CHRISTIAN TRACTATUS - SECTION 5

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5. Truth is related to simplicity.

5.1 That is, the simpler & more economical the set of fundamental postulates of any theory, the more likely the theory is to be true, other things being equal.

5.1.1 Mathematical elegance is a prerequisite for the truth of physical theories about the world.

5.1.1.1 The above statement is a fact of the world based on experience, in that the successful theories to date have been of this form.

5.1.1.2 It also says more than that a theory may be presented with more or less mathematical elegance & sophistication, though this is also true. What it says is that if there is no possible way of expressing a physical theory in elegant mathematics then it is probably false, or at least has not been worked out properly.

5.2 Entities should not be multiplied without good reason (Occam's Razor). That is, if there is no good evidence for believing in a proposed entity's existence, we should delete it from the list of entities whose existence we posit.

5.2.1 The principle of Occam's Razor implies that propositions should be insisted upon only if they can be demonstrated to be probably true, not simply because they are difficult to prove to be false. The onus of proof is on the proposer.

5.2.2 Entities invented to explain phenomena should be critically examined to determine whether or not they do have explanatory power or whether they are simply tautological labels for these phenomena, designed to disguise a lack of understanding.

5.2.2.1 For instance, do such concepts as mind, soul, spirit etc. represent existent immaterial entities or are they simply names for collections of physical phenomena that are not yet understood ?

5.2.2.2 As an example, phlogiston was a substance invented to explain combustion. When this phenomenon was found to be due to exothermic chemical reaction with oxygen, phlogiston was discarded. However, all along, phlogiston was only an invention to explain (though it never did) a particular phenomenon. It should therefore have fallen foul of Occam's Razor even before the discovery of oxygen.

5.2.2.3 Another, and perhaps better, example would be that of the aether, invented to explain the propagation of electromagnetic waves through a vacuum, and rejected when it was found to contradict experiment (eg. the Michelson-Morley experiment).

5.3 Elegance is a necessary but insufficient criterion for truth.

5.3.1 That is, while we are correct to be suspicious of an ugly theory, we must equally reject a beautiful theory that does not really grapple with the facts of the world.

5.4 Why is a lack of presuppositional simplicity a problem ? My answer to this question is that the whole aim of our analysis of experience is to explain the complex and chaotic in terms of simples. Each ad hoc addition to a system to prop it up against objections is an admission of failure. It may be the best we can manage for the time being, but it is far from being satisfactory.

5.4.1 Does science currently enjoy this simplicity ? In general, plainly not. However, it shows promise of so doing and does so already in specific areas.

5.4.1.1 No doubt an act of faith is required to accept the idea of a continuing progress of science, but I do not think that it is the same sort of act of faith as is required for religious belief.

5.4.1.2 Incidently, a clear distinction must be drawn between faith in the scientific method & that in the successful application of the fruits of science to ameliorate society. Whatever discredit may have accrued to the latter is no reason for doubting the former.



© Theo Todman 1992 - 2000.
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