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.