So about a week ago I mentioned that I re-read the novella God’s Debris by Scott Adams. I also invited anyone who read that post to read the story and then I posed the two questions that Adams asks about the book. (My original post is here, and you can find the full text of the novella online for free here.)
Thought Experiment (I have no idea what genre to call this, so it gets it’s own tag. I suppose that now I’ll have to try and find something else to include in this tag.)
A young adult working as a delivery man takes a package to an old man. Upon entering with the package, the old man asks some very cryptic questions, and offers strange – but plausible – answers to those questions. After talking with the old man for a while, the younger man soon realizes that the older man literally knows everything.
So where does the thought experiment begin? It begins when Adams asks the reader two questions:
- Try to figure out what’s wrong with the simplest explanations.
- Try to figure out what’s wrong with the old man’s explanation of reality.
And with that, we move on to my thoughts about the questions.
I’m going to start with the second question first, because it’s my blog and I can. I’m also choosing to start with it because I think that it’s the easier of the two questions. The initial question that the old man asks is “when you flip a coin, what are the odds of it coming up heads?” The younger man immediately says about 50/50, to which the old man asks why. This leads to the idea of probability.
During their discussion about probability, the old man says that probability is the one thing in the universe that can’t be explained. And it really is difficult to discuss probability without using words such as odds or chance, which are simply different words for probability and leads to a circular definition. While almost impossible to describe without reverting to the circular definition, probability is something that affects quite a few aspects of our lives. In science, one of the main things that experimenters look at is the difference in overall effect size and the odds of whether or not the displayed effect could have happened simply by chance. This applies to everything from psychological research to testing the effects of medicine before it is released to the population as a whole.
But here’s where the problem comes from, the old man uses probability to explain everything. Inadvertently he falls into the circular definition by using what he says can’t be explained to explain everything. It works well enough as a simplistic explanation, but when you stop to look at it too closely it falls apart.
And speaking of simplistic explanations, that brings us to the second question Adams asks about the story. What’s wrong with the simplest explanations? This one is a lot more difficult to come up with a solid answer, because truthfully, we fall back on simple explanations many times even when we know that the more technical answer is out there.
The simple truth is that most of the time we don’t need to know the technical answer. Take a car for example, I can kind of explain the process of how they run, but I know next to nothing about the internal mechanics of the engine. And for that matter, I don’t care about the exact mechanics. As far as I’m concerned, you could tell me that the car runs because of gerbils running on wheels under the hood, if the car works and gets me from point A to point B I don’t really care about the exact details of how an internal combustion engine works.
The biggest problem with the simplest explanations is that they don’t allow you to reverse engineer the process. If my car breaks down and I don’t have the money to pay a mechanic to fix it, trying to give the gerbils extra vitamins isn’t going to help my problem a whole hell of a lot.
The reason that we use the simplest explanation in many cases as opposed to the more technical answer is simply that we don’t have the capacity to fully understand everything that goes on around us. I’m a nerd in every sense of the word, I’m very intelligent and I have some knowledge about a very wide variety of subjects, but there are still a great many topics that I know nothing about. Some of these are by choice (lets face it, we all have some things that we just don’t care about) and some topics are things that I’ve never really had a reason or opportunity to learn about in depth. In these cases, I have no problem saying gerbils are the reason my car allows me to drive.
It’s often said that the simplest explanation is the best, but my car example shows that this is far from the truth. In any answer, there is a balance between the thorough but complicated and the simplified but concise answer. The major distinction comes in where you put the balance, and for every possible topic for each person, we have our own preference for where we fall on the line from complicated to parsimonious.
So what’s the problem with the simplest answer? It depends on how much you really need to know about the subject.
So there we go, my thoughts on the questions that Adams asks about his story. What do you think?