Willie, get your razor…

Willie, get your razor…

William of Occam

William of Occam is the source for one of the most often quoted aphorisms used to argue against the existence of God. William was an Englishman and arguably one of the most influential philosophers of the 14th century. He was also, ironically, a Franciscan monk and theologian.

Occam is the great-grandaddy of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) by virtue of his assertion that: Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate [Plurality must never be posited without necessity] (from Sentences of Peter Lombard)

This has come down to us in its most common form as: Entia/Essentia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. [Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.]

But is the Razor an argument against the existence of God? William of Occam apparently didn’t think so. And though he was unafraid to argue vehemently against the authority of the Pope and the church, he was by no means an atheist.

As I pondered weak and weary over a over many a quaint and curious postulate of my atheist confreres, I considered the application of Occam’s Razor to faith and physics. I realized as I looked at the idea of an Intelligence in the Universe that, far from multiplying entities, a belief in God minimized them.

Consider, for example, Krishna’s description of the Cyclic Universe now favored by many physicists: “…the vast day of Brahma, the Lord of Creation, ever lasts a thousand ages; and … his night lasts a thousand ages… When that day comes, all the visible creation arises from the Invisible; and all creation disappears into the Invisible when the night of darkness comes.” Bhagavad Gita 8:17, 18

Scientists also noticed that the observable mass in the Universe (I use the term loosely because obviously it’s not all observable from where we sit) could not account for the total mass. Scientists posited the existence of an entity they called dark matter to explain this. This dark matter was the invisible source of the gravity, or attractive forces that were holding the Universe together. Scientists also had to posit a particle that dark matter was composed of. They settled on WIMPs. This is an acronym, not a taunt. It stands for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. Like the dark matter they comprise, they cannot be detected directly.

The Universe exploded “from the Invisible” billions of years ago and, by the laws of physics, should have slowed down. In fact, it did slow down. Then it speeded up again. Dark matter could not be held accountable for this reckless behavior on the part of the Universe, so scientists posited the existence of a repulsive force they called dark energy. They have also postulated something called quintessence to cover the gaps left by the previous postulates. The term “quintessence” is a nod to the concept of aether (a substance that fills the universe but cannot be seen or measured) which was considered in the 19th century, but which has since fallen out of favor. Quintessence refers to a theoretical fifth element. Oh, I forgot about gravity (silly really, since I’m in a constant state of warfare with it). This entity (to use Occam’s terminology) must be composed of something, so scientists have posited that it is composed of particles called gravitons. Other possibilities that might help explain the behavior of the Universe are MACHOs (MAssive Compact Halo Objects) which hypothetically occur in dark matter halos.

Let’s pause for an entity count. On one side we have “God” (aka, the Invisible). On the other we have dark matter, WIMPs, quintessence, dark energy, gravitons, dark matter halos and MACHOs. That’s one entity to seven. And we have yet to answer any questions about where these hypothetical physical entities have come from or why they operate as they do. For every entity science proposes to solve one problem (mass of the Universe, say) they then must propose another to explain the previous one and to solve problems its existence causes.

At the end of this process, we are seeking an answer to the question of how these things happened randomly, accidentally, and without design and yet sprang forth from the Big Bang (or the Invisible) with a set of smoothly functioning laws for us to discover.

I am not, by the way, arguing against science or scientists. I am fascinated by their work. I hang on their every discovery. I think they’re doing great things for humankind in exploring our physical universe. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re doing God’s work. One of our older scriptures—the 19th Psalm of David—says that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.Yet their measuring line goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” If that is not an invitation to do science, I don’t know what is.

I’m not proposing that we should ever mistake scripture for scientific documentation. In fact, I think both believers and atheists are equally in error when they do so.  What I am proposing is that Occam’s Razor in no way cuts God out of the Universe. In fact, I find it (as I suspect William Occam did) a good argument FOR God’s existence. I’m further proposing that to use the Razor to support scientism (as opposed to using it as a cautionary rule within a scientific context) is to misapply it.

Physicist Hong Sheng Zhao recently proposed that dark matter and dark energy might be “two faces of the same coin.” Friar William would no doubt think he was on the right track to cut down on the number of entities in the scenario. If we combine the physicists’ quintessence with Krishna’s Invisible, the good friar might even crack a smile.


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5 thoughts on “Willie, get your razor…

  1. One of the problems with Occam’s Razor is that it is used uncritically. It’s not a machete for hacking away anything you don’t like, it’s a razor requiring precise and carefully considered pruning. Occam’s Razor has inherent problems that inhibit its use.

    One of these inherent problems is knowing when to use it. To be precise: unless we know all the facts necessary to an explanation, how can we know which aspects of an explanation are superfluous? In some cases – such as Copernican versus Ptolemean astronomy – this may be obvious, but in other cases – such as the necessity of dark matter to explain missing cosmic mass – the appropriate use of Occam’s Razor is not at all clear.

    Moreover, when it comes to God as part of an ultimate explanation of the existence of the universe – it is far, far from obvious that God is superfluous since it is not difficult to show that supposedly scientific explanations are logically incomplete and/or involve infinite regresses.

    Another inherent problem is that Occam’s Razor works well in simple situations where there is not a lot of information and complexity to consider. The more complex a situation is, the more careful we must be in using Occam’s razor, especially when we do not know all the facts which is certainly the case as far as the existence of the universe is concerned. If we do not know all the facts, how can we know which explanation is really the simplest? How can we know which entities have been multiplied “unnecessarily”? Furthermore, Occam’s razor is vague insofar as it offers no guidance on how to distinguish the necessary from the unnecessary entities, especially in complex situations.

    This is especially true when we deal with the great limit questions, i.e. why is there something rather than nothing?; what is the origin of the universe? What is the origin of cosmic law and order? Why is that law and order the way it is? Why is reality organized the way it is? Regarding these questions, the use of Occam’s razor raises more questions than it answers – which is why the new atheists’ use of it to provide so-called definitive answers is logically untenable, a non sequitur. Instead of blindly wielding the razor, we must be critically aware of our use and ask, ‘Why do you think it is appropriate to use Occam’s razor in this situation?’ There must be good positive reasons to use the razor.

  2. Through your example of how one can try to use Occam’s razor to cut God away from someone’s worldview, you make a comparison – God vs several various scientific entities. I’m not so sure that comparison can actually be made. Even if it can, it needs to be flushed out a bit more, I think.

    I don’t really have a complete cohesive thought process there, but maybe a couple simple ideas. I’m not sure it’s valid to say that science produces “various” entities in the way you’re using them. For example, the particle called the neutrino was postulated before it was ever seen because of the necessity to hold on to more basic principles – conservation of energy being among them. So in a way adding the neutrino to our picture didn’t increase the number of entities because it is a direct result of the basic principles. It can be seen as simply another facet of the same few-entitied started point. In that way, I wouldn’t say that science has “various” ideas. OK, well, it does 🙂 but in that case, it’s usually, if not always, because of the conflict between 2 different theories. If the entities you mentioned are part of a cohesive theory, then there is only the number of entities that theory needs as assumptions, which are quite few.

    Secondly, to be able to put God in the same ring as a bevy of scientific theories, we need to boil Him down a bit (God forbid!). It needs to be made into a form that is palpable within the same parameters we judge its opponent(s). So, God has to be made a tool for explanation – explanation of the universe. In that view, Occam’s razor becomes because the God-assumption introduce any sort of explanatory power – at least not in relation to star movements and the physical structure of space-time. Without astrophysics, a belief in God gives us nothing in that way, nothing other than superstition. And with astrophysics, we get exactly astrophysical predictions. In order to apply Mr. Occam and his cutlery, the New Atheists need to make this or some other type of interpretation. And I think their point is that the “God assumption” brings nothing to the table in any observationally meaningful way.

    As a note, Dawkins discusses some of the reasons for belief, such as the above-mentioned need to explain reality. But he also talks about other potential benefits of belief, such as consolation in times of trouble. He eventually concludes that it is still not a useful assumption.

    Now, I seem to be implying that God can’t be compared to anything. In which case, we never have to use Occam’s razor (phew!), but then we have a God that seemingly has no effect on our lives (oops!). So either God is beyond any kind of comparison (making belief meaningless) or he can be compared in some way to determine if belief is good. When compared as an explanatory power, belief seems to fall flat. But belief, or faith, needs to have a reason. It needs to benefit humanity in some way. If that way can be found, then Occam and his razor become useful (and I suspect, our friend).

  3. I meant to say

    In that view, Occam’s razor becomes powerfulbecause the God-assumption doesn’t introduce any sort of explanatory power – at least not in relation to star movements and the physical structure of space-time.

    I wish there were a way to edit my own posts here. Does that function exist on this blog?

    1. I recently had occasion to edit an essay on dark matter and dark energy as they pertain to a theory of a First Cause. What impressed me about the train of logical inference that led from the realization that the universe was expanding to the theories about gravitation, “quintessence” and the nature of dark energy, WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) and gravitons was that it reminds me very much of my set of matushka dolls.

      The universe is expanding under the influence of some gravitational forces. But space is empty. Wait, no. Space is not empty. Normal matter cannot account for the mass of the universe, ergo, there must be something there. We’ll call it dark matter. But it shouldn’t behave the way we see the universe behaving so it must be under the influence of something else. We’ll call it dark energy. This dark stuff must be made up of something, so we’ll say it’s WIMPs. Then there’s gravity, itself, which also must behave the way it does because it’s made up of something we’ll call gravitons.

      In this way, theorizing scientists “create” a variety of entities that depend on each other for survival. Consider Einstein’s theoretical universal constant. He supplied the idea of a constant because he thought his theories required it. LeMaitre famously argued that Einstein’s own calculations showed otherwise. Right now, my sense of the scientific landscape, especially in the realm of physics, is that entities are multiplying like rabbits and it takes only one of the nested pieces to go poof in order for the rest of them to develop the shakes.

      But here’s the thing: I don’t think that in looking at it this way, I’m comparing God to the God particle (or a neutrino or gravitons). Rather what I’m comparing is a material epistemology (how do gather knowledge about a God particle) with a spiritual one (how do I gather knowledge about a God). The element these two epistemological processes have in common is the human intellect or rational faculty which is the only means we have of addressing either of them.

      In the case of material science, though, we’re not theorizing about primal causality, but only secondary causality. I do think that some theorists tend to conflate the two.

      1. One of the things that has alywas bothered me about religion is teachings are set in stone. Yes and No. The Ten Commandments were literally set in stone, but in fact they are pretty commonsensical too and most ethical systems (except utilitarianism) would accept them.However what interests me is the idea that atheists seem to have of God being a kind of super-clever version of themselves. So that if I wrote some stupid things last year, well maybe God also did a few hundred years ago. But God is by definition all-knowing. That means what it sounds like it means. God knows what you are thinking at this very moment and the entire chain of experiences and conversations that you have ever had, not to mention your genetic code etc that brought you to that point. Such a being doesn’t make mistakes.Fundamentalism aside, it is important to realise that the Bible is as much a human book as a divine one. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong (God inspired it). But it’s a kind of family album with a specific purpose and not a catch all.’ Thus certain contradictions’ within the text are apparent only. There is no attempt within the Bible to teach the age of the earth, and any prescientific attempts to add years up misreads the fact that the numbers are meant to have symbolic rather than literal value. In many cases it’s a bit like trying to read a love letter literally. Do you really adore your beloved? etc the context is just as important when reading a biblical text.I don’t believe in God because I believe in the Bible, but rather trust those who wrote it (like there is a Gospel of Matthew and one of Luke which is different in style and approach) and their message. Faith is more about trusting the person than the content. Let me turn the tables and suggest that The problem is that those that refuse to follow a religious book is that they are closed to any suggestion that the book may be right. To approach a religious text with a sceptical mentality is like approaching a love letter with one. In neither case will you ever believe the writer. If, on the other hand, you are prepared to read with an open heart (I don’t mean a naive one either!) then you might well begin to fall in love yourself

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