William of Ockham and His Razor, The Religion of the Modern Scientific Establishment

In a series of articles I wrote several years ago, I proposed that the practice of astrology would be best served by grounding it in the framework of a traditional science. In this series of articles, I suggested that the study of astrology be grounded in essentialist metaphysical philosophy and thealogical principles. But doesn’t that involve religion? Yes, it does. I would argue, however, that the current establishments teaching and governing the modern sciences are also operating out of a religion; a very different religion from the ones that the practitioners of traditional sciences were grounded in, but a religion, nonetheless.

What is Religion?

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of religion is:

1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

   1.1 A particular system of faith and worship.

   1.2 A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.

The Miriam-Webster definition of religion is:

1 a : the state of a religious
   b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural
       (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

By these definitions, however, particularly the Oxford one, one could argue that some Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, do not qualify as religions. It may also be hard to include many Ancient and Classical “pagan” religions, traditions, and philosophies under this definition. Even within modern Christian denominations, there is a heavy debate with respect to whether Christianity should be based upon “faith” or “works.” Those denominations centered on “works” may have trouble with the Oxford definition, while those centered on “faith” may have trouble with the Miriam-Webster one.

While a precise definition that would encompass everything that most of us would consider religion is difficult, I propose that a working definition for the purposes of this article could be: a set of shared fundamental beliefs about what is true that are not derived from empirical evidence or observation.

What is Science?

Unlike the case of religion, the Oxford English dictionary provides a workable definition of science that is usable for this discussion:

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

This definition is large enough to encompass the Traditional Sciences, such as alchemy and cosmology, and the Modern ones, such as chemistry and physics.

The Relationship Between Science and Religion

EuclidWhile proponents and practitioners of the Modern Sciences tend to claim that their beliefs about what is true are based entirely on observation, experimentation, and rational analysis derived from observation and experimentation, such a claim is impossible.  Even in the very logical and rational discipline of Geometry, one must begin with fundamental beliefs which cannot be tested through observation or experimentation.  For example, we believe that a straight line which extends infinitely long in either direction can exist. There is no way that a human being could ever test this belief, yet without this belief the study of Geometry would be impossible. In around 300 B.C., the foundational textbook for Geometry, Elements, which is attributed to Euclid, identified 10 fundamental beliefs that formed the basis for all of Geometry.

There is no discipline in any modern or traditional science that does not at its source rely upon untestable beliefs.  Even the existence of the world we live in must rest upon a belief. In his famous thought experiment, René Decartes concluded that if a demon had captured him and set about to deceive him and to create and place him in a illusory world, he would have no way to uncover that deception. The popular science fiction series, the Matrix, is based on such a scenario, with conscious and intelligent machines taking the place of demons. The only conclusion he could reach with any certainty was “cognito, ergo sum,” or in English, “I think, therefore I am.” The reason he could feel certain of this was that if he was thinking, there must be something doing the thinking. Thus the only thing he could be certain of was his own existence.

While I believe that there are many flaws in Cartesian philosophy, his thought experiments demonstrated the limits of knowledge that we can obtain with experimentation and observation. On some level, the starting point of any scientific inquiry will be a set of untestable beliefs. That is unavoidable. The difference between Traditional and Modern scientists is in the set of untestable beliefs that they accept and that form the foundation and allowed boundaries for further inquiry.

Types of Reason

In order to guard against the uncertainty of the information obtainable through our senses, Enlightenment philosophers have extolled reason as the way to obtain knowledge of truth. The most basic type of reasoning is deductive reasoning. An example of this type reasoning is as follows:

  1. All cats are animals.
  2. Fluffy is a cat.
  3. Therefore, Fluffy is an animal.

FluffyIf the premises are true, and the logic is correct, we will invariably come to a sound conclusion. The difficulty is that the knowledge we can obtain from deductive reasoning is limited in scope.

Another form of reasoning is inductive reasoning, which is the derivation of general principles from specific observations. Most empirical sciences regularly employ inductive reasoning. For example, we have observed many cats that give birth to live kittens, and we have not observed any that lay eggs; therefore, we are allowed to conclude that mother cats give birth to live kittens and do not lay eggs. It is possible that someday, someone will observe a cat that lays eggs, but we can consider that possibility highly unlikely. Inductive reasoning is less certain than deductive reasoning, but it is still allowable.

Deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning are staples of both modern and traditional sciences, and neither of these types of reasoning require the need to turn to beliefs that are not self-evident or fundamental in scope, such as the theoretical possibility of a straight line or the existence of the natural world.

The difference between the rules of practice for the modern and traditional sciences is in how to handle matters that are not amenable to either deductive or inductive reasoning, and how to decide between competing hypotheses with respect to explanations as to the nature of things or how the world works. When there are competing hypotheses in these matters, it is human nature to come up with “ad hoc excuses” to save a theory, many of which can not be tested, and so there must be criteria by which to judge and decide between them.

In these cases, practitioners of traditional sciences turned to traditionally accepted metaphysical principles and to revealed knowledge to sort between competing theories. Now, a reader could argue that it was traditionally accepted that the Earth was the center of the Solar System, and that this was proven to be wrong. The problem with this argument is that when the geocentric model of the Solar System was prevalent, traditional knowledge had already been broken. Aristotelian principles represented a major break from tradition, as did Christian philosophy. Admittedly, having a broken tradition severely limits our ability to revive traditional science, but I believe we can still proceed cautiously, so long as we act with humility, honestly admitting to the level of certainty that is possible to us.

Inference to the Best Explanation and Occam’s Razor

Whereas practitioners of traditional sciences would turn to traditional doctrine and metaphysics to examine matters not amenable to deductive or inductive reasoning, most modern scientific disciplines handle such matters by employing what is known as abductive reasoning, or “inference to the best explanation.” This practice does not attempt to achieve certainty, it purportedly only seeks to determine the most likely explanation for a given natural phenomenon.

According to accepted practice as taught by the current scientific establishment, the best explanation is one that is testable, has the widest scope, is the simplest, and is conservative in that it adheres to already established theories. The first difficulty with this form of reasoning is that by definition, it will only consider theories that are testable. Now, of course, for a theory to be examined by science, traditional or modern, it must be testable, and it is perfectly logical and acceptable to confine one’s research to that which can be tested; however, there is no basis other than belief to consider a testable theory better than an untestable one.   Of course, it makes sense to guard against “ad hoc” excuses for theories, especially if these excuses turn the theory from a testable one to an untestable one; however, there are traditional teachings, such as the proto-element of Aethyr, that make no claims as to be testable by material means.

Even more problematic is the requirement of simplicity. At first glance, this would seem to be a good criterion, and it is known as “Occam’s razor,” after William of Ockham, an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher who lived between about 1287 and 1347. It is commonly thought that this doctrine teaches that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely correct. I am not sure how such a doctrine could be verified, but it seems reasonable on the surface. Of course, this also begs the question as to what is meant by simplest.

William of OckhamThis is where the problem lies. It could be said that the simplest explanation is the one that involves the fewest assumptions. That seems logical as well. There is more, however. The most famous version of the doctrine of Occam’s Razor comes not from William of Ockham himself, but from a later philosopher, John Punch in 1639, which states, “Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate,” or in English, “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.” This doctrine has been expanded to exclude anything but observable natural phenomena from consideration as possible explanations.

It is said that with respect to the scientific method, Occam’s razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the fact that the scientific establishment teaches this practice at all speaks to a system of belief. This belief system rules out any explanation that can not be tested empirically out of hand, and it heavily favors explanations that are purely material.

The Problem

Ordinarily, I would not concern myself with the belief system of anyone else, but in the modern West, many practitioners of science claim to be the sole arbiters of truth, and the words “according to science” are treated with the same reverence as “from the mouth of God.” While there are some who will admit to the limitations of their field, there are others who will make proclamations about matters that are outside the purvue of any science, traditional or modern, such as the existence of God, the soul, or Free Will.

Furthermore, when information obtained through scientific investigation is transmitted to laity, there is no distinction between information obtained through direct observation, deduction, induction, or “inference to the best explanation.” All of these are treated as if they have the same reliability.

The situation becomes more complicated with respect to  those who do not accept the doctrines of the modern scientific establishment. Sensing, correctly, that their beliefs will not be given fair consideration, they often abandon reason altogether. Lay people who do believe in the doctrines of modern scientific establishment will respond by attacking those who do not, without real understanding of what science can tell us and what it can not. These debates within the laity are argued with the fervor of debates surrounding theology.

A current example of such a debate can be found surrounding what is commonly referred to as “the Mandela Effect.” The Mandela Effect got its name from the fact that there are many people who claim to have clear memories that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the late ’80’s or early ’90’s, even though he later became President of South Africa and lived until 2013.  In addition to this rather major discrepancy, there are many minor ones, such as movie quotes and names of children’s books. There are people who believe that these discrepancies have been caused by a change in the timeline or a shift to an alternate universe. There are others that believe that these discrepancies are simply tricks of the mind or false memories.

If one researches this online, it is impossible to get any objective view on the subject. Those who believe it is a change in the timeline claim to have “proof” based on the possibility of alternate timelines as proposed by quantum mechanics, and they point to research in quantum mechanics currently being performed by CERN as a possible cause of the shift in timelines. Those who do not believe that there has been a change in the timeline claim that the theory has been “debunked” because of known and predictable vagaries in our memories.

The reality is that the Mandela Effect has neither been “proved” nor “debunked.” I do not even know how it could be tested. It may be caused by a change in the timeline; it may be false memories. The truth of the matter is that despite the confidence by which people make their claims, no one really knows.

Summary

In this article, I have discussed how, despite claims to the contrary, the teachers and proponents of modern science base their teachings in a system of beliefs. Some of these beliefs are unavoidable and fundamental, like the belief in the existence of our reality, while others go beyond the scope of science’s domain.  I have examined three types of reasoning, deductive, inductive, and abductive, and discussed how the allowance of abductive reasoning reveals a belief system, and how these forms of reasoning tend to be treated as if they were equal when findings based on them are conveyed to the laity . I have also discussed how this practice creates a culture of discord among laity as shown in the controversy surrounding the “Mandela Effect.”

Author: Cynthia Thinnes

I am an Essentialist Astrologer and a housewife. I enjoy studying and discussing matters related to philosophy and religion. I also knit, crochet, and I am beginning to sew. I speak Japanese (although not very well), and I am studying Swedish, Latin, and Classical Greek. In addition to all of this, I am also learning about gardening. はじめまして。元型的な占星術師や主婦です。哲学を勉強しています。趣味は編み物や庭いじりです。下手でも日本語が出来ます。スウェーデン語もラテン語も古典的なギリシャ語を勉強しています。よろしくお願いします。

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