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Keeping it simple

POSTED July 20, 2010 10:10 p.m.

At every level, we humans have a natural drive to understand the world around us. We try to understand people and the economy (with little success), and we try to understand the natural world around us (with more and more success over time).

It’s easy to be puzzled about why we humans are so successful in understanding the physical world. At the level of recognizing a tiger and knowing to run away from one, it’s no surprise why we’re good at understanding Mother Nature. Evolution would weed out those who have trouble grasping the predator-prey relationship. But, at the same time, there’s no clear evolutionary reason we can see that people who are good with very abstract reasoning (like Einstein and other physicists) would spring up and do so very well at their labors.

To put it another way, why can we calculate the mass of an electron or do a thousand and one other tasks that are routine in research science and engineering?

Even if basic problem-solving is a hallmark of modern Homo sapiens, we are remarkably good at it at a level that’s astounding – yet we don’t know why we are suited to abstractions.

And the conundrum gets deeper, the more we think about it.

The methods of science are a hodgepodge we inherited from the intellectual past of Greece, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Here’s one example. Einstein’s most famous equation is so simple it can be printed on a t-shirt. (That’s my idea of good science – t-shirt printing!) Indeed, everything studied in freshman college physics – all the powerful equations that matter – can be printed on the back and front of a t-shirt.

We scientists are taught that simple is good, that a simple explanation of what looks complex is worth our serious consideration. To put it another way, if we have two competing hypotheses for something we’ve studied, and one is more simple than another, we are (all things being equal) supposed to prefer the simpler one. This is called “the principle of parsimony” or the “principle of simplicity.” As students like to say, “keep it simple, stupid.” But it’s also called by the rather difficult name of “Ockham’s razor,” and therein hangs a tale.

Keeping explanations simple sounds like common sense. And, I suppose, it is. But the rule is actually one we inherited from medieval times. A great intellectual of that era, a guy named William of Ockham (we can just call him Will) was in quite an argument with his colleagues about several things. The great discussions of that day were all about God, so the great disagreements were, too. Our friend Will argued that theologians should prefer the most simple ideas or explanations they had about theology because simplicity has a note of elegance and power to it – just like God. (Will got that notion mostly from the Greek tradition, I think.)

In the Renaissance, when people started to more seriously study what they assumed was God’s creation in the natural world around us, it made sense to import Will’s principle straight into early science. Hence the name – Ockham’s razor, which gives credit to him for the idea of cutting through complexity to the elegant and powerful simplicity likely to explain the very most.

But what’s interesting is that modern science – which no longer expects to see God’s handiwork in creation – still uses Will’s idea to good effect. And, of course, it’s doubly interesting that other parts of our creative lives, like good literature, poetry, and portions of our spirituality also seem driven by the quest for the profound and sublime that often comes with simplicity.

It’s just not clear why Will’s “razor” is still so useful in science and elsewhere, nor why our minds can deal with the abstractions of science so successfully to start with. Maybe it’s all chance, a by-product of our problem-solving skills developed many millennia ago to make better and better stone tools in the most efficient way possible.

But it’s all surely good fortune. For science, engineering, medical advances and the rest depend on our intellectual heritage going back to the ancient world as much as on our current creativity.

— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

 
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