Showing posts with label logic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label logic. Show all posts

02 May 2018

A Close Shave

by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to ramble a bit today on the subject of logic. (We will see how often I can tie it to the subject of crime fiction.) I am doing this because I just heard, for the millionth time, someone define Occam's razor incorrectly. Specifically, the person claimed that Occam's razor says that the simplest explanation is probably correct.

It doesn't say that.

Occam's razor is, of course, a principle for scientific research, and it is usually attributed to a thirteenth century monk named William of Ockham (Ockham is an English village. Occam comes from the Latin translation). Actually, we owe the most famous famous version of the rule ("entitles must not be multiplied beyond necessity") to John Punch, several centuries later. The principle, in one form or another, goes back at least to Aristotle. I recently realized that it also hides within one of my favorite quotes of Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." (And speaking of things, not being simple, Einstein apparently never said that.)

One of Ockham's more distinguished, if fictional, students.
In his famous quote above John Punch (what a great name!) warned us to watch out for unnecessary entities, as in someone or something that played an active part in causing an action. Punch means that if you walk outside and something knocks your hat off, you don't start out by assuming there is  a malevolent invisible demon in the vicinity. It might have just been a breeze.

But my point is that Punch/Occam is not saying that the simpler explanation is the most likely one. It is simply the one you should examine first. Not because it is the most likely to be correct, but because examining it is the fastest way to reach the truth.

Let's take an example from our own field. The police are called to a building. They find that the store on the ground floor has been robbed, and that a man has been murdered on the third floor. Should the robbery squad be called to one crime scene and the homicide team to the other? Or are we looking at a single event?

Brother William made no specific recommendations about police personnel matters, but his principle advises treating this as the "simpler" situation, i.e. one event. If the cops do that, and if they do their job properly, they are more likely to find something wrong with their solution, than if they start at the other end. 

Perhaps the two crimes happened at the same time, or maybe the robber was right-handed and the killer was a southpaw. But if instead they begin by assuming there were two separate criminals - and there was only one - it is going to be harder for them to realize that one of their proposed culprits is imaginary (an unnecessary entity).

You may remember the TV series House, MD, which was a medical detective show, about a diagnostician (whose name was a tribute to Sherlock Holmes, by the way). In an episode called (surprise!) "Occam's Razor," the physicians are unable to explain all of a patient's symptoms with one disease, so House suggests that there are two illnesses present. His team is not buying it.

Foreman: Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is always the best.

House: And you think one is simpler than two.

Cameron: Pretty sure it is, yeah.

House: Baby shows up. Chase tells you that two people exchanged fluids to create this being. I tell you that one stork dropped the little tyke off in a diaper. You going to go with the two or the one?

Foreman: I think your argument is specious.

House: I think your tie is ugly.

Leaving aside House's maturity issues, he is making a point about Dr. Foreman's misunderstanding of the 'ol razor. And that brings us, naturally, to Asimov's elephant.

Isaac Asimov was, of course, a great science fiction writer. He also wrote devilishly clever mystery stories, and was a brilliant explainer of science. One of his contributions was the concept of unexplaining. He said that pseudoscience typically unexplained more than it explained. Consider his little parable:

Imagine you are strolling through a park and see a tall tree split right down the middle. Cut asunder. You begin to seek an explanation.

So you could say: there was this elephant, flying through the sky, whistling a happy tune. It decides to have a little rest and lands SHEBANG! onto the poor tree, which breaks in two. The elephant falls to the ground, swears 'Oy vay!' and flies off again.

Now that is one explanation of why the tree is broken. Trouble is it unexplains everything you previously thought you knew about elephants. So, instead, using Ockham's Razor, you say simply, the tree was hit by lightning!*

I love that 'Oy vay!' Clearly a Jewish elephant.  Of course, Asimov has pointed out the problem with Dr. House's obstetrical stork.

So one issue about the razor is that people will disagree as to which explanation is simpler, and what 
is left unexplained. Therefore I am going to end with my favorite quotation from the philosopher 
Ludwig Wittgenstein. (And by the way, Ludwig was a huge fan of crime fiction; not the logic puzzles of the golden age, but the messy thinking of hardboiled tales.)

Supposedly he asked a friend: "Why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?"

"Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth."

"Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?"

*I found this parable in Asimov's Elephant, edited by Robyn Williams. It is a collection of essays from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called, yup, Ockham's Razor.

26 February 2012

Meditation On Imagination and Logic

by Louis Willis
http://www.annetylerlord.com/the-writers-life-exercise-your-right-brain

I’m not sure what adjective describes what I’m doing in this post. Brainstorming? No, it takes more than one person to do that. Speculating? No, wrong connotation; meditating is probably the word for what I’m doing. I got the idea of calling this post a meditation from an essay “A Few Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” by Robert Vivian in which he says the essay is more pondering and contemplation than opinions and ideas (I paraphrase).

After reading Dixon’s post on Print Zombies, and thinking about the post on whether to outline or not to outline, I couldn’t stop my left brain from thinking theoretically, which it does occasionally without any prompting from me. I sometimes read as much theory as I can stand without getting a headache, thinking it will help me understand and enjoy fiction on deeper level. You know what I’m talking about, all that headache-inducing stuff called deconstruction, postmodernism, reader-response, aestheticism, ethical criticism, and a whole lot of other theories of literature and criticism. All that theory stuff does is interfere with my enjoyment of a good story. 

http://wiringthebrain.blogspot.com/2010/05/connecting-left-and-right.html
Nevertheless, the theorist in me had to get out, so the left brain just kicked the right brain to the side and took over, and the result is this article. It is not about theory of storytelling but a meditation on the imagination and logic in the creative process, that is, their relationship to each other and function in the art of storytelling (okay, it is a meditation on the theory of imagination and logic). 

When you start a story, do you use logic and say I’ll write about so and so. Maybe, but at some point, your imagination takes over, whether you want it to or not, and your muse offers her help in letting your imagination roam where it may. The subconscious probably takes over at some point in the creative process before logic steps in. Thus, you have already told the story in your imagination but not in a coherent order—an outline puts it in order. If you don’t put the outline on paper, logic demands you think outline: how does this character function, what is the need for this scene; how can I make this character come alive? Logic edits and in some cases sanitizes what goes  in and what’s left out of a story. Whether to outline or not outline doesn’t matter because imagination and logic are at work no matter what, and if properly used can prevent those Print Zombies from remaining so dry.

Anxiety, the feeling that you might miss an editor-imposed or self-imposed deadline, or that for some reason, the story isn’t right, or maybe imagination has gone hog wild (a cliché and I don’t even know what it means), you stop and think, and logic sees an opening and rushes (well maybe not so quickly) in to provide answers.

As for the Print Zombies, what is missing is a lack of imagination and too much logic. And maybe a little laziness is present. 

06 February 2012

Clues and Conclusions



By Fran Rizer


A few weeks ago, when Joe Paterno died three months after leaving his job, several news commentators remarked how often people who work into old age die fairly soon after quitting work. Clearly, the inference was that stopping work led to their deaths. I propose that many times, the cause and effect are reversed. Some people won’t stop until working is totally beyond their health and strength. Rather than retirement causing the decline, the person’s decline forces them to finally quit work.

Paterno doesn't exactly fit this scenario because he was fired and forced to leave his job. One announcer drew the conclusion that being fired from his position CAUSED his cancer. I don't believe that! Had Paterno not been involved in the Penn State scandal, he would have eventually grown too old, too tired, too ill and his physical condition would have forced retirement. I think that he would have held out until his demise was near. Regardless, my sympathies are with the Paterno family.

As readers, we don’t always accept the cause and effect situations in stories and books. As writers, we must remain aware that for cause and effect to work in plots, it must be genuinely a cause and effect situation.

A hundred years ago, when I was a college undergraduate, I learned a classic example of misinterpretation of cause and effect. Statistics showed that crime rates in New York City rocketed during summer months. The sale of ice cream rose significantly there during the hot months also. Therefore, can we conclude that eating ice cream makes people commit crimes?

Of course not! More probable is that hot weather (especially back before air conditioning became common) led to more people being out and about to commit crimes or that tempers flared more often when one is hot and uncomfortable. People who are miserably hot are shorter-tempered. People also ate more ice cream when the weather was hot. Increased crime and eating ice cream weren’t an example of cause and effect. They were both effects of the cause—in this case, hotter weather.

A similar lesson in logic is that if A is true and B is true, then C is true. Classic example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, therefore C – All dogs are vertebrates. This is true.

Faulty reasoning example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, then C – all vertebrates are dogs. Unfortunately, this kind of faulty reasoning sometimes shows up in mysteries, where we’re more familiar with calling cause and effect, as well as logic, clues and conclusions.

Here are three short mystery/brain teasers. No, I didn't create them. They remind me of those amazing flash fiction mysteries that John Floyd has in Women's World. I always try to solve John's before tipping the mag upside down to read the solution. These were emailed to me by my fantasy writer friend Nynaeve.


Study Carefully...the clues are so blatant you will be kicking
yourself if you miss them!

The answers are at the bottom but don't look until you are sure you have all three right
(
I missed one, but I won't tell you which it is because I'm embarrassed.)


Mystery one

A man was found murdered Sunday morning.
His wife immediately called the police.
The police questioned the wife and staff and got these answers:

The wife said she was sleeping.
The cook was preparing breakfast.
The gardener was gathering vegetables.
The maid was getting the mail.
The butler was polishing shoes in the pantry.

The police instantly arrested the murderer.
Who did it and how did they know?
------------------------------------------------------

Mystery two

A man walks into his bathroom and shoots himself right between the
eyes using a real gun with real bullets.

He walks out alive, with no blood anywhere and no, he didn't miss and
he wasn't Superman or any other crusader wearing a cape.

How did he do this?
---------------------------------------------------------

Mystery three

Old Mr. Teddy was found dead in his study by Mr. Fiend.
Mr. Fiend recounted his dismal discovery to the police:

"I was walking by Mr. Teddy's house when I thought I would just pop in
for a visit. I noticed his study light was on and I decided to peek in
from the outside to see if he was in there.

There was frost on the window, so I had to wipe it away to see inside.
That is when I saw his body. So I kicked in the front door to confirm my
suspicions of foul play.

I called the police immediately afterward."

The officer immediately arrested Mr. Fiend for the murder of Mr.Teddy.

How did he know Mr. Fiend was lying?
-------------------------------------------------------------------



ANSWERS:



1. It was the Maid. She said she was getting the mail but there is no
mail delivery on Sunday.

2. He shot his reflection in the bathroom mirror.

3. Frost forms inside of the window, not the outside. So Mr. Fiend
could not have wiped it off to discover Mr. Teddy's body.

How did you do? Did you get them all correct
?

Until we meet again. . . take care of YOU!