Occam’s Razor and Epistemic Explosions

We have started by accepting a single axiom on the validity of axioms, and all of the relevant circularity. We must now be careful though, for we currently have no criteria for which other axioms we accept. In fact in our current state we are allowed to choose any and however many axioms we want. Don’t feel like arguing for a particular proposal? Just take it as an axiom!

This epistemic explosion puts no limits on what we can claim as fundamental truth. As with it’s opposite, epistemic nihilism, there isn’t actually anything philosophically wrong with this. We are still effectively too close to the circular trap to be able to make that kind of judgement. However, like epistemic nihilism, accepting an epistemic explosion just doesn’t seem practical or useful. If we take a nihilistic view then there is nothing more we can say, whereas if we take an explosive view then we can say literally anything. Either way, we’re philosophically finished. Frankly, that kind of view is just boring.

So, we will add a second axiom to our set, based on a fairly well-known principle: Occam’s Razor. A lot of the historical details around Occam’s Razor are rather fuzzy, including who said it first, whether Ockham said it at all, and why the spelling has changed. These questions are not really relevant to the underlying principle though, which is often stated as “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (Wikipedia claims this formulation is due to John Punch).

The razor has many other various formations, but they all basically boil down to “simpler is better”. Or more practically, if you’ve got two possible explanations for a thing that do an equally good job on all points, pick the explanation that only requires a paragraph, not the explanation that requires thirty pages, two diagrams and an appendix. With all that in mind, we can formulate our second axiom:

Axiom 2: The fewer axioms you need, the better.

Doubt, Nihilism, and the Circular Trap

Underlying philosophy is a tangled nest of peculiar questions that don’t seem to have satisfactory answers. These include apparent stumpers like:

  • Does anything exist?
  • What is reality?
  • Why is there something instead of nothing?

In some sense it seems that anything can be doubted or questioned. Of course, applying this principle to doubt and question itself immediately results in a paradox of sorts: if everything can be doubted, can we doubt that everything can be doubted? But despite this problem it still seems that “why?” can be asked of any statement. It is part of the nature of statements to be doubtable.

While it is part of the nature of statements that they can be questioned, it is part of the nature of most questions to include statements. In fact two of the three “stumpers” I listed above implicitly involve some sort of premise which must be true for the question to be coherently meaningful. When asking “what is reality?” the question assumes that there is a reality; when asking “why is there something instead of nothing?” the question assumes not just that there is something, but that its existence has a cause.

In fact, it seems that the only questions which don’t involve some sort of explicit premise are the simplest ones of the form “Does such-and-such exist?”, and even these involve certain complications when filling in the value of “such-and-such”. If we fill it in with “the French Riviera” to form the question “Does the French Riviera exist?” then the question still isn’t meaningful to people who don’t know what I mean by “the French Riviera”.

So what happens when we fill in “such-and-such” with a word like anything or some other such abstract term? We have a yes-or-no question with no apparent way of picking an answer. Any reason we give for answering Yes or No can be doubted, or reversed. We have reached the dead end of epistemic nihilism. Additionally, if we choose to answer “Does anything exist?” with a No, then we have also reached metaphysical nihilism; there doesn’t seem anything philosophically wrong with this, it just doesn’t explain all of the various things that seem to be, and doesn’t lead to much practical advice for living.

All of this to say that at the bottom level there isn’t a lot that makes sense no matter which way you look at it. Some philosophers blame this on language, claiming the questions themselves are meaningless phrases that we only entertain in the first place because they follow the rules of grammar. Some philosophers (famously Descartes, with his I think therefore I am) start with a premise as given and try and derive their way from there.

But of course this entire discussion is circular at heart, one of the great sins of philosophy. Simply by reasoning, making claims, asking questions I am implicitly accepting the validity and existence of all of the constructs I am invoking. This circular trap seems inescapable – simply to discuss it involves taking premises which are either unsupported or self-supporting. And the requirement for a premise to be supported and non-circular is itself a premise. So.

While the circular trap is, to the best of my knowledge inescapable, that doesn’t mean we should give up right away. Some circles are prettier and more useful than others, and we can still build a useful theory even if it fundamentally rests on nothing but wishful thinking (if, of course, that exists). We’ve got no reason to do anything else instead, right? And who knows, our theory might even provide an explanation for the circular trap itself – wouldn’t that be a circle!