Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Occam's Razor, Friend or Foe?

Although my reading of Unintended Revolution was selective... very selective... I wasn't impressed.  I'm going to try to read A Secular Age this summer so I can clean my palate.  I felt like Gregory had a whole lot of dots in his painting but that they all need reorganized.

I remain convinced that the Reformation was a by-product of the Renaissance, which itself was a working out of sociological forces in the late Middle Ages.  I do not see the Reformation itself as the epicenter of the earthquake that led to secularization.  I see it as part of the unfolding events, not the primary cause. The Reformation couldn't have happened if the church's power and grip wasn't already in the process of unraveling.

So the unraveling of the church's power surely facilitated secularization, but Protestantism is part of that phenomenon, not the primary cause.

There are lots of things that annoyed me about this book, but I want to focus on one theme that I think is very interesting.  Gregory repeatedly criticized the notion of Occam's Razor in contrast to what he considered a sacramental worldview.  Occam's Razor of course is the idea that the simplest explanation is the best explanation.

We use the notion all the time in normal thinking. If my son has crumbs on his face and the cookie jar is open with a trail of crumbs leading to him, I don't usually conclude that his older sister has framed him, let alone that the police are trying to get me upset and then take me to jail for some inappropriate act of violence.  Einstein is usually summarized as saying that a theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler.

An astute commentator once criticized a position I took in Hebrews as being reductionistic. What he was criticizing was my methodological sense that we should not see more meaning in a passage than is necessary to explain it.  Since the biblical texts were written in history for historical audiences, my assumption--following Occam's Razor--is that if the meaning of a passage can be more or less fully explained against its most natural historical context, that is the most probable original meaning.

But this approach sometimes runs into conflict with those who, because of theological motivations, want to see "extra" meaning in a text that fits either with the way the New Testament reads an Old Testament passage or how later Christians, including Christian orthodoxy, read a text.  I don't have a problem with theological interpretation of this sort if we don't pretend it is the same as the original meaning.  But those who are motivated to make the historical meaning coincide with the desired theological meaning are just bad interpreters.  This isn't reductionistic.  It's the very essence of reading a text in context.

Gregory criticizes the age of Newton to the Enlightenment to contemporary secular society basically for trying not to identify spiritual causes for things when something can more or less be explained on the basis of natural cause and effect. But does he really want to suggest that we should believe in God and the supernatural even if they are not really crucial to explain the way the world is?  Without falling into a "God of the gaps" perspective, I would also like to think that the existence of God makes sense of the world in a way that an absence of God would not.

Occam's Razor remains an extremely productive view of reality. I have other opinions. I don't see how we can go back before Kant without some sort of memory erasure. Alistair MacIntyre is a nice guy, but we can't go back to Aristotle. I think I can account for these phenomenologists in my system, but I don't think they can account for the details of reality in theirs.

Two cents...

No comments: