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Occam’s Razor: The Simple and the Simplistic

By Noel Mawer

Michio Kaku, A Scientific Odyssey (1994); Stuart Kaufman, At Home in the Universe (1995); E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012); Marcelo Gleiser, A Tear at the Edge of Creation (2012)

Occam’s Razor is the philosophic doctrine that, all other things being equal (as if they ever are), the simplest explanation for something is most likely the correct explanation. However, as one of my favorite pundits, Rachel Madow, recently observed, “Conspiracy is simple; truth is complex.” But for most of us, the complexity of our lives and world is beyond human understanding; we all, in one way or another, find it necessary for our sanity to impose simplistic answers on the enduring questions life and the universe ask. Apparently this is one of the curses of our gift, unique (maybe) among creatures living on this planet, of self-consciousness: consciousness, that is, of ourselves and our condition—that we come from something (not just our species’ African genesis, but something larger, something ultimate), and we die into something or nothing. As soon imagine “what song the sirens sang” (1658)— Sir Thomas Browne’s example of the unknowable.

There are two basic ways to approach this conundrum: the scientific, or complex, way; the simplistic, or religious way. Can we have it both ways? Most of us seem willing to die trying. Many years ago, in a class in 17th century English literature, I encountered Dryden’s lines:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony

This universal frame began;

When Nature underneath a heap

Of jarring atoms lay,

And could not heave her head,

The tuneful Voice was heard from high,

“Arise, ye more than dead.”

Then cold and hot and moist and dry

In order to their stations leap,

And music’s power obey.

From harmony, from heavenly harmony

This universal frame began:

From harmony to harmony

Through all the compass of the notes it ran,

The diapason closing full in Man.

(“A Song for St. Cecelia’s Day,” 1687)

When these lines were published, people really did believe in the Music of the Spheres, that majestic, unheard melody that holds together the universe and, if silenced, would plunge us into chaos—a “heap of jarring atoms.”

Take but degree away

Untune that string and hark!

What discord follows.

            (Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1602)

Recently I was watching one of the many PBS science documentaries explaining state-of-the-art science to those of us who really find things like hyperspace and Big Bangs and dark matter pretty incomprehensible. But then, there it was, a 21st century scientific theory: super strings, those invisible entities that vibrate with the universal sound which the PBS narrator described as harmonious music. Really!? Have we returned to the cosmology of Dryden and Shakespeare, or has the search for the simple answer, the one that will unify all theories, led us rather into the world of George Eliot’s Casaubon (in Middlemarch), wasting his life in search of the elusive—or chimerical—Key to All Mythologies. More than a century and a half before Super String theory, Eliot dismisses as folly the search for unifying theories.

In spite of a regrettable lack of expertise in science and math, I decided to try to explore this realm and find out for myself. And after a lot of reading and puzzling, I found some answers and many further conundrums. Is there any ultimate order in the universe? Or is it simply the nature of human thought to impose order on the chaos around us? Is this simply a trick of our perception, our mind’s way of ensuring some degree of sanity, keeping us from flying off into gravity-less and endless space? Are there final answers and, if so, how do we access them? Where do I start?

So I picked up the latest from the Father of Sociobiology, E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), which, a New Yorker review informed me, is Wilson’s revision of his monumental 1976 Sociobiology—published at a time when the linking of human behavior to that of species which share most of our DNA was in vogue. It has since been elevated to the status of received wisdom with the charting of the human genome. Remember African Genesis? And the works of fellow denizens of the animal kingdom, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox? I had come away from these works accepting not only the evolutionary theory of humanity’s African origins but also some apparent behavioral parallels with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. I also, more recently, encountered the antiquated but still very attractive theories of the common origins of all myths and religions, as laid out by Freud’s pupil Otto Rank.

But to return to Wilson’s latest work: for Wilson, evolution has produced in humans (and most other animals) two conflicting instincts, the drive toward self interest and that toward community. Many animals, including insects (esp. ants and bees), seem to exist only for the group, while a few, like solitary birds and sea creatures, appear chiefly to be self interested. Wilson points out the immediate value of individual self preservation and also the longer-term necessity of group interest—the good of the group, the species, that Wilson calls “eusociality” (a coinage on the model of “utopia“).

I would try to refrain from pointing out the political/economic manifestations of these drives in our society—but Wilson does not so refrain. This is a book with a message: preserve the species or we are all doomed. The selfish gene of Richard Dawkins, of laissez-faire capitalism, takes us further down the road on which we are already well advanced, the road to the destruction of our planet’s environment, and, ultimately, to extinction.

The only possible answer to a modern-day Cain’s query “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is YES. We have the power to destroy, but we need to cultivate the power to save. To save ourselves from ourselves, from our own species, asserts the atheist Wilson, we must cast off the religion/superstition that leads to the outright and violent destruction of the species. Here the Pope comes in for some harsh words regarding his pronouncements on birth control.

The biggest revelation of Wilson’s book is his revision of his once-all-embracing theory of evolution, survival of the fittest through “inclusive fitness.” Here he comes into conflict with most of his fellow sociobiologists, who accept the theory of Dawkins’ “selfish gene.” This view of evolution sees the survival of our own DNA, through us and our close relatives, as the only road available to us, and therefore as the sole mechanism assuring survival. Not so, says Wilson. We also have genes for altruistic behavior, for eusociality. Thus, the book’s title: The Social Conquest of Earth. Finally, with all species, the social, altruistic individuals will simply outlast the selfish. So much for Ayn Rand. I can imagine Wilson’s response to her question “Who is John Galt?”: Really! Be serious!

In spite of really terrible graphics as well as inadequate index and endnotes, which may be a result of Wilson’s belief in the urgency of his message, this book is accessible to readers with little scientific background and is full of information and insights I’m glad I encountered. For example, Wilson touches on language, which seems a necessary skill for the type of organization humans must have had in order to migrate in groups out of Africa. I gather, then, that this would suggest the single-origin-of-language theory (as opposed to the parallel evolution of multiple tongues—an approach that proved to be a dead end in theories of the origin of human “races”).

In addition to Wilson’s book, I also returned to two works from the mid-1990’s: Stuart Kaufman’s At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity; and Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Fourth Dimension. The latter work introduced me to what I believe is still embraced by reputable scientists, the Super String theory of ultimate reality. Kaku is informative; Kaufman is something else. He strays from his own field, biology, into social science, particularly economics, to shore up his theory that there really is, above and beyond visible reality, a force for organization and hence meaning in everything. Sort of Einstein’s god-who-doesn’t-play-dice-with-the-universe.

Let me offer a specific example. Economics really does, Kaufman asserts, have “laws”—“natural laws” which, if properly understood, would enable us to control the global economy. So, folks, keep looking for that invisible hand. It must be there, just like the other buried organizational structures of all things—leading us ultimately to that elusive Theory of All Things, which will embrace evolution, Super Strings—and Ayn Rand. And all this time I was under the impression that economics—money—was a human construct and thus susceptible to the vagaries of human behavior and emotion and belief. If we are the gods who created this universe of money, we should refrain from attributing to it such magical powers as invisible hands. As Samuel Johnson once observed of human language: “It may be reasonably imagined that what is so much in the power of men … will very often be capriciously conducted.” After all, it seems that God does play dice: the universe and its “natural” and mathematical laws are actually matters of probability.

Marcelo Gleiser’s A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for an Imperfect Universe defines “the quest to explain the material composition of the world. Should we keep searching for a unified description of matter? Is it indeed there, waiting to be discovered? Or is the seductive power of the concept, bolstered by thousands of years of monotheistic culture, blinding us?”

Science has been an endless series of revisions. For many centuries it was received dogma that, God being perfect and his creation, the universe, therefore, also perfect, all planets must orbit in perfect circles—which they don’t. From the shattering discovery of the solar system’s heliocentricity, through the loss of the perfect circle, to today’s universe of flux, no one, not even Einstein, is immune from correction, and, thinks Gleiser, no one ever will be.

The single unifying theory is a chimera. It proceeds from that ubiquitous human need to see order in everything—in reality, to impose order whether it exists or not. Gleiser calls into question not only Super String theory but even the Big Bang. The question really is: can human beings live with the knowledge that they are not endowed with minds that can understand everything? And then, to return to Wilson, can such a species abandon its belief system in order to live in a real world and a real society which might enable us to overcome our self-destructive tendencies and create a world we all can live in? A little humility would go a long way. And Occam’s Razor, that theory of simplicity, seems very complex.


Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political, Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review.


Old Hundred:  Poetry in the Anglican Hymnal

By Randall Mawer


Many years ago, during confirmation class, my priest called me an “aesthetic Christian,” and he had it right:  more than any doctrine, I am drawn to the “bells and smells” of the Anglican mass (Rite One), to plain chant, incense, the sung service, the Shakespearean language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  In short, aesthetic pleasure is the heart of worship for me, wherein nothing matters more than The Hymnal … according to the use of The Episcopal Church, a treasury of grand melodies and rich harmonies and soaring descants and, especially, of poems as various as they are fine and fitted to their occasions and seasons.

The great ages and many of the great names are here.

John Donne puns away on his name, lest we forget how to pronounce it.  So great are his sins that God’s mercy must be boundless if they are to be washed away.  “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.”  Very different is the tone of Donne’s 17th century contemporary (and fellow divine) “sweet” George Herbert:  “the cream of all my heart, I will bring” to God.  “All may of thee partake; nothing can be so mean, which with this tincture, ‘for thy sake,’ will not grow bright and clean … ; who sweeps a room as for thy laws, makes that and th’ action fine.”

Joseph Addison, co-founder with Richard Steele of the 18th century Spectator, finds Newtonian physics in Psalm 19.  All is astronomy, as interpreted by God’s greatest invention, the human intellect.  “The universal sun from day to day does his Creator’s power display, and publishes to every land the work of an almighty hand.”  Though silent, the wheeling stars and planets “sound … in reason’s ear.”

The sensuousness and pathos of 19th century romanticism are embodied in Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” perhaps the most beautiful of English Christmas carols:  “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow….  What can I give him, poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.”  (The active and tactile “bring” recalls Herbert and, as opposed to repetition of the easier, more passive “give,” is particularly poignant.)

The 20th century is equally well represented by W.H. Auden’s masterly allegory “He is the Way”:  “Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see strange beasts….  Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years….  Love him in the World of the Flesh; and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.”  (One is not surprised to discover that  among Auden’s favorite dons at Oxford was J.R.R. Tolkien.)

But the pure poets whose lines go out in search of musical settings do not provide the bulk of the Hymnal, which depends rather on “hymnodists” who are constrained by the fact that they must start with a metrical measure or a set tune and/or a passage from scripture or saintly meditation to be transmuted into verse.  Three such are especially noteworthy, here presented in reverse chronological order:  John Mason Neale (1818-1866), Charles Wesley (1707-1788), and Isaac Watts (1674-1748).  Each comes at his task from a particular angle.

Neale (with 23 selections in the current Hymnal) is primarily a translator, but he finds wonderful ways to augment sense with sound, as in his version of the Venerable Bede’s Latin meditation on the Trinity, which shall reign “eternally,” the final word drawn out (in one setting) through seven full beats, the last syllable through three of its own.  Neale’s take on a 16th century Latin hymn adopts metaphysical paradox:  Christ, “that cannot die [, shall] be slain; death by death its death shall gain.”  And see, in parenthesis below, Neale’s positively Swinburnean detailing of Christ’s crucifixion.

Charles Wesley approaches hymnody from a perspective less linguistic than liturgical.  He provides service music to undergird the “method” of his brother John’s Methodism as it makes its way through the church year.  Yet there is a poet in Wesley, whose phrasing and imagery sometimes resonate wonderfully:  “made like him [Jesus], like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies”; “[o]ne family we dwell in him, … though now divided by the stream, the narrow stream of death”; “[c]ome away to the skies, my beloved, arise, and rejoice in the day thou wast born …; [w]e with thanks do approve the design of that love; … let us nevermore part, till we meet at the feast of the Lamb”; “[h]ear him, ye deaf, ye voiceless ones, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind, behold, your Savior comes; and leap, ye lame, for joy.”  Alliteration, repetition, assonance (meet/feast), slant rhyme (approve/love), sprung rhythm--devices we associate with Gerard Manly Hopkins’ pursuit of ecstasy--all are here. 

Less attractive is Wesley’s morbidity, his masochistic identification with the suffering Jesus, “pierced and nailed … to the tree.”  Worshippers are instructed to be “deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing” (yes! three times!) at the spectacle of Christ’s “glorious scars.”  (It was not the Reformation, though, which invented such obsessions.  Here [again] is John Mason Neale, translating from a 5th century Latin text:  Christ “endures the nails, the spitting, vinegar, and spear, and reed; from that holy body broken blood and water forth proceed….  Faithful cross! ... , noble tree!  None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be:  sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest weight is hung on thee.”)      

And so to Isaac Watts, the “father [if not the master] of English hymnody” (England, 125).  If Neale is most concerned with language and Wesley with ritual, Watts, the Eddie Guest or James Whitcomb Riley of his day, is devoted to … well … to entertainment.  Easy moralism, sentimentality, “proverbial” wisdom, humor … these were Watts’s stock in trade:  “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour?”  In an acerbic (but just) assessment, Martha England writes, “[N]o [Watts] poem is satisfactory throughout,” and though she understands the strictures against which pure hymnodists had to struggle, England also demonstrates how often and how delightfully Emily Dickinson, who learned her metrics from Watts, transcends these technical limitations.  As for the burden of Watts’s poems, “sayings,” and hymns, it is strictly orthodox, in the manner of Dr. Pangloss:  “whatever went wrong or came out right God was responsible …; mercy and righteousness, truth and peace met and kissed” (England, 124-28).

And yet, and yet.  “[L]et every heart prepare him room … ; fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy …, repeat, repeat [note the repetition] the sounding joy.”      “[T]he long cloud of witnesses [the saved] show the … path to heaven.”  “[W]ith the [sacramental] Bread shall all be blessed who see the light or feel the sun.”  (Here the “light” of abstract truth becomes almost literal, generating life-giving warmth.)

And so to “Old Hundred”:  “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; praise Him all creatures here below.”  So do the praise songs of lowly, mortal “creatures” ascend, to echo in the vaulted halls of higher realms, as we, aided by Isaac Watts and other hymn-makers, “repeat the sounding joy.”


   Works Cited

England, Martha Winburn, “Emily Dickinson and Isaac Watts:  Puritan Hymnodists,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library (Feb. 1965); rpt. in Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson, ed. Paul J. Ferlazzo, Boston:  Hall, 1984.


Randall Mawer is Poetry Editor of Lost Coast Review.  His Sycamore and Other Poems was published in 2000 by Writer’s Club Press. His young adult novel, Frog’s Field, was recently published by Avignon Press.







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