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Religion and Science

Cameron Sawyer disagrees with Tom Moore: "Tom Moore thinks that Occam s Razor shows the existence of God to be superfluous. But Occam's Razor says "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate" or "plurality should not be posited without necessity" (note well that he said...without necessity), not that every simple theory is always truer than any given complex one. And in fact, the theory of evolution is extraordinarily complex (and getting more and more complex as it develops). So surely creationism, being far simpler than the theory of evolution, would win out under Tom Moore's interpretation of Occam?*

I find it particularly lamentable that Tom Moore thinks that science has dispelled all of the universe's mysteries, including the possible existence of God. How dull existence must be for him! Among the scientists I know, I do not know a single one who would make any such claim. Certainly Albert Einstein would not agree: The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind.

For a marvelous philosophical novel on the mysteries revealed (not dispelled!) by science, read John Updike's Roger's Version. Besides being a philosophical tour de force (Updike is amazing!) there is much humor here: a computer sciences graduate student writing his dissertation works himself into a philosophical corner and is led by logic to the existence of God, and turns to a Divinity Professor (who has lost his faith) for help. There are questions of both evolution and cosmology here, so entirely appropriate to this conversation.

On Occam's Razor in science, epistemology, and metaphysics, there is an excellent short discussion in Principia Cybernetica: Occam's Razor does not furnish proof of a banal materialistic view of the universe, nor does it dictate that only simple hypotheses are true.

But best of all is Einstein, to whom I turn again and again on this question: "Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here involuntary and uninvited for a short stay, without knowing the whys and the wherefore. In our daily lives we only feel that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own...Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper."

Einstein did not practice any religion and did not even believe in any personal God as described in our religions. For this reason, his beliefs are more interesting; he has no axe to grind. For Einstein, science and religion have common roots: "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is."

You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man. For the latter God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe. But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

During the last century, and part of the one before, it was widely held that there was an unreconcilable conflict between knowledge and belief. The opinion prevailed among advanced minds that it was time that belief should be replaced increasingly by knowledge; belief that did not itself rest on knowledge was superstition, and as such had to be opposed. According to this conception, the sole function of education was to open the way to thinking and knowing, and the school, as the outstanding organ for the people's education, must serve that end exclusively. One will probably find but rarely, if at all, the rationalistic standpoint expressed in such crass form; for any sensible man would see at once how one-sided is such a statement of the position. But it is just as well to state a thesis starkly and nakedly, if one wants to clear up one's mind as to its nature.

It is true that convictions can best be supported with experience and clear thinking. On this point one must agree unreservedly with the extreme rationalist. The weak point of his conception is, however, this, that those convictions which are necessary and determinant for our conduct and judgments cannot be found solely along this solid scientific way. For the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. And it is hardly necessary to argue for the view that our existence and our activity acquire meaning only by the setting up of such a goal and of corresponding values. The knowledge of truth as such is wonderful, but it is so little capable of acting as a guide that it cannot prove even the justification and the value of the aspiration toward that very knowledge of truth. Here we face, therefore, the limits of the purely rational conception of our existence.

* See Robert Todd Carroll's The Skeptic's Dictionary: Because Occam's razor is sometimes called the principle of simplicity some simpleminded creationists have argued that Occam's razor can be used to support creationism over evolution. After all, having God create everything is much simpler than evolution, which is a very complex mechanism. But Occam's razor does not say that the more simpleminded a hypothesis, the better. If it did, Occam's would be dull razor for a dim populace indeed.

Ronald Hilton - 6/14/02