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Ask the Patriarch 108
Does Occam's Razor lead logically to agnosticism

from Kaye Madison

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I am new to your site and your organisation, but I've been exploring your various talkback articles and meditations etc. and I see a lot of familiar issues.

I officially designated myself an Agnostic many years ago. you should know its not an idle deliberation because I have been attending a religious school for five years, received bible education for just as long, gone to compulsory weekly sermons, and am surrounded by devoutly Christian friends. Yet I remain agnostic.

To stop rattling on I'll be brief: I find religion to be dogmatic, illogical and unsubstantiated. So, moving on from that, I have a question which one of my Christian friends (my best friend incidentally) put to me earlier. She asked me if my agnostic belief was in some ways synonymous with Occam's Razor (All things being equal, the most likely explanation is usually the correct one). I thought about it, and in a way it was close. I suppose agnostics don't believe anything without proof, so to believe that which is most likely is not what an agnostic would logically do. However as an agnostic, I tend to be more inclined to more likely explanations than unlikely ones, regardless of proof. That is a simple matter of using background scientific knowledge to extrapolate the probability of the evidence being conclusive. (after all is that not why agnostics favour the Evolution theory over genesis?) I don't believe it as true, but I do consider it more justified.

The point she made then, which continues to plague me, is as follows.

To base ones beliefs on logic and reason, on what we know to have the best scientific backdrop and evidence, is to be putting FAITH in it. (At this juncture I argued that faith was belief despite absence of evidence) The reasoning goes something like this: Put back the clock to a point where the general populace thought the world was flat. One man steps up and says its not. My friend's argument was that at the time, we simply did not know any better. Ask anyone then about Occam's Razor and they would have said that the most likely explanation was that the world was flat. She argues, the level of scientific knowledge and reasonable probability are one and the same. At the time, science did not know enough. As a result, we thought the Earth was flat.

Her argument is that, what we know to be logical and reasonable, changes. If that is a constant in this universe, than the scientific approach to life and its uncertainties is not nearly so solid because our reasoning is always changing.

I think it still doesn't hinder the agnostic approach, but I am curious as to anyone else's thoughts on where Occam's Razor stands with Agnostic faith. All input greatly appreciated.

The Patriarch replies:


First of all, Occam's Razor is not "the most likely explanation," but the simpler explanation. As the Wikipedia entry puts it:

Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler; or

The simplest answer is usually the correct answer.

Now, if we apply the Occam's Razor to the question "Is there a god?" it seems to me that the simplest answer is "No" - which logically leads to atheism. However William of Ockham would vehemently disagree, claiming that the existence of God was the simplest answer.

But given the choice is really limited to "Yes" or "No," agnosticism does not enter into the realm of possibilities.

Suppose instead we apply Occam's Razor to the meta-question "Is the question of god worth bothering with?" The answer I come up, in line with the Articles of Faith, with is a "No" - which logically leads me happily to Apathetic Agnosticism. Again, others would strongly disagree that this is the simplest answer.

When we deal with questions of this sort, our preconceptions can play a major role in determining the answer we come up with, so while a tool such as Occam's Razor may be useful in validating our own view, it does not necessarily serve to convince others.

Occam's Razor has more value in real world logic than in the world of the spiritual and supernatural.

On the issue of faith, be aware we use the same word in a spiritual sense and in a real world sense. The meaning shifts between a faith with no evidence and a faith with supporting evidence. Clearly differentiate between the two in your mind so you can make distinctions. Read Meditations 312 and 319 for more on this.

Best wishes