Occam's Razor


That statement is Occam's razor. It's a very valuable tool for thinking. What it means, in essence, is "Don't make theories more complicated than they need to be." It's a razor because it cuts away the extraneous. It was formulated by William of Occam, a medieval Catholic philosopher.
     Applied to science, the razor implies some very modern thinking. It implies that we have freedom in constructing scientific theories, that there's an act of creativity, or at least interpretation, in science, that we're not simply discovering laws that are built into the universe. It has become obvious that this is true since the revolution of relativity and quantum mechanics around the turn of the century. Who would have thought, before that, that Newton's laws of gravity and force, which seemed to portray the fabric of the universe, the mind of God, would turn out to be mere approximations limiting cases in a more complex and multidimensional truth. Following that, who can doubt that our current physical laws are themselves partial truths, and that our theories will get more complicated (or at least change) as we learn more? Occam's razor tells us to keep them as simple as we can, and still explain what we see.
     Occam's razor is a good general-purpose rule. It's ironic that this principle, devised by a devout medieval monk, whose other well known contribution was a celebrated proof of God's existence, is precisely what causes me to deny God's existence.
     "Don't make theories more complicated than we need them to be to explain what we see." What do we see that needs to be explained? The beginning and end of everything, the marvellous organization of nature, human consciousness.
     It's hard to explain, but why add God? It just adds another level of complication to the problem without helping with the explanation. Where did God come from? Why is He so complicated (for nature must mirror part of God)? Are we His only creation or are there other universes? Are there limits to His power? Is there a Meta-God that created Him as He created us? We're back where we started, with a bigger problem: instead of explaining nature, we're faced with explaining God. This is exactly the sort of thing that Occam's razor is designed for: just cut out God.
     God is like debt consolidation instead of having to answer lots of difficult smaller questions, we consolidate them all into one. If we can explain God, or at least posit or assume His existence, we can avoid all the other questions by saying "We're not quite sure what the answer is, but He must have wanted it to be like this." This involves a logical sleight-of-hand; we accept a much weaker standard of proof for statements about the nature of God than we do for the answers to our questions about nature. What we've done is to put the origin of the unknowability at a safe distance from us, in a place where it seems at home: with God. We've rationalized away our unease at not knowing the answers to the basic questions.
     Until recently the basic questions were hard to answer without God. How did biological mechanisms that appear to have been designed by a master craftsman come into being? Darwin's theory, made public in 1859, explains how organs such as the eye and the brain can develop incrementally over aeons in order to promote the survival of their possessors' genetic material.
     Where did the universe come from? It is expanding; all the objects in it are travelling away from one another. If we extrapolate backwards the paths of all the objects we can see, they appear to have come from the same point in space 10 to 20 billion years ago. We can't yet say what caused the singularity that caused the big explosion, or what made the laws of physics in our universe what they are, but we can see how our sun and earth were born from the process, and, roughly, how life developed on earth, as a physical process.
     Our consciousness at one time seemed to come from some life spirit, an unphysical essence of life deposited in our bodies while we live. But now, computers and artificial intelligence have shown us how even a primitive computing device (an electronic computer) can appear to think and be conscious. This doesn't prove that our brains are just more sophisticated and complicated computers, but it certainly makes it plausible.
     We don't know the answers to these big questions, but we have fleshed out materialistic explanations to the point where they, or something like them, are likely to be true.
     When I tell this to my friends -- that the best and most logical explanation of the world around us does not involve God they tend to answer as though this is unimportant, almost irrelevant. "Where do we get morality if there's no God?" they say, or "I have spiritual urges that make me want to believe there's Someone up there." What about truth? Aren't we interested in finding it as best we can? And basing our ethics, morality, and personal values on something untrue like God puts them all at risk. God may seem to some like bedrock but He's really quicksand. His desires and requirements may be construed in a remarkable variety of ways.
     Besides, developing a materialistic ethics and spirituality is far from impossible. Ethics is the organizing principle of society, designed by evolutionary process to improve the functioning of the society. One should act in such a way as to help society as a whole, and guide one's conduct with the questions "does this action provide a net gain for society as a whole?" and "would we all be better or worse off if everyone behaved like this?" We can get spiritual satisfaction from other values and relationships: art, music, literature, philosophy, friendship and love.
     Part of the attraction for some of believing in God is giving up responsibility. There's no point in trying to take control of our destiny, and that of our earth, and our universe, if God is really up there and in charge. The best we can do is try to be good little cogs in His machine, to fit in well with whatever He's got planned. I prefer to take the responsibility myself, to believe that my life and my world are what I make of them. I'd rather be a leader than a follower.
     I used to say that I was an agnostic, that I didn't know whether or not there was a God. Then I realized that there are a great many other things no more unlikely than the existence of God that I simply reject because the probability of their being true is so low. It's remotely possible that dogs are really more intelligent than humans, and are taking great pains to conceal the fact, but this possibility doesn't make me say that I don't know whether dogs are more intelligent than humans. We never really know anything for sure, but I'm as sure about God as I am about almost anything: I'm an atheist. I'm convinced that someday this idea of God will seem as primitive and silly as the idea that we can directly cause rain with rain dances, or that the orientation of the earth to the other planets and the stars can affect our destiny.


Copyright © 2000 - 2007 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.