, is autophagic. Like all error, it works its own destruction.

The post garnered more page views than any other we had published since our first few days of existence. Thanks, Western Rifle Shooters!

It also engendered a lively discussion.

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The Razor Ockham *Should* Have Proposed

Ockham’s Razor is the heuristic sometimes known as the lex parsimoniae: the Law of Parsimony. As he actually proposed it:

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate: Do not posit pluralities beyond necessity.

Ockham’s Razor as it is usually rendered:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.

The entities of a theory are its terms. They are not actual entities, but formal only. So the Razor is often rendered:

Do not multiply terms beyond necessity.

This makes it easy to compare theories and see which one is more parsimonious – especially if they are mathematically formalized. F = ma, for example, clearly  invokes three terms, that terminate on three sorts of properties of things. The basic idea of course is that as between two theories that adequately explain some phenomenon, the simpler is more likely to be more accurate. But why?

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Cur Deus Homo & Other Roman Problems: Some Quiddities

The valuable EH Looney – an orthospherean through and through, let it be noted, and so our ally and friend (witly or not), whose site I visit daily – has in a recent short post subtly erred, in three different and interesting ways. An Orthodox Christian who admires Rome with fervent intelligence, he nevertheless writes with eyes open:

The problem with Rome isn’t papal supremacy, or even the filioque, it’s that the Roman church is the cradle of nominalism. That sickness should have been condemned immediately rather than being allowed to fester long enough to create Luther and the Protestant deformation.

Also Anselm’s theory of the atonement almost totally obscures the existential nature of the paschal mystery into a legalism of the worst possible sort.

Now, there is some truth to each of these statements. Some truth; not all.

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No Way Out But In

A proposition that cannot be carried into practice at all cannot be true. An act that cannot be implemented in actuality must be somehow incoherent: self-refuting – for example, you can’t mean it when you say, “this statement is a lie” – or a contradiction in terms either simple or implicit – e.g., there’s just no way to implement “2 + 3 = 4,” for it is a contradiction in terms. That such propositions can’t work logically means that they can’t work in practice.

But a proposition that can be carried into practice might be true. E.g., “It is best not to defer gratification.”

When we sin, we assert one or more of a number of propositions:

  1. God does not exist.
  2. God is not omniscient.
  3. God is amoral.
  4. The world is amoral.
  5. God does not care whether I behave well or not, nor does the world.
  6. Whether or not God cares about my behavior does not matter (to me, at least).

And so forth. When we misbehave, we effectually attest to our belief in at least one of these propositions, or else in one of a number of other propositions like them. And to attest belief in propositions is to testify to their truth, and so is to urge their truth: behavior is an effectual proposal for how it might be well to behave.

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