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Steve Jobs, Ockham's Razor and Aristotle

There are two kinds of simplifications. One distorts and the other clarifies. The simplification that clarifies might include more details but it is a work of good organization. Apple's Steve Jobs had that done when he asked his programmers to do more work on his project. Good organizing is work. Some computer programs have been slapdash creations by persons lacking the imagination it takes to make detailed matters beautifully simple. Building on previous work, computer programmers have been getting better at organizing. It's more than technical information. It's art, and tech writers should try to catch up. We still have tech writers who slap as much as they can on a single page, leaving a maze for the reader to search through and instructions not tightened by links, or links that take the reader on a circular course. The writer might know his subject well, but he isn't getting outside his head and into the head of his reader, which requires extra thought. And the writer's organization may be impaired by his lack of talent in eliminating redundancies and in tightening connections. Steve Jobs sent his programmers back to their desks to do more work because he knew that like the rest of us, program writers fail to think over everything connected to what they are doing, and the same is true of tech writers. Jobs expected more work would reduce clutter. Less clutter makes more clarity, and clarity simplifies.

Simplification that distorts is a creation of short-circuited thinking, the cutting through a number of connections that should be made to a connection that is false. It can be called over-simplification.

This reminds me of William of Ockham (also spelled Occam) and what is called Ockham's razor. Ockham's razor holds that the most simple explanation is best and that plurality should be avoided if possible. William of Ockham was a believer in specifics, that there is no fatherhood without fathers. Ockham's razor suggests that theories should be built with specific connections rather than a tangle of assumptions and metaphors, but scientists don't consider suggestions adequate tools. Ockham's razor is not a tool of science. It doesn't replace point by point examination. It's not a shortcut in the work involved in trying to acknowledge whether a theory is valid.

Four centuries after William of Ockham, Issac Newton's physics revolutionized how people look at nature. The new understanding was of distinct, identifiable single forces acting on distinct objects according to rules. This overturned the view of collections of things acting upon other collections of things. It overturned Aristotle's approach to science. Aristotle is considered one of the more difficult philosophers to read. Read from his book Physics to see what I mean. His mental labors produced the following falsehoods. He concluded that Zeus moved objects in a straight line until something intervened to deflect it or to stop it, and then the object fell to earth, toward the center of the universe, which was its natural place, its spiritual home. He believed there was no such thing as void, or vacuum, because Zeus himself could not make one. He claimed that because the eye disconnected from the body does not see, it is not the eye itself that sees but the soul.

In his book Physics, Aristotle summarizes:

Something comes to be what it is by acquiring its distinctive form – for example, a baby becomes an adult, a seed becomes a mature plant, and so on. Since this the baby or the seed were working toward this form all along, the form itself (the idea or pattern of the mature specimen) must have existed before the baby or seed actually matured. Thus, the form must be one of the principles of nature. Another principle of nature must be the privation or absence of this form, the opposite out of which the form came into being. Besides form and privation, there must be a third principle, matter, which remains constant throughout the process of change. If nothing remains unchanged when something undergoes a change, then there would be no "thing" that we could say underwent the change. So there are three basic principles of nature: matter, form, and privation. (sparknotes.com/philosophy/aristotle)

Aristotle did better with some clear and simple concepts, one of which was that one cannot reason from a false premise to a valid conclusion.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.