June 01, 2005

Science, religion, and Ockham's razor-2

Following up on the previous posting, I want to look at how Ockham's razor comes in to play in the science and religion discussion.

As I have stressed repeatedly in previous postings, developing a personal philosophy of life can be very rewarding and may be one of the most valuable things we start learning to do in college. But I do not mean to imply by this that people do not have a philosophy already. I think all of us do, at least implicitly. What I am recommending is that we use the many resources of the university to bring to the surface our existing and implicit philosophies and learn how to refine that philosophy.

In that process, the integration of science and religion into one coherent philosophical framework becomes one of the most difficult challenges and there is no simple solution to it. And all of us use Ockham's razor to resolve it, even though the results are not the same for everyone.

A belief in the existence of God implies that there must be at least some phenomena caused by the intervention of God that lie outside the purview of science. (I am not considering the point of view that God created the world and its laws in one instant of time long ago and then has had a completely hands-off policy since then.)

For example, Biblical literalists will start with the assumption that the Bible is a historical document and that the events described in it (the world was created in six days and is only 6,000 years old, Joshua caused the Sun to stand still, Noah's flood did occur, etc.) Then they will painstakingly try and reinterpret all evidence to the contrary in the light of these axioms. The website Answers in Genesis goes to extraordinary lengths to try and answer questions such as "Where did Cain find his wife?" and "Did dinosaurs live alongside humans?" These are questions that do not trouble anyone who does not treat the Bible as an authoritative source for science and history.

But even those who take the Bible less literally have to confront difficult questions because at some point, the question is going to arise about where you draw the line and ascribe something to the actions of God. This is something that believers in any theistic religion have to confront.

At some point, if you are a religious believer, you have to postulate that God's actions are inscrutable and that we cannot know the answers to at least some of the events that occur in the world. Each person will draw the line between God's actions and the actions of natural laws differently, depending on their personal level of comfort with the explanation.

Some will believe that any event that does not have a ready explanation to hand (a death in the family, an escape from injury, an unexpected recovery from a seemingly fatal illness) are directly due to God's intervention to change the course of events.

At the other end, others might believe that God does not actually cause a change in the natural sequence of events but instead exerts his/her influence by working through people. In other words, people are the agents of God's actions and the sole mechanism by which he/she influences events. So people are cured of illnesses because God inspires researchers and physicians, and so on.

There are also an infinite number of intermediate states between those two extremes. For example, people like the biochemist Michael Behe, who is an intelligent design advocate and author of the book Darwin's Black Box, accept natural explanations for everything except for a few selected phenomena at the biochemical level (such as the blood clotting mechanism or the creation of the bacterial flagellum) that he feels are unlikely to have been created by natural processes.

(See the New Yorker article by H. Allen Orr for a clear description of what Behe's argument is. Cory also sent me a link to a nice article (written by John Rennie, editor of Scientific American) that addresses some of the key points raised by ID advocates.)

Or one can use decide that there is no God (or supernatural entity of any kind), and all that exists is the material world. This is the position of philosophical naturalism or atheism. (I am treating the two terms as effectively synonymous, although professional philosophers might disagree).

Which position one ends up taken is largely determined by deciding which is 'simpler' to believe in, which usually means deciding which belief structure you find personally enriching and meaningful, since there is no unambiguous measure of simplicity for incommensurable theories. So Ockham's razor is used differently by each person.

In a comment to an earlier posting, Kurtiss made a suggestion: "Imagine that in the normal course of your day, science accurately predicted 95% of the events that took place, but the other 5% had an outcome decided by the god." Now we can compare Kurtiss' model with other models in which (say) 100% of the events are attributed to God, or 0% is due to God. There is no way that I know of to convincingly say which of these models is true.

So we are left with only Ockham's razor with which to make a decision but in this case, it is a very personal razor whose use will satisfy only us. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is what developing a personal philosophy of life is all about, finding something that gives meaning and direction to your own life.


In the first two weeks of May, I referred in several postings to the Harper's article by Chris Hedges dealing with the influence of the Dominionist movement and the rapture. (You can search this blog under "Hedges" to find those postings.) The Hedges article is now available online here.


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Father of ID admits it's really all about saving souls:Call Them The Evangelical Alpha MalesThe Discovery Institute, April 17, 2002That's why a provocative thinker named PHILLIP E. JOHJSON -- patriarch of the "INTELLIGENT DESIGN" movement -- has taken a different path. It's not that he is terribly modest. But Johnson wants to win and he is convinced that aiming the spotlight at others is good strategy. He wants his cause to thrive after he is gone."One of things that the CHRISTIAN WORLD is notorious for is a celebrity style of dealing with issues," Johnson said, speaking at a conference at Palm Beach Atlantic College (which is also where I teach). "That puts a big burden on one person. I never wanted a movement like that."..The movement Johnson calls "THE WEDGE" argues that today's debates over science, creation and morality are, literally, clashes between people who believe there is scientific evidence that God created man and those who believe there is scientific evidence that man created God.This debate will not be settled overnight, which is why Johnson is convinced he must not fight alone. He believes the stakes are high and getting higher."If there is no Creator who has a purpose for your life, then there is no such thing as SIN," he said. "Sin would mean that you are in a wrong relationship to your Creator. Well, you can't be in the wrong relationship with the particles. They don't care. So you don't need a SAVIOR, to save you from the consequences of your wrong relationship with the particles. ..."When you give away creation, you have given away everything."Link to article:

Posted by -R on June 1, 2005 03:19 PM

I find it quite interesting that when the bible was translated into English, the same word that is translated in Genesis as "day" is translated elsewhere in the bible as "an indeterminate period of time." The second is actually much closer to the actual meaning of the original word.

Also, though this isn't an issue you appear to have discussed (and may not wish to), the most often quoted passage used to argue against homosexuality says that it is wrong for a man to sleep with another man. But if you look at the Hebrew text, it could very easily be translated to mean that if you are married, having sex with another man counts as adultery just as much as having sex with a woman.

Posted by Kari on June 1, 2005 09:34 PM

Compare two hypotheses:

1) The Universe came into existence from an unknown origin.

2) The Universe was brought into existence by a god, whose origin is unknown.

Which statement better survives Ockham's Razor?

Posted by Pierce R. Butler on June 19, 2005 07:49 PM


That is an interesting point. It would have been interesting to have eavesdropped on the scholars who did the translations when they discussed what to do with such passages.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 27, 2005 12:56 PM

I've written a book that is in the final stages of being published. The book is called "One Mormon's View of the Science -- Religion" debate. Most Mormon's, as well as most other Christians, believe that evolution and the Christian religion are incompatible. I have a different view, however. I believe that God works through natural law, and that evolution might have been one of his tools for creating human life. In my book I give a detailed explaination of how evolution and the Fall of Adam could fit together. No claim that it happened that way, though. Just my belief that evolution and religion don't inherently have to conflict.

Posted by Allen on August 10, 2005 08:00 PM