January 16, 2006

Ockham's Razor - Handle with care

“Ockham’s Razor doesn’t exclude intelligent causes, you know.”
Of course Ockham’s Razor doesn’t exclude intelligent causes. Ockham’s Razor doesn’t really exclude anything, but if it did it would certainly debar “Intelligent” (supernatural) causes.

The above quote, found on the newly redesigned Uncommon Descent site is one of the more sophomoric of the popular arguments for “design” (small wonder as it comes from one of the more sophomoric of the new cabal of moderators now running the site, see here for backstory).

Depending in part upon a facile conflation of natural, empirically established and understood intelligent causes and raw speculation as to the existence of a non-natural intelligent agency, the argument misses entirely the point of Ockham’s Razor.
“Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate.”
Multiplicity ought not be posited without necessity. In other words, all things being equal, the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions (variables not in evidence) is likely the correct choice. From a practical perspective, the Razor simply advises that in a search for lost keys (something that seems to occupy much of my time) it is more logical to assume that they were misplaced than to posit the existence of car-key gnomes absconding with the items in a vain pursuit of profit (those unfamiliar with this reference need to add more South Park to their boob tube diet).

In comparing scientific hypotheses, application of the Razor does not suggest that an explanation which involves more assumptions cannot eventually be found to more completely explain the initial observations. It just means that from an operational standpoint it makes more sense to pursue, and in the case of incomplete data provisionally prefer, the simpler explanation. It’s an implementation of the natural urge within all of us (excepting my kids) to be economical in our outlay of interest, time, energy, and other resources.

However, in the case of an inference to non-natural intelligent agency if the Razor does not in principle exclude this explanation it certainly must be read to imply that there aint no giddy-up in that-there horse.

An inference to natural intelligent cause can be seen as dependent upon a great multiplicity of assumptions that have been empirically verified. e.g. it is known to exist, it’s behaviors are well-enough understood to generate reliable conclusions, it’s activities and artifacts can be reliably identified empirically etc. An inference to natural intelligent cause does not invoke assumptions, it invokes facts already in evidence. Thus the inference to natural intelligent cause in the course of archeology or forensic sciences or even SETI does not run afoul of Ockham’s injunction.

The same cannot be said of an illation to non-natural intelligent agency. The assumptions involved in this inference are nearly limitless.

Who or what is the designer? How did the designer come to be? Is the designer designed? What are the designer's qualities? What are the designer's motivations? How does the designer effect his/her intervention in the natural world? Is the designer capable of creating imperfect design? Does the designer abide by natural law?

All of these questions and more need to be addressed empirically before any inference to a non-natural designer can be considered comparable with that involved in the legitimate sciences.

Not only does an assumption of a non-natural intelligent designer involve unnecessary and virtually boundless multiplicity, it is in fact not even possible to measure this “explanation” against a naturalistic alternative because there is no basis for the comparison. Both begin with the same set of observations, but only one grounds a subsequent explanation in testable hypotheses rather than erecting an epistemological roadblock.

The Razor doesn't tell you what to think, but it is a useful tool for improving how you think provided you're holding it by the correct end.

Otherwise, it's just an accident waiting to happen.


Post a Comment

<< Home