Hello Mr. Gulack,
You said the following:
Pragmatic Naturalist cites observation and experiment as an alternative to Occam’s razor. What we need to realize here is that, for any particular experimental result, or any particular observation, there are an infinite number of theories that “explain” that result or observation (in the sense of being consistent with it). If I note that heavy and light objects accelerate at the same rate, it could be because invisible demons like playing with heavy objects, for example.
So the basic question is, what is it that science does to narrow down the list from infinity to the few theories that are genuinely worth considering? And the answer is, you go with the simplest theory that covers all currently available evidence. That becomes your working hypothesis until more data becomes available. That is the principle known as Occam’s razor. It is not an alternative to observation and experiment. It explains what you DO with observations and experiments. It is the sole and only method for analyzing factual claims, and, for that reason, it is not only relevant to the issue of human freedom, but the sole means we have of speaking intelligibly about the issue.
I suppose you’re right that observation and experiment are not really “alternatives to Occam’s razor.” I guess I was confused because I thought we were talking about “factual analyses” before. But, I admit, it seems clear that Occam’s razor has to do with theory selection, as you indicate.
Nonetheless, at the risk of being “cavalier”, I just don’t agree that Occam’s razor is “the sole and only method for analyzing factual claims” or for deciding between competing theories. It is one way; but it is not the only one, and it is certainly not the decisive one. To defend this claim I’ll provide an example and an alternative methodology.
First, the example: Was Einstein’s theory of gravity simpler than Newton’s? I don’t think so. (Perhaps Occam’s razor would even—mistakenly, in this case—favor Newton.) Einstein’s theory of general relativity was just more successful for dealing with large astral bodies than Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. In fact, I think that Einstein was motivated to produce his theory of general relativity because Newton’s theory proved inadequate in making certain predictions.
Newton’s theory is fine—i.e. it makes basically the same predictions as Einstein’s—for events on earth (where the gravitational force is relatively weak), but its not so good when it comes to much more massive bodies, like our sun. That leaves us with a pragmatic choice to make: we can still use Newton’s (simpler) theory for mid-sized objects if we want to, or, we can break out general relativity.
That brings us to the “alternative methodology” part of my response. The alternative was just mentioned above: it is the “pragmatic method”. (I’m not just a naturalist, I’m also, by name, a pragmatist.) The direction of inquiry is often guided by particular problems that we want to solve. That is the key. (I think that Einstein versus Newton is a case in point. That is why I used it as an example.) We want to understand nature and control it when we can—it is in our interest to do so. Science and inquiry—and the acquisition of knowledge generally—are driven by this problem-solving goal.
So, how does the pragmatic method help us to choose between, as you put it, “an infinite number of theories that “explain” a result or observation”?
I used this quotation from William James in another thread about truth, but it seems relevant here as well. James says:
“I am a natural realist. The world per se may be likened to a cast of beans on a table. By themselves they spell nothing. An onlooker may group them as he likes. He may simply count them all and map them. He may select groups and name these capriciously, or name them to suit certain extrinsic purposes of his. Whatever he does, so long as he takes account of them, his account is neither false nor irrelevant. If neither, why not call it true? It fits the beans-minus-him, and expresses the total fact, of beans-plus-him. Truth in this total sense is partially ambiguous, then. If he simply counts or maps, he obeys a subjective interest as much as if he traces figures. Let that stand for pure “intellectual” treatment of the beans, while grouping them variously stands for non-intellectual interests. All that Schiller and I contend for is that there is no “truth” without some interest, and that non-intellectual interests play a part as well as intellectual ones. Whereupon we are accused of denying the beans, or denying being in anyway constrained by them! It’s too silly!” (William James, “Letter to Dickenson Miller, Aug. 5, 1907,” The Letters of William James, pp. 195-6)
James here, I think, lays out the keys to the pragmatic method. The universe, or living organisms, or freedom, or whatever we are trying to explain, is like a bunch of beans on a table. The beans are there. They are real, not figments of our imagination; and, we can describe them (i.e., reality) in various ways. We choose certain ways rather than others because it is beneficial to our goal of solving (certain) problems—and therefore, for living successfully. The “beans”—i.e. the cold, hard world that we have to live with—faces us with problems. It’s not easy being alive. It’s a lot of hard work. We are, as individuals, temporarily resisting the trend (in the rest of the universe) toward increasing entropy. And, as a species, our practice of acquiring knowledge and finding out about—and learning how to control and predict—the workings of nature provide us with tools to better cope with this precarious existence.
My point here is that, when dealing with the cold, hard world, the simpler (theory) is not always the better (though it has its obvious benefits at times, I admit). The more successful is the better. And this “success” is measured in consequences. (That is why I brought up experimentalism before: it’s a way of assessing consequences and testing theories.) The pragmatic method—at its core—has its eye on these consequences. That is why I think it is apt to describe this method in terms of its solving problems for us.
Thanks for your time,