The Fecundity of Life vs. the Parsimony of Science

Scientists and philosophers who discuss theory often say that a good theory has certain traits.  Among other things, a theory is especially likely to provide a useful scientific explanation if it is predictive (i.e., it explains the phenomena well enough to predict what will happen in certain conditions) and unique (i.e., when it uses new terms or concepts, it explains how they differ from terms and concepts already in use).

This post focuses on another trait of good theory:  parsimony.  This is often expressed as the view that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.  In a well-known phrasing, the principle of parsimony says, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.”  This principle is often used in support of atheism:  basically, if you can explain the world and everything in it without using the concept of God, then it seems unnecessary to invoke or invent that concept, and doing so will probably lead you to incorrect conclusions.

The principle of parsimony has some things in common with the principle of noncontradiction.  According to the latter, something cannot be both true and false.  More precisely, says Wikipedia, “contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.”  Either the cat is white or it is not white, but not both simultaneously.  Seems obvious.

The problem is that things in the real world rarely occupy “the same sense at the same time.”  Life and philosophy part ways in these regards.  In philosophy, you don’t need redundant entities; but in life, you have redundant entities all over the place.  Life has no problem whatsoever with repeating itself in endless, idiotic duplication and near-duplication.  You already have a cockroach?  Here, have another!  and another!  Nor does life hesitate to contradict itself, at least for human purposes.  Yes, if you were able to pry apart every peccary, peccadillo, and pecuniary propensity, you would perhaps be able to characterize them in black-and-white terms:  fat, not thin; significant, not trivial.  But in real life, as soon as you look away for a minute, another version of the damned thing turns out to be just the opposite of what you expected.

There is a reason for it, of course; there is always some explanation for why something like a bumblebee can’t fly but, in fact, the bumblebee can fly but, in this case, the bumblebee cannot fly, but you were right when you said it could, because it could then.  Just drag everything back to the laboratory, dissect it, and you can explain it all.  Except that, of course, you can’t.  There aren’t enough of you to do it, and besides, you won’t live nearly long enough.  In theory, there are no violations of the principle of noncontradiction.  In reality, much of life is devoted to discovery of and reaction to things that weren’t supposed to be contradictory, but in effect are exactly that – and so they will remain, for the most part, because there aren’t nearly enough of us to sort them all out.

We have, in the principles of noncontradiction and parsimony, a set of abstractions from life.  Within the abstracted spaces of the philosophical armchair and the scientific laboratory, they carry weight.  Within the grand sweep of life, they don’t necessarily.  Mere redundancy, by itself, does not violate parsimony; but as just noted, it’s often not a case of mere redundancy, but rather of endless refinements on the original proposition.  The cat is white, except when it stands in a colored light, unless by “white” you mean . . . and so forth.  The words we use to explain things aren’t so much the neat stack of parsimonious constructs imagined by antique philosophers as they are a continuing dialogue in which people have to keep trying to distinguish cases in order to mimic verbally (in extremely limited form) the endless subtle permutations of life.

As an agnostic polytheistic fundamentalist, I’m not deeply invested in the question of whether the abstracted nature of parsimony shoots holes in atheists’ dismissal of God – for purposes of real life, that is, as distinct from the armchair, where we can sort out a small and artificially structured interpretation of reality in our heads.  People may differ in their willingness to accept that the universe confounds expectations.  I’m less interested in God than in life – in its eagerness to spew forth copy after copy, many mutating slightly from the original.  However useful parsimony may be for the formulation of abstract theories, it is not very helpful in characterizing existence.  Parsimony yields the conclusion but ignores the steps to it – giving us, say, the survival of a species with superior reproductive capability, but without the drama and the adventure, the struggles spanning months or eons that such victory required.  Parsimony is a reviewer who tells us how the book ends but not how it got there:  by definition, parsimony trims out everything it considers extraneous.  You can force it to come to the microphone and recite the progress of the marathon, but it will do so in plodding fashion, without imagination; it really just wants to state the outcome and be done.

In this post, I have parsed parsimony because it gets misused.  There are people who think they have provided an especially cool explanation when they make it as cryptic as possible, as though one dare not risk the wastage of a word.  This mentality, conducive perhaps to certain kinds of activities (e.g., the drafting of statutes), is in considerable conflict with the nature of life.  Life demands and practices constant, florid elaboration (in e.g., the interpretation of statutes).  We are closer to life’s spirit when we postulate not zero, not one, but a thousand gods, a dozen theories, a score of scenarios.  Closing down the options is a concession to our limits and/or our preferences, not to what may be.

As part of life, people indulge deliberately and indifferently arbitrary and superfluous thoughts, actions, and characteristics.  There is always much more to know, even within a rigorously parsimonious scientific mindset; but in fact there is vastly, overwhelmingly much more to suspect.  Principles of parsimony and noncontradiction can help us to think about things, but can be overindulged to the extreme of blinding us to possibilities that life has probably already recognized.

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