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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Science and Simplicity

– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

One of the leading naturalists of the 19th century was Phillip Henry Gosse (6 April 1810 – 23 August 1888). He spent time in Newfoundland and Ontario where he cataloged insect species, among other things. On his return to England he published Canadian Naturalist (1840) and became one of the leading popularizers of natural science of his day.  He invented, or at least made practical, the marine aquarium with his 1854 book, The Aquarium, which initiated a craze for aquariums. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1856. He even communicated with Darwin over the study of orchids. All together, a first rate naturalist.

He was also an extremely devout Christian; a member of the Plymouth Brethren. It bothered him that the geological record implied an age of the earth much older than the age given in the Bible. Gosse’s solution was given in a book called Omphalos: an Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (published in 1857, two years before Darwin’s famous book). The title, Omphalos, is the Greek word for belly button; as in, did Adam have a belly button? The book itself is rather tedious with page after page of examples, but the first part is well worth a read.

OK, anyone who has read my previous blogs knows what coming next. That’s right, the Duhem-Quine Thesis: the idea that one can always avoid falsification by adjusting an auxiliary hypothesis. In this case, it’s a doozie. Gosse suggested God created the universe only six thousand years ago but in such a manner that it is indistinguishable from an old one: light created in transit from stars, fossils created in rocks, etc.  Gosse made two distinct points:

  1. Any act of special reaction implies a false history. A created chicken implies an egg that did not exist or vise versa. A created tree would have rings not due to growth. Dinosaur fossils, however, do seem a bit extreme.
  2. The universe could be any age and it is only an outside reference (e.g. the bible) that allows one to determine the actual age.

Needless to say the book was not a hit, denounced by Christians (God is a deceiver? Bah humbug) and ignored by scientists (Am I studying an illusion? Bah humbug). Even a name change did not save it, and in 1869 the remaining copies were sold for scrap. However, it has significant epistemological implications that has led to some modern parodies like last Thursdayism; the idea that the earth was created last Thursday but only appears older.

Ok, one may be able to argue about Omphalosism, but Last Thursdayism is clearly absurd. But why? What postulate of the scientific method does it violate? It makes all the same predictions, by construction, as the standard models. Thus, cannot be eliminated by the appeal to observation, the touchstone of the scientific method. I would suggest the only criterion is simplicity. It is simplicity that eliminates Omphalosism. Extra complexity has been added to the model with no gain in the ability to make predictions.

Simplicity is like air; it is so ubiquitous that one tends to forget it is there. But it is there; from William of Ockham (1238 – 1348) (Occam’s razor: Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily), to Isaac Newton (We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances) to Steven Weinberg (You may use any degrees of freedom you like to describe a physical system, but if you use the wrong ones, you’ll be sorry![1]).

In my last blog, I introduced the idea of conventionalism—that what is frequently regarded as truth is but a convention. Weinberg’s degrees of freedom are an example. But how is the convention chosen? I would suggest simplicity plays a domineering role. We use an earth-based frame or a sun-based frame due to simplify or ease of use.  We use a nuclear potential that is weak at short distances like Vlow k  rather than the traditional potentials with strong short-range repulsion due to simplicity and ease of use. Only this, and nothing more (to quote The Raven).

Omphalos and Last Thursdayism (some heretics believe in Last Tuesdayism, but we will excommunicate them) make the emphatic point that simplicity is necessary, absolutely necessary. Otherwise one can multiply hypotheses without limit and get bogged down in futile arguments (Last Thrusdayism vs Last Tuesdayism, Vlow k vs the traditional potentials).  We draw smooth curves through data points rather than wiggly ones, again due to simplicity. Simplicity all the time and everywhere. Simplicity rules!

While simplification is crucial, in the end it leads astray. Newtonian dynamics was replaced by more complex models (relativity and quantum mechanics), fixed continents were replaced by the more complex idea of continental drift, animals reproducing after their kind was replaced by the complexities of evolution, and on it goes with simple paradigms being replaced by more complex ones. Mr. Kuhn[2] meet Mr. Murphy[3], Mr. Murphy meet Mr. Kuhn.

 


[1] From: “Asymptotic Realms of Physics” (ed. by Guth, Huang, Jaffe, MIT Press, 1983)

[2] Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of paradigm change.

[3] Everyone has run a foul of Murphy’s Law.

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5 Responses to “Science and Simplicity”

  1. Rick Baartman says:

    I’m enjoying these, Byron.

    But it’s “devout”, not “devote”

  2. Kevin says:

    Simplicity only leads us astray if we fail to consider the evidence fully. Newtonian mechanics was replaced by more complex models because those models were needed for the accurate description of the results of more precise and thorough experiments.

    As Einstein said: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

    Or, in the more popular paraphrase of that quote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

  3. @Rick – Whoops! That slipped past me, the editor of Byron’s works :) I’ve updated it.

  4. Andy says:

    I stumbled on these pages, I have found them interesting. I have a question though. I am not sure what your end statement is. You say simplicity eliminates omphalos, but then you say simplicity is deceiving because it may miss pertinent variables…..I like what Kevin quoted by Einstein in the comments. It would seem simplicity is best, but only when it covers all the bases…..So it leaves me to wonder, what if the “complexity” of omphalos was indeed the simplification of variables we are yet to understand? For example, if quantum physics was introduced in Newton’s era, it would not have increased predictability, because they were incapable of measuring the data at that time…. It seems that “predictability” is a function of time, not possibility. And I guess I would ask, why then is predictability a needed function of science. It would seem that in fact, science is limited by time in its accurate description of how things are, so why do we lean on it as if it’s the only accurate method of understanding? Is there a better way that removes this flaw in understanding?

    • Byron says:

      It is always possible to make a model more complex by adding unnecessary bells and whistles. Omphalos is an example of such an unnecessary frill. And it absolutely necessary to eliminate those frills since there are an infinitely many ways to add frills. But frequently one of these many frills turns out to be better but which one can only be determined based on more data.

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