Are scientific theories really better when they are simpler?

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Are scientific theories really better when they are simpler?

Gaudí and Mies remind us that there is no disputing matters of taste when it comes to assessing the value of simplicity and complexity in works of art. Einstein and Newton say that science is different – simplicity, in science, is not a matter of taste. Reichenbach and Akaike provided some reasons for why this is so. The upshot is that there are three parsimony paradigms that explain how the simplicity of a theory can be relevant to saying what the world is like:

Paradigm 1: sometimes simpler theories have higher probabilities.

Paradigm 2: sometimes simpler theories are better supported by the observations.

Paradigm 3: sometimes the simplicity of a model is relevant to estimating its predictive accuracy.

These three paradigms have something important in common. Whether a given problem fits into any of them depends on empirical assumptions about the problem. Those assumptions might be true of some problems, but false of others. Although parsimony is demonstrably relevant to forming judgments about what the world is like, there is in the end no unconditional and presuppositionless justification for Ockham’s Razor.