Dulling Occam's Razor
Contributed by John W. Welch
William of Occam, an important medieval philosopher, became famous for using a rule of logic that has become a fundamental building block of modern scientific analysis. In one of its more popular formulations, this principle, known as Occam's Razor, considers it axiomatic that the simplest possible solution is the best solution. In many cases, this approach is reasonable. For example, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line (on a Euclidean plane), and a simple computer program takes less memory and therefore runs faster than a more sophisticated one. In other cases, however, Occam's Razor does not seem to apply. This is particularly true in the arts, humanities, and religion.
As commonly applied, Occam's Razor shuns metaphysics and assumes that the world is essentially simple and uniform, not complex or convoluted. Occam's medieval world-view assumed that God had created the world out of nothing, in an orderly fashion. The earth was the center of the cosmos, and the species of life on this planet were relatively few and the boundaries between them distinct and clear. Given these conditions, it made sense to consider the simplest, observable answers to be the best.
But in modern times, what gives anyone the impression that the world is simple" What justification is there for believing that logical explanations of complex phenomena should, in order to be persuasive, be straightforward"
The human drive for simple explanations is persistent and powerful. The prevailing theories of creation and evolution are vast oversimplifications of complex processes. Such popular theories derive much of their appeal from their simplicity. This is true of the big bang theory of the origin of the universe, the theistic explanations of creationism ex nihilo, and the basic theories of evolution that trace all living organisms back to a single, simple life source. People are comfortable with these theories in large part because they are simple to state, imagine, and comprehend. But those theories may also be overly simplistic.
If the world is complex, there is no reason to believe that any satisfactory explanation of its nature or origin should be simple. In cutting through this complexity, Occam's Razor may also sever vital arteries.
For example, in music, simple melodies are beautiful, but simple symphonies are banal. In painting, simple designs are important building blocks, but masterworks such as the Sistine Chapel flourish because of their complexity. In jurisprudence, simple rules of law are usually misleading or unhelpful. Similarly, in literature and the humanities, simple characters are lifeless and colorless, simple rhyme schemes are abhorrent, and simple explanations are hollow.
Religious matters are also known for their complexity. Efforts to reduce the eternal and infinite nature of God or the atonement of Jesus Christ to creeds, analogies, or systematic theologies are unbecoming and unsuccessful. Explaining Jesus as a simple Jewish peasant whose followers mythologized and exalted him offers a perfectly simple theory that appeals to many modern biblical scholars, but ultimately this oversimplification leaves more questions about early Christianity unanswered than it resolves. Likewise, it would be relatively easy for scientific minds to conclude that Joseph Smith was a pious impostor and that the Book of Mormon was simply a product of his cultural environment. After all, from a strictly objective standpoint it is simple to see that books don't come from angels. But because the underlying matter is fundamentally complex, such facile explanations do not ultimately satisfy.
Without the simplifying and clarifying efforts of science and logic, our world would be chaotic, unproductive, disorganized, and confusing. However, our desire for simple explanations may prevent us from appropriately considering complex truths. To make this mistake is to apply Occam's Razor indiscriminately, as a kind of mantra or talisman of truth. In our search for truth and understanding, it is well to keep in mind that eternal truth may surprise us allas it surely did Moses when he beheld all the inhabitants of the earth and "worlds without number" " (see Moses 1:810, 2733)in being more complex and astonishing than Occam, or any of the rest of us, ever imagined. . . .