Thursday, January 25, 2007

The use of Occam's Razor to Support Naturalism

I recently read comments by a naturalist who used Occam's Razor to support the basic naturalistic assumption. This assumption is that the natural world is all that can be detected scientifically; therefore scientific explanations for effectual observations cannot contain references to supernatural causes. for those who don't know, Occam's Razor (aka the "law of succinctness") is a philosophical principle relevant to logical evaluation and application that states that "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity". Today's usage can be restated as "the simplest explanation is more likely to be true." With this usage, the principle certainly seems to support the naturalistic assumption.

Originally, Occam's razor applied to the minimalization of assumptions. The understanding is that assumptions, or presuppositions, are necessary in deriving any conclusion. For example, I conclude that in order to walk out of my office, I must walk around my desk and go through the door. I have made the observation that walking through my desk and through the wall simply doesn't work to accomplish the task of leaving my office. These are solid. I am solid. I have concluded that solids do not pass through solids without causing damage to one or both of the solids. I have observed certain continuity to this observation. Therefore, I assume the continuity of my observation. However, it is merely an assumption based on what is most likely.

To demonstrate that this is merely an assumption, consider the act of driving recklessly. On the interstate one can observe many people driving recklessly. Once tried, there is a certain level of recklessness I can drive also without experiencing an automobile accident. I see that a few drivers have accidents. Is this due to reckless driving? Unless I observe it directly, I don't know. It seems likely, so I can assume, that accidents are caused by reckless driving. However, the vast majority of incidences of reckless driving do not result in an accident. Therefore, I can drive recklessly under the assumption that an accident is yet not likely. Yet accidents happen. Therefore, the assumption is not true or false as much as it is a factor of likelihood.

Understanding this, today's usage of Occam's Razor is a different matter. If Occam's Razor were applied to scientific theories under original usage, then the assumption that "supernatural" causes were to be a priori disavowed would be recognized itself as a superfluous assumption. In other words, there is no reason not to consider explanations that do not fit within our current understanding of what is "natural". After all, who is to say where the line is to be drawn between "natural" and "supernatural"? To be sure, the use of radios would surely have been considered "supernatural" to ancient people. The advent of the automobile was certainly looked upon with other-than-natural disdain by many at the time. Until Einstein formulated his theories of relativity, Newtonian physics worked just fine. To be sure, time dilation is yet viewed by many as something beyond the natural pale.

Therefore, if scientific discovery continues to redefine "natural", then how can naturalism omit "supernatural" explanations by assumption without fixed definitions of what is natural and what is supernatural? Indeed, if "natural" is merely according to what we currently understand as "natural" then the flat-earthers may have a point. An orb-shaped earth was once viewed as an other-than-natural explanation. Indeed, it was simpler then to conceive of the world as flat. If science is to progress, it must have access to possible explanations that do not seem "natural".

I was going to go into an analysis of the difference between the original usage of Occam's Razor and the current usage. However, it would contain dry logical technical verbiage inaccessible to most. The previous paragraph nicely makes my point, I think. As a Christian, I certainly believe that there are both physical and metaphysical (spiritual) realms. Since there is a relationship between the two where the metaphysical affects the physical, then I believe the metaphysical to be detectable to a degree. While we cannot see the wind, we can see the leaves move. Therefore, the wind is detectable. The metaphysical is likewise detectable. With regard to what is to be considered "natural" and "supernatural", I believe the ability to detect one over the other to be a false distinction. Both the physical and the metaphysical are natural.

God Himself has a nature. The nature of God is the stuff of theology. Theology for the Christian evidential apologist is no less scientific than any other scientific discipline that evaluates empirical data against theoretical criteria. It is perhaps more rigorous because of the exceptional philosophical challenges and the demand for public debate, both of which require in-depth study and disclosure of presuppositional dispositions. The fact is that God is reasonable. While we cannot understand Him fully, he has given us minds and enough information to know Him better than we do. And our savior, Jesus Christ, is the "Word" (gr: logos, the "logic") of God.

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