The Tentative Apologist
5/10/10 at 12:10 AM 0 Comments

How (not) to shave with Ockham's razor

text size A A A

It all started when one of my readers, EssEff, made the astounding statement: "You don't need a reason not to believe in something, you only need a reason to believe...." I pointed out the absurdity of this statement by giving the example of an individual who doesn't believe in the existence of London, and that started a tortured process of principle revision. Now it seems EssEff has arrived in a familiar neighbourhood (though one rather distant from his starting point). It is Ockham's Razor.

So what is Ockham's razor? It is a principle of reasoning named after scholastic theologian William Ockham according to which one does not multiply entities beyond necessity. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the best one.

And it seems that now EssEff is wanting to claim this as the support for naturalism. Since we don't multiply entities beyond necessity, we ought not believe there is anything beyond the natural world. Ergo, we ought to believe that supernaturalism is false.

But here's a rather glaring problem: who defines what "beyond necessity" is?

Here's an analogy. Let's say that you tell people in your city: do not wear any clothing beyond necessity. Do you think that this will mean everyone will wear shorts on one day and thick woollies on another?

Quite obviously not. You see, we all have different conceptions of what type of clothing is minimally necessary for comfort, protection, modesty, et cetera.

And so it is with Ockham's razor. "Do not multiply entities beyond necessity!" As I pointed out to EssEff, one reading of that claim would support not naturalism but Advaita Vedanta Hinduism according to which there is but one substance which exists and everything else is illusion.

EssEff's response was delicious in its irony:

"It is necessary to believe in more than one substance (for which there is substantial evidence & verifiability) in order to explain natural phenomenon. It is not necessary to believe in gods, genies, fairies, pixie dust, ESP, or angels."

Sadly, this response reveals that EssEff does not even understand the illustration. So I'll repeat: the pantheistic view that everything which exists is merely the qualification of a single substance or mind is simpler than naturalism which proposes innumerable substances in very complex relations. Hence, by this reasoning it follows that the naturalist multiplies entities beyond necessity and we all ought to be pantheists.

Of course the point is not that we ought to be pantheists but rather than EssEff's wielding of Ockham's razor is question-begging. In short, EssEff wields it relative to one particular set of assumptions about what is minimally necessary to explain the world and quickly cuts out whatever EssEff deems not necessary.

This means that EssEff's skepticism really amounts to "I don't think we need more than x to explain the world." But that's not an argument; rather, it's a mere assertion of EssEff's personal psychology.

One suspects the whole affair would leave poor William of Ockham rather bemused.  

CP Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of The Christian Post. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).