Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ockham’s Razor

Behind the secrets of nature remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. – Albert Einstein

Ever wonder why physicists who’ve never been able to see an electron and can’t agree on the make-up of subatomic matter can turn around and treat people who believe in “god” as delusional?

I put “god” in quotations and use the lower case g here because I’m not in any way trying to make a case for God in the traditional, Abrahamic context. Anyone who truly knows me knows that I am both an unapologetic Christ Follower and staunchly irreligious. I’m merely trying to point out some odd contradictions that are over looked when taking a scientific world view and yet are the same types of contradictions that are used to make religious people look crazy.

Take for instance subatomic theory. Physicists cannot prove the existence of electrons. No machine has yet been invented that can magnify matter to that level; the best they can do is follow the scientific method of testing their theories in a controlled environment. However; in some cases electrons function very much like particles while in others they function like waves of energy. They cannot be both.

The theories that physicists have postulated for the make-up of matter at a subatomic level have been tested as much as possible at this time but they can be neither proven, nor disproven. At best we are left to continue to theorise and work within the “laws of nature” without really knowing how or why things work the way they do. That’s why I love the quote from Albert Einstein above.

Without comprehensive evidence in any one area we are left with what has become know has Ockham’s Razor. William of Ockham was a 14th century theologian who created the Law of Parsimony, most often expressed in Latin (pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate - plurality should not be posited without necessity) the law basically states that when competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions shall be considered correct. Or as Isaac Newton put it; “we are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”

It is also interesting to point out as a side note that all three of these great men of science; Einstein, Ockham and Newton where also members of their respective churches (in Einstein’s case make that synagogue), but I digress.

Economists have a created a model for negotiation and forecasting called Game Theory, also known as a Sum Game. In a sum game you chart all of the potential outcomes of an event on a board. On one side you put all of the potential outcomes for one party, both good and bad and on the other side you put corresponding outcome for the other party. If party A achieves outcome X then party B will be affected in manner Y and so on.

The ultimate goal of such an exercise is to figure out what are the best possible outcomes for both parties and how to achieve that goal. This is known as the win-win. The end result is almost never an equal win for both parties however; there is always one party that wins more. The art of negotiation is to know when to accept what you have won and move on, either recognizing that you are negotiating from a position of weakness and cannot demand more or if you could get more to do so would un-necessarily oppress the other party and it is therefore prudent to stop. No one wants to lose so ending a negotiation in a win-lose scenario almost always results in some form of oppression and leads to civil unrest or war. In some instances a situation leads to a stalemate where neither party is willing to accept any of the solutions on the table. This leads to a long period of inaction that is generally only broken when the very act of not acting becomes itself a losing proposition. Stalemates are most commonly seen when unions go on strike until the financial cost to one party outstrips their cash reserves and forces them back to the negotiating table.

So, what does this have to do with “god” and Ockham’s Razor? Stay with me on this, we’ll get there I promise. But first we have to talk about one more thing.

Collective morality has evolved within societies as different cultures have rubbed up against one another and had to learn to live together. We can see throughout history that basic morality, right and wrong, are the same across multiple cultures through thousands of years. But where did all this morality come from?

If we play a sum game with evolving societies and collective morality we can see clearly that morality is a win-win. The sceptic will say “ah ha – if morality is a win-win then that proves there is no need for god, morality “evolved” because it just makes sense – we’ve got you!” But if morality evolved it would have had to have a beginning. Why wouldn’t the stronger party always go for the biggest win they could get? Remember we already established that win-win does not mean equal.

In fact win-win is against human nature. Human nature drives us to gain all we can and suffer the consequences later. Man has had to be taught to see the benefits of win-win and throughout history each generation has had to re-learn that lesson.

So if morality is not human nature and is something that has to be consciously taught to each new generation then it hasn’t really evolved at all. The seed of morality has always been there, innately within our human consciousness and it had to be planted somehow.

This brings us back to my friend William of Ockham. Sceptics will say that morality evolved naturally as man learned to live together but can never give a satisfactory answer as to how the seed got planted. I say the simplest explanation is the truest – that morality was planted in the brain of man by design.

Who or what that designer is and how you respond is a discussion for another time. All I ask is that you keep an open mind just like the great religious scientists of our past did.


  1. I don't know how familliar you are with the "Hadron Supercollider" in Europe, or it's twin currently under construction in the USA, but the technology involved not only allows scientists to view electrons, but also allows for creation and monitering of anti-protons and anti-electrons for brief instances.
    I study science as a hobby. I find such things a the formation of a hurricane and the mapping of the human genome fascinating. I aslo find proof of God in such things. How? A good example of science proving creation is the Hubble telescope. It has found untold stars and planets, none with the proper conditions for life as we know it. So the chances of life as ours are infinitely small(too small to put in this post). The chances of having a perfect world are even smaller. Then the chances of the two intersecting randomly are a multilpe of the two which equalls IMPOSSIBLE, without help. So that is how I prove to atheists that there is no way we are here by chance. It is a simple fact that atheists have not forgiven the Catholic Church for trying to impede scientific development ages ago as atheists do not understand the concept of forgiveness. However, as a Christian, who studies sciences as a hobby, I find evidence of God imprinted all over science. It is secular progressives who wish to use science to disprove God, yet, the more we learn about science (when viewed with an open mind) the more the existence of an infinitely powerful creator becomes obvious. The fact that man has a concience is absolute proof of that fact. If we had no creator, our DNA would be a computer without an operating system. That is why so many in the scientific community are moving away from atheism.

  2. You totally misunderstand the matter-wave duality of quantum physics and this is not the place to explain it. An electron can indeed be both matter and wave. Try the library. Single atoms and electrons have been isolated and even manipulated by electron microscope tips and magnetic fields. Einstein never practiced Judaism nor went to synagogue and his references to God are metaphors for nature.

  3. Nature is God - or more accurately, a manifestation of the divine