North Western Winds

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Occam’s Bully Pulpit

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In toying with Vienna this afternoon, I stumbled upon a new blog that I was impressed with. An Examined Life is Scott Carson’s, and he is a philosophy professor at Ohio University. I’ll point you to two of his entries that I think make points often missed, leaving all of us less well off.

The first post is a prelude to the second; the topic in both is Occam’s Razor. The term today is perhaps most commonly used (and even abused) in the Darwin debates to silence any mention of divine purpose.

Carson writes:

There is simplicity and then there is simplicity. On the one hand, parsimony can be very useful in keeping things clear. Consider a mathematical proof. If you can derive a theorem in just a dozen steps using only the most transparent axioms and rules of inference, then why appeal to another proof that justifies precisely the same theorem but that requires hundreds of steps and appeals to obscure hypotheses and controversial rules of inference? From an explanatory point of view, it just doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, consider two explanations for the existence of life here on the earth. Assume that both explanations appeal directly to the Neodarwinian synthesis of evolutionary biology and molecular genetics, but one theory, A, leaves it at that, while the other theory, B, includes the axiom “And God created the world in just such a way that these forces of natural selection have these effects on these sorts of molecules”. Clearly Occam’s razor will have us preferring theory A over theory B, since both theories do precisely the same explanatory work, but theory B adds an entity, namely God, that is lacking in theory A, and nothing about the theories themselves suggest that this particular entity has anything to do with the explanation at hand.

From an empiricist standpoint, that is. If one is not an empiricist, then one can have independent reasons for favoring theory B over theory A without violating parsimony. But it is important to note that parsimony is, in itself, not a requirement of an explanation. The mathematical proof of hundreds of steps is just as valid as the proof of a dozen steps–the only difference is that one is simpler than the other. Only if we want the proof to be perspicuous to the average mind need we prefer the simpler proof over the more complex proof, provided that the two proofs really accomplish precisely the same thing, that is, proof of the theorem in question.

Suppose, however, we return to theories A and B and ask the question: what if the entity added in theory B, God, is not, in fact, praeter necessitatem? This is a centrally important question because the existence of God is not one of the proper objects of the empirical sciences. The principle of parsimony is quite useful if what one wants to do is to show, for example, that phlogiston is not needed in our account of combustion, but parsimony alone cannot tell us that an entity such as God is not needed in any explanation of the origins of life. To merely assert that God is not “needed” is to adopt an a priori metaphysical commitment that is not rationally warranted, though it is commonly enough done. In short, nothing about the principles of explanation in themselves can rationally warrant the exclusion of God from an explanation without begging the question.

Carson moves in the follow up post to a discussion of how parsimony is similarly used (and abused) in exegesis, in the form of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide.

The second post is longer and harder to meaningfully quote or summarize, but will reward the effort. It concludes just so:

If both of these principles are incoherent, what is their appeal? It is too facile to point out that we live in times in which incoherence is itself taken to be a value–all you have to do is to look at the moral relativism that pervades our materialistic culture. This is too facile because, of course, the defenders of sola Scriptura are not moral relativists–usually they are quite the opposite–and it seems unlikely that their thinking is influenced by that kind of intellectual banality. I would suggest that, on the contrary, the appeal of these doctrines lies in their perceived capacity to rule out a wide range of interpretive options right from the start. In my prefatory remarks [on Occam’s Razor – ed.], I suggested that these principles are the functional equivalent of the scientific principle of parsimony: they are grand simplifications that act as even grander simplifiers, rendering difficult theological questions easy and brightly delimited within boundaries of stark black and white. Reality itself is seldom like that, but if you pretend that it is you may find reality somewhat easier to deal with. This is not an intellectual attitude that is conducive to moral relativism, but it is a kind of intellectual sloppiness and laziness nonetheless, dressed up as a desire for precision and loyalty to a text… The principle cannot be found in the scriptures, nor can it be found in the tradition–it is, in short, the invention of an ideology, an ideology that was imposed by the cultural elites of the 16th century as part of a broader political program aimed at greater independence from Rome at a time when securing that independence was incredibly risky. If you can show that Rome usurped her authority to teach from the only authority ever intended by God, namely, Holy Writ, then you are well on your way to becoming your own magisterium. Once you’ve gotten rid of Rome as an interpretive guide, as Luther and the other Reformers did, you need to fill the vacuum by providing a new, Reformed guide to interpretation. Scripture all by itself will always stand in need of interpretation, otherwise there would never be any need to listen to any preacher ever again, be he Catholic or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Free Will Baptist or what have you.

The points I want to draw from these posts is that all of the hullabaloo about the recent spate of atheist books, Elton John, and the never ending toothache of Darwin and religion in schools arises from a fundamental metaphysical mistake:

The atheist who thinks that theism can be refuted by sense-perception is not understanding the issue. The same goes for the theist who thinks that theism can be proven by sense-perception. For the question does not concern observables, but the ontological status of observables. In Heideggerian jargon, it does not concern das Seiende, that-which-is, but das Sein, the Being of that-which-is. In particular, it concerns the status, God-dependent existence.

Similarly, one who thinks that the problem of the external world, which is essentially the problem of the ontological status of the objects of outer perception, can be solved by perception, does not understand the issue. One cannot see that one is or is not a BIV [brain-in-a-vat -ed.], or dreaming, or being deceived by an evil demon, etc. The question is not about observables, but about their ontological status, their dependence on or independence of our minds.

The extra-rational nature of first principles ought to steer us towards moderation in dealing with people who’s stance is different than out own. That is not to say that anything goes, of course. One cannot have this discussion without a good dollop of peace and goodwill from all sides. See here.

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Written by Curt

November 25, 2006 at 5:45 pm

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