Are we oversimplifying?

I get overwhelmed with wonder when I contemplate the vastness of the Cosmos and the miracle of life. The truth of it all is beyond intellectual understanding. I know that! But, it is important for me to present a rational story of the universe. Many scientists and philosophers feel the same way. They want to find meaning by constructing a rational story. There is nothing wrong with that.

Rational stories are built on concepts. When we conceptualize we oversimplify. That’s a given. But, what is the alternative? We have to conceptualize to survive and develop technologies, sciences, societies.

The mystery of existence is profound. Theories will only scratch the surface. This does not stop us from developing theories, however.

In this essay I talked about my dream of a new academic discipline, a unique blend of physics, metaphysics and spiritual philosophy. The practitioners of that discipline would produce models of Reality that are simple, explanatory and predictive. The goal is not to compete with physicists and other scientists. The goal is to provide complementary models to deepen our understanding.

The models produced by the practitioners of the new discipline would emphasize simplicity. Yes, there is the danger of oversimplification. But, we have to explore. It is better to oversimplify than to get paralyzed by the immensity of the task and not to try at all.

Simple models may not have wide coverage, they may be limited in their applicability but they certainly provide new insights. This often leads to the next level towards theories with higher explanatory and predictive power.

There are many examples from the history of science where a simpler theory was a better theory. My favorite example is Newton’s law of gravity. Isaac Newton searched for a theory simpler than the theory of epicycles which was ridiculously complicated. He found it. The remarkable fact about the Newton’s law of gravity is that it is simple yet universal. Newton’s law of gravity applies to all massive objects in the universe not just to the planets in the solar system. This shows that there are exceptional simple theories that have wide coverage.

In the scientific context, “simple” often means small number of free parameters. The goal is to construct theories with the smallest number of free parameters as possible and explain the widest range of observations as possible. Expressed differently, simple theories use minimum number of orthogonal explanatory factors.

Interactions always introduce complications. Even though the Newton’s law of gravity is simple to write down for two objects, it gets difficult to calculate the motions of multiple objects attracting each other gravitationally. Simple theory (minimum number of free parameters) does not necessarily imply easy calculation. That’s why the other criterion for theory fitness after simplicity is the calculational efficiency. Simple models that yield to calculations will be more useful.

Comment by Richard Gauthier (January 25, 2021):  “It was Kepler and not Newton who sought a planetary orbit description simpler than epicycles. He came up with the ellipse and Kepler’s 3 laws. Newton showed that planetary elliptical motion could be generated by a 1/R^2 force law.”

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