Ockham’s razor VS Chatton’s anti-razor

Guest writer Dr. Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi, an independent researcher and IAC member, discusses the Ockham's Razor principle and its lesser-known complement: Chatton's anti-razor. Ockham's Razor encourages the thinker to select the simplest explanation. Why utilize a model with 9 bodies, when 4 vehicles of manifestation of the consciousness are sufficient to explicate phenomena like out-of-body experience and cosmic consciousness? Ockham is often evoked by those who have not had sufficient multidimensional experiences to support their reductionist views: renowned poltergeist expert Dr William Roll noted that children were present in all cases he studied. Applying Ockham's Razor (no more than necessary), he proposed that the children caused these phenomena, rather than non-corporeal beings (super psi theory). Dr Roll disregarded other evidence like poltergeists without the presence of children, out-of-body experiences with recovery of veridical information from the "departed," mediumship research and more. Indeed, we must guard against models that introduce a multiplicity of variables for no apparent reason but also against discarding evidence (no less than necessary). Reductionists that insist the brain is sufficient to explain consciousness also call upon Ockham's Razor, but what is cut out of the picture with this simpler model? Is a simpler model always correct?

Nelson Abreu
IAC Blog

Ockham's razor VS Chatton's anti-razor

Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi, PhD


There is an interesting sign on the wall of every IAC office, which says the following: “Don't believe in anything, not even what you hear here at the IAC. Experiment. Have your own experiences.” This healthy advice can be understood in many different ways: for instance, as an expression of the fact that IAC is not interested in promoting brainwashing, proselytizing, or other methods of manipulative persuasion, but only a genuine participative and cooperative form of research. Also, it can be understood as an expression of the fact that consciousness research is primarily self-research, i.e., a typology of research which needs to be conducted primarily in first person, although, of course, it doesn’t exclude second and third person methods.

IAC’s remarkable sign also points to another important aspect of research in general: its empirical foundation. Indeed, there are no doubts that all we know about reality, inner and outer, is derived from our experiences and experiments, which form our primary data. This, however, should not lead us to erroneously believe that there would be a fundamental distinction between facts and theories, i.e., between our empirical data and the explanations and interpretations we attach to these data.

It is important to realize that, in the same way that our theories cannot be totally disassociated from our experiences (and experiments) to which they relate, our experiences too are never “naked and crude facts,” but can only acquire a specific meaning in relation to the theories of those who experiment them and communicate them.

This important observation that facts are, in ultimate analysis, statements full of theory, is well known among philosophers of science and certainly acknowledged by many scientists (although to different degrees). For instance, Albert Einstein once pointed out to Werner Heisenberg that whether we can observe something or not depends on the theory which we use, in the sense that it is the theory which decides what we can actually observe. By this, Einstein did not only mean that our theories, like maps of a territory, are telling us where and how we can experiment its different portions, but also that when we do experiment something, we may not really “see” what we are actually experimenting, because of the cognitive filters imposed by our theories and worldviews.

Let me explain this point by mentioning one of the most famous “failed” experiments in the history of modern physics: the one carried out in 1887 by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, as an attempt to test the properties of so-called luminiferous aether, a medium which was assumed to entirely fill empty space, and through which light waves were assumed to propagate. As is well-known, their experiment failed to detect an aether wind, which was expected to be observed considering the planet’s orbital motion. Therefore, the two scientists concluded that the aetheric substance was dragged by the movement of the Earth, which explained the absence of a detectable aether wind.

Now, what Michelson and Morley actually failed to observe is not the relative velocity of the aether, with respect to planet Earth, but the fact that the speed of light is actually a constant independent of the observer motion. This observation, however, would only have been possible if they were able to reinterpret their experiment in the light of a more advanced explanation, i.e., of a more advanced theory of physical reality, like for instance the theory of special relativity, which was soon to be developed by Einstein. So, our experiences, our experiments, our observations, are all theory-laden processes! As Mark Twain used to say, for whoever has only a hammer sooner or later everything else will seem like a nail.

According to the above, we can now realize that when we read the IAC sign, we are not only invited to not believe in anything, and to have our own experiences, but also, implicitly, to have our own theories, i.e., our own critical explanations. Otherwise, we may simply fail to appreciate the full content of our experiences!

Let me remind that science is a human activity (based on experience) whose purpose is to understand reality through the construction of theories (called scientific), able to explain it. Scientific theories evolve according to a method of a critical nature: the so-called scientific method, which contemplates both practical and logicical-rational tests. Therefore, it acts like a filter that theories have to pass through to be able to evolve into more advanced relative truths, whose validity remains, of course, always temporary. This means that one key element of scientific research is the creation (by educated guesses) of new explanations, i.e., of new theories, and another key element is the testing of these theories, through critical thinking and practical experimentation.

I will not enter here in the rather involved discussion of the reasons of the many criteria that are used today (at least in principle) to evaluate the reliability of a scientific theory, i.e., how good a theory is as an explanation. Let me just quote, without further comment, the following important ones:explanatory power, falsifiability (both rational and experimental), objectivity(i.e., ability to generate intersubjective consensus), internal coherence,compatibility with all known experiments, and openness to criticism.

Sometimes the so-called Ockham’s razor principle is also mentioned as a scientific criterion (particularly, I would say, in Hollywood films!). This principle is usually formulated as “entities must not be multiplied without necessity” (Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate), and it has received many different names, like: simplicity principle, law of parsimony, and economy principle. Strictly speaking, it shouldn’t be considered as an unquestionable criterion, as it cannot, and should not, always be applied. Rather, it should always be applied cum grano salis!

Let me provide an important example, also taken from the history of physics. In 1930, theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli hypothesized the existence of a new subtle and elusive microscopic entity to explain beta decay. Indeed, according to the available experimental data, beta decay processes were in apparent contradiction with the laws of energy conservation and angular momentum conservation. So, not to give up these important laws, Pauli decided that it wasnecessary to presuppose the existence of a neutral entity, which was created during the beta decay process, and whose energy and angular momentum would allow to make ends meet.

This entity was later on called the neutrino by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, but because of its very weak interaction with ordinary matter, it could only be (directly) experimentally detected decades after Pauli’s bold hypothesis, thus confirming that this phantom-like entity was a very real entity, and not just the result of a “cognitive illusion.”

So, Pauli was right in apparently disregarding Ockham’s razor principle, and in positing a brand new entity, even though it was impossible at his time to have a direct evidence of its true existence. If I say “apparently” it is because Ockham’s razor only affirms that the multiplication of entities should not occur “without necessity,” that is, without enough reason or experience. Here, however, we were exactly in that situation where reason and experience precisely suggested the need to do so.

Another way to look at this is to say that Pauli, when he made his assumption, was more guided by so-called Chatton’s anti-razor principle than by Ockham’s razor principle. For those who do not know him, Walter of Chatton was a theologian and philosopher who intensively disputed William Ockham, precisely on questions related to the convenience of rejecting or accepting additional entities in our explanations. In a nutshell, if on one hand Ockham warned us by saying “no more than is necessary,” Chatton, on the other hand, counterbalanced Ockham’s warning by adding “no less than is necessary.”

It is important to observe, however, that Ockham’s razor and Chatton’s anti-razor are not so different after all: the first, in a sense, expresses negatively what the second expresses in positive terms, and together they just make fully manifest the irreducible tension between simplicity and complexity, in our investigation of reality.

Now, if we compare the conventional materialistic paradigm (MP) – which considers that the human consciousness is just a by-product of the physical brain’s activity – with the consciential paradigm (CP) – which instead considers that the human consciousness is also a consequence of the activity of more subtle entities, like the psychosoma and the mentalsoma – it is quite clear that a different position was taken in their formulation, as it regards the convenience of being guided more by Ockham’s warning or by Chatton’s one.

Similarly to Pauli in his analysis of beta decay, IAC consciousness researchers and all those researchers who today adopt a similar viewpoint have judged it is necessary, seeing the quality of the data accumulated by countless investigators in lucid out-of-body experiences (OBE) and allied phenomena to hypothesize the existence of more subtle vehicles of manifestation, in addition to our denser physical body. In other terms, they have judged it necessary to assume that the consciousness is a multi-vehicular entity, manifesting in multiple existential dimensions.

On the other hand, conventional consciousness researchers have so far considered that all these non-ordinary phenomena, like OBE, are just the result of specific activities of the brain, when perturbed in some way, i.e., that they are essentially hallucinatory in character.

So, for consciousness researchers who adopt the MP, all the accent is on the first element of Ockham-Chatton (razor-anti-razor) binomial: a single vehicle is assumed to be sufficient to explain all the observed first person experiences, also those related to altered (expanded) states of consciousness. Conversely, for consciousness researchers adopting the CP, the accent is more on the second element of the binomial: the complexity and articulations of our sensorial and para-sensorial data are assumed not to be conveniently explained if we reduce the human being to a mono-vehicular entity.

Of course, which one of these two perspectives is the more advanced one, researchers can only decide on their own, by accepting to produce high quality first-person experiences and then guess on their own what would be the best explanation to account for their content: the mono-vehicular hallucinatory one, of the MP, or the multi-vehicular non-hallucinatory one of the CP (or a possible third explanation, which has not yet been considered).

What is, however, important to realize when conducting this kind of theoretical-practical investigation, is that a conventional (mono-materialistic) consciousness researcher and an unconventional (multi-materialistic) one, even when they have the same experience, say a lucid OBE in a given layer of the energetic dimension, they will not in general “see” the same thing, in the same way as Michelson and Morley did not “see” the same thing that Einstein saw, when analyzing the same data.

This, I believe, is a crucial point to understand. If we adopt the MP, it is clear that “lucid OBEs” can only be understood as “vivid hallucinations.” In other terms, the MP forces us to only see an “absence of reality” in these experiences, in the same way as Michelson and Morley “Galilean preconceptions” forced them to only see an “absence of aether wind” in their measurements. On the other hand, from the perspective of the CP, this “absence of reality” can also be understood as the “presence of a different – non-ordinary – reality”, in the same way as Einstein, from the perspective of his more advanced relativity theory, was able to understand that the “absence of aether wind” was just the sign of the “presence of an observer-independent invariant speed.” 

Here, of course, I’m suggesting that the CP is a more advanced explanation than the MP. This is also because the CP includes the MP, so that inside its framework there is enough place for both hallucinatory phenomena and genuine OBEs, revealing new objective layers of our multidimensional reality. Also, if we accept, even if only hypothetically, that an OBE can reveal us objective entities and existential dimensions, then of course we can consider the possibility of investing some of our time to acquire the necessary tools to explore them, and take seriously the information we can gather during these explorations. This is something which is very difficult, if not impossible, to do, if we a priori consider that the so-called extraphysical dimensions that we can experience during an OBE are just an imaginative fabrication of our physical brains.

For a deepening regarding scientific criteria: Talking about reality

For a deepening regarding Ockham and Chatton’s complementary perspectives: Smaling, A. (2005) “The Chatton-Ockham strategy; an alternative to the simplicity principle.” In: D. Aerts, B. D. Hooghe & N. Nicole (eds.) Worldviews, science and us. Redemarcating knowledge and its social and ethical implications. New Jersey, London, Singapore, etc.: World Scientific, 38-58.

Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi received the Ph.D. in physics from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, in 1995. His research activities are focused on the foundations of physics, quantum theory, and consciousness. He has published numerous research articles in international journals, both in physics and the study of consciousness. He is a life member of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, as well as a full member of the Society for Scientific Exploration and the International Academy of Consciousness. He is currently the director of the Laboratorio di Autoricerca di Base, and the editor of the journal AutoRicerca