Occam’s Razor is less simple than you think

I was talking with my good friend Will this morning about the tension between valuing faith and having many good, intelligent friends and colleagues in the developer world who make persuasive arguments for skepticism and atheism.

Will thought of the film Contact and its dialog about the role of faith and science. Palmer Joss, the Christian philosopher played by Matthew McConaughey,  votes against the protagonist as a representative to meet aliens because her atheism puts her out of step with two thirds of humanity.

Two thirds of humanity is a lot of people to be wrong — if indeed they are wrong about the existence of god(s). On the other hand, I can’t rule out that many of us believe through shear force of cultural momentum, rather than something inherent and true.

I told Will I’m tempted to apply Occam’s Razor in their defense: Between “The believers are correct on some level” and “there are sociological, cultural, and perhaps evolutionary forces at work to trick believers”, I think I find the former to be a simpler theory to explain the number of believers in the world today.

This post isn’t about that, though. In a moment, you’ll see see why that’s not a fruitful way to think about this at all.

I didn’t really understand Occam’s Razor. Will pointed out that in popular wisdom, the Razor means “the simplest theory is usually true”. This is what I thought it meant. But in fact, Occam’s Razor is better stated as “Amongst competing theories supported by evidence, go with the one with the fewest assumptions”.

Nothing about that means “simple usually wins”.

And in the Faith and Reason debate, I don’t see how the Razor can even be applied. Reason is marked by logic and objective observation of evidence. Faith is marked by intuition and subjective experience. Only one of these involves evidence (which the side of Reason exploits in their arguments, but that is lazy, and that is still not what this post is about). When comparing “there are gods” and “there are not gods, only reasons we think there are gods”, we don’t have two theories supported by evidence, so the Razor can’t be applied.

In case I’m not explaining that well, I’ll point anyone interested to Wikipedia. The level of nuance and detail involved in Occam’s Razor surprised me. (I also learned we’re apparently all doing wrong by William of Ockham spelling it the way we do.)

Giving money directly to poor people might actually to work

This Planet Money / This American Life collaboration explores a novel idea in combating poverty: Simply giving money to poor people, with no strings attached. The experimental charity Give Directly sounds promising — even contrasted with Heifer International’s very successful model — and recently received a big check by Google.


“Money for Nothing and Your Cows for Free” — act two from This American Life’s episode 503, “I Was Just Trying to Help”. (The story auto plays when you click the link.)