Friday, August 12, 2005

i don't shave before tisha b'av...

...even with Occam's Razor.

Although I was called (pejoratively) a philosopher by my madrichim in Bnei Akiva, I never actually really studied philosophy. But every now and then, a philosophical concept crosses my path, and I try to work it out in terms of my own world view.

Recently, I've been thinking about Occam's Razor. This philosophical tenet states that the simpler of two competing theories is more likely to be true. In other words, if I can't find my book, it is more likely true that I can't remember where I put it than that a group of pirates broke into my house and stole the book because it has a secret treasure map hidden inside. Occam's razor basically states that because the second option has more assumptions (that pirates would be in Israel, and that they would come to my house, and that I wouldn't notice them, etc.) it is less likely to be true.

I'm a follower of this belief in general. I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, for example.

But recently I noticed what seemed to be an opposing concept in my general approach to life. When it comes to judging major issues, I actually prefer the more complex view. For example, I don't agree with those that say the disengagment plan is simply "bad" or simply "good". I think there are aspects of the plan that are good, aspects that are bad, and that the whole situation is very complex.

Does this contradict Occam's razor?

I needed to think about it a bit more, so I framed it in terms of an episode of Law and Order. When the cops need to decide which suspect to arrest, they must use Occam's razor - pick the suspect who has the simplest association to the crime. But when the lawyers (and later the judge and jury) need to determine what punishment the suspect should receive, they need to take many considerations into account - motive, background, circumstances. They are looking for the most complex view as possible.

I then called an old friend, who was also viewed as a philosopher back in the Bnei Akiva days. We discussed the concept a bit, and in the background, I heard his young son crying. That helped me understand the concept even more. Why was he crying? Was it because he was tired or because he was upset that Bibi resigned? Occam's razor obviously determines the first. But is it enough to say that he was tired? If you want to determine responsibility for his state, you need to know why he is tired. Maybe it's because he stayed up too late. Maybe it's the weather, maybe it's his pillow. It's very likely to be a combination of factors.

So identification requires simplicity, but judgment requires complexity, i.e. breaking the issue into as many sub-components as possible. I guess that would be my addendum to Occam's razor (although I'm sure others have established this before me.)

An entirely different issue, which I won't discuss now in depth, is how Occam's razor fits in with the Jewish ethic, particularly the concept of "dan adam l'kaf zchut" - judge every man favorably. This is best seen in the stories of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, such as this one:

The story is told of people witnessing a wagon owner changing the wheels on his cart while wearing his tefillin. The onlookers were appalled. How could he be down in the mud, changing a tire, and wearing his tefillin? Rav Levi Yitzchak had a different perspective. "Almighty", he said. "Look how holy your people are. Even when they change their wagon wheels, they wear their tefillin!"

But this is probably good material for a post of its own.

Now if I could only find my book...