Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


John Derbyshire posted this parody of the musical Oklahoma! at The Corner:

O-o-o-ccam's Razor!
Where the premiss must be plain.
When two things compete take the short and sweet—
Only what is needed—to explain.

O-o-o-ccam's Razor!
Ev'ry night my honey lamb and I
Sit alone and talk and know it's a hawk,
Not a UFO, up in the sky.

We know that all that stuff is myth,
Be it Allah, Jehovah, or Sith!

And when we sa-a-ay, Yeow!
Did you really have to pra-a-ay! Yeow!
We're only saying
Reason is fine, Occam's Razor!
Occam's Razor, O.K.!

Occam's Razor (if you're not familiar with it, I can't put it much better than the first verse of the lyrics above, but here's Wikipedia) is the best, and at bottom the only, case that atheists/Darwinists (the two are not synonyms of course but I'm interested here in a certain intellectual type) have. After all, if you want to claim, and back up the claim, that there is no God, and/or the creation of our world occurred in a purely physicalistic fashion without supernatural intervention of any kind, then there's a problem: you've assumed the burden of proving a negative. Which is (perhaps I'm glossing over some complications here but I'll just put it out there) impossible.

So, if you believe that there is no God and/or the world evolved without any non-physical influences, and if you want to persuade others of this belief, how do you go about it? Occam's Razor! First, you (attempt to) offer a complete explanation of the world that never relies on the divine or supernatural as an explaining factor. Second, you appeal to Occam's Razor: if there's a God-less, soul-less explanation of something, there's no need to bring God/the soul into it.

The first problem with this is that Occam's Razor is more of a rule of thumb than a hard-and-fast epistemic principle. Have you ever watched a murder mystery in which the heir who was about to be disinherited by the wealthy victim has no alibi, but the killer turns out to be the victim's long-lost, disguised bastard avenging his abandoned mother and sundry other ancient iniquities? Occam's Razor is like a detective who always accuses the heir, just because the heir might have done it, and it's the simplest story. But the case is not really proven thus. And sometimes the heir is innocent, and the culprit is someone no one suspected.

The second problem is that, for Occam's Razor to be applicable, for the physicalist account to be "only what is needed-- to explain," then the physicalist account must be enough to explain. Physicalists must offer a complete explanation of our experiences, sensory, intellectual, emotional, and so on, before their appeal to Occam's Razor is legitimate. Now, any reasonably intelligent and educated physicalist should know he must concede that they cannot offer this... "yet." But, they say, look at the advance of science! Look how little we knew once, and how much we know now! Isn't it reasonable to think that we'll eventually offer a complete explanation of everything, including consciousness? Or at least that if we'll never get a complete explanation, we'll asymptotically approach one?

I have up my sleeve what I take to be philosophical proofs that consciousness can never be explained in physicalistic terms (philosopher Thomas Nagel argues the same) but there's no need to deploy them here. If the physicalist explanation of reality is incomplete, if physicalists cannot offer a sufficient explanation of all our experiences but merely a research program or methodology which they hope will lead to one, then they have no business appealing to Occam's Razor to persuade others, or themselves, of the untruth of beliefs in God or the soul. All their bullying on behalf of physicalists against, say, body-soul dualists, is just that.

The most revealing part of the poem (and all right, it is a bit below the belt to make such a sustained argument against a casual satirical poem, but the question interests me, so why not?) is the claim: "We know all that stuff is myth." Know? KNOW?!! It's hard to figure out how the author can imagine that he's in a position to make a knowledge-claim here. Even if he were in a position to apply Occam's Razor, which he is not, Occam's Razor provides the basis for pragmatic, probabilistic inferences, not knowledge-claims. So how can he say he knows? Easy: he says he knows for the same reason that the Mormons I grew up with used to say "I know the Church is true." His knowledge-claim is based on dogma, not reason. The "Reason is fine" line at the end is 100% red-herring. Reason, true reason, is a humbling pursuit. It yields more skepticism and agnosticism than certainty. It is the nemesis of physicalism and many other groundless worldviews, and dogmatists of all stripes can only selectively allow themselves the luxury of engaging in it.

UPDATE: Tom Reasoner writes, in the comments:

Assuming that your criticisms of "Physicalism" are true... can't those same criticisms be levied against any and all belief systems, including your own Deist views? If that's the case, then how should we resolve disagreements between differing views, if not by violence? I'm really anxious to hear your response.

A good question, to which I surely cannot do justice, partly in the small space I want to allot to the question at present. But I'll try to sketch an answer.

First, yes, I think that any and all elaborate, relatively complete, and socially institutionalized belief systems are probably vulnerable to devastating skeptical attacks. However, one must distinguish between different kinds of beliefs. In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett writes: "To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant-- inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write." (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 46.) This statement, which is so shockingly arrogant that it alone should suffice to expel Dennett from a discipline whose patron saint is the humble, ever-questioning Socrates-- indeed the statement is an indictment of the entire philosophical profession inasmuch as Dennett is still spoken of with respect among philosophers after having penned it-- can be called a certainty-claim of a kind that has probably not been uttered by a Christian intellectual since the Spanish Inquisition was abolished. Certainty-claims differ only in degree from knowledge-claims, I suppose-- to venture a tentative definition, they are "beliefs, plus beliefs that one possesses evidence which compels one to belief, and that should compel others to belief as well"-- but are different from mere beliefs, and from faith-beliefs: what the last are is too long a discussion to enter into here, except this hint: all of us, not just the religious, have them and live by them. Anyway, the Christian belief system is not vulnerable in the same way to a skeptical attack because it is not in the habit of making certainty-claims.

Second, while I value rational argumentation and belief that I have greatly profited by it, while I exhort others to engage in it, while insist that we have a duty to submit to the correction of reason when through reason our beliefs are proven false, nontheless it has this limitation: rational argumentation must rely on public evidence, but not all evidence is public. There are some things that we can know only by introspection. Only through introspection, if at all, can I discover whether or not I have the power to avoid thinking about an unpleasant topic, or whether I am able to remember the way the fields where I played in my youth looked, or whether I feel an angelic presence when I stand in a green wood through which rays of sunlight stream. If I save, "I felt that day that my sould was saved," I can neither prove nor be disproven, for only I have access to my own mind and my own memory. A very large and important part of reality is beyond the reach of the types of public observation that can be drawn into rational debate. Yet we do have ways of communicating with one another about these things; it is merely that we must do so through poetry or art, or perhaps through a form of argumentation that is not quite rational. Persuasion is a broader category than argument.

Finally, while Tom's phrase "if not by violence" is perhaps intended rhetorically, this is in fact the Darwinists' chief mode of spreading their doctrine. Citizens, including non-believers in Darwinism, are coerced to pay taxes, with the implicit threat of violence if they refuse, to support schools where Darwinism is taught to their own children. I agree with Tom-- if I understand his position rightly-- that violence is not a desirable means of resolving disagreements. Will he then agree with me that the teaching of Darwinism in public schools should cease? (If he wants his children to learn Darwinism, he can arrange private tutorials, or support a voucher system so that he can have his children learn Darwinism in private schools.)


  • Assuming that your criticisms of "Physicalism" are true (I don't wish to debate those points at the moment), can't those same criticisms be levied against any and all belief systems, including your own Deist views? If that's the case, then how should we resolve disagreements between differing views, if not by violence? I'm really anxious to hear your response.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 9:42 PM  

  • What is "Darwinism", eh? It consists of two fundamental components and that is all. Do you know what they are? Descent with modification and natural selection. Darwinism thus defined is not a "belief" or even a whole system of such. No, it is merely a "process". In a nut shell, when copies are made of patterns, they are not exact copies: they have some small variations. Now which of the copies will survive to copy themselves? I don't know, but I can tell you they won't all survive to copy themselves. That is called natural selection. This process of descent with modification and natural selection exists in all branches of study. It exists in thoughts, in genes, in reproductive patterns of *any* kind. It's basically just a logic algorithm. You can say that it is pure dogma, or whatever, but you'd be wrong, as wrong as if you said 2+2=5. You might quible with the conclusions and deductions derived from Darwin's simple and elegant process, but you can't deny the existence of it. To do so would be to deny all of logic and reason.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 4:33 AM  

  • Let's say that "Darwinism" is as well proven as the roundness of the Earth*. Then are we doing inexcusable violence to Flat-Earthers to require their children to be taught of the roundness of the Earth? If biologists believe that evolution is inextricable from all that is regarded as biological knowledge and we want children to learn biology, then we're pretty much committed to teaching evolution. And since we generally regard it as valid to make the public at large underwrite education, then people who disagree with those biologists are SOL.

    Maybe we shouldn't teach biology. Perhaps we shouldn't teach anything to anyone and leave everyone to decide what they and their children believe. I think we probably should go ahead and teach. Further, I think we should teach science. Further than that, I think we should teach biology. And that means teaching evolution.

    On the other hand, though I generally think that religion isn't a productive pursuit I would support teaching a religion course in public schools. Then kids can learn about "Intelligent Design" along with the flood and ark in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    *I think evolution is as well proven as the roundness of the Earth. Not that our current theory of evolution is perfect by any means, but then, neither is Earth perfectly round.

    By Blogger Nato, at 10:45 AM  

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