Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reverse Occam's Razor

Occam's razor, also known as the law of parsimony, is the principle that generally recommends, when faced with competing hypotheses that are equal in other respects, selecting the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.  More challenging, complex explanations can also be right, of course-the principle is only a guideline. Most conspiracy theory holds the precisely reverse view, whether implicitly or not.

Before we continue, it's useful to define conspiracy. It simply means two or more people acting in concert to commit a criminal act. So by this definition conspiracies happen very often indeed. However conspiracy theories do not focus on the small, everyday, conspiracies, but rather those great and overarching. This is reasonable, since these have more importance to world affairs. Conspiracy theories with more importance will therefore be my focus.

Let us first address the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. Obviously the "official story" that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally alone is simpler. That does not make it necessarily right of course. However, assuming one wanted the President dead, and having chosen Dallas as the location, which is simpler? Two or three gunmen, possibly more, versus one? Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, one gunmen could easily have picked off JFK from the Texas School Book Depository.

Most conspiracy theories seem to view Oswald as either innocent or the fall guy of co-conspirators. None that I know of believe he could have committed the shooting alone, for good reason as this would undercut the basis of their claims. Yet this would not by itself rule out a conspiracy. For if Oswald alone shot Kennedy after plotting with accomplices, that would satisfy conditions for a conspiracy. The larger a plot, the more loose ends. After this Oswald presumably had to be silenced himself. Then his own murderer was allowed to live and potentially spill the beans for over four years, let alone the many others who might. An unacceptable risk in any conspiracy to assassinate the US President.

More recently, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon have been claimed to be impossible if we follow "the official story." While specific claims made by so-called "9/11 Truthers" have been exhaustively answered by experts, why do people leap into the most outlandish theory yet again? If elements of the US or Israeli governments wanted to have the 9/11 attacks occur, they would merely have to sit back and let them happen. If this were done, negligence is far easier to explain (as mere incompetence) than wiring explosives in the Twin Towers undetected, or firing a cruise missile at the Pentagon, along with getting rid of all the Flight 19 passengers, as some theories allege.

One must only put themselves in the mind of the would-be conspirator intent on committing such crimes for a moment to see how daunting this prospect would be, even for secret government officials. The more complex the plan, the more conspirators involved, the more there is that can and likely will go wrong. If these events were successful conspiracies (obviously, 9/11 in fact was such, but assuming others were involved than Al-Qaeda) it was because of the simplicity and relatively low number of conspirators, not the opposite. 

The Ledge Review

Directed by Matthew Chapman, a descendant of Charles Darwin, The Ledge explores issues of faith, loyalty, love and sacrifice to reach a shocking conclusion in its dramatic buildup. The film begins in a slow fade from night to day on the sky line of a city over the opening credits, reflecting its themes of light and shadow in human lives. We are first introduced to a police detective named Hollis (Terrence Howard), who is called onto a building ledge where a man is threatening to jump.

Hollis has just received the news he is sterile, but he and his wife already have two children. The man on the ledge, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) is remarkably upbeat for someone threatening suicide. He asks Hollis what his success rate at jumpers, who replies "it's decent." Hollis asks if he's married, and Gavin says no. "So why jump?" asks Hollis, to which Gavin laughs. Hollis correctly guesses he is not up here by choice. Sobering up, Gavin says he has to stay up here until noon and jump, or someone else will die. Hollis requests that he tell him what led up to this, and the story unfolds.

Gavin met a woman named Shana (Liv Tyler) that had just moved into his apartment building with her husband. It turns out she found went to an art class with a co-worker where their assignment is to write an essay on a sacred object for them (his co-worker amusingly asks whether a large dildo counts) and gets a job at the hotel he works in through this.

Back home, Gavin laughingly dismisses his roommate Chris' mysticism, who complains that he doesn't "see meaning" in things. Joe, Shana's husband, introduces himself and invites the pair to dinner with them. After showing Shana the hotel the next day, with its quirky characters, they come to dinner. Joe, assumes they are gay (only Gavin's roommate is) prays in front of them for their souls. Instantly offended, Gavin leaves, while Chris good-naturedly brushes it off. Later they argue over what happened.

The next day, Gavin asks what sacred object Shana is writing her essay about. It turns out to be a teddy bear her father had given Shana immediately before he left the family. He was an abusive alcoholic, and she thinks he might have abandoned them to prevent him really hurting Shana or her mother. Gavin is subdued by this, and later goes to lunch with Shana, talking with her further.

Back at the ledge, Hollis flashs back to coming home after learning he is sterile. He angrily demands to know "whose kids these are" from his wife. She only replies with "it was an arrangement." Returning to the story, on the way to the bus stop the next day Joe stops Gavin, apologizing for his praying the night before. He suggests they speak again, which Gavin agrees to. While on the bus with Shana, he plants the suggestion of intimacy between them. Gavin explains to Hollis how he put the idea in her head, where it will grow. We can imagine what Hollis is thinking hearing this given his recent history.
Gavin speaks to Joe over their second dinner, having previously revealed himself as a non-believer. Joe wishes to know why he doesn't believe in God. There is no special reason, Gavin says, he simply grew out of believing it, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. No evidence exists for any of them. Joe feels evidence is everywhere, but does not actually give examples. They argue over the morality of condemning someone to eternal torment for not knowing about Christ, Gavin using the example of a good person in China. Joe says that's why spreading the Gospel is important, to save those who don't know. 

After this he relates visiting a terminally ill boy in the hospital, telling him his parents were in heaven. What would Gavin do in such a situation? Tell him they were dead and gone, never to be seen again? No, Gavin admits, he probably would have said the same thing, but he would be lying. Joe finally gives up and starts praying for Gavin again, at which once more leaves in frustration.

The next day, Shana tells him more of her life story. In her teens, she got involved with drugs, and became a prostitute to pay for it. One client liked to meet in churches, but no one had told her he also liked to beat up the woman afterward. She was badly injured and had crawled toward the altar, looking for help. In her state, she had forgotten the next day was Sunday. Joe found her there on the floor when he came in, and took her to a hospital. Things progressed from there. She tells Gavin he made an impression on Joe. He took them to another church which is against drinking, smoking and immodest clothing for women. They will soon go on a mission to Uganda and spread the Gospel. She tells Gavin it's best if he stays away from now on.

Gavin does try to stay away, though this only lasts briefly. Shana finds him sitting on the roof, looking at the stars. They begin talking again, and Shana tells him how she tried to fill the void with physical sensation that only made her feel more empty. She asks him what, as an atheist, he finds meaning in. He tells her that being here with the stars, seeing the vast universe, makes him feel a part of it. This also reminds him of how precious life is, finite and fragile in comparison. Shana is clearly moved by his sense of peace. Joe suspects something, seeing her gone. The next day at work, Shana simply comes up to Gavin and kisses him. Soon they arrange to meet in the hotel with an empty room. Almost at once Joe discovers this and follows Shana there, observing her leaving afterward. Shana has suspicions he knows.

Back on the ledge, Hollis' wife calls him, trying to explain what she did. He tells Gavin to keep telling his story. Shana met him in his apartment, with Joe following her again. This time his suspicion is confirmed beyond any doubt, as he listens to them through the door in agony. Lying in bed with Shana later, Gavin tells her about his daughter. She was killed in a car accident which he blames himself for. He had only moments to choose which way to turn, and chose what he feels is wrong, with the truck slamming into the rear where she was. Shana tells him it was not his, and he knows it rationally, but the guilt stays. It destroyed his marriage, and he got into the hospitality business after.
In the present, Hollis reveals what his wife told him. She had his younger brother conceive their children, for them to be close as possible to him. Gavin tells him that it shows how much she cares for him, but the news is clearly hard on Hollis. Flashing back, Joe tries to prove himself with Shana, showing more attention at her needs. By now though this is clearly too late. Shana begins planning to leave him for Gavin. Joe calls the hotel to book a room. Calling Gavin to his apartment, he tells his own story. He was once happily married with two children, but lost it all gambling and visiting prostitutes. Joe denies to Gavin that he was an addict, but rather says he loved sin. Finally, lying in the gutter, he saw light from a nearby church and went in, which he views as a sign from God. 

Joe threatens Gavin with a gun, reminding him of how adultery is punished in the Bible-with death. Gavin counters with the famous example of Jesus stopping an adulteress from being stoned, since no one is without sin and fit to judge. Joe says he thought of that, and challenges Gavin over being willing to die for what he believes in. Gavin says he is willing, and finally Joe dismisses him.
Hearing the story while on the ledge, Hollis notices light flashing from a window in the hotel across the street. Calling his partner, the police go into the hotel as he listens to Gavin. 

Joe went to the hotel room he booked, and ordered room service which Shana delivered. Then he calls Gavin, having bound and gagged her, to give him his choice. Saying that he is "more of an Old Testament Christian" Joe tells Gavin to choose between himself and Shana. He must go up to the roof of the building opposite the hotel, stay there until 12:00, and then jump, or he will shoot Shana. Hollis angrily says he should have told him this from the beginning as the police rush to the hotel room. Gavin says he couldn't, or Joe might have killed Shana before they could get to him. As the clock strikes 12:00, despite Hollis pleas, Gavin jumps, sacrificing himself. The police burst into the hotel room where Joe is holding Shana, watching from the window, and arrest him.

Back at the police station, Hollis speaks with Shana, commiserating with her over Gavin and saying how much he loved her. On her way out, she passes Joe in a holding cell, his own life destroyed, having lost everything. Hollis goes to his family, without acrimony, sitting down to dinner with them. For just this once, he says, they won't pray, to honor a good man that died. A good man, the film leaves unsaid, who died for someone he loved, without needing faith in a God.

This is one of the only films I have seen which portrays atheism and an atheist in a positive, non-stereotypical light. While the atheist character, Gavin, suffered a great personal loss, this was explicitly not shown to be the cause of his atheism, rather it came first. All of the main characters-Hollis, Gavin, Shana and Joe-have experienced severe hardships of different kinds. The way in which they address these sets them apart. Gavin, though having lost his daughter and marriage, has kept an essentially upbeat, optimistic attitude even with his lingering pain and guilt. 

Shana appears to have needed love from a man over anything else, given her background. It remains unclear if she ever truly believed, or simply went along with Joe. By the end of the film in any case she had gone with Gavin. Joe, given his addictive personality, simply may have swapped religion for the former addictions. His irrational furor stemming from this ends with tragedy. Hollis, on the other hand, while struggling himself with his wife, overcomes the hurdle, inspired by Gavin, as indicated with his refraining from prayer over dinner in the last scene.

The film is definitely leaning in favor of Gavin's view, but shows everyone sympathetically, as flawed human beings, including Joe. It seems clear that Joe is his own worst enemy, with the self-destructive tendencies he cannot overcome making him lose everything he wants even while seeking to hold on through any means necessary. This is in keeping with the tragic theme. While he challenges Gavin over being willing to sacrifice, Joe is not so willing in his own case. Rather, he sacrifices others, both his family before Shana, then her and Gavin later. 

Joe has a hole in himself that is never filled, no matter what he tries. By the end it leaves him even more empty, and likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. The film makes its messages clear: one does not need religion to be happy, nor to be good, or self-sacrificing, nor does having it make one any of those thing. This might seem obvious, but we know is sadly not to many. Thus it may be a quite simple message at heart, aside from anything else-One can be, and life can be, good without God. Simple, but earth-shattering and revolutionary at the same time for much of the world.