Monday, March 21, 2005

Evolution and Okham's Razor

What do you know about evolutionary theory? Or,
maybe there are two questions here: what do you
think you know, and what do you actually know?

In reality, if people are honest about the matter
- and quite irrespective of whether they believe
in evolution or they are opposed to it - most
individuals probably would have to acknowledge
that they know almost nothing at all about the
actual nuts and bolts of the issues at the heart
of evolutionary theory. Their belief concerning
this matter - whatever the character of that
belief may be - is, for the most part, rooted in
two sources: (1) a largely unexamined acceptance
of the opinion of others; (2) the extent to which
evolutionary theory makes continuing on with the
rest of their philosophical or religious perspective
easier or more difficult.

In addition, the controversy surrounding
evolutionary theory has been plagued by the
fact that most of the advocates for various
sides of this issue have been conducting the
discussion on the wrong level of engagement.
More specifically, people have been arguing
mostly in terms of the evidence of paleobiology,
or the anatomic/fossilized data that has been
drawn from zoological and botanical studies,
and, unfortunately, the matter cannot be settled,
one way or the other, with any degree of certitude
when approached in this manner.

On this level of discussion, one, at best, can
obtain data which is either consistent with, or
raises problems for, evolutionary theory. However,
there is no smoking gun (either for or against) to
be found - just self-serving and heated rhetoric
which is cast in the garments of apparent rigor.

Furthermore, contrary to what many people believe,
Darwin has nothing at all to say about either the
origins of species or the origins of life in general.
The entire argument in his universally known, but
largely unread, book is not about the origin of
species but about the plausibility of a form of
argument which alludes to such a possibility
without ever spelling out the mechanism.

Natural selection acts on what is. It presupposes
what is.

Natural selection does not cause what is, but,
rather, helps determine which aspects of what is
will continue to be. Natural selection introduces
nothing new into the evolutionary picture, but
only says something about the aspects of that
picture that are most consonant with the existing
dynamic of interacting natural forces.

Therefore, the cause of that which natural
selection comes to act upon still stands in need
of an explanation. You cannot use natural selection
as an explanation for that which natural explanation
clearly presupposes without becoming entangled in
completely circular thinking, and this certainly
does not constitute an explanation of any kind.

Moreover, the idea of the accumulation of small
variations does not really account for either
the origins of life in general, or for the
origins of the different biological blueprints,
so to speak, on which the notion of species
difference is based. Since variation presupposes
that which is capable of such variation, what
needs to be explained is the origins of the
capacity for variation.

Genetics is not the science which provides an
account of the story of the origins of this
capacity. Rather, genetics is merely the science
which delineates how such a capacity operates
once it has arisen.

Only with the advent of modern molecular and
cellular biology have we finally come into
contact with the sort of information which
allows one to make insightful judgements
about the plausibility of evolutionary theory
as an adequate account for the origins of life
on Earth. When one integrates the disciplines
of molecular and cellular biology with data
derived from geology, hydrology, meteorology,
and cosmology - along with what has been
learned about organic and inorganic chemistry
- then, one is in a position to work toward an
informed understanding concerning the questions
which surround and permeate the possibility of
whether the modern neo-Darwinian theory of
evolution offers an acceptable paradigm through
which to establish defensible explanations
concerning origin of life issues.

With respect to the foregoing comments, one might
wish to ask something along the following lines:
"Isn't one obligated to defer to long- standing
guidelines, like Ockham's razor, when engaging
issues such as the debate between evolutionists
and creationists, and, if so, doesn't this mean
that one should accept evolution as being the
simpler of the two accounts concerning origins?"

For those who may be unfamiliar with the idea of
Ockham's razor -- which, sometimes, is referred to
as the principle of parsimony -- this precept (first
stated by William of Ockham in the 13-14th century)
maintains, in effect, that: assumptions, terms, and
concepts should not be multiplied beyond necessity.
One of the problems facing this principle is that
we cannot always be sure by what is entailed when
the phrase: "beyond necessity" is used.

Theories are, by nature, projections onto a body
of data, and, in the process, theories seek to
make coherent sense of such data. Unfortunately,
the fit between the form of a theory and the
structural character of a given data set is,
usually, not precise since there tend to be both
empirical and logical lacunae in a theory which
leave a variety of facets of the data unexplained
or associated with questions that cannot be
adequately addressed by the theory - that is,
so-called anomalous results, facts, or data.

In addition, over time (both short and long term),
assumptions, vocabulary, and concepts all change,
and, among other things, this makes comparisons
between even similar, scientific theories rather
difficult, let alone between relatively different
approaches to a given body of data such as is the
case in relation to evolutionary and creationist
accounts of the origins of life on Earth. Consequently,
trying to determine which of two theories has, or has
not, multiplied terms, concepts, or assumptions 'beyond
necessity' is a complex problem, and, often times, an
issue that cannot be easily, if at all, resolved.

Furthermore, implicit in the idea of 'beyond
necessity' is the assumption that, in any given
instance of phenomena, we know what is going on
and, therefore, we know what is, and is not,
necessary as far as description, understanding,
and explanation are concerned in such cases. In
truth, we rarely are in a position to be able to
ascertain the boundary conditions of necessity
with respect to that which is to be treated as
requisite - i.e., necessary - terms, conditions,
and assumptions.

Now, the 'reality' of 'things' is all there
is. And, certainly, no theory should impose
something on to 'reality' which does not belong
there and, as such, would be 'beyond necessity'.

However, there is nothing which obligates one to accept
any given application of Ockham's razor as an expression
of universal truth. Ockham's razor is a working principle
that, loosely speaking, indicates there is a certain
desirable symmetry in having our understanding exhibit
congruence - which is itself an ambiguous idea - with the
'data' to which our experiential engagement of reality
gives rise. Nevertheless, simply because a theory claims
to give expression to this principle, this does not,
automatically, mean the principle in question has been
served - indeed, a lot of things have been claimed in
the name of Ockham's razor, and not all of these claims
are necessarily legitimate expressions of this principle
in action.

For instance, to work from the assumption of randomness
is not necessarily any more parsimonious than to work
from an assumption of Divine design. In fact, one can
never prove anything to be a function of random events
since there always could be some unknown algorithm which
is capable of generating a given structure that, heretofore,
has been assumed to be an expression of random phenomena.

Alternatively, there is no inherent contradiction in
proposing that evolution does occur, and, yet, simultaneously,
argue that such evolutionary transformations give expression
to Divine design. There has been more than one theistically
oriented thinker who has taken this sort of stance (e.g.,
deChardin and Matthew Fox) - and, one can note this fact
quite apart from the matter of the ultimate tenability of
these particular theories.

One of the crucial issues - a primary 'sticking'
point, as it were - underlying the evolutionist
versus creationist debate turns on whether biological
origins and/or change is, or is not, a function of
purely random events, or, considered from a slightly
different perspective, is a function of events
that may be determinate but are, in some sense,
self-contained and, consequently, quite independent
of any need to invoke a theistic dimension to either
account for such processes, or to set them in motion,
or to regulate them.

If there is no God, then, assuming a Deity in order
to account for phenomena which are 'purely' natural
is, according to this way of thinking, a violation
of Ockham's razor. On the other hand, if there is a
God, and God created the physical universe, then,
assuming a purely physical account (whether of a
random, or a determinate, but non-linear kind) to
explain phenomena that, ultimately, are rooted in
Divine dynamics of creation is also a violation of
Ockham's razor, for it has construed things in a
way which takes them 'beyond necessity' --
necessity being established by reality, not

Even if one were to demonstrate there were a set
of physical, chemical, biological, and thermodynamical
laws which were capable of adequately describing and
explaining the origins of life on Earth, such a set of
laws, in and of itself, does not preclude the possibility
that a Deity or Supreme Being has authored, generated and
established those laws. In other words, the existence of
a complete scientific theory concerning the origins of
life cannot be used as grounds for invoking Ockham's
razor in order to disallow the possibility that the
existence of those laws is due to Divine activity. This
is so because the idea of Divine creation could be seen
to be fully consistent with such a set of laws and,
therefore, the former cannot be either empirically or
logically precluded by the presence of the latter laws.

The matter is rationally indeterminate as it stands.
And, Ockham's razor is incapable of deciding the issue
because what is 'beyond necessity' cannot be settled by
a philosophical or methodological principle that cannot,
by itself, determine the nature of 'necessity', and,
thereby, establish a baseline against which 'beyond' can
be measured in any reliable, undeniable fashion.

Aside from what has been said above, there is
a further difficulty with the use of Ockham's razor.
More specifically, this principle tends to presuppose
that the idea of what constitutes 'necessity' is
something which is capable of being resolved through
rational means - in other words, use of this principle
tends to have a rationalistic bias to it ... or, at
least, this is how the principle tends to have been
employed down through the years, and, moreover, such
a bias reflects the phiosophical orientation of its
'inventor', William of Ockham, who was a proponent of
scholasticism - a form of thinking that was deeply
influenced by the logic and metaphysics of Aristotle.

If, however, the nature of reality is such that it
is not capable of being reduced to, or completely
circumscribed by, rationalistic methods, then, one
has to question the meaning and value of bringing
Ockham's razor into the discussion. One cannot assume
one's conclusions, and through one's desire for
'rational' accounts of the universe, demand that
reality fit into one's rationalistic molds.

One must take 'reality', whatever this might be,
on its own terms - as best one can. Maybe, some
levels of 'what is' can be understood through
rational modalities - as far as the terms,
assumptions, and concpets of such modalities go
-- and that these modalities are, more or less,
accurate, or useful, ways of talking about such
phenomena - and, indeed, the successes of science,
mathematics, and technology are consistent with
this sort of perspective.

On the other hand, there may be some dimensions
of 'what is' that fall beyond the horizons of
rational discourse -- not because such realms are
irrational, but because they supercede the limitations
inherent in the capacity of reason to grasp the nature
of 'what is' within such dimensions of Being. If so,
then, to invoke rational principles to explain what
is supra-rational is a violation of the spirit of
Ockham's razor even though, for the most part, this,
usually, has not been part of the mind-set underlying
use of this philosophical principle.

For a much more technical discussion of the origins of
life issue, take a look at:

Evolution on Trial

Anab Whitehouse


Anonymous said...

Say wha..????

Anonymous said...

Rather than go through the either or, there has been a view presented of there Being a Dark Cloud or Mist occupying spaceless and undefined regions of Dimensionless Reality. This Cloud or Mist [al Ama]stirred and became Conscious of him/herSelf over undisclosed time as it did not exists so therefore it was through an unperiod or timelessness. Having become Conscious IT wished to be Known and Created creation as a Reflection of him/herSelf to him/herSelf. As an Obligation IT incurred for Creating creation ... M. ibn al Arabi had much to say about this and though very difficult to discern and understand some find it illustrative of what Anab is discussing here and of course there are many ways of describing what one sees, as every view is valid, though usually incomplete in some way as only the Presence who had the Initial Wish and the Initial Impulse to Make everything Be is the very Presence Who Understands Everything in its most minute nuance and when appropriate He Reveals some details of him/herSelf to those who understand such ideas. Once written down it sometimes becomes appropiated by those who like to study phenomena and thus various renditions of Reality come into being. In conclusion there is only One Reality and outside of itSelf many views of it, while inside or Immersed in its Presence there is but the View from Within from the All Encompassing View of Oneness of Being and Beyond and Beyond the Beyond..

Anonymous said...

Say wha . . . ????