Human beings love simplicity.
People get nostalgic about living in the past – what they see as ‘simpler times’. It’s true to say that the world around us is growing more complicated every hour. At the age of twelve, I could have explained to you how the television in my house worked. Now, ten years older and (hopefully) more knowledgeable, It absolutely baffles me. As I’ve progressed through my education, I’ve discovered whole worlds so small that they cannot be seen, and so large that they cannot adequately be imagined. Every day, scientific discoveries are being made and added to the lists of information that students must learn before they can reach the cutting edge, and much of this knowledge flies in the face of our preconceived notions.
Little wonder therefore that so many people warm to anti-scientific schools of thought under the influence of Occam’s Razor. The common perception of this is that if two equally likely explanations exist for a particular phenomenon, then the simpler of the two is probably the correct one. Hopefully everyone reading this can easily think of examples where this idea is flat-out wrong.
For instance, at school you probably learnt the chemical equation for respiration, the process that fuels every living cell in your body:
“Glucose + oxygen —–> carbon dioxide + water + energy”
Let us suppose that there are only two mechanisms by which this happens:
(Albeit on a much smaller scale)
On the surface, both of these ideas seem equally likely. Both produce the same chemical products and release the same amount of energy. So on the face of it, it would seem that the simpler explanation – that our cells are powered by small sugar-burning incinerators – is the correct one. It’s only when you start exploring the sub-cellular mechanics of respiration that you realise that the two explanations are not equally likely. Clearly in the light of scientific evidence, Occam’s Razor cannot be applied here.
So what? Well, it’s not a scenario confined just to this one example. Lightning is either the result of complex interactions of weather fronts, supercooling of water, collision of ice particles and separation of electric charges… or Zeus’ thunderbolts falling to Earth. Rainbows are either the internal reflection and dispersive refraction of the sun’s electromagnetic radiation through uniformly spherical water droplets… or a sign from Yahweh that he won’t go on another global killing spree. It’s difficult to think of a single phenomenon for which all explanations are equally valid in the light of scientific evidence.
At this point I’ll come clean and admit that the layman’s version of Occam’s Razor described above is something of a straw man. Occam’s original statement was that the competing explanations must both fit the observed data. Where it comes unstuck is that Occam suggested that the explanation most likely to be correct is the one that relies on the fewest assumptions. While this avoids the difficult problem of how to objectively measure simplicity, it throws up the problem of which assumptions should and shouldn’t be counted. All science relies the same assumptions as a starting point; that the Universe as we know it really exists, and that the Universe follows a set of reliable laws which can be known. Meanwhile, many proponents of religious apologetics will try and argue that things like the existence of their supernatural deity and said deity’s actions are not assumptions, but the irrefutable truth. While I am happy to admit that if, say, the god of the Bible does exist, then everything described in the Bible could be accepted as fact, it’s still a bad idea to accept Biblical literalism over scientific naturalism, even though it relies of fewer ‘assumptions’.
What we’re most concerned with then is the size of the assumptions, rather than simply quantity. The fundamental assumptions of science seem small in comparison to accepting one particular deity over the hundreds of thousands of others on the table. But do all those small assumptions of science add up to be greater than the single assumption of a particular religion? Since the size of an assumption can’t be measured objectively, there’s no answer to that.
By now I hope I’ve convinced you that Occam’s Razor is, for all intents and purposes, useless. So what do I suggest instead? I present to the world, The Naturalist’s Razor:
If there are two plausible explanations for a particular phenomenon, both of which are contingent with the observable data, then a natural explanation is more likely to be correct than a supernatural one.
Of course, it’s hardly an original idea, let alone my own. Dawkins’ latest book The Magic of Reality says much the same thing, doubtlessly in more elegant terms, but I feel that it cannot be said too often.
Probability doesn’t enter into the Razor, since it’s far too easy to level bogus improbabilities at any occurrence. If anyone reading this wants to argue against the proposition, they must argue with this observation: Thousands of phenomena that were previously thought to be caused by a supernatural being have been found to have natural causes through the scientific method. Disasters, diseases, remedies, life, the weather, the stars, the mind; all of these were once thought to be the workings of the supernatural, but so far not one phenomenon has shown us a supernatural cause when scientifically examined.
So learn to live with naturalistic explanations for the world around you, even if they’re not simple, comfortable or easy to imagine. And for those reading this who think that this cold and clinical approach to life leaves no room for awe and wonder, I’ll be addressing that next time.