Thursday, July 05, 2012

Occam’s Razor

Early morning has been the only time I can get a breath of fresh air. Summer started promptly last week, and most days have been hot and humid. But the early mornings are cool and breezy, and make me wish I could go for a long walk in the early AM instead of driving to work.

Life around me becomes more overgrown and tangled. There is a fox screaming in the yard across the street almost every morning. Deer are a regular sight now, when previously we never saw them on our side of the highway. And a family of turkeys has been shambling around my property and my neighbor’s, occasionally taking to the treetops, a weird juxtaposition against the hot air balloons that have been flying overhead on certain evenings. The grass at the foreclosure across the street is probably 4 feet high, and the church’s adjacent property to mine is equally dense. It feels like the encroachment of natural monsters onto my neat little block and lot in the township where I live.

In the midst of the oppression outside, I find myself rebelling against complexity, especially the self-imposed kind. But life is not that simple. And the more I attempt to simplify and focus, I am besieged by more complexity, usually of the unexpected variety.

In my self-imposed isolation in air conditioning, I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries on poltergeists. From an analytical psychology perspective, such phenomena is a constellation of the Trickster archetype. In plain speaking—the manifestation of unpredictable behavior—throwing dishes around, making objects fall from the ceiling, starting random fires, and other such “surprises”—is due to an archetype manifesting in the “real” external world. I find such phenomena interesting because it is the most dramatic evidence of the existence of the psyche.

Of course, there are those who say that such phenomena don’t happen. It can all be “simply” explained as an illusion or a hoax, especially by those who have not experienced it and not read any of the evidence. Besides the phenomena themselves, I find the behavior of those involved interesting as well. Often these events are first witnessed by females and children. The male in the household is usually skeptical, to the point of calling his kids “imaginative” and his wife “delusional”. That is, of course, until the phenomena affects him. Then it’s a whole different story. Firsthand experience is a whole different story, especially when there’s no obvious rational explanation.

There is likely a natural explanation for such things, and as I’ve said in previous posts, I think it’s due to a “perfect storm” of biochemical, psychological, and geomagnetic factors. But there’s not a “simple” explanation, and it’s not easily tested in a consistent way, because it’s not consistent phenomena.

Skeptics will often mention “Occam’s razor” when faced with complex phenomena. Put simply (no puns intended)—the simplest and most obvious explanation is probably the right one. There are many cases where this is true. However, we are dealing with things that do not have simple answers. If we move away from so-called “paranormal” things, one could easily point to quantum physics as a good example of complexity. There is not a single theory from this field that is “simple”, even with attempts to make a unified “theory of everything”.

We live our lives with an illusion of causality and probability. When things happen we look for a “reason”. We may choose where we live, how we eat, sleep, exercise, and de-stress based on statistics from studies. But they are only statistics—they do not create reality. Numbers are as metaphorical as any other symbolic construct that we use to define our universe.

Simplicity is a tool to keep us from going insane. We stick to what is familiar, to what is easy, with the idea that we can then progress to what is more difficult. It’s like taking a swim in the ocean—you’ll start at low tide, stick one toe in, and eventually work the rest of your body into the water. Similarly—you could find yourself stepping on a crab, stung by a jellyfish, you could be pulled towards an undertow—anything can happen, even when you’re sure you’ve checked conditions and you’re “safe” . We adopt beliefs about how our lives will go every day, because we’d be overwhelmed by uncertainty if we didn’t.

I had a conversation with my friend's son and daughter a couple of nights ago. We were discussing education, and solutions to learning problems that bureaucracies try to solve by "assessment" and "testing"--of both teachers and students. My friend's son said, "I have learned to be suspicious of simple solutions. Usually someone thinks there's some innovative, simple trick that will fix everything. The solution actually may be simple, but it takes work, and requires money." This reminded me of Lerro's assertion in his book on the movement from Earth spirit worship to sky gods; societies usually don't implement long-term solutions to crises that involve major changes in lifestyle. They only make small changes that are "band-aid" solutions, leaving the fallout to future generations. This has been true since the time before the Iron Age. "Simple" can equal "lazy". "We know we have a problem, and we don't want to deal with it." It's a form of burying one's head in the sand.

Simplicity is neither good nor bad; it can be a very useful tool, and can help us move forward and accomplish things in our lives. When I have too many things to do, I make lists and break things down into small parts, doing a little each day. This is very helpful—except when it’s not. The day that I wake up not feeling well, the day I get an unexpected phone call with bad news that drains me of all my energy, the predicted sunny day when I was going to do yard work that turns out to be stormy—these things can upset even the best laid plans.

This is the nature of the Trickster archetype. We try to exercise a certain amount of control over our lives, but things happen to remind us that we’re not in control, life is very uncertain, and anything could happen. It’s another version of, “You can eat right and exercise all you want, but you could still be hit by a bus tomorrow.” And unless you’ve completely surrendered to uncertainty, this will be a frightening thought. So, we pretend that things are certain. And it’s good that we do, as long as we remain flexible, and realize that it’s a game we’re playing with ourselves.


RoboPA said...

Good stuff Brigid. Can you speak to how one's faith paradigm either contributes to, or detracts from, an idea that life is safe and predictable? I call it "if..then faith", and it is prevelant in evangelicalism alot, but wondered what your thoughts were?

Brigid N. Burke said...

Thanks! When I think of the faith paradigm, I tend to think of TMT (Terror Management Theory). The proponents of that theory have found through their studies that those who have religious faith reduce their level of terror/anxiety about life, as long as that faith isn't called into question. Of course--the sorts of "trickster"-ish things that I refer to in this post are the kinds of things that shake faith, and leave one unsure about the things they are sure about. The usual response from a more conservative/evangelical point of view is usually to cling more tightly and violently to their own doctrines, and a tendency to view the upset as the influence of "Satan" or a demon. I don't think you find the same thing in groups that espouse more Eastern religious beliefs, because the point of view is entirely different, though they are not exempt from this anxiety. On the whole--I think people use religious faith (and scientific knowledge) to create a predictable, safe vision of the world, but the only paradigm that really rids us of anxiety about the unknown is to completely embrace chaos and the unknown. I don't know many people (if any) who can do that.