Saturday, May 23, 2009

Occam's razor.

Occam's Razor seems to be one of the most misused and misapplied concepts I have noticed to be used by otherwise intelligent people. I notice it being evoked frequently in many of the forums I regularly read. And in Science Fiction.

The general idea of Occam's razor, what people most often mean when they refer to it is: "the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one" (this is somewhat different than the original concept of Occam's Razor, but this is what I believe most people mean when they evoke Occam's razor) Occam's razor is not a bad idea at all, and can often be a helpful guide in choosing between competing ideas. But many people seem to take it too far. They seem to feel as if Occam's razor is some sort of scientific law that all matter must obey, rather than a useful way of to approach explanations. I have frequently experienced people assuming that any time there are competing theories to explain an idea the simpler one will always be correct. People will even go so far as to try and prove their idea true simply by invoking Occam's razor. Aside from there being many theories which are true yet more complex than other seeming possibilities, the idea of what makes one explanation more simple than another can be highly subjective? The idea how 'simple' an idea is, is often based on our previous experience and expectations. Newton's ideas of gravity and motion seem more simple to us, because they describe the world as we typically interact with it. However if we had evolved so that we regularly moved extremely fast, making the effects of relativity a common experience for us, then Einstein's Ideas of gravity and motion would strike us as being more simple.

Also, it seems unlikely that any phenomenon could be entirely and accurately explained by two different theories (though there may be such a thing, and it would interesting to know what an example would be). Once all the facts are known about a phenomenon, all but one theory will fall short of explaining every possible aspect of it. Whatever theory ends up entirely explaining a phenomenon, regardless of how complicated it may be, will by necessity be the 'simplest', because it will be the only one. While Einstein's theories feel less simple than Newton's theories, Newton's theories can't explain such things as light bending around a star, so using it explain that occurrence would not be the most simple because it would not be possible.
What would be more simple explanation, that there is one universe or two? Or twenty? What makes one universe more simple than two? What is more simple, there being one human to have ever existed on earth or many billion? (how would only one human come to be?) If we were able to discover that there were two universes, than the 'two universe theory' would be a more simple explanation of what we observe than the 'one universe theory' because the 'one universe', while seemingly more simple, doesn't explain the existence of the 2nd universe.

In most of our everyday experiences, using Occam's Razor can be a useful rule of thumb, but it is often misused and can lead people astray when it is seen as something more than a useful rule of thumb. Determining what makes an explanation simple can be subjective and misleading. It would be strange to think that operations of the universe would be restricted to following human notions simplicity.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I have been feeling something very distinct. It has the feeling of something profound, yet it is very very subtle. I have no idea how to put it into words yet, but i think I may be making headway. It has been occupying a great deal of my mental energy lately. Hopefully I'm able to translate it into words soon. I think I will better understand it, if I do.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


One thing that may or may not surprise people is that I am inclined towards praying often. Part of this is from habit and conditioning, having been raised with a worldview that placed a heavy emphasis on prayer, an emphasis I felt drawn to more than other aspects of the tradition.

I never prayed much as a child. As the youngest child in my family I felt my upbringing was much less hands on than my older siblings. I don't know If my parents had instructed my older siblings to pray as children, but by the time I came around I certainly never experienced it. We did have occasional family prayers, but it never even occurred to me that I should be praying regularly on my own.

I don't remember what first motivated me to begin privately praying on a regular basis, but I remember fairly clearly when it happened and how much of a difference I felt in my life. I quickly developed a more positive outlook on life and myself and a sense of connection with something wonderful and loving, which was helpful to have during the difficulties of adolescence. I don't think any particular event motivated my sudden interest in prayer. I imagine it was simply stemmed from becoming old enough to be aware of my spiritual life and wanting to take an active interest in developing it. I was about 13 or 14 and had a paper route for a brief period. It may likely have been the increased time for introspection I had each day as walked around my small town delivering papers which turned me towards prayer, but since that time, It has been a regular habit of mine. Rarely have I prayed in a formal way, on my knees with my head bowed. It is something I do regularly throughout the day as a part of regular activities, such as drawing a picture or walking.

I wouldn't say that I have a strong belief in prayer as being a genuine supernatural experience. But I do have a strong believe in the ability of prayer to evoke in me a spiritual feeling. I'm aware that this may be nothing more than an entirely physical process.

Through brain scans of various religious people engaged in religious ritual, we know that certain parts of the brain become more (and other parts less) active during prayer, meditation etc.. When the frontal cortex is active a person begins to feel a loss of their sense of 'self', which creates a feeling of connectedness and oneness.
Depending on the religious activity, different parts of the brain may become active as well, adding additional qualities to the mystical experience, but in general, the frontal cortex seems to create the underlying aspect of a spiritual experience.

It may be that act of imagining God and talking to him/her/whatever in my mind activates, or is carried out by parts of the Frontal Cortex, which then creates the sensation of 'spiritualness', and it may be nothing more than this.
It may be that some genuine spiritual activity is taking place, and the Frontal Cortex is merely the vehicle for this to happen. Since we are physical beings whose emotions are created by chemical interactions, even if there were some outside influence creating the spiritual experience, it would need to act on the mechanisms already in place for creating experiences and emotions within us. If it were a genuine spiritual experience, I would expect it to look and behave (as seen via brain scans) exactly as it has observed it to. As well, if it were nothing more than a physical process, some anomaly of our evolution, we would also expect it to look and behave(as seen via brain scans) exactly as it does.

We know these experience can happen by 'artificial' means, such as drugs, damage to the brain, epilepsy or mental illness. Since we know that these experiences can occur by merely physical means, adding a supernatural realm to the mix seems like an unnecessarily complicated addition.

While I am inclined to believe the experience of prayer is little more than an interesting chemical reaction, some fluke of our evolution, there is some other part of me that believes it to be more than that. Not because I have any good reason to. My reason, as far as I can tell, is no more than that I want to believe there is something more. Believing it is something more is more enjoyable for me, so I find myself doing it. I realize that my desire to believe something true, in no way makes it more likely that that thing actually is true. If anything, my desiring for it to be true, should make me even more cautious, since I know my objectivity is compromised.

But whether I believe prayer is something truly divine or not, I have found matters little in terms of what I experience. When I first began to disbelieve the Church I was surprise to realize that regardless of my disbelief in a particular thing, its ability to evoke spiritual was unchanged. Regardless of my belief on the subject, the act of prayer(or various other rituals I enjoy) evoke the same results, a feeling of peace, calm, and connection to the Universe.

Of course, there are aspect of prayer that goes beyond just the emotional experience of it. People pray to influence events and people. People pray for knowledge, wisdom and other sort of divine help. That deserves an entry of its own.

Why I feel inclined towards seeking spiritual experiences probably has a lot to do both a genetic tendency towards spiritual feelings and my upbringing in 'personal spiritual experience' centered religion. I do not deny that growing up in the Church I felt what I thought of as the Holy Ghost quite frequently. This was something I enjoyed and sought for. When I found I couldn't maintain a belief in the Mormon church anymore, it was partly my experience with spiritual feelings that kept me as a member of the Church for a few more years, as well caused me a fair amount of confusion and heartache. I knew I had experienced and could continue to experience spiritual feelings in Church, and things related to the Church, and felt this was evidence of it being true. Yet almost everything else I saw as evidence of the Church being untrue. I tried hard to reconcile these seemingly conflicting concepts, and spent a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out a way I could believe in the Church. Gradually I found that while the Church does an excellent job at fostering environments that create spiritual experiences, this was not nearly as unique as I had imagined. Once I realized that I was able to comfortably step away from the Church yet maintain and pursue a spiritual life without the intellectual pain and cultural discomfort I felt as a member, I did so. Now that I have been away for a while and see how enjoyable it is, it seems almost strange to me I tried so hard to stay in. If anything I have found it easier to enjoy a the feelings of spirituality that comes from prayer and other things, because I no longer see certain things as being prerequisite to spiritual experience. Whereas before I felt I could only feel the spirit under certain specific conditions, and so rarely attempted or allowed myself to outside of those, I no longer have such limiting expectations, closing me off to the bountiful experiences all around us.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Making us human.

It is funny how often I, and probably everyone else, hear people say things along the lines of 'the thing that separates human's from animals is _____'. And often what the blank is filled with is something related to the speaker's field of interest. I remember once hearing a lecture on the virtues of some bitter vegetable I can't remember the name of, and the speaker actually said that being able to enjoy certain bitter tasting foods is the one attribute separating human's from other animals. (though usually something less silly is said such as 'empathy'. note: many other mammals feel empathy. Doing a google search on this topic I have noticed almost every possible human trait is mentioned as being THE thing which separates us from other animals.)

It seems unlikely to me, that despite millions of years of shared evolution there would be one attribute unique to only humans, and that this one attribute would be what distinguishes us from other animals.

What distinguishes us from other animals is not a single trait that we have and others don't, but many many traits, shared by many other animals, that exist in humans to different degrees than in other animals. It is the sum total of these traits that make us different. For example, humans are distinguished by being more intelligent than other animals.

Nearly every trait that seems special to humans ends up being discovered in other animals, such as laughter, culture or use of tools. Yet despite discovering seemingly unique human traits in other animals, we don't feel ourselves any less human or unique because of it. We don't feel that since other primates also use tools there is no nothing significantly different about us, because we all realized it wasn't the mere having of that one trait which defined us.
Even if there did happen to be one trait only shared by humans, such as, just for example,...artistic expression, we don't consider those unable to express themselves artistically as inhuman, and if the species as a whole lost the ability for artistic expression we would not feel we were no longer human. Why? because it would not have been merely that one trait which made us human, or separated from other animals, but many degrees of traits, of which that was only one.

I think this sense of wanting only one definable attribute to separate one thing from another runs deep and occurs all over the place, making some distinctions seem more puzzling than they really are, so it isn't surprising it would often be used in reference to people as well.

The differences between ourselves and other animals are already pretty clear that I find the similarities to much more interesting and surprising. As for whatever sense of specialness or uniqueness we might come from realizing unique human traits, I think our overall uniqueness and ability to dominate every other animal has shown itself enough that we couldn't possibly need any more of a boost to our collective self esteem. If anything, I find learning of the attributes we share with other animals to be more inspiring since it is a reminder of our shared heritage and interconnectedness with both other people and everything else living.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The World Wide Internet.

I recently learned something surprising and interesting about the internet.

Scroll down to learn more.

The Internet and the World Wide Web are not the same thing.

The distinction is somewhat subtle. The internet is the connection of computers and software which one uses to access, among other things, the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is are pages with texts and pictures etc which link to other pages, such as what you are viewing now. If one is talk about surfing the (world wide) web, then the internet would be the surfboard. I think most people, and myself generally use the terms interchangeably, and even knowing what I know I will probably continue to use the words interchangeably because:
a)It doesn't really matter.
b)When it comes to word definitions I think it is more important what most believe believe a word to mean than what the 'real' meaning of a word may be. If most people believe a word means one thing, but the dictionary defines it as another thing then, in my opinion, it is the dictionary that is wrong and not most people. (I consider certain descriptive nouns to be an exception to this) I believe the role of a dictionary should be descriptive and not prescriptive.