05 January 2006

toddler breakfasts and complexity

My three year old doesn't believe in Ockham's razor...or at least she doesn't believe in whatever the practical equivalent of Ockham's razor might be. As you might recall, the principle in question has to do with giving explanations, suggesting that the best explanation is the one that posits the fewest entities in order to explain the phenomenon in question. The practical equivalent of Ockham's razor, I suppose, would be the idea that the most efficient way of accomplishing any task is the best.

If so, however, then Claire certainly has little interest in it. Breakfast this morning involved two bowls, a small Tupperware pitcher, a container of vanilla yogurt, a sippy cup of apple juice, corn puffs, cinnamon coated cereal squares, dried cranberries, some banana slices, and four spoons. Remarkably, she ate it all.

Come to think of it, Claire has little interest in the more explanatory version of Ockham's razor. Three year olds, of course, are natural philosophers, still filled with that wonder at the world that Aristotle saw as the beginning of philosophical reflection. They also have an explanatory creativity that does not rule out any explanation as too byzantine or lavish.

A random siren in the distance, for instance, can lead to a story about an imminent resurgence of dinosaur activity in the Philadelphia region, ending in a dissertation on the dangers of sharptooths with their red beady eyes. And I've been told, on good authority, that there is decisive evidence of heffalump activity in the woods near our home, perhaps even a whole group of them, with a woozle or two thrown in.

The upshot of this is that principles such as Ockham's razor must be learned. They aren't simply wired into our constitution as human knowers, but must be acquired. Moreover, they aren't inherent to the ordinary course of being human in the way that speaking a language is or using gestures or walking upright or expressing emotion. Rather, they are more like coming to understand art or interpreting poetry or developing a taste for sherry.

That suggests that Ockham's razor is, among other things, an aesthetic criteria. This isn't to say that it is mistaken or merely a matter of taste. Aesthetic fittingness properly developed, if this is a case of it, is typically disclosive of the nature of things. Moreover, there are certainly contexts in which Ockham's razor functions as a useful principle, particularly within artificially constructed or experimental contexts in which one is controlling various data in order to isolate and test a particular explanation.

But as an overall approach to the world, the principle appears, perhaps, as a penchant for barren landscapes, a preference for Bauhaus over Victoriana.

I also wonder if there is something about the ontological liberality of childhood that reveals an important truth about the nature of the world and what it means to enter the kingdom like a little child. Suppose the cosmos is not merely the atomized machine that Ockham (and his Cartesian descendants) tended to imagine. Suppose, rather, that it is the analogically articulated manifestation of the divine as the transcendent source and end of all things, a revelation of the excess of the processions of Father, Son, and Spirit.

In that case, the world is a place of plenitude, an overflow of meaning, forever subject to further explanatory unfolding and elaboration, often in the most unexpected and surprising ways that, upon reflection, are found to be apt and fitting to all that was already there. Moreover, our desires and actions - whether bringing together a childish hodge-podge of a breakfast or forging a lasting relationship - nevertheless tend to ebb away from us, streaming out into a significance that exceeds our intent, though always able to be recovered and re-narrated as our own.

And the imagination of a child, while in need of intellectual discipline and maturing rigor, nonetheless reveals something of the wonder that the world contains since the world is always already more than what is there. If, as Thomas Aquinas says, in every thought and action, God is implicitly known and desired, then I suspect that not only the dependence and trust, but also the exuberance of a child's mind makes explicit the character of faith.