Thursday, June 27, 2013

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 was necessary 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. For more information:


  1. Recent publication by the author which applies both principles (from the latest issue of The Journal of Non-Locality)

  2. Recent post about same author's new book Observer Effect

  3. Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi takes a detour to get to some very important conclusions about how we should conduct consciousness experiments on scientific grounds.

    He starts with the well-known IAC sign “Don’t’ believe in anything; have your own experiences!” and offers two reasons for why that is important, (a) a statement about not proselytizing (Buddha said the same), and (b) that Super psi research is in essence self-research, both which are fair; but I think Massimiliano misses a third and more basic one, (c) that knowledge comes from having your own experiences; without them, you have to rely on faith (about what others say), which is universally true.

    Massimiliano further complicates the issue by his attempt to explain the difference between experience and theories (e.g. “experiences can only acquire specific meaning in relation to the theories of those who experiment them”). Let’s remind ourselves that many experiences are completely void of theoretic considerations, e.g. when children have experiences without having any clue (explanation) about what it all means; and it is not just children. He is in good company, though. Einstein was wrong, too, albeit not often, in his discussions with Heisenberg about the same issue, when he says that “being able to observe something depends on the theory you use.”

    The example Massimiliano uses is not a good one for the purpose. Michelson and Morley did not fail in their experiment. They tried to establish whether or not the ether existed. They devised their famous experiment of measuring if the speed of light appears faster when you travel towards a light source (the Sun) and slower when you travel away from the source - as wave theory suggested. Since that was not the case, they concluded that the ether did not exist (that is not a failure). This was later used by FitzGerald and Lorenz to propose the contraction of time – an idea Einstein formulated in his relativity theory.

    It becomes much more interesting when Massimiliano expounds on the Ockham’s razor and Chatton’s anti-razor principle. He clarifies how reductionists use the Ockham’s razor principle when applying their materialistic paradigm (MP) to explain Super psi phenomena, whereas consciousness researchers use the Chatton’s anti-razor principle when applying the consciential paradigm (CP) to do the same.

    His important conclusion, which also addresses Nelson Abreu’s question whether the simpler model is always correct, is (dare I say ‘of course?’) that each modeling has its own rights. Simple models are, by nature of being simple, not as circumspect as more complex models. It is the purpose of the experiment that justifies each of them. For example, Newton had no need for a 5-dimensional universe to explain and calculate gravity; a 3-D universe sufficed. So he used Ockhams’s razor (without know it). Einstein couldn’t explain gravity in a unified model using the 4-D universe. He needed more but didn’t have the tool.

    Massimiliano excellently takes this point to where we must all look when dealing with consciousness research. We need to include as many aspects as necessary (Chatton’s anti-razor) in order to explain Super psi. Like he says, (the complex) CP includes (the simpler) MP, but MP does not include CP.

    Scientific reductionist will see only Plato’s “shadows on the wall of the cave” as long as they insist on their MP models in explaining phenomenon that falls outside their models. If the great minds of physics in the early 20th Century had had that attitude, quantum physics would never have gotten off the ground - or at least not until other out-of-the-box thinkers dared to look outside the cave for explanations to their experiences.

    Kudos to Massimiliano for pointing out this important concept to his readers.

    Torben Riise, PhD

  4. Thanks Torben for your interesting comments.

    I do certainly agree that true knowledge only comes from personal experience. This is so because, as you rightly say, one should then rely only on faith (which, like hypothesis, can only be the starting point of an investigation), but also because one of the distinguishing aspects of consciousness' research is its transformative character. We investigate who and what we are, and by doing so we must promote an inner progression, which in turn will help us deepening further our investigation, and so on, in a sort of virtuous circle.

    But let me come to your quite radical statement that there would exist experiences completely void of theoretic considerations, like for instance those lived by children. I don't think this is possible, but of course this also depends on how we understand the terms "theory" and "experience". For instance, we could affirm that simple perception is per se a perfect example of an experience having no theoretical contents. Like when we look at a tree in the forest without producing any intellectual activity. But here we need consider two aspects.

    The first one is the possible reasons that brought us to look at that tree. Maybe we did that because we had a theory about what a non-theoretical experience is, and wanted to test it with that tree, to see if it is really possible to stare at an object without producing any stream of thoughts. If this was the case, then we must admit that, in ultimate analysis, our experience was the result of a theory.

    Alternatively, let us assume that we were staring at that tree for no reasons, by chance. Then, a second aspect we should consider is that when we use our physical body we are in fact using, although most of the times unconsciously, the theories which are built-in in its organs (in this case the visual ones).

    As a very simple example, consider two consciousnesses whose vehicles of manifestation are equipped with different visual sensors. The vehicle of the first consciousness has, say, photoreceptors of only one type, which gives her a monochromatic vision, in black and white. The vehicle of the second consciousness has instead multiple types of photoreceptors, that give her a polychromatic vision, in color. We can say, from a certain perspective, that the two vehicles are the manifestations of two distinct color theories: a monochromatic theory for the first vehicle, and a polychromatic theory for the second.

    For the consciousness owner of the first vehicle the leaves and trunk of the tree, for example, are typically of the same color, and this constitutes for her an undeniable fact. For the consciousness owner of the second vehicle it’s an undeniable fact instead that the leaves and trunk have distinguishable tones. In other words, even if interacting with a same entity – the light radiation emitted by the tree – the two consciousnesses have access to different empirical data, that is, to different facts (or phenomena). So, there may be more theories in our experiences than what we usually think.

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  5. [...]

    Regarding my example of Michelson-Morley experiment, here we have of course to understand that although the experiment failed in its intent to measure the aether's wind, not for this the experiment has to be considered a failure. This is the reason why I have put the term "failed" in quotation marks.

    It is worth observing that the existence of the ether, in those days, was not an issue. Most physicists believed in its existence and what they actually care about was to measure its attributes, such as its speed relative to planet earth. As far as I know, I think it is incorrect to say that Michelson and Morley concluded about the non-existence of the aether following their experiment. Indeed, they initially thought that their results confirmed the aether drag hypothesis. Also, Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction was precisely an attempt to rescue the hypothesis of a stationary aether. It was in fact a purely dynamical theory, very different from the approach subsequently used by Einstein, who adopted a viewpoint describing all these phenomena in pure kinematical terms, as generalized parallax effects.

    So, I believe that Michelson-Morley experiment does actually provide a good illustration of the point that was in question, i.e., that the content of our experiences is always pretty much "colored" by our theories of reality, and that therefore it is extremely important to always promote our investigations at both levels: theoretical and practical.


  6. When considering the existential series theory (rebirth, reincarnation), a child, even a baby, would not be void of paradigms, underlying assumptions, "theories" about self and their surround, about Reality.

    - Nelson

  7. Ines Beyer • The problem with Ockham's razor is always the question: What really is the unnecessary part of a theory to be shaven off? All of us have a subjective idea of what is necessary or unnecessary, what should be included or not based on our (extensive or limited) understanding. And it seems that if only approx. 5% of the population have lucid OBEs, the majority of the population would have a limited perspective and no personal evidence and thus find it appropriate to shave away explanations based on something they have not evidenced or experienced. Its complex, because then it comes back to the common or majority paradigm, which is not always the most advanced. If evolution by nature becomes more complex and if we develop further in ourselves and technology, we will always be able to find and possibly even measure or experiment in deeper layers of the "onion" (reality). Thus, no new science could exist if we always stuck to the simplest explanations - case closed. In order to find and explain deeper layers and understand reality in greater detail, we have to think on the edge and a little bit outside of the known. That - at least to me - is the most logical approach. I like the proposed idea by Massimilano that we must find an intermediate, between the simplest explanation and the most out there or unrealistic. Like I said, as long as we stay on the leading edge and venture a bit out from the known we can make progress. And any new theory will be at first based on a new perspective, idea, subjective and explorative until the majority of population accepts new evidence and it becomes a common knowledge. There is a lot of evidence for so many phenomena already. The problem is that many stick to the old concepts and materialistic explanations and therefore do not even attempt to look at the evidence, let alone experiment and try to verify it.

    - I. Beyer