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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Thursday, February 20, 2003

Ockham's razor

I've lost count of the number of times in debates and discussions I have seen atheists and skeptics reach for the razor.

"...based on Ockham’s razor... I assume that the natural world is all that there is because the natural world is all that I have evidence of. There is no evidence that forces me to go further than the real world, and so I do not."

"The principle of Ockham's Razor... cuts God out of the picture...In other words, the more a person understands about the workings of the universe, the more he or she is aware of nature's simplicity, and the less likely he or she is to believe in gods."

"Well, what does Ockham’s razor actually say? Originally “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem” – entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. A principle of ontological economy, if you will... It’s not necessary to multiply any entities beyond natural entities, and so I do not."

Over at The Secularist Critique blog there are some sound words about one of secularism's favourite weapons:

Occam's not-so-sharp razor
Occam's razor is so overrated. First of all, it's not some absolute self-evident first principle of reason that must be slavishly adhered to in any and everything. Second, it's too general to really have any meaning in the context of an argument. Third, while it may be a good guide in some circumstances, there are plenty of exceptions, too many for it to really have any power in an argument. Fourth, it's just way too easy for anyone to use it for their own purpose, both sides of an argument could think of countless ways to use it for their own ends. For these and similar reasons I propose that it be put to rest forever as an instrument of debate.

Actually, there is no historical evidence that William of Ockham ever said "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" (Don't multiply entities except by necessity) as is often popularly reported especially on atheistic and skeptical sites. What he did say was "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitas" (Plurality shouldn't be posited without necessity). Perhaps this sounds like a case of splitting hairs. Whatever the virtues of the former aphorism in capturing something of the essence of "the Razor" there is just there no evidence of William of Ockham ever using "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" in his writings. In fact, according to Mark Ellison from the School of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Monash University, it is highly unlikely that he would use it.

Dr. Anthony Garrett, a physicist at Cambridge University in the U.K. notes:
The idea is most famous from a Latin aphorism, ‘Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem’, broadly, ideas should not proliferate unnecessarily... though it was generally assumed to have been written by William, it was in fact a summary from half way between his time and ours, by an Irish scholar, John Ponce. The idea was finally given the name ‘Ockham’s Razor’ as recently as the 19th century, by William Hamilton, changing the use of ‘razor’ from William’s mind to the principle itself, presumably because it cuts away unnecessary complication."
"[Ockham's razor] is taken to refer to the principle of parsimony that, from the Latin, ‘it is vain to do with more what can be done with less’, or ‘a plurality of things is not to be posited without necessity’. In other words, keep it as simple as possible. Sherlock Holmes says as much. The first irony here is that William was actually more concerned with exploring the limits of this idea. The second irony is that although William often wrote of the idea, he was certainly not its inventor. Later writers attached his name to it, but the idea was common among scholastic theologians, and goes back much further.
[interviewed by Robyn Williams on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission)Radio National program "Ockham's Razor" on Sunday 16/04/00]

How many people, especially those of the skeptical and atheistical bent, realise that William of Ockham was a Christian philosopher? "Ockham's Razor” was in fact a common principle in medieval Christian philosophy and was not originated by William of Ockham at all, even though his name has became synonymous with it.

Unfortunately many of the ways in which "the Razor" is now used goes far beyond what William of Ockham originally intended. He might roll over in his grave at the notion of atheists using the razor to arguing against the existence of God or to posit God as an unnecessary hypothesis i.e. everything can be explained without the need of the extra metaphysical baggage of a Divine Being. Following on from this the Razor is also frequently used as an argument against intelligent design or purposeful creation. Ockham was a devout Christian believer who saw God as the creator and sustainer and certainly would not approve of such an approach. Perhaps he would suggest using Ockham's Razor to argue in favour of a designer because it is a much simpler concept than evolution - Random Mutation & Natural Selection being a very complex mechanism?

In the article on William of Ockham in the Medieval Encyclopedia, William Courtenay identified the following principles in Ockham's thought:
1. Ockham believed fervently in the absolute transcendence of God and the utter contingency of the world and all aspects of the world.

2. Ockham believed God is absolutely all-powerful. There is nothing which God cannot do, except that which is a logical contradiction since God's being is not separate from God's reason. However, because God is omnipotent does not mean that God acts upon all His possibilities. God has a modus operandi, revealed to the Church, which is binding on God because God has chosen that it be binding on Him.

3. Ockham's famous "razor" was not his own invention, but he wielded it skilfully. This is simple the principle of sufficient reason. There is no reason to assume that there are more variables in an equation than are necessary to complete it. Plurality ought not to be posited without necessity.

Consider what is know about William of Ockham: he was a Medieval Franciscan theologian, committed to poverty and service to God; certainly no atheist - whether strong, weak, positive, negative or any other kind. But he was a great thinker and a leader of the philosophic school known as Nominalism. His razor sharp mind led him to be labelled by a much later commentator as "the razor of the nominalists". Thus the first reference to a razor, many centuries later, is to the man himself, not to his principle.

Ockham's razor basically says the simpler explanation is to be preferred over the more complicated, until proven wrong. Its emphasis is upon the elegance and simplicity of a theory. The following selection of definitions drawn from a number of sources catches the flavour of the idea:

"given two explanations of a phenomena with equal explanatory power then the simpler theory should always be preferred".

"when you have two competing theories which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better."

"use the fewest and simplest explanations that fit what you see."

"don't make things more complicated than they need to be".

"other things beings equal, the simpler of two explanations is to be preferred".

"Parameters should not proliferate unnecessarily".

A number of wags have summed Ockham's razor up in the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. Any razor used by William of Ockham would not have entailed rejecting God as an unnecessary concept. Indeed the idea of God is a simple, unifying idea, foundational to any understanding of the why of meaningful human existence.

"The Razor is used to cut away the bloat from an overly-complicated theory. Because it prefers simplicity to complexity, Ockham's Razor is sometimes known as "the Law of Economy".
(Atheist and "freethinker", Jason Lee Quinn, who also acknowledges Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate as the correct rendering of the principle.

Thus Ockham's razor could legitimately be used to support the case for a designer and design: That is such an elegant and simple theory, after all!

But wait, the eager skeptic responds. Did not the great Isaac Newton, in his “Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica” put forward a version of the Razor:

We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. To this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.

Does not the line –
Nature…affects not the pomp of superfluous causes” mean that there is no need to add the pomp of superfluous ‘supernatural’ causes to the natural ones which serve us just fine?

Actually, no it does not. This use of this selective quote from Isaac Newton, who was a theist and a Christian, to imply that he advocated the rejection of the actions of an intelligent designer in nature is completely disingenuous. Newton's science was predicated on the basis that we could see God in nature (Natural Theology). Nature revealed the glory of God for only God could make the world work in such an orderly manner. Thus, Newton sort to uphold religion through science, not to pit one against the other, and certainly not to remove God from the equation.

I suggest that the skeptic is putting his own spin on the quote from "Principia Mathematica": Newton is arguing for the principle of simplicity as opposed to complexity and superfluity, he is not arguing against the divine creator. One may choose - anachronistically - to interpret Newton's comments through one's philosophical naturalistic worldview. Perhaps it is quite understandable to do so but it does not do justice to the context or the man's actual beliefs. For the man who penned those words also said:

"He must be blind who, from the most wise and excellent contrivances of things, cannot see the infinite wisdom and goodness of their almighty creator, and he must be mad and senseless who refuses to acknowledge them."

I believe a quote from Shakespeare might present a principle which also operates in the world, one with as much power and truth as Ockham's Razor:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy."

12:52:00 am