God, Paradigm, and Ockham’s Razor


The Ockraz Logo

The Ockraz Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

<Warning!! In ancient times I was a mechanical engineer and for awhile a nuclear engineer. So I used to know something about physics. Now that I am a theology type… I have fallen behind in the natural sciences. So if you are underwhelmed with the science side of this post, no problem… but I believe the logic side stands the test.>

William of Ockham is well-known for his quote, “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” It is the basis for “Ockham’s Razor” or the Principle of Economy, or the idea that the simpler of two theories is most likely the correct one. So for example, if one of my students comes to class without his homework, I might theorize that he forgot to do it. Suppose he says that my theory is incorrect, and offers a competing narrative/theory where Space Ninjas came to his house the night before to steal his homework because he had inadvertently discovered the secret to the ultimate weapon that could be used by the beautiful Princess Hezaria and her rag-tag rebels against the Space Ninjas and their vicious ruler, Lord Jurggon. My student, sadly, had to destroy the homework rather than allow it to get into the clutches of pure Intergalactic Evil. I might consider applying Ochham’s Razor to the situation and suggest that since my theory (his forgetfulness) is simpler than a political battle with alien lifeforms, it is LIKELY that my theory is correct. Now, on the other hand, if my student came and said that his computer crashed so he could not print it off that morning, both theories are equally simple, so I must use other methods to discern the truth (like evaluate his record of trustworthiness).

I have heard Ockham’s Razor used to argue about Cosmogeny… the birth a the Universe. There are a few problems with sloppy use of this principle.

1.  Ockham’s Razor is far from proof, it just provides insight. Complicated things happen all of the time. If one’s homework was destroyed in a battle with aliens, it is likely that one will not be believed… but that does not change the fact that it was true. Quantum Mechanics is far from simple, but (unless new work comes in and offers insight) it appears to be generally true (God DOES play with dice) despite thousands of years of simpler theories.

2.  The simplest is not always the best. In Cosmogeny, the simplest theory is that the Universe has always been. That theory has been embraced by many different groups at different times. However, with the inductive development of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the doubt regarding static equilibrium within the Universe (since there appears to be no balancing force against gravity), and the observation of doppler shift in the viewing of the stars, the simplest explanation has taken a beating. Some have, however, rehashed it with the the slightly more complicated oscillating Universe (big bang, big crunch, big bang, big crunch, etc.).

Of course, Ockham’s Razor assumes that the theory should be the simplest one that answers all known questions and is consistent with all of the known data. However, it is often in the unknown data where much of the pertinent information dwells. In the homework example above, my own (as the teacher) ignorance about space politics compels me to assume that my student was being fanciful. In fact, the information that I actually KNOW to be true is extremely limited, so I have to make an awful lot of judgment calls regarding the value of the information provided me by my student. Additionally, most of the information I received is not very testable, since history is not testable (in the strictest sense) by the scientific method. History can be judged by the historico-logical method but the results are probabilistic (likelihood and doubt) rather than “proof.”

Cosmogeny has the same problem. History can’t be tested scientifically (again, in the strictest sense) so one has to use other methods. We lack a huge amount of knowledge about the start of the Universe (we weren’t there when the Universe came to be, we know of no alternate “universes” to compare to). The oscillating Universe, for example, assumes that the gravity field in the Universe is strong enough to reverse the bang to give us a crunch. Estimates can be made to determine if this is likely, but there are still an awful lot of unknowns here. Also, for the oscillating Universe to work, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics must be violated. Is that possible? Who knows? Should the reversal of the 2nd Law crush the idea of an oscillating Universe or not?

The Phlogiston Theory (of combustion) and the Ether Theory (of light propagation) of previous centuries became more and more fanciful and complicated to try to deal with new evidence. Some appeared to be self-contradictory. In Phlogiston, how come some materials combust/rust and gain weight while others lose weight? This contradictory behavior caused great problems. With Ether, how could a medium to transmit light be extremely hard (allowing rapid propagation) while being extremely soft (allowing solids to move through it). These and other contradictions eventually crushed these theories. However, the Wave and Particle models for Light theory have so far been held onto in paradox. Is this justified or do we need something better? Simple is NOT always better.

3.  Ockham’s Razor often has a hidden component… cultural reasonableness. Because of lack of data and limited knowledge of all of the possible scenarios, one is forced to consider reasonableness. That is why in courts of law we don’t seek “proof” but “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Reasonableness is the hidden component in Ockham’s Razor. The problem is that Reasonableness is heavily culturally laden. For example, consider angels versus aliens. Angels are messengers of God, from outside of space-time. They presumably are able to defy the natural laws of space-time (that is essentially what supernatural means). Aliens, on the other hand are beings of the natural realm of space-time and limited by natural laws.

So suppose beings come to earth with appearances and abilities that are outside of what is found on earth. What label would be applied. A Theist might call them angels while a Naturalist might call them aliens. Each would have good reasons to come to their conclusions based on Ockham’s Razor.

A Naturalist would question the necessity of even considering the supernatural if a natural explanation is possible. We know nature exists so embracing a supernatural theory is unnecessary as long as a theory could be brought up that is consistent with the naturalist paradigm. As Arthur C. Clark said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So if being show magical abilities, that is just proof of how advanced technologically they are.

A Theist on the other hand can equally strike at the implausible nature of aliens. The vastness of space, and the fact that as far as we know faster than light transportation is impossible, makes alien visits from anything farther than say 100 light-years unlikely at best. Wormholes seem doubtful or at least unreliable (if they exist). On the other hand, angels, not being part of space-time can simply be in a parallel universe or dimension so coming to earth involves interacting with the human plane of existence (much like a 3-dimensional object would interact with “Flatland” or a 4-dimensional object would interact with “Sphereworld.” There is no need for believing in interstellar travel that appears to be impossible.

In each case, a member of each group can easily point out the unreasonableness of the alternate view. However, in each case, the unreasonableness results from the sub-culture he or she is part of.

4.  Ockham’s Razor has little value for paradigm shift. People work within a worldview or paradigm. A well-grounded paradigm is almost impossible to contradict. Some people talk about God “in the gaps.” The idea is that as science advances, it explains the world around us and so God becomes more unnecessary… finding relevance only in the gaps of human/scientific knowledge. This is an amazingly flawed idea. The idea is that natural law is in the realm of some sort of atheistic science and the miraculous is the realm of God. So as miracles are debunked, or at least found unnecessary, God becomes unnecessary. In fact, God is the god of natural law. God may be the god of miraculous (non-normative) events, but God is declared in the heavens not in the odd events. Theists sometimes seek to give credence to this way of flawed thinking. When I was young, people would tell me how a bumblebee was proof of God because science claims that a bee lacks the structure and aerodynamics to fly. The logic seemed to be that God miraculously made every bee fly, and if we discovered a natural explanation why a bee could fly non-miraculously, that would lessen the likelihood that there is a God. Yet it is in the amazing design of the bee that appears (at least) to defy evolutionary chance that best argues for a God. God is not in the gaps.

But a naturalist paradigm or a theist paradigm is almost impossible to contradict because almost any bit of evidence could be forced into either paradigm. The simple reason is Ockham’s Razor. That is, any explanation/theory that involves changing one’s paradigmatic stance will almost invariably appear to be less simple than any explanation that allows one to maintain that stance. Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigmatic shifts in science can be applied to other areas of thought and culture.

So what does Ockham’s Razor tell us about God and the beginning of the Universe?  Not much. What it does tell us… is about us. Knowing what seems reasonable to each of us doesn’t necessarily tell us much about what is reasonable on an objective level, but it does instruct us as to what our worldview is.

In missions, our role is NOT to play the game RELIGION VERSUS SCIENCE. Much of the battle between the two is really the battle between Theism and Atheism (or Supernaturalism and Naturalism). However, in Christian missions it is wise to know the field of play regardless. Faith should never be about “turning off your brain.” In fact, historically, humankind has generally operated in a paradigm (or one of many paradigms) of belief in god, gods, or God. Intellectuals believed in the divine throughout history, and the statement in the Bible that “a fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'” was more than a statement of moral foolishness. It was also a rejection of what the intellectually wise believed. The Greek Philosphers of millenia ago tended to reject the curious legends of the Greek pantheon. Yet they typically still believed in Deus (“The One”). Thomas Hobbes, the patron saint of modern atheism, did believe in a god of sorts, just not one that was supernatural.

Christians, and those in Christian missions, need to understand the intellectual paradigm they hold and the intellectual paradigms of those who live around them. It is unlikely one can intellectually compel someone to change paradigm (as I said, paradigms are resilient and are maintained in part by Ockham’s Razor). However, it does help to be able to demonstrate that one’s worldview and faith is an intellectually sound alternative.

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