The OF Blog: Brief reaction to a quote from Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Brief reaction to a quote from Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?

Currently reading the National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated Why Does the World Exist?:  An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt.  Fascinating reading about 1/3 into it.  Here's a quote from Holt's interview with Richard Swinburne:

And why, I asked, is simplicity such an epistemic virtue?

"There are innumerable examples to illustrate this," he said, "and not just from science.  A crime has been committed.  A bank has been robbed.  There are three clues.  A chap called Jones was reported to be near the scene of the crime at the time of the robbery.  Jones's fingerprints were found on the safe.  Money from a bank robbery was found in Jones's garret.  Plausible explanation:  Jones did the crime.  Why do we think that?  Well, if the hypothesis that Jones did the crime was true, you would probably find such clues; and if it wasn't, you probably wouldn't.  But there are an infinite number of other hypotheses that meet this dual condition – for example, the hypothesis that somebody dressed up like Jones as a joke and happened to walk near the bank; and another person, not in collusion with the first, had a grudge against Jones and put Jones's fingerprints on the safe; and a third person, having no connection to the previous two, put the proceeds from a quite different robbery in Jones's garret.  That hypothesis also meets the dual condition for being true.  But we wouldn't think much of any lawyer who put it forward.  Why?  Because the first hypothesis is simpler.  Science always reaches for the simplest hypothesis.  If it didn't, one could never move beyond the data.  To abandon the principle of simplicity would be to abandon all reasoning about the external world." (p. 96)

While this line of reasoning was used to set up a rationale for the existence of God (i.e. the simplest explanation for how an universe that contains everything that it does is one that posits God), I was struck by some tangential explanations that can be found in Swinburne's last few sentences.  The first is the "science always reaches for the simplest hypothesis."  If this is in fact true, then could it be that in this grasping for the most concise and "simple" that scientists may dismiss the more complex and complicated explanations because they do not jive with held beliefs on the theories with the fewer dependent conditions being most likely to be most valid?  In a perverse way, this could take Adolf Grünbaum's comments earlier in the book regarding complex theories not necessarily being the least valid and turn his non-theist conclusion on its head. (Mind you, this is a conclusion that in turn could be reached through a simplistic interpretation and not something that would refute Grünbaum's stance on the question of the origin of "something", if there can be such a thing as "origin.")  Furthermore, for some, the possible resultant distrust in the conclusions reached by a methodological "scientific" approach can perhaps explain some of the rationale for views of the world, its prime movers, etc. that others might consign to the category of "conspiracy theories."  Reductionism by some oddly seems to cause a reactive expansion of (im)plausible hypotheses and guesses on the part of others.

Curious to see if Holt's book will address these tangential thoughts of mine, because it seems to me so far that he's setting up a lot of metaphysical and theoretical physics pins for a giant bowling ball to come crashing down (or not) on them.


Harry Markov said...

I'd imagine that it's all relative. It's quite possible that science would search for the simplest among complex theories. Isn't that plausible?

At the same time, I don't see science as the type to singlemindedly search for simplicity for simplicity's sake.

Lsrry said...

Yes, it's plausible, but it also can lead to a sort of willful blindness, some might argue, because the line of questioning can introduce a series of biases into it that would color the questions that spark research, hypotheses, and theories. But mind you, my own view on the matter is that of a genial skeptic: some things just may need to remain a mystery, because the explanations derived from certain lines of questioning may be worse than having no answers at all. It's why I distrust the likes of Dawkins much more than I would distrust certain theistic lines of query into why there is something instead of nothing: the functions of these questions are at least as important as any theoretical explorations of them. From what I've read second-hand regarding Dawkins and many others, they seem to be too quick to dismiss these matters of function.

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