Cosmic designer – simpler or easier to understand?

Cosmology is hard to get your head around. So is evolution. For a start the time-scales involved are mind blowing for even the smartest creatures with a mere 80-odd years to get their heads around it. Frankly, it’s humbling to consider.

I think this might be part of the reason why some people end up believing creation stories with a simpler narrative structure. We like stories. Our whole culture is based on stories. They’re easy to remember and pass on. Much easier to follow than, “Big bang, abiogenesis, evolution”. Much more satisfying than, “I don’t know”.

But are creation myths actually simpler? Consider, if you will, the following analogy.

Why do sub-atomic particles hang around together?

Let’s say we’re wondering why it is that protons and neutrons stick together in the nucleus of an atom, while electrons orbit much further out. For the sake of argument let’s pretend that we genuinely don’t know why this happens. We could suggest a few hypotheses. For example,

  1. The particles are held together or repelled by some kind of forces, like gravity or magnetism.
  2. The neutrons and protons stick together because they are friendly to each other, but the electrons are unfriendly, so they keep further away.

For now I’m not concerned with which hypothesis is closer to the truth, so all you eager physicists can put your hands down. I’m interested in which hypothesis is simpler. The reason I am considering this is because of Ockam’s Razor which suggests that simpler explanations should be preferred.

“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”

At first glance, hypothesis one is far from simple to me. I’m not a physicist and I don’t have a thorough understanding of sub-atomic particle and forces. However, in my experience, gravity doesn’t repel objects and only has a small effect on lightweight objects. Secondly magnetism only affects certain metallic materials like iron, and this sub-atomic effect occurs in all atoms, not just iron.

The second hypothesis however, I get completely. I could tell my friends about it over a drink and I’m sure they’d get it too. Surely that makes it simpler. Wouldn’t Ockam approve?

In one sense, perhaps.

The trouble with hypothesis two as an explanation for why neutrons and protons stick together is that we need to assume a whole raft of things to make it work. We need to assume that sub-atomic particles have desires and feelings, personalities even. We need to assume a whole new level of complexity to explain these personalities and apparent conciousness on such a minute scale. Suddenly this explanation is looking anything but simple. As a result we’ve added more complexity to the problem. There are even more explanations needed than before. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but an extraordinary claim like hypothesis two would need a lot of evidence to back it up.

As it turns out, we can explain the motion of the electron in terms of the electromagnetic force. The discovery of the residual strong force allows us to understand how the nucleus of an atom staying together. It’s not child’s play by any means (in fact if any real physicists would like to refine my crude understanding please do so below!), but it does mean we don’t have to invent a whole new field of sub-atomic psychology to account for it.

Who designed the designer?

hubble-deep-space-clipThis seems relevant to the argument from design which uses the apparent design of living things or the universe to infer the existence of a designer. Believers say that all the order and complexity in the world seems unlikely to have come about by chance. So they infer the existence of an intelligent being who brought it about intentionally with some great purpose in mind.

Unfortunately the thinking stops there; for some reason they don’t wonder at how the complexity of this intelligent being came about? Such a hypothetical being, with purpose, intent, goals and obviously huge power is quite a complex thing. At least as complex as the universe it is alleged to have created. So the intelligent designer hypothesis doesn’t explain anything, it only adds to the complexity. I’m sure he can’t have been the first, but Richard Dawkins expresses this more succinctly as “Who designed the designer?”.

In the general case, a hypothesis or theory can be said to be powerful or useful according to what it explains versus what it has to assume in order to work. This observation was reported in the context of evolution by Dawkins recently, so I recommend his article on the explanatory power of theories.

(Hat-tip to the Friendly Atheist).

Many apparently simple theories demand large numbers of additional, complex assumptions. We should be careful not to confuse the ease of understanding something with its simplicity. Being easy to understand does not make something more likely to be true.

Review: Why People Believe Weird Things

Michael Shermer’s skeptical book, Why People Believe Weird Things has been around since the late nineties. I should probably have read and reviewed it sooner; so much of the content is relevant to what I write about here. I’ve had the book a while now, but a few weeks ago I managed to wrestle the book back from my wife and actually read it. I’m glad I did.

Shermer starts the book by explaining what he means by a weird thing, the difference between science and pseudoscience and how skepticism works. He also gets my respect for admitting to the weird beliefs he previously held, which included a variety of unusual treatments alleged to enhance the performance of athletes. He cites their complete failure to improve his competitive cycling as one of the reasons he became a skeptic.

The majority of the book is devoted to covering a wide variety of weird beliefs. These include paranormal abilities, alien abduction, creationism, Ayn Rand’s objectivism and even holocaust denial. Shermer has certainly done his homework on all of these, providing some fascinating quotes and an 18-page bibliography for those looking for further reading. In several cases, the author has had direct experience of debating with those who believe weird things, on radio and television. These accounts are candid and modest – he spends more time noting his frustrations and failures to get his message across than he does celebrating great victories for reason. I found this to be all the more enlightening.

I found myself shaking my head in wonder and horror at some of the ridiculous and repugnant ideas described. However, Shermer carefully describes, dissects and debunks each of the weird beliefs without resorting to ridicule or personal attacks. Furthermore, the explanations are easy to follow and the book as a whole is pleasingly free of unexplained scientific or philosophical language.

Only in the last section does the book really address the question of its title. The harder question this leads to is why smart people believe weird things. Shermer concludes that, being of above-average intelligence is no guarantee of being free from weird beliefs. It seems that great minds do not necessarily think alike. He summarises his explanation for this as follows:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

I found this to be a surprising revelation, but one which Shermer has arrived at after much study across the diverse range of beliefs described in the book. Too often it seems that people take it as an insult to their intelligence to say that they believe something weird. To accept that even the most intellectually gifted amongst us have blindspots in our understanding of the world is a step in the right direction.

I had, perhaps naïvely expected the book to be entirely about the psychology of belief. I found the descriptions of weird beliefs to be very interesting, although I would have preferred more discussion of the successes and failures of his debates and the thought processes behind the beliefs.