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elliott sober

Subject Philosophy » Epistemology

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631192589.1993.x


Philosophers and scientists have often held that the simplicity or parsimony of a theory is one reason, all else being equal, to view it as true. This goes beyond the unproblematic idea that simpler theories are easier to work with and have greater aesthetic appeal. One theory is more parsimonious than another when it postulates fewer entities, processes, changes or explanatory principles; the simplicity of a theory depends on more or less the same considerations, though it is not obvious that parsimony and simplicity come to the same thing. It is plausible to demand clarification of what makes one theory simpler or more parsimonious than another before the justification of these methodological maxims can be addressed. If we set this descriptive problem to one side, the major normative problem is as follows: What reason is there to think that simplicity is a sign of truth? Why should we accept a simpler theory instead of its more complex rivals? Newton and Leibniz thought that the answer was to be found in a substantive fact about nature. In Principia , Newton laid down as his first Rule of Reasoning in Philosophy that ‘nature does nothing in vain, … for Nature is pleased with simplicity and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes’. Leibniz hypothesized that the actual world obeys simple laws because God's taste for simplicity influenced his decision about which world to actualize. ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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