Ockham Explained

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For example, when someone presents with pain in the head, the diagnosis is more likely a headache or a migraine than a brain tumor. When people experience pain in the abdomen, they are more likely experiencing indigestion than cancer. Simple explanations are best.


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This is most applicable in how scientists create hypotheses for a scientific study. Simple hypotheses are easier to prove than complex hypotheses. Principles of Parsimony and Plurality. What Causes Local Motion? Critique of Ockhams Theory of Motion. The Nature of Physics.

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A General Critique of Connotative Reduction. Ockham Asked to Explain Himself. Philosophy of Mind and Action in the Middle Ages. Intellective Part.

TheFictumTheory and theIntellectioTheory. Intuitive and Abstractive Cognition. Can God Fool Us? Mediaeval Christian Reactions to Aristotle. Ockham and Moral Luck. Ockham Is Drawn into the Poverty Controversy. The Poverty Controversy. Political Dualism inEight Questions. Did Ockham Recant? Immediate Influence. English Translations. Some Basic Dates in Ockhams Life.

Consider, however, another case. Suppose a friend is going to get the train to meet you after work.

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Occam's razor

You go to meet him at the railway station as planned, but he is not there. One hypothesis is that he missed the train and another is that he was delayed at work.


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In this case, accepting the latter hypothesis does not remove the need for the former since they could easily both be true; he could have missed the train because he was delayed at work. Indeed, accepting one of these hypotheses seems to make the other more likely to be true. The following discussion summarizes earlier work on explaining away to address this question. Previous work considered explaining away not only in the case where the alternative hypothesis is discovered to be true, but also in the case where there is some independent, non-conclusive evidence for it Glass This involves a relatively straightforward extension of the above expressions, however, since the weaker the evidence for the alternative hypothesis, the weaker is the case that explaining away occurs ceteris paribus.

For this reason, the details will not be presented here. One hypothesis might weaken the support for the other partial explaining away without removing its support completely. Still, if science undermines theism by making it less plausible than it would be otherwise a very similar type of reasoning is at work. Alternatively, some might grant that theism has explanatory merit, at least in principle, but deny that this should be equated with confirmation by the evidence it explains.

Evolving Explanations

The limitation noted above can be resolved simply by removing the restriction that the hypotheses need to be confirmed by the evidence in the first place. Note that this is the same condition as that for at least partial explaining away to occur, but it does not presuppose confirmation of the hypotheses by the evidence in the first place.

This account will now be used in the context of science and theism. For example, it is far from clear what it means to say that science explains some body of evidence E. Rather, it is particular scientific theories that explain a given body of evidence.

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Furthermore, whether a scientific theory weakens the need for a theistic account may well differ from one case to another. Science S explains various features of the natural world E for which theism T might also be thought to provide explanations. There are good reasons to accept these scientific explanations as an account of reality. Some clarification is needed on premise 1. What features of the natural world might be included under E in premise 1? The idea is to include features of the natural world for which there are generally agreed upon scientific explanations.

So, for example, the fine-tuning of physical parameters would not be included since there is no scientific explanation that has achieved a consensus, although it has been discussed in previous work in the context of explaining away Glass Premise 1 is also intended to exclude theistic explanations that are direct rivals to accepted scientific explanations. So, for example, it would exclude theistic explanations such as the direct creation of the fossil record by God. The most obvious features of the natural world that would be included in E would be those exhibiting order that can be explained scientifically since theism might also be thought to provide an explanation.

This includes order in the solar system that can be understood in terms of gravitation and a multiplicity of other cases that can be understood in terms of the theories of electromagnetism, evolutionary biology, etc. Premise 2 presupposes scientific realism. This provides an obvious way to respond to the argument since given an anti-realist position with respect to science, the argument loses its force.

We will not pursue this option here, but simply assume a realist position for the sake of the argument. As noted in the earlier discussion on explaining away in Sect.

What is Occam's Razor?

This means that the argument does not require belief that science gives us the truth, but just that science is well-confirmed. Essentially it requires arguing that expression 2 in Sect. We can think of this expression as comprising two components. We will consider this relationship under strategy 4 below, but in general this relationship is not what defenders of SEAGA focus on.

This brings us to the second component in expression 2 and this concerns the probability of E given various combinations of science and theism and their negations, i. For simplicity, let us assume that science and theism are independent given only background knowledge, i. In that case it needs to be shown that expression 1 in Sect.

The reasoning here is similar to that involved in the car example discussed earlier. Similar arguments might be used to show that expression 2 is also satisfied in cases where science and theism are not assumed to be independent given background knowledge, although as will be argued later, the possibility of a positive dependence raises problem for SEAGA. According to this strategy, E is independent of theism, and so provides no evidence for it in the first place, and science has no effect on theism either.

Theists adopting this position will claim that it is a mistake to think of theism in terms of providing explanations for features of the natural world that are amenable to scientific explanation and that science itself has no bearing on the existence of God. Since E is only taken to include features of the universe that are explained by generally accepted science, the proponent of this strategy might still appeal to some features of the universe that are not explained by science as evidence for God.

How To Apply Occam's Razor

Alternatively, theists might reject all the arguments of natural theology, adopting some kind of fideism or perhaps argue that belief in God is properly basic, or they might appeal to the moral argument, for example. A possible challenge for this position concerns whether the theist can consistently claim that theism is independent from the features of the universe captured in E and from science itself.

If God is considered to be the creator of the universe, can this kind of independence be maintained? Or to put it another way, can God make a difference without making a probabilistic difference? However, while this may well be true for some features of the universe included in E , it is not clear that all such features of the universe must be independent of theism. Arguably, it is more plausible to think that E is independent of theism given scientific explanations S for E , as will be discussed in the context of strategy 4, but the current strategy requires not only that E is unconditionally independent of theism, but also that science itself is independent of theism.

While this should not be ruled out, it seems reasonable to believe that independence might fail to hold in at least some cases and hence that theism might be confirmed or disconfirmed by some features in E or by science itself. For this reason, and given the evidentialist viewpoint adopted in this paper, other strategies will now be considered. Consider again expression 1 where the two hypotheses are considered to be independent given only background knowledge.