Tag Archives: Occam’s razor

Measuring Immeasurables

Are demons getting more active, or are people just believing in them more? Quite apart from what’s happening in the District of Columbia, there’s been a surge of requests for exorcisms. This is according to a WBUR story my wife sent me. I’ve been researching demons for a few years now. Initially my concern was avoiding Hell (something I’d still like to do), but as an adult trained in rationalism, I wondered why people still believed in them. Trying to keep an open mind, I read accounts. Yes, misperception is possible. Alternative interpretations. But still…

Fundamentalists say that demons have to exist because Jesus said so. Historically speaking, people have recognized demons from the earliest writing cultures and probably before. What they thought demons were differed pretty wildly from place to place. A good case has been made that demonic possession, as we recognize it today, became popular after The Exorcist. William Peter Blatty researched the topic, and most of what he uses for Regan MacNeil’s symptoms came from medieval accounts. Although some of the descriptions are somewhat extreme, the actions themselves aren’t new to either movie or novel. In other words, according to the eyewitness accounts we have, such things do happen. And when they do, who ya’ gonna call?

Exorcists were mostly extinct by the 1960s. A decade later, after the movie’s release, reports began to increase in number. Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, which I reviewed here some time ago, was a bestseller. It reinforced the idea planted by Blatty. And the number of exorcism requests hasn’t started going down yet. Are there more demons about, or are we all imagining things? It’s a question not easily answered.

The fact is science can’t measure phenomena that don’t consist of matter or energy. Occam’s razor shaves away the whiskers of the spiritual. Perhaps nature intended for us to be a bit hairier. Spirit is something that has always resisted science and its metrics. We know it when we see it in someone. Or perhaps when it impacts a person’s actions or motivations. It doesn’t impact a scale. It has no visible spectrum. Conventional wisdom says if you can’t see it, hear it, or otherwise sense it, it must not be there. We know this to be shortsighted thinking, however. “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Shakespeare wrote, and we would do well to pay the bard his due. Are there demons? I can’t say. I do know that people have been asking for the services of exorcists more and more. For that there is ample evidence.

Trained Witnesses

The problem with lying is that it generally doesn’t hold up. Eventually people will figure out that a falsehood is exactly that and the liar will be scorned. In other words, truth is determined by witnesses. This is tested and confirmed every day in our legal system. The witness is invaluable (except in the hands of lawyers). Since no one person can see everything, we rely on others to help us fill in the blanks. Think of it; when you see something unusual don’t you ask whoever’s with you “did you see that?” We witness the world around us, and unless we’re untruthful that observation becomes part of the collective narrative of what the world is like.

A story from IFL Science! sent by a friend describes “Ancient Legends And Myths That Were Later Proven True By Science.” Apparently this is part of an annual series. What the article lays out are recorded myths later confirmed by science. Scientists are trained witnesses. Taught to silo information, they separate belief (so they say) and eschew non-natural causation. They peer into the mirror each morning with Occam’s razor firmly in hand. Then everybody seems to be surprised when non-scientists have actually observed something correctly. This is the ancient bickering between religion and science—you can’t have it both ways, the reasoning goes. This is a zero-sum game. The winner takes it all. Reality, we observe, is seldom so simple. Articles like this one express surprise that non-scientists can get it right once in a while. The fact is, we’re all witnesses to what happens on this planet. Some of us are just taken more seriously than others.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating religion and science. Nor am I suggesting that all people are equally good observers. It’s just that sometimes things happen when there’s no scientist in the room. Or if there is there’s no time to wire everything up appropriately. The events in the IFL Science! piece are all like this. Observed by people before science was invented—some of them before civilization was invented—events were called myths until scientists came round with their notebooks and validated the long-departed witnesses. The problem with occasional phenomena is that they don’t come on cue. The universe isn’t here to please us or satisfy our curiosity. It’s just that sometimes we see things that don’t match up with the textbook. Whether you call an exorcist or a scientist depends entirely on your point of view.

No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

Occam’s Beard

Skeptics can be so much fun. We really do need them, otherwise we’d likely still be living with notions of medical science being attributed to four humors, none of which were that funny. Still, sometimes it gets tiresome to read endless references that take Occam out of context. You see, one of the foundations, if not the very keystone, of modern scientific method is that of parsimony, aka Occam’s razor. The idea is simplicity itself. If there are multiple possible explanations for a phenomenon, then the simplest is most likely correct. But only if it supports your biases. The reason I raise this question is the materialistic dismissal of “consciousness” as merely a by-product of having a brain. The reasoning goes like this—nothing exists that can’t be measured by science. Since that which isn’t material can’t be measured, the most parsimonious explanation is that it doesn’t exist. QED.

This way of looking at the world has become so common that those of us who question it are given a condescending smile and a paternalistic pat on the head. But my thinking about this goes back to Occam himself. William of Occam (or Ockham) was a late medieval churchman and thinker. As a scholar he possessed a sharp mind. As a friar he also possessed a soul. There was no disconnect in those days. His observations of the natural world led him to the reasonable conclusion that if a simpler solution sufficed, a more complicated one need not be posited. So far, so good. This is not, however, to suggest that more complex things may not be going on. Quantum physics, for example, suggests that things aren’t quite so easy to explain. And what about poor Occam’s soul? This very component that made William William has been dismissed as mere illusion. Did it therefore not exist?

Is it more parsimonious to suggest that “mind” (or soul, or consciousness, whichever you prefer) is mere illusion, electro-chemical signals flitting between highly specialized cells just happen to give off a fiction of consciousness, or would the simpler answer be, as Occam himself believed, we have souls? We have no way to measure such things, but to claim they don’t exist is to rob a great thinker of his very mind. Any of us who experience consciousness know that it’s no illusion. We feel the pains and joys of this same body day after day and, if we’re honest, we believe that we’ll continue even after this fleshy substrate wears out. There’s a profound logic here. Science doesn’t know how mind affects matter—how I can decide to type and my fingers move. The most parsimonious answer, they claim, is that it only seems to be so. A far more honest answer would be that mind is real. And I’m sure Occam himself would agree, even if he preferred to call it a soul.

As (Not) Seen on TV

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Last night, I fear, I did not see “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman.” Our “double play” service already rivals the cost effectiveness of a ballpark lunch, and a triple play is out of reach for as little time as we have for television. This may be one case, however, where I’d be inclined to sacrifice some Sunday evening sleep to watch. I’ve seen numerous episodes of Through the Wormhole. I’ve noticed that over time the topics have grown more and more metaphysical. Yes, there is an uneasy after-shave burn to Occam’s razor. We’ve been told for so long that reductionistic materialism can account for everything, even these unorthodox thoughts in my head of an early Monday morning, and that religion is what’s left over after cleansing a dirty pig. Yet still, yet still…

A few years back, when I was still active in FIRST Robotics, I noticed a few things. Many of the mentors to the teams were not opposed to religion. Far from it. Not only that, but the national (now international) finals of the competition were met with religious fervor. Then, my last year as a mentor it was announced that “God himself” (aka Morgan Freeman, a reference, of course, to Bruce Almighty) would be present for the event. Science and religion are met together; technology and spirit have kissed each other. Perhaps this one size fits all universe is a bit premature?

“The Story of God” will spend six weeks on the National Geographic Channel exploring the origins of religious belief. People who haven’t learned that this is all nonsense will watch and wonder. Universities will, however, continue to close departments where such things are explored. Just because something is interesting doesn’t mean it’s profitable. One must think of such things when one has a business to run. I’m no prophet, but I do have to wonder if this might not be a sign. Maybe Occam’s razor-burn is chaffing a bit more than we thought underneath this white collar. Maybe it’s time to let the beard grow a little and see what the face really looks like. Maybe it’s time to watch TV.

Reach Out and

Contact_ver2Carl Sagan, one of the great proponents of the idea that earthlings have never been visited by aliens, wrote a novel entitled Contact. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but many years ago, on a long plane ride, I caught part of the movie version—most of it without the sound on, as I recall. While the ideas have been brewing for about a decade, I’ve been meaning to get around to watching the film. It is a bit of a slow-starter, but I finally sat down to watch it, with sound. While the movie ultimately remains agnostic—with a Twilight Zonish twist at the end—about whether the contact is truly alien or not, one aspect leaves no room for doubt: the movie is really about the relationship between religion and science. Eleanor Arroway cannot raise faith in anything but science, especially since her father’s premature death. Although she has a brief affair with Palmer Joss, a theological journalist, she just can’t believe what her senses don’t confirm.

Once the alien signal is announced, the response of the populace is overwhelmingly religious. One sect in particular seems to channel its faith into the hatred of science, and even Palmer, now an advisor to the president, questions whether science alone can really help humanity to progress. He is the one who nails shut the coffin of Dr. Arroway’s hopes of going to Vega to see the aliens. The reason: she doesn’t believe in God, and therefore is not qualified to represent the human race. Ah, the cruel irony of it all. When she finally does get a chance to visit space, the results are both Freudian and religious. She finds her father in a place like heaven, but her beloved science makes no record of her journey. At a congressional hearing she is made to admit that she believes in what happened without proof. Science is now standing on faith while the religious look smugly on.

Despite the pacing, Contact is an enjoyable movie. In many ways it hasn’t aged much since its 1997 release. Science and religion are still at loggerheads in some camps, and we are no closer to the stars than we were a decade and three-quarters ago. Reading books on the nexus of religion and science, one often gets the impression that the two are inevitably foes. Much of it goes back to a principle that recurs throughout Contact—Occam’s razor. The idea that the simplest explanation is the best does not seem to serve science (or religion) well. Although it works most of the time, it is because, as a friend recently said, we are willing to sweep the stuff that doesn’t fit off the table. Contact showed Occam’s razor with its indiscriminate cutting. Both the religious and the scientific end up bloody when it’s all over (metaphorically speaking, of course). It seems what religion and science really need is indeed contact.

Two Ways

In my own attempt at balance, I turned from reading about the world of literary possibilities to a book on the inevitability of the scientific method. Robert Park’s Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud is an enjoyable jaunt through the distressing world of pseudo-science. The reader quickly discovers, however, that Park shares in the same scientific orthodoxy as Richard Dawkins (and many others) that claims since science works it is obviously the only way of demystifying our world. I admit that when I read of our government spending billions of dollars on projects put forward because our elected leaders know less about science than I do as a specialist in religion, I grow quite upset. More money than most of us will ever earn in a lifetime has been poured into projects that defy laws such as First and Second Thermodynamics. I learned those laws in Junior High physics and have never attempted to violate them. Even when scientists explain to elected officials in congressional hearings why these proposals simply can’t work, the pork barrels, once opened, are difficult to close.

Like many scientists, Park envisions a world where religion (same as superstition) is slowly losing its explanatory power and people will eventually have to admit that we are just acting out the role pre-determined by the laws of physics. We are fleshy machines, sometimes pretty flabby, but still machines. Ironically, when Park wants to express the seriousness of scientific review, he resorts to religious language. In explaining how peer review for scientific journals works, he notes that objectivity is a “sacred obligation.” Now, of course, one can argue that this is just a metaphor, language that non-scientists can understand. I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Reality, whether sought by scientists or religious believers, rests on the idea that there is only one truth. This, and not the incidental differences between theologies, is the reason for nearly all religious conflict and the “war on science.” There is, we are told in our Aristotelean world, only one possible Truth. Why?

Scientific theory, no less that superstitious theology, finds a unity of truth sensible and comforting. I wonder if the truth (and I use that word advisedly) is more complicated than that. No strict necessity exists for a single truth. (I am awake of Occam’s razor, but I don’t shave.) In fact, truth is a philosophical, not a scientific, concept. The problem is that societies tend to break down if they don’t share a view of the truth. There can be no doubt that science, done properly, works. The existence of the very internet where these virtual words reside is proof of that. That does not mean, however, that other truth can’t exist side-by-side, simultaneously with it. Scientists are duty-bound to declare a singular, physical universe because of the sacred trust of seeking the Truth. My bi-cameral mind just can’t see the necessity in that. But then again, I prefer a world with some mystery left in it. No thanks, I don’t shave.