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Saturday September 4, 2004: Occam's Razor: Part Two

Why did Bill have to die? That's the big question.

             Bill is walking to work, thinking about an important presentation he's about to give.  He waits at the corner of a busy intersection until the light turns, then steps out to cross the street.  Mary, part of a carpool, was unable to find her house keys this morning and has put the carpool members behind schedule. Richard, the driver, is rushing to make up time, arguing with Mary. He sees the light changing to red but figures there's still plenty of time to get through the intersection.  He doesn't see Bill, whom he hits head-on. Bill is thrown thirty feet in the air before crumpling to the pavement.  A store owner witnesses the accident and immediately dials 911; an ambulance arrives moments later, rushing Bill to the nearest hospital; doctors spend an hour in surgery, trying to stop internal bleeding; Bill bleeds to death on the operating table. The question the family continues asking themselves and others is why Bill had to die in the prime of life.

            Science can add a great deal of insight.  Eye witnesses noticed that Bill looked distracted and stepped into the street without checking for traffic. Investigators can determine how fast Richard's car was traveling and the impact with which it hit Bill. Carpool members can give details of what was going on inside the car as they approached the intersection. There are records of the ambulance response time and the medical procedures used by both the ambulance team and the hospital team. The extent of Bill's internal damage and the amount of blood loss can be determined, and there is a recorded time of death. The doctors can explain how they struggled to keep Bill alive.  All of this provides answers for the family, but not necessarily comfort. 

         Some things can't be taken into account if we insist on only using the Occam's razor approach. Would different weather conditions have made a difference? Was the event influenced by the number of cars or pedestrians at the corner? Parked cars might have blocked Richard's view of the curb, or driving past cars in the left turn lane might have drawn his attention as he maneuvered past them. Heavy traffic would have slowed down speeds and altered Richard's position relative to the traffic light. If there had been more pedestrians at the corner, Bill (even lost in his own thoughts) probably would have stepped off the curb with the group, or might have been warned by a fellow pedestrian of oncoming traffic.

           At every stage of this episode, similar factors might have influenced the outcome: the seating order of the carpool members; how far away the ambulance or hospital was from the scene of the accident, staffing levels of medical and ambulance personnel, the expertise and experience of the medical personnel on duty in handling similar cases; arbitrary medical decisions made concerning the order in which Bill's injuries were treated; fatigue levels or distractions of everyone involved.

            Occam's razor cannot afford to take these factors into account -- too many details overwhelm the system and there is no way to measure the impact each item did or did not have on the final outcome of this particular case.  (If Bill's accident is viewed from a higher state of awareness, then the details we've brought up here are only a small portion of the influences that come together at the intersection.) One of the major problems with the traditional scientific answer, the reason it does not answer the family's emotional question, is that Occam's razor fails to take into account the timing. Bill and Richard both had to be in a specific spot at a specific time, or the accident would never have happened.

              If the family still struggles with questions, they may turn to religion, and be offered a variety of statements: "God needed Bill in Heaven," "Bill had finished his work/karma here on earth," "God's ways are not known to Man," and so on.  I'm not sure this helps the family any more than the scientific approach.  Does it ever fill the empty spot left when someone dies and leaves loved ones behind? 

             Why did anyone have to die? Religion presents mortality as a situation beyond human control, raising questions of a God who is supposed to be wise and caring but has no intention of telling us how that wisdom and compassion are doled out. Science presents a neatly wrapped package of explanations that ignores the issue of why Bill had to be the accident victim, in that spot, at that time.

            Actually, the reason these questions haunt us so deeply again comes back to Occam's razor. We've been conditioned to look for a neat and tidy answer. The topic needs to be continued...

Posted on Saturday, September 4, 2004 at 12:00PM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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