Friday, July 14, 2017

Ockham's Razor and Ockham's Lobotomy

Now, the principle of explanatory exclusion is very popular amongst atheists and naturalists. It is simply a form of Ockham’s Razor. Atheists are happy to point out that the electrical explanation of electricity makes Thor’s hammer unnecessary, and that the Blind Watchmaker of evolution replaces the divine watchmaker. But in the case of the mental and physical explanations for, say, the mental events that produced Godel’s Theorem or even Darwin’s theory of evolution, they insist that while the thoughts of Godel and Darwin have a physical explanation, they also have a mental explanation. Otherwise, Ockham’s Razor becomes Ockham’s Lobotomy (thanks, William!), and the scientific thought processes that produced these beautiful theories and theorems could not have existed.


Unknown said...

Are you making a charge of inconsistency on the part of atheists because they apply Ockham s razor sometimes, but not other times? If so, I don't think this needs to be the case. While it may be the case that naturalists are invoking more than one explanation for someone's thoughts, there are other ways in which they can argue that their overall worldview is simpler (fewer entities, fewer types of entities, fewer independent auxiliary hypotheses, etc). So while it may seem like a naturalist is violating ockhams razor by piling physical explanations on top of mental explanations, they could actually still be obeying ockhams razor by looking at which total worldview is simpler.

As you know, simplicity is actually a complex philosophical topic and there are many competing definitions of simplicity (semantic versions, syntactic versions, Bayesian versions, information theory versions, etc). Some definitions of simplicity would say that the naturalistic explanations of thoughts/ideas are more complex. Other definitions of simplicity would say it's far too crude to just count up the number of explanations being offered without also taking into account the number of ontological entities, semantic content, etc.

Victor Reppert said...

The other problem is that having more than one explanations seems to imply that all these mental events are overdetermined. Now overdetermination is possible. The dinosaurs could have all died because an asteroid fell, but they could have all been dying anyway for some other reason.

Is it plausible to say that mental events have both a mental and a physical cause other than the fact that it is awfully inconvenient for scientists to discover that their own thoughts have physical but not mental causes?

William said...

I think that most events are explained within a given context, and that "Ockham's lobotomy" kicks in when we try to expand what is a good explanation in one context into an explanation for other contexts where it is not really adequate.

To the question of "why is that book as it is?" there are multiple good answers (all of them properly pointing to efficient causes) for a given context, such as answers like "ink was put on paper," "the author wrote it," or "I put it there on the table." Each is a proper explanation in its own context.

I do not see overdetermination here. If one of our explanations explained all the relevant details in all the contexts that could possibly matter to us, then, yes, other explanations would be redundant. But there is no such all-context-encompassing explanation known to us for typical mental events (or for a typical book).

You might be concerned that we are escaping into a mysterianism, as in saying that "it's more complex than that" as a way of resisting a given explanation (such as a physical one about he brain for a mental process).

But context is still important. I can accept an explanation as a good one for that context without complaining about it's incompleteness, just like I don't need to know about the author's parents to accept his authoring as an answer to the question as to the source of a book, in the context where the author is an answer to that question.