During the ‘Future of Ghost Investigations’ panel I sat on in early September we were asked ‘what equipment do you find is useful in apparition studies?’ Another panelist, John Fraser of the Society for Psychical Research, took a different approach to answering this question and suggested “rational and logical thought” was the only tool needed. It’s a good answer in principle, but Fraser wrapped up “rational and logical thought” as Occam’s Razor saying
‘I think the only equipment that is absolutely essential is Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor is a Modus Operandi – the simplest & most accepted solution is the best one … the only thing a ghost hunter truly needs is rational and logical thought which is best summed up by Occam’s Razor’
“Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate” or “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” Many people – including Fraser – define this to mean that the simplest solution is the best possible solution, and with this in mind I am inclined to politely disagree with Fraser that his interpretation of Occam’s Razor is an essential tool for paranormal researchers.
Firstly this is because I do not think that ‘rational and logical’ investigation is best summed up by Occam’s Razor. If anything, Occam’s Razor is a lego brick in the lego wall of rational investigation. It doesn’t make a good wall on its own.
Secondly, I believe that Fraser’s interpretation is confused.
What Occam’s Razor means is often open to interpretation, but I always focus on the ‘”do not multiply entities unnecessarily” aspect as I feel it is this that fits best with a rational approach to investigating weird stuff.
If a picture falls off of a wall Person 1 can say “The ghosts moved it“. Person 2 can explain the gravitational theory; Person 3 can also explain gravitational theory but add that gravity has ‘a ghostly presence’. Person 1 has offered the simplest solution, but it doesn’t actually explain anything. Person 3 explains all the facts but unnecessarily adds an additional entity that adds nothing. Hence, it can be cut by Occam’s razor to yield the explanation offered by Person 2.
Occam’s razor is another way of stating parsimony. Or as Einstein is supposed to have said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. It makes good sense when applied carefully, but it is entirely possible to use Occam’s Razor as a justification for irrationally dismissing things a priori by people on both sides of an argument. Occam’s Razor has been used to dismiss ghosts while also being used to justify their existence! It’s important to keep this in mind.
So, while I think I get where Fraser was coming from when he says that Occam’s Razor is an essential tool for researchers to use, I think he confused what it actually means and how it applies to rational investigation. Have it to hand, but don’t walk around waving the razor wildly in front of you, because you might just cut off your nose…