One of the things I have been accused of in the past is that I do not apply Occam’s Razor to my ideas and hypotheses. Yesterday, on listening to an interview with famed ufologist Dr. Jacques Vallee he argued that Occam’s Razor, the idea that the simplest solution is usually the right one, simply cannot be applied to much of scientific enquiry, particularly the counter-intuitive discoveres of modern quantum mechanics.
This reminded me of a much-cited story involving Galileo Galilei. It will be recalled that Galileo suggested that if we were in steady motion we have no way of telling that we are moving if everything else around us is moving at the same speed. The only way we would know is by observing something that is not moving and we can then reference our motion against that object.
Of course we now know that everything is in motion in one way or another. But the point that needs to be made is that this fact is in no way understandable as we stand still on the surface of the Earth. From this point of view we are motionless and everything moves around us. Indeed this is EXACTLY what Occam’s Razor tells us. The simplest solution is that we are standing still. Indeed one of the major arguments cited against the heliocentric model (that the Earth revolves around the Sun) is that if this was the case we would feel that we were moving … as we are moving (relative to the sun) at circa 67,000 miles an hour we should most definitely sense the motion.
Indeed the materialist-reductionists of the time of Galileo pointed out that if the Earth was moving then throwing up any object in the air would mean that the Earth would move below it and the object would fall at some distance away. A simple empirical experiment, the pride of any materialist-reductionist’s thinking process, would be to throw an object up in the air and see what happens. The object falls back to the point it was thrown in the air… ergo the Earth does not move!
However Galileo was a PROPER scientist in that he did not apply Occam’s Razor but believed that the heliocentric theory, although not immediately provable through such a simple experiment, was correct because the theory could explain many other observed phenomenon such as the retrograde motion of certain planets. He was keen to prove to his (literally) grounded critics that something was wrong with their ‘simple’ solution.
Legend has it that he took a group of his friends on a boat trip on Lake Piediluco in Umbria. He employed six strong oarsmen to get the boat up to a fairly fast speed and then asked one of his friends if he had anything heavy on him. One of his friends, Stelluti, had a large cast iron house key. Galileo took the key from his friend and threw it straight up in the air. Stellutti was horrified. This was the only key to his house and it was obvious, from his application of Occam’s Razor, that the fast moving boat would swiftly move away from the key and it would land in the water to be lost forever. Indeed as the key was in the air Stellutti tried to leap of the boat in order to catch his precious key. Fortunately he was restrained by his friends. Of course the key fell straight back into Galileo’s lap. As far as the key was concerned (if a key can be concerned about anything) the boat and it were both motionless…… thus proving that an application of the ‘simplest solution’ is not always the correct approach to take …..