My First Brush with Occam’s Razor
Occam’s Razor is the logical principle that states that, when there are two competing explanations for a given phenomenon, we should choose the explanation that is simpler – i.e., is less elaborate, introduces fewer hypotheticals, conditions, or “assumptions.”
We all use this principle without realizing it (more on this later), but the first time I remember consciously applying it was in high school.
I was given an assignment to write a research paper on anything I wanted. What I wanted was to write about this thing I had vaguely heard of, which I called “weird science.” By this I meant wild, speculative theories, research into cryptids, and things like that. In practice, my “weird science” paper turned out to be, basically, a book report on Chariots of the Gods.
The Ancient Aliens Theory
Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968 and written by Erich von Däniken. It advanced the theory that superintelligent extraterrestrials colonized earth long ago and were responsible for various mysterious or hard-to-explain structures built by ancient people, such as the pyramids at Giza, the pyramid/observatories throughout MesoAmerica, the Nazca Lines, etc.
Since the publication of Chariots, this idea has made it into fiction numerous times. There was the movie Stargate (1994), which focused on ancient Egypt, and which I love because its hero is a linguist. (On first contact with a group of strangers, a military officer shoves him forward and says, “You’re a linguist, aren’t you? Go talk to them.”) More recently there was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). (Spoiler: it’s an alien skull). These ideas have now been made into a TV series (Ancient Aliens), and in fact there is a whole ancient aliens interest crowd out there now.
I Knew Better, But Couldn’t Explain Why
But reading through Chariots of the Gods was my first time to stare these ideas straight in the face, as it were. And of course, I thought they were cool, even if some of the evidence was a little weak. Von Däniken made much of a particular Mayan sarcophagos engraving that he said “clearly” showed an astronaut reclining inside a small spaceship, complete with controls, microphone, et al. If you’ve seen the panel, it’s really kind of hard to tell what the heck it is, beyond a human seated in an awkward position. See this article, by a fellow WordPress blogger. There you will see a picture of the original panel, a copy of Von Däniken’s diagram and “explanation” of it, plus a convincing argument that the whole thing is far better explained by Mayan cosmology.
Things like the Nazca lines were a little harder to explain (or at least to guess the purpose of), given that it is literally impossible to tell what they portray without viewing them from an airplane.
Anyway, weak evidence or not, I thought von Däniken made a compelling case. Compelling, but not plausible. In other words, there was actually no way to falsify the claims. The theory was logically consistent. But it was also, how do you say it, a little bit … elaborate. (Or, as Bertie Wooster describes it, “A word that begins with an e and means being a damn sight too clever.”) It was fun to think about as a theory, but didn’t seem terribly likely from the point of view of wanting to find out what actually happened.
The Razor to the Rescue!
This was where Occam’s Razor came in. I was relieved to learn that I didn’t have to accept Chariots’ premise just because I couldn’t find a logical inconsistency. Occam’s Razor to the rescue! One theory to explain ancient structures required an entire extraterrestrial civilization capable of space travel; another, equally logical, only required me to believe that ancient human beings were smarter than we give them credit for. Problem solved. I wrote the book report and went on my merry way.
The Razor Left some Loose Ends
Except that the problem was only sort of solved. The overly elaborate explanation didn’t ring true, but my simpler one left an awful lot of questions unanswered.
It didn’t tell us anything about how the ancient people managed to make the pyramids at Giza; the jigsaw-puzzle fitted megaliths at Machu Picchu and Saksaywaman; the 1,000-ton megaliths at Baalbek, Lebanon; the heads at Easter Island, etc. Whatever techniques they used, we couldn’t get the same results today. And why would anyone choose to use huge megaliths in any building project, assuming that handling megaliths was as difficult back then as it is today? Saying “they were smarter than we are” might be true, but it just passes the mystery of how it was done from E.T. back to ancient people again, sort of like a hot potato, without really clearing anything up.
Why were ancient people so interested in astronomy? Why did they build giant drawings that are best viewed from above? For the “gods” to see, perhaps. But where did they get this idea of “gods” who might actually visit? (No, I am not going back to the aliens. Hang on.) Were they smart enough to lay out perfect geometrical structures that covered miles, yet dumb enough to believe in “gods” on zero evidence (assuming their evidence was the same as we have today)?
These questions are not going to go away, because the structures themselves are there. This is not like an unconfirmed UFO sighting. Anyone can go and look at these structures, marvel at the mathematical and engineering ability that went into them, and confirm that, in some of the cases, to this day we don’t know how the heck it was done.
Whatever theory we come up with to answer these questions is likely to sound just as implausible as a race of aliens.
When the Razor Cuts Off Too Much
And here we come up against a limitation of Occam’s Razor. The Razor, useful as it is and cool as its name undoubtedly sounds, does not help us distinguish between plausible and implausible assumptions. Our sense of which theory is “simpler” depends to a large extent on our sense of which theory sounds more likely. In other words, there’s a short, slippery slope sometimes from Occam’s Razor to Confirmation Bias.
What is more plausible: that aliens visited earth thousands of years ago, or that ancient humans were at least twice as smart as we are today? Whichever sounds more likely will look like the “simpler” explanation. (Of course, given those options, we might start casting desperately about for a third one.)
If it is an article of faith with … someone … (I name no names) that human beings started out as, essentially, animals, and that throughout all of history, humans have been getting steadily smarter and more technologically advanced, then, in a minute … that person … might find themselves invoking aliens. Because when confronted with the amazing engineering feats of the distant past, aliens are going to seem like a more likely culprit than those people that we think of as cave people.
There is another view of history that goes at least some of the way toward explaining these ancient mysteries without invoking aliens at all. I’ll write about it in a later post.
19 thoughts on “Occam’s Razor and ‘Chariots of the Gods’”
You nailed it with pointing out the inherent confirmation bias of the razor (not to say that it’s useless).
I think of the Resurrection. What’s the simpler explanation, that the body was stolen from under the noses of the guards, the disciples maintained a decades-long conspiracy in the face of torture, and multiple groups experienced shared hallucinations, or that Jesus rose from the dead? Well, on the one hand, a true resurrection is much simpler, because it’s a single cause that explains all the events, whereas the naturalistic explanation has to “multiply causes” (isn’t that part of Occam’s language?). On the other hand, if you’re a naturalist, the resurrection explanation requires introducing the entire realm of the supernatural, which is much more complicated than any particular collection of natural causes.
So it becomes which is more likely? Pretty much everyone can agree that the naturalistic explanations are “unlikely,” but are they *more* unlikely than a resurrection from the dead? That depends on your prior commitments, rather than on the particular facts and theories in question.
Regarding aliens, though, something that has always seemed an obvious hole in the aliens theory, is that you have civilizations so advanced that they can engage in space travel, and the artifacts from the encounter are… really big rocks? There just seems to be such a mismatch between the physical character of the evidence and the physical character of the proposed cause. Where are the metals and machinery and rare substances and transportation devices and advanced coding or information systems?
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Excellent example with the resurrection.
About “where are all the exotic minerals and stuff,” clearly you have never seen the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I refer you to that, to answer all your questions. 😉
Actually, I don’t think the “where’s the tech” argument is super strong, because assuming there was such a thing as alien tech, we’d be unlikely to recognize it if we saw it. Also, presumably if you are smart enough you can make sophisticated tech out of *anything.* For example, Stonehenge is apparently a big computer (like a giant abacus/observatory) for predicting eclipses. It’s made of rocks, and of smaller rocks in a ring of shallow pits on the outside of the monoliths.
The idea is that with the really big rocks, we are seeing the *results* of the amazing tech, because these rocks are engineered in ways that we couldn’t with our current technology. (There are stone long-necked amphoras, and stone sarcophagi, for example, that we don’t know how they were made.) They also seemed designed to send certain mathematical and astronomical messages, as in the case of the pyramids at Giza.
Well, I don’t know if my issue is so much the technology, as the idea that these people gained special knowledge from a civilization advanced enough to engage in space travel and what they learned was how to cut very large rocks. That’s a head scratcher for me.
I mean, everyone has to agree that whatever techiniques were used, they were able to do it in a way that didn’t leave behind industrial machinery (because there’s none left behind), but the difference between “ancient people were intelligent enough to figure this out” and “aliens taught them” is this super-advanced unknown space-travelling civilization, which is exactly what we *don’t* have any evidence of. We’ve got advanced stone-cutting techniques. You see the mismatch?
… well …
Huh. Let’s think about this.
I don’t think stone is an inherently unsophisticated material. I mean, I agree it wouldn’t make a great spaceship (as far as we know). And stone weapons and tools aren’t as good as forged-metal ones … hence the term Stone Age, which gives the impression that everything was backward when everything (?) was made out of stone … But, apparently it makes a great building material if you do it right! You can make mathematically perfect structures that last … well, at least a few thousand years, possibly tens of thousands depending on what theory you go with.
I guess I figured that the only reason we don’t make awesome buildings like that nowadays is that it’s prohibitively difficult and expensive. But, you are the expert, maybe there are other reasons as well.
So, yeah, I don’t see a mismatch, more just a complete dearth of information. Regardless of whether the tech was alien or human, we just don’t know enough about the world they lived in to work out why their priority was making imposing stone structures that would last forever. Let alone others whose priority was to make giant things out of stone and then *bury* them.
Graham Hancock has some theories about that, which I’ll post about some time, and try to reconcile them with Van Dorn as well.
Possibly a dumb question, but why would it be that humans back then would be twice as smart as we are today? Is it that, if given the same resources they had, we couldn’t recreate the things they did? Or are you even saying we can’t recreate them now?
Or because we don’t know how they created some of the structures?
I keep forgetting to check the box so that I can get notified of new comments, so I’m posting another comment so I can now check that special box.
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Yes. In some of the cases, we could not get the same results now, with all our technology and know-how. Nor do we know how they did it (obviously, since we don’t know of any way to do it). Not just that we don’t know how you’d do this with stone-age technology, but we don’t know how you’d do it *at all.*
For example, “Modern builders with all the advantages of high-tech engineering at their disposal, can barely hoist weights of 200 tons. … the builders at Giza had hoisted such weights on an almost routine basis.” – Graham Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods
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Edward Leedskalnin might have had an idea as to how these were built.
Thanks, I’ll check it out.
I see you’ve been blogging about this too.
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Yes. I am fascinated by the ancient megalithic structures.
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Very cool post, just happened to click on it looking at one of your other articles. I haven’t read “Chariot of the Gods”, but I have heard of it in passing. Have you read any of “The Law of One”? In the supposed communication with Ra ( a being that is many, but acts like one ), they claim to have come to earth to build the pyramids:
I wouldn’t go as far to say I believe it, but it is interesting to consider the possibility.
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I’m glad someone is still reading my old posts! 🙂
I just clicked on your link and looked at it briefly. It looks like another, more detailed, version of Chariots’ theory, taking it farther and into more detail, extending it all the way out to neopagan/Gnostic/New Age mysticism. Graham Hancock does some of this as well.
Glad you don’t completely buy it, because I think it would be dangerous to seek spiritual guidance from supposed aliens or inter-dimensional beings. They do not have a great track record of wishing humanity well.