Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Exalting Occam's Razor into a Law

From: JASA 28 (March 1976): 46.
have just seen the letter from John A. Cramer in the June copy of the Journal ASA. It is headed, "Disappointed with MacKay". The chief ground of his disappointment is "his cum is a bald-faced denial of the law of parsimony (Occam's razor)." The problem here seems to be that Dr. Cramer has exalted Occam's razor into a law. In fact it is only a methodological assumption of the kind that we use and find generally useful in certain areas of thinking. Occam's razor never has been a law and never could be a law. It is often misleading, it may induce us to spend years trying to explain a phenomenon in terms of one or two principles when in fact we ought to be allowing three or four. If Occam's razor is made into a law then should it not be called the law of reductionism? That is to say if you can explain a phenomenon in terms of one set of concepts you are under intellectual obligation to deny that any other set of concepts is relevant. This of course is roughly the way Marxism tries to interpret the world, but everybody knows that it breaks down at least at the individual level when people try to be honest about the nature of reality. It is of course the dogmatic materialist starting point. But what MacKay was doing was to show that "logically" there is no ground for doing this. He gave a number of examples to show that a complete explanation "at one level" still leaves it an open question as to whether there are necessary explanations at other levels. In this sense MacKay's argument is fairly fresh and is a direct attack on what Dr. Cramer calls, "the law of parsimony" and what would better be called "reductionism".

MacKay shows that you do not have to prove the incompleteness of the scientific explanation in order to show that you need a different set of concepts to do justice to the phenomena. Traditional apologetics has often proceeded by trying to show that there are gaps in the scientific knowledge which allow us to introduce the idea of God. MacKay will have none of this and in this sense he allows the scientist to have his cake and eat it. He allows him to use Occam's razor as a scientific principle and to explain the scientific aspects of the phenomenon in terms of as few concepts as possible, ideally only one. He allows him to say that the whole of the phenomena are on a scientific level mechanical. But insists that if he does that he has still not solved the problem or even begun to address himself to the question as to whether there are other levels of reality needing other kinds of explanation. Presumably Dr. Cramer feels he must prove gaps !n the scientific process. If that is not his approach it would be interesting to know how he himself meets the problem.

Oliver Barclay
Research Scientists' Christian Fellowship
London, England