Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On being an Occamist

The following thoughts are inspired by John Cornwell's review of Daniel Dennett's new book, for which Geoff kindly provided a link.

Is there a conflict between religion and science?

In some respects, absolutely. For example, the Earth cannot be 4 billion years old, as the scientists say, and less than 10,000 years old, as nearly half of Americans apparently believe for religious reasons. One side is simply wrong, and there's no ifs, ands or buts about it.

But what about the person who says, for example, "I prayed that my headache would go away and God answered my prayer." I can draw his attention to the double-blind studies that sought to measure the efficacy of petitionary prayer, all negative. But he can reply, "That doesn't prove God didn't answer MY prayer." And of course he's right. I can point out that millions of Indians pray for sons rather than daughters, but the sex ratio remains 50-50. He'll say, "They are praying to the wrong God." The conflict here is not between religion and science, but between religion and Occam's Razor: Never suppose a complex or esoteric cause for an event when a simpler, more familiar explanation will suffice. I would rather be called an Occamist than an atheist.

Then there are those who profess to find God in the gaps of science -- in the things science has not yet explained or perhaps might never explain. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are the laws of nature what they are? How did life arise from non-life? To which I reply, "I don't know." In answering thus, I am not being a scientist or a theist or an Occamist, but simply a person who is willing to admit his ignorance in the face of a mystery manifestly greater than himself.