Chapter 9: Fundamental Physics

Section 5: Ultimate Models for the Universe

Simplicity in scientific models

To curtail absurdly complicated early scientific models Occam's razor principle that "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity" was introduced in the 1300s. This principle has worked well in physics, where it has often proven to be the case, for example, that out of all possible terms in an equation the only ones that actually occur are the very simplest. But in a field like biology, the principle has usually been regarded as much less successful. For many complicated features are seen in biological organisms, and when there have been guesses of simple explanations for them, these have often turned out to be wrong. Much of what is seen is probably a reflection of complicated details of the history of biological evolution. But particularly after the discoveries in this book it seems likely that at least some of what appears complicated may actually be produced by very simple underlying programs—which perhaps occur because they were the first to be tried, or are the most efficient or robust. Outside of natural science, Occam's principle can sometimes be useful—typically because simplicity is a good assumption in some aspect of human behavior or motivation. In looking at well-developed technological systems or human organizations simplicity is also quite often a reasonable assumption—since over the course of time parts that are complicated or difficult to understand will tend to have been optimized away.

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From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]