Friday, June 11, 2010

Occam's Machette: The Betrayal of Simplicity

I watched a God/No God debate this evening. I generally avoid these; I only leave angry. This one, however, had the banana morons in it, so I had to indulge.


I noticed a common thread during the debate--one spanning beyond the debate itself into arguments of other evangelicals--the use of "simple" arguments in favor of deity-centered conclusions. The simple, "common-sense" argument is effective, especially for those wishing to validate their own beliefs. The one abused most blatantly in the debate above is the creation-creator argument--everything with a purpose must be a creation, every creation has a creator. The creator of man--we call him God. This argument implies that everything has a purpose and establishes that with a few examples.

This argument has it's flaws, and I'm not here to disprove them. The argument continues to be used because it's simple. It's built on simple analogy between all things--everything's a creation, creations have creators. What really makes it hard to fight something so simple is that the counter-arguments--those that demonstrate the logical fallacies present in such "proofs"--are often long. This is because breaking down logical fallacies is difficult. It requires precise definitions and postulates to explain how common sense has been twisted in favor of a particular conclusion. It requires deconstructing an argument piece-by-piece to point out gaps. This takes time and, often, very wordy constructions because it veers on the abstract frontier of language.

Wordiness has another disadvantage; generally, it displays a lack of confidence and strength and can imply guilt. Someone who has to talk a lot is often defending themselves, and someone who has to defend themselves, we generalize, did something that requires them to do so. We rarely associate defense with someone being attacked; instead, we associate defense with someone hiding something. That sounds backwards, but guilty people defend themselves, and humans stereotype the guilt of the defensive guilty on to the defensive. Guilty people are generalized to have convoluted defenses full of lies and rhetoric and are often false, making--through generalization--wordy people false.

This isn't always the case, of course, but it's how we perceive someone trying to make a complex--perhaps insightful--point in a debate. Meanwhile, someone trying to follow this may become lost or bored, or view the speaker as weak and defensive, or even pretentious. Another generalization of people who speak quickly are smart people--for doctors and hackers on television, all they have to do is ramble really fast:


Looking smart is not always good. In many situations, it's very bad because it's just as asinine as trying to take the moral high ground over another person--effectively, an argumentum ad hominem. Looking smarter than your opponent makes you appear more likely to be right. It also makes you look like an ass, so people ignore you.

There's also a practical reason for longer arguments to be false--there's more room for error. In part, it's an error of logic itself. Logic itself has always been part of a mystical dominion. The Greek philosophers--the ones who established the Western tradition of knowledge--loved logic because it was perfect; they thought it beyond our mortal world. This disconnection from reality is indicative of logic. Using logic requires generalizations and assumptions; application to the real world involves squashing complex systems into abstract postulates.

In this process, information is lost. Most logical steps require some small approximation, and by the end of a long chain of logical steps, false conclusions can be drawn with carefully selected postulates.

With a plethora of reasons that make longer arguments harder to fight in the public eye of debate, longer arguments are judged--perhaps incorrectly--as wrong. It ends up a backwards perversion of Occam's Razor--the idea that out of a possible list of hypotheses, the simplest is generally correct. That, however, doesn't mean that it is always correct, and that idea can easily betray us, causing us to discard hypotheses that are longer because of our impatience instead of weighing their merits.

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