Saturday, September 15, 2007


The philosophical foundations of science can be reduced almost entirely to one principle: Ockham's Razor. Do not needlessly multiply hypotheses. The simplest explanation is probably the best.

In the Introduction to his scientific/philosophical memoir, The Way Things Are (1959), the physicist P. W. Bridgman had this to say about the Razor:
I do not know what logical justification can be offered for the principle. To me it seems to satisfy a deep-seated instinct for intellectual good workmanship. Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons for adopting it is that thereby one has given as few hostages to the future as possible and retained the maximum flexibility for dealing with unanticipated facts or ideas.
Two important ideas here:

Workmanship. We instinctively recognize good design in a chair, a tool, or an electronic device. It has something to do with form and function. An object does what it's supposed to do with maximum efficiency and without excess. We don't use a Rube Goldberg machine to catch a mouse when a Victor spring trap will suffice. The same applies to explanations of the world. It's what Einstein meant when he said, "Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Economy. By not multiplying explanations needlessly we are less likely to be caught with our pants down in the future. Supernatural and paranormal explanations are superfluous. They lodge themselves in the gaps of science and risk extinction when the gaps are filled. Ockham's Razor instructs us to leave the gaps alone. For the time being, be content with ignorance. If someone asks, "What came before the big bang?" or "How did life begin?", answer, honestly, "I don't know."

Theology is generally set against science as a separate domain of knowing. But any "God" who is presumed to act in the world of matter and energy qualifies as a scientific concept. Like gravity or quarks, the concept of a personal interventionist deity was invented as a way of accounting for our observations. Like phlogiston and vital spirits, it is a concept that has been shown to be superfluous. There is no evidence for miracles, so there is nothing for an interventionist God to do. Theology, like alchemy and astrology, has become irrelevant.