Simplicity philosophy of science stanford hill

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Most philosophers believe that, other things being equal, simpler theories are better. But what exactly does theoretical simplicity amount to? Syntactic simplicity, or elegance, measures the number and conciseness of the theory's basic principles.

Ontological simplicity, or parsimony, measures the number of kinds of entities postulated by the theory. One issue concerns how these two forms of simplicity relate to one another. There is also an issue concerning the justification of principles, such as Occam's Razor, which favor simple theories. The history of philosophy has seen many approaches to defending Occam's Razor, from the theological justifications of the Early Modern period, to contemporary justifications employing results from probability theory and statistics.

There is a widespread philosophical presumption that simplicity is a theoretical virtue. This presumption that simpler theories are preferable appears in many guises. Thus Aristotle writes in his Posterior Analytics. Both Galileo and Newton accepted versions of Occam's Razor. Nor are scientific advocates of simplicity principles restricted to the ranks of physicists and astronomers.

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Here is the chemist Lavoisier writing in the late 18 th Century. Editors of a recent volume on simplicity sent out surveys to 25 recent Nobel laureates in economics. Almost all replied that simplicity played a role in their research, and that simplicity is a desirable feature of economic theories Zellner et al. Riesch interviewed 40 scientists and found a range of attitudes towards the nature and role of simplicity principles in science.

Within philosophy, Occam's Razor OR is often wielded against metaphysical theories which involve allegedly superfluous ontological apparatus. Thus materialists about the mind may use OR against dualism, on the grounds that dualism postulates an extra ontological category for mental phenomena.

Similarly, nominalists about abstract objects may use OR against their platonist opponents, taking them to task for committing to an uncountably vast realm of abstract mathematical entities. The aim of appeals to simplicity in such contexts seem to be more about shifting the burden of proof, and less about refuting the less simple theory outright. The philosophical issues surrounding the notion of simplicity are numerous and somewhat tangled.

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The topic has been studied in piecemeal fashion by scientists, philosophers, and statisticians though for an invaluable book-length philosophical treatment see Sober The apparent familiarity of the notion of simplicity means that it is often left unanalyzed, while its vagueness and multiplicity of meanings contributes to the challenge of pinning the notion down precisely.Science is an enormously successful human enterprise.

The study of scientific method is the attempt to discern the activities by which that success is achieved. Among the activities often identified as characteristic of science are systematic observation and experimentation, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the formation and testing of hypotheses and theories. How these are carried out in detail can vary greatly, but characteristics like these have been looked to as a way of demarcating scientific activity from non-science, where only enterprises which employ some canonical form of scientific method or methods should be considered science see also the entry on science and pseudo-science.

On the other hand, more recent debate has questioned whether there is anything like a fixed toolkit of methods which is common across science and only science. Scientific method should be distinguished from the aims and products of science, such as knowledge, predictions, or control. Methods are the means by which those goals are achieved. Scientific method should also be distinguished from meta-methodology, which includes the values and justifications behind a particular characterization of scientific method i.

Occam's Razor explained, and how it differs from other rational principles

Methodological rules are proposed to govern method and it is a meta-methodological question whether methods obeying those rules satisfy given values. Finally, method is distinct, to some degree, from the detailed and contextual practices through which methods are implemented. The latter might range over: specific laboratory techniques; mathematical formalisms or other specialized languages used in descriptions and reasoning; technological or other material means; ways of communicating and sharing results, whether with other scientists or with the public at large; or the conventions, habits, enforced customs, and institutional controls over how and what science is carried out.

While it is important to recognize these distinctions, their boundaries are fuzzy. Hence, accounts of method cannot be entirely divorced from their methodological and meta-methodological motivations or justifications, Moreover, each aspect plays a crucial role in identifying methods. Disputes about method have therefore played out at the detail, rule, and meta-rule levels.

Changes in beliefs about the certainty or fallibility of scientific knowledge, for instance which is a meta-methodological consideration of what we can hope for methods to deliverhave meant different emphases on deductive and inductive reasoning, or on the relative importance attached to reasoning over observation i. Beliefs about the role of science in society will affect the place one gives to values in scientific method. The issue which has shaped debates over scientific method the most in the last half century is the question of how pluralist do we need to be about method?

Unificationists continue to hold out for one method essential to science; nihilism is a form of radical pluralism, which considers the effectiveness of any methodological prescription to be so context sensitive as to render it not explanatory on its own.

Some middle degree of pluralism regarding the methods embodied in scientific practice seems appropriate. But the details of scientific practice vary with time and place, from institution to institution, across scientists and their subjects of investigation. How significant are the variations for understanding science and its success? How much can method be abstracted from practice? This entry describes some of the attempts to characterize scientific method or methods, as well as arguments for a more context-sensitive approach to methods embedded in actual scientific practices.

This entry could have been given the title Scientific Methods and gone on to fill volumes, or it could have been extremely short, consisting of a brief summary rejection of the idea that there is any such thing as a unique Scientific Method at all.

Internalism and externalism

Both unhappy prospects are due to the fact that scientific activity varies so much across disciplines, times, places, and scientists that any account which manages to unify it all will either consist of overwhelming descriptive detail, or trivial generalizations. The choice of scope for the present entry is more optimistic, taking a cue from the recent movement in philosophy of science toward a greater attention to practice: to what scientists actually do. To some extent, different scientists at different times and places can be said to be using the same method even though, in practice, the details are different.

For most of the history of scientific methodology the assumption has been that the most important output of science is knowledge and so the aim of methodology should be to discover those methods by which scientific knowledge is generated. Science was seen to embody the most successful form of reasoning but which form? Section 2 surveys some of the history, pointing to two major themes.

One theme is seeking the right balance between observation and reasoning and the attendant forms of reasoning which employ them ; the other is how certain scientific knowledge is or can be.

Section 3 turns to 20 th century debates on scientific method. In the second half of the 20 th century the epistemic privilege of science faced several challenges and many philosophers of science abandoned the reconstruction of the logic of scientific method. Views changed significantly regarding which functions of science ought to be captured and why. For some, the success of science was better identified with social or cultural features.

Historical and sociological turns in the philosophy of science were made, with a demand that greater attention be paid to the non-epistemic aspects of science, such as sociological, institutional, material, and political factors. Even outside of those movements there was an increased specialization in the philosophy of science, with more and more focus on specific fields within science. The combined upshot was very few philosophers arguing any longer for a grand unified methodology of science.

Sections 3 and 4 surveys the main positions on scientific method in 20 th century philosophy of science, focusing on where they differ in their preference for confirmation or falsification or for waiving the idea of a special scientific method altogether.Sign in Create an account. Syntax Advanced Search. Alan Baker. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Alan Baker Swarthmore College. Simplicity and Parsimony in General Philosophy of Science.

Edit this record. Mark as duplicate. Find it on Scholar. Request removal from index. Revision history. Download options PhilArchive copy.

Configure custom resolver. James Woodward - - Oxford University Press. Monism: The Priority of the Whole. Jonathan Schaffer - - Philosophical Review 1 Theories and Things. Quine ed. Against Parthood. Theodore Sider - - Oxford Studies in Metaphysics — Elliott Sober - - Cambridge University Press. Epistemic Teleology and the Separateness of Propositions. Selim Berker - - Philosophical Review 3 Explication as a Method of Conceptual Re-Engineering.

Georg Brun - - Erkenntnis 81 6 Quantitative Parsimony: Probably for the Better. The A Priority of Abduction. Prove It! Pseudoscience Disputes.The view that simplicity is a virtue in scientific theories and that, other things being equal, simpler theories should be preferred to more complex ones has been widely advocated in the history of science and philosophy, and it remains widely held by modern scientists and philosophers of science.

Simplicity, in this sense, is often understood ontologicallyin terms of how simple a theory represents nature as being—for example, a theory might be said to be simpler than another if it posits the existence of fewer entities, causes, or processes in nature in order to account for the empirical data.

However, simplicity can also been understood in terms of various features of how theories go about explaining nature—for example, a theory might be said to be simpler than another if it contains fewer adjustable parameters, if it invokes fewer extraneous assumptions, or if it provides a more unified explanation of the data.

Preferences for simpler theories are widely thought to have played a central role in many important episodes in the history of science. Simplicity considerations are also regarded as integral to many of the standard methods that scientists use for inferring hypotheses from empirical data, the most of common illustration of this being the practice of curve-fitting.

Indeed, some philosophers have argued that a systematic bias towards simpler theories and hypotheses is a fundamental component of inductive reasoning quite generally. However, though the legitimacy of choosing between rival scientific theories on grounds of simplicity is frequently taken for granted, or viewed as self-evident, this practice raises a number of very difficult philosophical problems. A common concern is that notions of simplicity appear vague, and judgments about the relative simplicity of particular theories appear irredeemably subjective.

Thus, one problem is to explain more precisely what it is for theories to be simpler than others and how, if at all, the relative simplicity of theories can be objectively measured. In addition, even if we can get clearer about what simplicity is and how it is to be measured, there remains the problem of explaining what justification, if any, can be provided for choosing between rival scientific theories on grounds of simplicity.

For instance, do we have any reason for thinking that simpler theories are more likely to be true? This article provides an overview of the debate over simplicity in the philosophy of science. Section 2 highlights the wider significance of the philosophical issues surrounding simplicity for central controversies in the philosophy of science and epistemology.

Section 3 outlines the challenges facing the project of trying to precisely define and measure theoretical simplicity, and it surveys the leading measures of simplicity and complexity currently on the market. Finally, Section 4 surveys the wide variety of attempts that have been made to justify the practice of choosing between rival theories on grounds of simplicity.

There are many ways in which simplicity might be regarded as a desirable feature of scientific theories. However, according to many scientists and philosophers, simplicity is not something that is merely to be hoped for in theories; nor is it something that we should only strive for after we have already selected a theory that we believe to be on the right track for example, by trying to find a simpler formulation of an accepted theory.

Rather, the claim is that simplicity should actually be one of the key criteria that we use to evaluate which of a set of rival theories is, in fact, the best theory, given the available evidence: other things being equal, the simplest theory consistent with the data is the best one. This view has a long and illustrious history. In his Posterior AnalyticsAristotle argued that nothing in nature was done in vain and nothing was superfluous, so our theories of nature should be as simple as possible.

It should be noted, however, that not all scientists agree that simplicity should be regarded as a legitimate criterion for theory choice. Similarly, here are a group of earth scientists writing in Science :. Hence, while very many scientists assert that rival theories should be evaluated on grounds of simplicity, others are much more skeptical about this idea.

Much of this skepticism stems from the suspicion that the cogency of a simplicity criterion depends on assuming that nature is simple hardly surprising given the way that many scientists have defended such a criterion and that we have no good reason to make such an assumption.

Crick, for instance, seemed to think that such an assumption could make no sense in biology, given the patent complexity of the biological world. Even so, there is no doubting the popularity of the idea that simplicity should be used as a criterion for theory choice and evaluation.Internalism and externalism are two opposing ways of explaining various subjects in several areas of philosophy.

These include human motivation, knowledge, justification, meaning, and truth.

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The distinction arises in many areas of debate with similar but distinct meanings. Internalism is the thesis that no fact about the world can provide reasons for action independently of desires and beliefs. In contemporary moral philosophy, motivational internalism or moral internalism is the view that moral convictions which are not necessarily beliefs, e.

That is, the motivational internalist believes that there is an internal, necessary connection between one's conviction that X ought to be done and one's motivation to do X.

simplicity philosophy of science stanford hill

Conversely, the motivational externalist or moral externalist claims that there is no necessary internal connection between moral convictions and moral motives. The use of these terms has roots in W. Falk's paper "'Ought' and Motivation" [3]. These views in moral psychology have various implications.

In particular, if motivational internalism is true, then an amoralist is unintelligible and metaphysically impossible.


An amoralist is not simply someone who is immoral, rather it is someone who knows what the moral things to do are, yet is not motivated to do them. Such an agent is unintelligible to the motivational internalist, because moral judgments about the right thing to do have built into them corresponding motivations to do those things that are judged by the agent to be the moral things to do.

On the other hand, an amoralist is entirely intelligible to the motivational externalistbecause the motivational externalist thinks that moral judgments about the right thing to do not necessitate some motivation to do those things that are judged to be the right thing to do; rather, an independent desire—such as the desire to do the right thing—is required Brink, [4]Rosati, [5].

There is also a distinction in ethics and action theorylargely made popular by Bernard Williamsreprinted in[2] concerning internal and external reasons for action. An internal reason is, roughly, something that one has in light of one's own "subjective motivational set"—one's own commitments, desires or wantsgoals, etc. On the other hand, an external reason is something that one has independent of one's subjective motivational set.

For example, suppose that Sally is going to drink a glass of poison, because she wants to commit suicide and believes that she can do so by drinking the poison. Sally has an internal reason to drink the poison, because she wants to commit suicide.

However, one might say that she has an external reason not to drink the poison because, even though she wants to die, one ought not kill oneself no matter what—regardless of whether one wants to die. Some philosophers embrace the existence of both kinds of reason, while others deny the existence of one or the other.

For example, Bernard Williams [2] argues that there are really only internal reasons for action. Such a view is called internalism about reasons or reasons internalism. Externalism about reasons or reasons externalism is the denial of reasons internalism. Consider the following situation. Suppose that it's against the moral law to steal from the poor, and Sasha knows this. However, Sasha doesn't desire to follow the moral law, and there is currently a poor person next to him.

Is it intelligible to say that Sasha has a reason to follow the moral law right now to not steal from the poor person next to himeven though he doesn't care to do so? The reasons externalist answers in the affirmative "Yes, Sasha has a reason not to steal from that poor person.

simplicity philosophy of science stanford hill

Conversely, the reasons internalist answers the question in the negative "No, Sasha does not have a reason not to steal from that poor person, though others might.Albert Einstein — is well known as the most prominent physicist of the twentieth century. His contributions to twentieth-century philosophy of science, though of comparable importance, are less well known. Late inAlbert Einstein received a letter from Robert Thornton, a young African-American philosopher of science who had just finished his Ph.

Here is what Einstein offered in reply:. That Einstein meant what he said about the relevance of philosophy to physics is evidenced by the fact that he had been saying more or less the same thing for decades.

Thus, in a memorial note for Ernst Mach, a physicist and philosopher to whom Einstein owed a special debt, he wrote:. Einstein goes on to explain:. The place of philosophy in physics was a theme to which Einstein returned time and again, it being clearly an issue of deep importance to him. Sometimes he adopts a modest pose, as in this oft-quoted remark from his Spencer Lecture:. What kind of philosophy might we expect from the philosopher-physicist?

One thing that we should not expect from a physicist who takes the philosophical turn in order to help solve fundamental physical problems is a systematic philosophy:. Einstein failed in his quest, but there was a consistency and constancy in the striving that informed as well the philosophy of science developing hand in hand with the scientific project.

simplicity philosophy of science stanford hill

For the purposes of the following comparatively brief overview, we can confine our attention to just five topics:. Einstein expected scientific theories to have the proper empirical credentials, but he was no positivist; and he expected scientific theories to give an account of physical reality, but he was no scientific realist.

Moreover, in both respects his views remained more or less the same from the beginning to the end of his career. Why Einstein did not think himself a realist he said so explicitly is discussed below. Why he is not to be understood as a positivist deserves a word or two of further discussion here, if only because the belief that he was sympathetic to positivism, at least early in his life, is so widespread for a fuller discussion, see Howard That Einstein later repudiated positivism is beyond doubt.

Many remarks from at least the early s through the end of his life make this clear. Is Einstein here also criticizing his own youthful philosophical indiscretions? What really bothers Einstein about distant simultaneity is not that it is observationally inaccessible but that it involves a two-fold arbitrariness, one in the choice of an inertial frame of reference and one in the stipulation within a given frame of a convention regarding the ratio of the times required for a light signal to go from one stationary observer to another and back again.

Likewise, Einstein faults classical Maxwellian electrodynamics for an asymmetry in the way it explains electromagnetic induction depending on whether it is the coil or the magnet that is assumed to be at rest.

If the effect is the same—a current in the coil—why, asks Einstein, should there be two different explanations: an electrical field created in the vicinity of a moving magnet or an electromotive force induced in a conductor moving through a stationary magnetic field? Even the young Einstein was no positivist. First generation logical empiricists sought to legitimate their movement in part by claiming Einstein as a friend. They may be forgiven their putting a forced interpretation on arguments taken out of context.

We can do better. Other thinkers and movements, most notably the logical empiricists, drew upon the same resources. But Einstein put the pieces together in a manner importantly different from Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach, and Rudolf Carnap, and he argued with them for decades about who was right however much they obscured these differences in representing Einstein publicly as a friend of logical empiricism and scientific philosophy.

Giovanelli ; on the contemporary debate between Einstein and Bergson, see Canales Understanding how Einstein puts those pieces together therefore sheds light not only on the philosophical aspect of his own achievements in physics but also upon the larger history of the development of the philosophy of science in the twentieth century. Any philosophy of science must include an account of the relation between theory and evidence.

Einstein learned about the historicity of scientific concepts from Mach. His argument, in brief, is that at least in sciences like physics, where experiment is dense with sophisticated instrumentation whose employment itself requires theoretical interpretation, hypotheses are not tested in isolation but only as part of whole bodies of theory. It follows that when there is a conflict between theory and evidence, the fit can be restored in a multiplicity of different ways.

No statement is immune to revision because of a presumed status as a definition or thanks to some other a priori warrant, and most any statement can be retained on pain of suitable adjustments elsewhere in the total body of theory.

Hence, theory choice is underdetermined by evidence.Simplicity is the state or quality of being simple. Something easy to understand or explain seems simple, in contrast to something complicated.

Alternatively, as Herbert A. Simon suggests, something is simple or complex depending on the way we choose to describe it. In other cases, the term may suggest a lack of nuance or complexity relative to what is required.

The concept of simplicity is related to the field of epistemology and philosophy of science e. Religions also reflect on simplicity with concepts such as divine simplicity. In human lifestylessimplicity can denote freedom from excessive possessions or distractions, such as having a simple living style.

In some contextual uses, "simplicity" can imply beautypurity, or clarity. In other cases, the term may have negative connotations, as when referring to people as simpletons. Simplicity is the greatest form of sophistication, to think simply is to understand the benefit of a simpler approach first. Like Sherlock Holmes "the simplest explanation is often the most plausible".

When confronting a crime scene at face value. The concept of simplicity has been related to in [ clarification needed ] the field of epistemology [ clarification needed ] and philosophy of science. According to Occam's razorall other things being equal, the simplest theory is most likely true. In other words, simplicity is a meta-scientific criterion by which scientists evaluate competing theories.

A distinction is often made by many persons. These two aspects of simplicity are often referred to as elegance and parsimony respectively.

John von Neumann defines simplicity as important esthetic criteria of scientific models:. I think it is worth while insisting on these vague terms - for instance, on the use of word rather.

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One cannot tell exactly how "simple" simple is. Simplicity is a theme in the Christian religion. According to St. Thomas AquinasGod is infinitely simple. The Roman Catholic and Anglican religious orders of Franciscans also strive for personal simplicity. Members of the Religious Society of Friends Quakers practice the Testimony of Simplicitywhich involves simplifying one's life to focus on what is important and disregard or avoid what is least important.

Simplicity is tenet of Anabaptistism, and some Anabaptist groups like the Bruderhofmake an effort to live simply. In the context of human lifestylesimplicity can denote freedom from excessive material consumption and psychological distractions. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

For other uses, see Simplicity disambiguation. This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page.

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Learn how and when to remove these template messages. The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a full view of the subject.

Please improve this article and discuss the issue on the talk page. April This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. See also: Degree of difficultyComplexityand Concision.


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