Discussion by: PerMy question is: Why is Occam’s Razor not the first thing we come to, in any discussion about the validity of religious views versus scientific ones?
Background: I have started out with the books written by Dawkins, and gone on to see some of the interviews and discussions he has participated in. The books (I am thinking especially of “The God Delusion”) outline a large number of arguments for religion, and proceed to dismantle them one by one. The apparently excessive frustration displayed while disproving either the arguments, or their relevance, in the book, is easily understood after watching the same few irrational and irrelevant arguments put forth again and again, by people who have not bothered to read his book, or even worse, people who have read it, and simply ignore it. I sincerely sympathize, and I do not understand how he has managed to stay sane. There is, however, one question that is rarely dealt with directly, even though it seems to be central to the discussion.
Thesis: If we discard the question about whether religion is useful and focus solely on the question of whether god(s) exist, it seems to me that any discussion should start by establishing whether Occam’s Razor is our primary principle for distinguishing between competing theories. If we do not establish that, then we risk wasting the entire discussion, making very compelling arguments which, for some participants in the discussion, has absolutely no bearing on the matter.
Example: One line of argument from atheists is as follows. We have two competing hypotheses: Either there is an omnipotent god, who incarnated himself, had himself killed and for some reason chooses to hide himself from physical observation to this day. Or god, as a concept, was conceived over time, by humans, to account for aspects of our life, which we were unable to explain two millennia years ago. My explanation here is oversimplified, but I expect most people are familiar with the argument. I do not think there is much question that the latter hypothesis is much simpler and more concise. Thus, according to Occam’s Razor, we should reject the former hypothesis, and accept the latter. It does not, however, matter how well we manage to demonstrate the simplicity of the latter hypothesis, as compared to the former, if we cannot agree to use Occam’s Razor as our guiding principle for selecting the superior one.
I think there is an assumption, amongst those with a scientific background, that Occam’s Razor is universally accepted, and universally understood. I am not sure that either is necessarily the case. Rather than getting stuck on details such as how literal scripture is meant to be taken, I think any productive discussion about faith, between an atheist and a religious person, should begin with establishing two things:
1) Do both have a basic grasp of what Occam’s Razor is?
2) Do both believe that this is an overriding principle, on which to measure the value of competing thesis?
Say a religious person claims to adhere to the principle of Occam’s Razor, and find that the bible offers the simplest explanation, e.g. for how life arose. Then we can proceed to discuss e.g. how assuming the existence of a omnipotent being with all the complexity that follows, can be said to be a simpler assumption, than the principle of “survival of the fittest”. From an agreement that we use Occam’s Razor for comparing competing hypothesis, we can progress, using logic and a whole lot of observations, to agree that there almost certainly is no god.
By contrast, our religious person may believe that anything mentioned in scripture overrides our natural tendency to assume the simplest explanation. In this case we can start by establishing, that this person does apply Occam’s Razor in other areas of life, and proceed to ask why this particular area is exempt from that scrutiny. In this case any argument that evolution offers a simpler explanation for life than most religions, would be a mute point, and we need not bother making it, until we have convinced this person that Occam’s Razor is the best means for choosing between competing hypotheses. We may waste the entire discussion on demonstrating simplicity of our theory, but if the person we are discussing the matter with, does not accept Occam’s Razor, then that has absolutely no bearing on the issue.
This seems to me as the main issue dividing those who believe there is a god, from those who believe there is no god. My frustration is that not only is it not the center of every discussion about religion, but in fact it hardly ever comes up.
I have seen enough interviews and discussions on religion to conclude that an important problem (perhaps the most important problem) is that we try to address every argument for or against religion, and as a result end up addressing none. We simply spread ourselves too thin. I think that this simple tool could be critical in cutting away something like half the possible arguments as irrelevant, thus focusing the discussion, and increasing our chances of reaching actual agreement with our interlocutor.