On Occam’s Razor and “Rational Investigation”

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…

About Hayley Stevens 448 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

1 Comment on On Occam’s Razor and “Rational Investigation”

  1. You are quite right that the trouble with Occam’s razor is that it can be applied in a way to dismiss things as ‘rationally obvious’ which depends on the knowledge base of the observer. In your example the observer may not be aware that the painting always drops off the wall when a train goes past, or the area is subject to microquakes, or that someone has placed a large magnet nearby.

    Recently the magician Dynamo has been accused by some of being a satanist or demon – and this has been used by people using the Occam’s razor principle i.e. ‘my knowledge tells me that demons exist and there is no other way he could do that stuff’ – there are some very funny ‘proofs’ of this on YouTube btw.

    Scientists have also been guilty of this in the past. When Copernicus published his work demonstrating that the sun was at the centre of the solar system, it garnered more criticism from his fellow astronomers than from the church, who stated that all their observations showed them that the earth was at the centre of things – it took 150 years before Copernicus’s theory became accepted. An earth-centric system was simple and apart from a few rough edges seemed to work fine, so it must be right.

    As you say it’s a useful tool, but just as with an EMF meter it shouldn’t be used blindly.

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