Creationists Dull Occam's Razor
Dr. Kevin R. Henke
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Occam's (also called Ockham's) razor is a useful, but not infallible, technique that has widespread applications in science and other disciplines. As popularly used today, Occam's razor states that when considering a variety of explanations for a malfunctioning car, a sick patient, a crime, the extinction of the dinosaurs, the birth of a star, or other phenomena, the best hypotheses are "simple" and use a minimum number of assumptions based on natural processes. The following web sites provide some background information on the development of Occam's razor and several of its variations:
The Skeptic's Dictionary
The principle is named after William Ockham (Occam in Latin), a medieval English monk and philosopher. Although Occam used various aspects of the principle, later philosophers actually formalized the procedure and named it after him. Because current definitions and variations of Occam's razor are not entirely consistent with Occam's original intentions, some individuals prefer to use the terms "Principle of Parsimony" or "Principle of Simplicity" when referring to Occam's razor.
Rather than using one of the current legitimate definitions of Occam's razor, young-Earth creationist (YEC) Vardiman (2000, p. 10) advocates the following outdated and unworkable version:
"A general principle commonly used in science was discussed and agreed upon for application to our research, that of Occam's razor. This is the approach to truth that says the simplest, most elegant explanation for an observed phenomenon which appeals to the fewest miracles is considered to be the most-likely solution." [my emphasis]
Whereas modern definitions of Occam's razor seek to minimize natural assumptions, the YEC antiquated version seeks to simply minimize the number of miracles. Now, how is the YEC version even useable? For example, what garage mechanic or police detective would use this outdated form of Occam's razor? That is, how many car mechanics and forensic scientists would even consider the possibility that demons or other supernatural forces are responsible for stalled cars and murder victims? If only natural hypotheses are used to explain illnesses, murders, broken cars and the origins of clouds, why should the formation of a rock be any different?
Because YECs are addicted to miracles to prop up their hopeless schemes, it's not surprising that they use an inappropriate definition of Occam's razor to give a false air of legitimacy to their props. But why should their religion be given a special exemption from the prohibition of using miracles to fudge solutions to scientific problems? Why does their religion deserve special status and admission into the scientific method? Vardiman (2000, p. 10) begs the question when he states:
"Use of this principle [Occam's razor] by the RATE group does not imply that we eliminate the occurrence of miracles, but rather, we minimize the number of miracles and attempt to relate them to supernatural events specifically mentioned in the Scriptures."
How can an unproven belief in "scriptures" be a reliable and objective guide on when to invoke miracles and when to avoid them? Who decides what is the minimal number of miracles? Who can justify which miracles are "biblical-enough" to be appropriate for scientific research and which are not? For example, YECs Kofahl (1977) and Johnson (1986) admit that miracles are probably needed to prop up the "pre-Flood vapor canopy" of Genesis 1:7, but YECs Brown (1995, p. 174-179) and Whitelaw (1983) reject the existence of the canopy on scientific grounds and from reading the same Bible. Also, what happens when natural scientific explanations eliminate the need to invoke miracles? For example, through chemistry, astronomy and physics, scientists provide a coherent natural explanation for the ancient origins of meteorites without invoking the supernatural (see Faure, 1998, p. 105-106). The origin and relative concentrations of elements in the Solar System are also beautifully explained through the Big Bang and stellar fusion (Faure, 1998, chapter 2; Delsemme, 1999, chapter 3). Why invoke Genesis miracles to explain the existence of oxygen or iron when natural stars can easily do the job?
Vardiman (2000) and other YECs also assume that the Bible is infallible, but where is the objective evidence for biblical infallibility? Who defines what is "scripture"? How do we know that the Bible is more inspired by God than the Vedas, Koran or Book of Mormon? Why should we believe any of the "supernatural events" mentioned in the "scriptures" of the Mormons, Hindus, Jews, Islamics, Christians, or any other religious groups? Why should any one "scripture" have precedence over natural investigations or other people's "scriptures"? Certainly, there are countless Web sites and books written by YEC propagandists to proclaim the "inerrancy" and "infallibility" of the Bible, but they utterly fail to provide any conclusive and satisfactory answers to any of these questions. Clearly, the evidence for the biological evolution of molluscs is infinitely superior to any fables about talking snakes and forbidden fruit.
In contrast to the YEC approach to "science," theistic evolutionists, and probably even Old-Earth creation scientists, recognize that it is futile and premature to invoke ad hoc miracles to fill in the knowledge gaps in their research. Scientists certainly restrict their interpretations to natural processes, which has been a fruitful approach in solving crimes, finding ore deposits, curing diseases, navigating to the Moon and other countless endeavors. In contrast, YECs have chained themselves to sinking Biblical doctrines that have not provided any reliable insights into present or past events in nature, located any petroleum reserves or cured any diseases.
Because YECs are so certain that their Bible interpretations are the "inspired Truth," NO amount of contrary information, no matter how overwhelming, will convince them otherwise. Dogma is a slippery and unfulfilling slime that cannot be tested and falsified. Dogma can never be held accountable for its claims. In contrast, under science, hypotheses undergo "survival of the fittest." If hypotheses don't work or fail, they die and improved hypotheses replace them. Science grows and improves. Young-Earth creationism is dogmatic and stagnant. Worst of all, YECs are proud of their stagnation, see "Science" or the Bible.
Using his unusable definition of Occam's razor, Vardiman (2000, p. 10) makes an additional statement, which is also unnecessary and unproven:
"This principle [of Occam's razor] is based on the concept that God designs systems to operate in accordance with efficiency, order, and beauty."
However, Vardiman is again making several flawed assumptions that are not justified by science or sound philosophy. First, he assumes that one creator exists, not many or none. Furthermore, this creator is the god of the Bible and not another god. Of course, science cannot prove Judeo-Christianity, other brands of monotheism, polytheism or even atheism. In addition, Vardiman assumes that nature was designed to be efficient, orderly and beautiful. However, nature is often not efficient, orderly, and beautiful, but ugly, wasteful, and bloody. When faced with the ugliness of nature, YECs simply argue that nature has "fallen." However, from a philosophical or theological point of view, does it really make sense that any wise god would curse the Earth, including us, and even cause stars to supernova in distant galaxies just because Adam and Eve ate the wrong piece of fruit? Why should a just god be mad at cows, chickens, trees, ants, stars, birds and us just because two of our ancestors supposedly listened to a talking snake and ate a wrong piece of fruit? If the "Fall" is not a myth, why did a good god allow this event to infect all of creation and kill off the dinosaurs and the trilobites? Perhaps, if the RATE committee used a modern and functional form of Occam's razor, they would quickly realize that the "Fall" is an inadequate explanation for the reality of the Universe. This realization would quickly expose the YEC "miracle and myth" approach to science as an impotent dead end.
Brown Jr., Walter T., 1995, In the Beginning..., 6th general edition, Center for Scientific Creation, Phoenix, AZ.
Delsemme, A., 1999, Our Cosmic Origins: From the Big Bang to the Emergence of Life and Intelligence, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain.
Faure, G., 1998, Principles and Applications of Geochemistry, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458.
Humphreys, D.R., 2000, "Accelerated Nuclear Decay: A Viable Hypothesis?" in Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, L. Vardiman, A.A. Snelling and E.F. Chaffin (eds.), Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon and Creation Research Society, St. Joseph, Mo.
Johnson, Gary L., "Global Heat Balance with a Liquid Water and Ice Canopy," Creation Research Society Quarterly, vol. 23, September, 1986, p. 54-61.
Kofahl, Robert E., "Could the Flood Waters have Come from a Canopy or Extraterrestrial Source?," Creation Research Society Quarterly, vol. 13, March 1977, p. 202-206.
Vardiman, L., 2000, "Introduction," in Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, L. Vardiman, A.A. Snelling and E.F. Chaffin (eds.), Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon and Creation Research Society, St. Joseph, Mo.
Whitelaw, Robert L., 1983, "The Fountains of the Deep, and the Windows of Heaven," in Science at the Crossroads: Observation or Speculation?, papers of the 1983 National Creation Conference, Bible-Science Association and Twin Cities Creation-Science Association, Minneapolis, MN, p. 95f.