Conjuncted: Occam’s Razor and Nomological Hypothesis. Thought of the Day 51.1.1


Conjuncted here, here and here.

A temporally evolving system must possess a sufficiently rich set of symmetries to allow us to infer general laws from a finite set of empirical observations. But what justifies this hypothesis?

This question is central to the entire scientific enterprise. Why are we justified in assuming that scientific laws are the same in different spatial locations, or that they will be the same from one day to the next? Why should replicability of other scientists’ experimental results be considered the norm, rather than a miraculous exception? Why is it normally safe to assume that the outcomes of experiments will be insensitive to irrelevant details? Why, for that matter, are we justified in the inductive generalizations that are ubiquitous in everyday reasoning?

In effect, we are assuming that the scientific phenomena under investigation are invariant under certain symmetries – both temporal and spatial, including translations, rotations, and so on. But where do we get this assumption from? The answer lies in the principle of Occam’s Razor.

Roughly speaking, this principle says that, if two theories are equally consistent with the empirical data, we should prefer the simpler theory:

Occam’s Razor: Given any body of empirical evidence about a temporally evolving system, always assume that the system has the largest possible set of symmetries consistent with that evidence.

Making it more precise, we begin by explaining what it means for a particular symmetry to be “consistent” with a body of empirical evidence. Formally, our total body of evidence can be represented as a subset E of H, i.e., namely the set of all logically possible histories that are not ruled out by that evidence. Note that we cannot assume that our evidence is a subset of Ω; when we scientifically investigate a system, we do not normally know what Ω is. Hence we can only assume that E is a subset of the larger set H of logically possible histories.

Now let ψ be a transformation of H, and suppose that we are testing the hypothesis that ψ is a symmetry of the system. For any positive integer n, let ψn be the transformation obtained by applying ψ repeatedly, n times in a row. For example, if ψ is a rotation about some axis by angle θ, then ψn is the rotation by the angle nθ. For any such transformation ψn, we write ψ–n(E) to denote the inverse image in H of E under ψn. We say that the transformation ψ is consistent with the evidence E if the intersection

E ∩ ψ–1(E) ∩ ψ–2(E) ∩ ψ–3(E) ∩ …

is non-empty. This means that the available evidence (i.e., E) does not falsify the hypothesis that ψ is a symmetry of the system.

For example, suppose we are interested in whether cosmic microwave background radiation is isotropic, i.e., the same in every direction. Suppose we measure a background radiation level of x1 when we point the telescope in direction d1, and a radiation level of x2 when we point it in direction d2. Call these events E1 and E2. Thus, our experimental evidence is summarized by the event E = E1 ∩ E2. Let ψ be a spatial rotation that rotates d1 to d2. Then, focusing for simplicity just on the first two terms of the infinite intersection above,

E ∩ ψ–1(E) = E1 ∩ E2 ∩ ψ–1(E1) ∩ ψ–1(E2).

If x1 = x2, we have E1 = ψ–1(E2), and the expression for E ∩ ψ–1(E) simplifies to E1 ∩ E2 ∩ ψ–1(E1), which has at least a chance of being non-empty, meaning that the evidence has not (yet) falsified isotropy. But if x1 ≠ x2, then E1 and ψ–1(E2) are disjoint. In that case, the intersection E ∩ ψ–1(E) is empty, and the evidence is inconsistent with isotropy. As it happens, we know from recent astronomy that x1 ≠ x2 in some cases, so cosmic microwave background radiation is not isotropic, and ψ is not a symmetry.

Our version of Occam’s Razor now says that we should postulate as symmetries of our system a maximal monoid of transformations consistent with our evidence. Formally, a monoid Ψ of transformations (where each ψ in Ψ is a function from H into itself) is consistent with evidence E if the intersection

ψ∈Ψ ψ–1(E)

is non-empty. This is the generalization of the infinite intersection that appeared in our definition of an individual transformation’s consistency with the evidence. Further, a monoid Ψ that is consistent with E is maximal if no proper superset of Ψ forms a monoid that is also consistent with E.

Occam’s Razor (formal): Given any body E of empirical evidence about a temporally evolving system, always assume that the set of symmetries of the system is a maximal monoid Ψ consistent with E.

What is the significance of this principle? We define Γ to be the set of all symmetries of our temporally evolving system. In practice, we do not know Γ. A monoid Ψ that passes the test of Occam’s Razor, however, can be viewed as our best guess as to what Γ is.

Furthermore, if Ψ is this monoid, and E is our body of evidence, the intersection

ψ∈Ψ ψ–1(E)

can be viewed as our best guess as to what the set of nomologically possible histories is. It consists of all those histories among the logically possible ones that are not ruled out by the postulated symmetry monoid Ψ and the observed evidence E. We thus call this intersection our nomological hypothesis and label it Ω(Ψ,E).

To see that this construction is not completely far-fetched, note that, under certain conditions, our nomological hypothesis does indeed reflect the truth about nomological possibility. If the hypothesized symmetry monoid Ψ is a subset of the true symmetry monoid Γ of our temporally evolving system – i.e., we have postulated some of the right symmetries – then the true set Ω of all nomologically possible histories will be a subset of Ω(Ψ,E). So, our nomological hypothesis will be consistent with the truth and will, at most, be logically weaker than the truth.

Given the hypothesized symmetry monoid Ψ, we can then assume provisionally (i) that any empirical observation we make, corresponding to some event D, can be generalized to a Ψ-invariant law and (ii) that unconditional and conditional probabilities can be estimated from empirical frequency data using a suitable version of the Ergodic Theorem.


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