Monday, April 06, 2009

Doggerel #180: "Simple"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

This is one of the words that often comes in tune with fundamental misunderstandings of Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor is about minimizing the number of entities involved in a hypothesis. For example: Creationism versus evolution. You can summarize the former as "Magic Man Done It," but that doesn't make it simpler. Modern evolutionary theory deals with several demonstrable effects that we know exist, and can't be excluded because of that. For the standard Creationism, it requires introducing two new entities: The magic man, and some unspecified force that blocks the inevitable accumulation of all the effects evolution relies on.

Further, many woos love to claim whatever they believe in is simple and yet capable of complex behavior, like ghosts, spirits, deities, exotic energies, and so forth. This is only by fiat, and usually for convenience, since many of them need to believe in something magical, but don't want to have to take it apart to understand it. Of course, they usually lack evidence of the entity in the first place.

Another instance is an assumption that certain abstract ideas like art, morality, etcetera are simple, when they're often more complex than they think. This can sometimes be deflated by asking them simple questions, like for instance, "what's the definition of [key concept]?" Many concepts seem simple until you have to explain them.


MWchase said...

Actually, if you think about it, it's even worse in terms of a simple thing doing complex things. Lots of the simple things we do, we use tools that are relatively complex to help or accomplish them. For example, take a pencil. Not even a mechanical pencil, just a regular pencil. You've got the graphite-clay core, the wood surrounding it, the veneer or whatever on the outside... Many pencils have the metal ring on one end to hold onto the crappy eraser, too. And even with all that, you still need a sharpener, which takes, at its simplest, two parts held together with a screw. One of the parts has to be properly sized to accommodate the width of the pencil, and the other, the blade, has to be properly angled to shave off bits of pencil.

All that is something that we take for granted because it's so familiar, sort of like grass. (Think about it... there was no grass during the time of the dinosaurs.)

So, what this shows us is that people are terrible judges of complexity. On the other hand... once you learn how to write, a pencil is simple to use, and once you learn theology, god is easy to invoke.

Don said...

On the other other hand, though, writing arose as a product of clay and a flattened stick; ancient Mesopotamians were able to encode rather complex information in syllabic script (which is more complex than our alphabet) using very simple implements.

Of course, on the other other other hand, they weren't themselves made of mud and wood. The people were the ones generating the writing, not the tools, and their brains are certainly orders of magnitude more complex than some wedges pressed into mud. I think the real issue is one of agency: you can't expect an agent to intentionally create things or consciously behave in ways which are more complex than it is physically capable of behaving.

So an immortal monkey with a typewriter may eventually write Shakespeare, which is complexity beyond its abilities, but you can't sit him down and say "Okay, now I want King Lear by Friday."

But, then again, Shakespeare is only complex because we interpret it as such. It is really no more complex than the random string of characters the monkey generates before he hits the magic pattern; it's just a meaningful string of patterns to English-speakers. When generated by the monkey, technically it's all random.

So what it really comes down to, I think, is that a "simple" entity (something that is "spirit" or something, or assumed to have no moving parts or active neuronal activity) is being claimed to have agency in a way that, as far as we can tell, is really only restricted to physical animals with higher-level abstract reasoning capability and robust senses of self and theories of mind. How can something without a brain of any kind behave intentionally? How can a "spirit" with no moving parts and no physical seat for consciousness, let alone a physiology allowing it, create a universe? A jellyfish can't build a computer; why should its ethereal equivalent be expected to intentionally create something as complex as existence?

Okay, I think I'm done now.

DM said...

Atheist? We can fix that...

Bronze Dog said...

Perhaps you'd like to stick around and present real commentary instead of chickening out and resorting to hit-and-run trolling?

MWchase said...

I admit that I haven't really read over your site... Mainly because it's a monolithic morass of unconnected text that manages to be more unreadable than Time Cube without resorting to petty obfuscation such as font styling.

You... have heard of organization, right? 'Site maps'? 'Layout'?

Tom Foss said...

I don't know, MWChase, I think the website is very clean, simple, and well-laid-out.

Then again, it's hard to complicate "Your website has been suspended!

The web hosting account that hosts this website has been blocked!

If you are the owner of this website, please contact the support team to resolve this issue.

If you are a visitor to this website, please access this page later."

Did Nostradumbass predict that too, Dennis?

MWchase said...

I thought his name was David...

Anyway, he should use his blogger account to start a blog.

The first post would be a rant about how Freehostia shut him down.