Thursday, April 24, 2008

Occam's razor

In answer to an email correspondent:

1.A materialistic explanation is simpler if everything is material. But that begs the question of whether everything is material.

If dualism is true, then a materialistic explanation will be more complicated since a materialist will have to come up with ingenious theories to explain away immaterial objects and substitute material surrogates which have the same explanatory power as the immaterial objects.

2.We need to distinguish between theoretical simplicity and ontological simplicity. And there’s frequently a tradeoff between the two. A richer ontology may simplify our theoretical explanations, and vice versa.

You have unbelievers who try to evade the teleological argument by postulating a megaverse. But is that the most parsimonious explanation? As one physicist said, “Take your choice: blind chance requires multitudes of universes, or design that requires only one.”

3.Take Dawkins’ famous, programmatic claim that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

What is the simplest explanation for the appearance of design? The most direct, straightforward explanation is that natural objects appear to be designed because they are designed.

Of course, Dawkins regards the appearance of design as illusory. But in that event, he must explain it away.

He doesn’t go with the simplest explanation. Indeed, he writes entire books full of computer simulations and evolutionary conjectures to avoid the simplest explanation.

BTW, it’s possible for appearances to be deceptive (e.g. optical illusions). I’m not claiming that something must be the way it appears to be. I’m merely answering the secular Occamist on his own grounds.

4.Of course, Dawkins’ fallback is to claim that a designer is more complicated than the thing he designed, which results in a vicious regress.

But as many critics have pointed out, including some secular critics, he’s equivocating.

For example, the Mandelbrot set is infinitely complex. Yet it’s ontological simple in the sense that it has no spatiotemporal divisions.

5.Let’s go back to dualism for a moment. Experience is dualistic. Experience presents us with a distinction between mind and matter. A thought of blue is not a blue thought.

Thinking about running and running are not equivalent. Running involves many empirical properties which are absent when I merely think about running. Running makes me sweaty and tired. But I can think about running without panting or perspiring.

The simplest explanation for the experience of dualism is that reality seems to be dualistic because it is dualistic.

Now perhaps this impression is illusory. A materialist like Daniel Dennett writes entire books in which he tries to reduce mind to matter.

But even if he were successful, his explanation would hardly be the simplest one available.

6.What constitutes a scientific explanation, anyway? Secular science has tried to banish teleological explanation from science. But that is problematic, to say the least.

Suppose I have a heart attack. I’m treated by a cardiologist. He tries to restore my heart to proper working order.

Yet the heart can only malfunction if the heart has a function to perform. But if our vital organs weren’t designed for a purpose, then the heart isn’t supposed to pump blood. It isn’t supposed to do anything.

In that case, cardiology is predicated on a false assumption. There is nothing to fix. Nothing to repair.

So the secular exclusion of teleology from nature is a science-stopper. It puts medical science out of a job.

7.Christians are not opposed to natural explanations for natural effects. God made the natural world. He made natural forces. Natural kinds. Natural cycles.

However, to say that, given the heart, there is a natural cause for heart disease, and a natural cure for heart disease, is not to say that there’s a natural explanation for the given.

Given the natural world, you can explain many events naturalistically. But this doesn’t mean that nature is self-explanatory. This doesn’t account for the existence of the natural order in the first place.

8.Science can only explain what falls within the purview of science. If abstract objects are immaterial, then there is not material explanation for abstract objects.

Is that a science-stopper? In one sense, yes. But science ought to have boundaries appropriate to its subject-matter.

9.Consider the debate over the Bacterial Flagellum. Dawkins says it’s a cop-out or science-stopper to attribute the flagellum to intelligent design.

But does the ID-theorist deny that there’s a *scientific* explanation for the flagellum? Or does he deny that there’s an *evolutionary* explanation for the flagellum?

To deny that there’s an evolutionary pathway to the flagellum is not to deny that there’s a scientific explanation for the flagellum.

Likewise, an ID-theories might denies that there’s a naturalistic evolutionary pathway, but allow for a theistic evolutionary pathway.

An ID-theorist doesn’t regard design as something over and above the natural world (although he views the designer as transcendent). He thinks that design is built into nature.

For him, the tension between a theistic explanation and a scientific explanation is a false dichotomy.

Dawkins is tacitly equating and limiting a scientific explanation to an evolutionary explanation in general, and a secular explanation in particular (i.e. naturalistic evolution). But those are hardly synonymous concepts.

And by arbitrarily restricting a scientific explanation to an evolutionary explanation, isn’t that a science-stopper?

He only allows certain explanations to count. Science is only allowed to answer the questions that he puts to science. He dictates a very limited repertoire of permissible answers.

10.Suppose a given explanation is a science-stopper? So what? The question at issue is not whether a given explanation is a scientific explanation, but whether it’s the best explanation.

Much of the time a scientific explanation may be the best explanation. A scientific explanation may often be the best explanation for the pathology of the illness. It may often be the best explanation for healing.

But suppose a medical diagnosis fails. Suppose medical treatment fails.

Suppose the evidence points in the direction of the occult. The patient is possessed. Or he’s the victim of black magic. Suppose the patient is cured through prayer or exorcism.

Well, that explanation may be a science-stopper, but what’s the value of a scientific explanation unless it’s the correct explanation? And what about cases where the best explanation lies outside the four walls of the laboratory?


  1. Related, here is a brief summary from Angus Menuge of a recent debate he had with P.Z. Myers.

  2. Just wondering - #6 seems frivolous, why even include it? It's 2 different things to say, "the heart is supposed (intended?) to pump blood" and "in order for this person to continue to live, the heart must pump blood", and medicine only cares about the latter.

    Theists seem to play a game of chicken with the atheist - "come on, deep down, you *feel* there's morality and purpose! You'll have to give it all up!" Yeah, yeah, but truth is more important that my feelings and intuitions, which are often mistaken. If this is part of that game of chicken, you should retract it. You might frighten some pseudo atheist, but you haven't proven anything.

    I don't even see how it simplifies anything, since we're left wondering why the heart itself was *intended* in the first place, instead of some other method.

  3. thnuhthnuh said...

    “Just wondering - #6 seems frivolous, why even include it?”

    Well, for one thing, there’s a chapter on “Teleological Explanation” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Science (W. H. Newton-Smith, ed.) which raises precisely this conundrum.

    It even includes the following admission: “Dennett (1987) argued that discerning natural functions always involves tacitly conceiving Nature as a designer” (ibid. 493.

    “Yeah, yeah, but truth is more important that my feelings and intuitions, which are often mistaken.”

    Why is truth important in a pointless, amoral universe?

    “If this is part of that game of chicken, you should retract it.”

    That’s a moralistic assertion. Do you think I’m obligated to retract the game of chicken? How did you arrive at that value judgment?