it is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer (on occam’s razor, part 1: reverend nemu and “science revealed”)

“If you’ve rejected traditional religion (or were never religious to start), you may be asking, Is that all there is? It’s liberating to recognize that supernatural beings are human creations, that there are no such things as spirit or transcendence, that people are undesigned, unintended, and responsible for themselves.

For many, mere atheism (the absence of belief in gods and the supernatural) or agnosticism (the view that such questions cannot be answered) aren’t enough.

Atheism and agnosticism are silent on larger questions of values and meaning. If Meaning in life is not ordained from on high, what small-‘m’ meanings can we work out among ourselves?

If eternal life is an illusion, how can we make the most of our only lives?

As social beings sharing a godless world, how should we coexist?

For the questions that remain unanswered after we’ve cleared our minds of gods and souls and spirits, many atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and freethinkers turn to secular humanism.”

This brief piece is titled “Curious about Secular Humanism?” and is the introduction to the website for the Council for Secular Humanism. This posting is the first of three parts sharing the parenthetical subtitle “on occam’s razor” (explained below). The third part devotes more attention to the rising tide of “secular humanism,” especially in the Western nations. The three parts are loosely connected.

In this life of mine—soon entering its 63rd year of experience thought dream yearning regret contemplation and most of all, often inexplicable stupidity—I spend almost no time contemplating God, the hereafter, Heaven and Hell, religion (except the hypocrisy, sins, and horrors of many organized religions), etc.

This is not to say that I have no beliefs. Nor is it to say that I have not had experiences that are best described as either religious or mystical, at least one of which I will touch on later. . .

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Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity

“Back in the 14th century, [Brother William of Ockham Abbey] proposed that a question be answered with the simplest explanation possible. This is often formally paraphrased as entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’).”

“What is knowledge anyway? It is not a physical thing; but neither is it a metaphysical ideal, like a perfect circle that can never be drawn, a mathematical constant with an infinite decimal tail, or a goddess of sublime beauty who never ages. Knowledge, eventually, relates to nothing but itself, and leads nowhere but back to itself:

What is sugar? A sweet, white, crystalline substance.

What does white look like? Like snow and sugar lumps.

What does sweet taste like? Like sugar.

We are none the wiser until we know sugar intimately, until our tongues taste it and our teeth fall out, after which wordy descriptions are redundant. The same is true for any proposition one can make. In the final analysis, it refers to an experience that reveals the ‘suchness’ of a thing. The revelation might be our own, or it might be someone else’s, in which case we place our faith in their judgement. Otherwise, we must admit our ignorance.”

“Knowledge is a bubbling cauldron of meaning, suspended over the abyss on invisible strands of nothingness. Knowledge always boils down to nothing—which is not a problem in itself, but we invariably confuse subjective knowledge for objective reality. We think we have worked something out, so we stop thinking about it, and forget that the map is not the territory, and the territory is not terra firma. . . .

Theories are tools, not truths. Ockham preferred the simplest tool for the job, and partly thanks to him we have a fantastic toolbox; but the raw material of life is something different.

To cross the abyss to the infinite, knowledge must be left behind

“Etymologically speaking, philosophy is the love (philo) of Sophia, the goddess of intimate knowledge. Hers is the knowledge which comes from inspiration, not from books. Philosophy should be like making love to a goddess, but the word has come to refer to a set of beliefs used to judge the world and organize your life. . . .

Think what thou wilt; but too often we get lost in our definitions and identifications, and we forget the lovely Sophia.

Philosophy liberates.

‘A’ philosophy binds.

‘A’ philosophy ultimately fails in the real world.”

“Science grows along the wound made by Ockham’s Razor, but truly revolutionary ideas rarely result from beavering away in labs, tapping at computers and totting up tables. Revelation comes when the rational mind is bypassed in dreams, trances and sudden insights, as we will see in the following chapter. The rational mind wields the razor to choose between models, but this is secondary to the creative, non-rational processes of the unconscious, which generate the models in the first place.”

“Ignorance is a good start, but if knowledge is empty and nothing we can say about the world is true, what are we to believe in? Ockham believed in God, and considered any other rigidly held belief to be an obstacle to His grace. Today’s seekers are more skeptical, and with good reason. God and the devil have been used as umbrella terms to explain things beyond our ken, as shields against uncertainty.”

“For Gnostics, there was and is more to God than the unknown: the divine can be known directly through a process of gnosis, through dreams, insights, trance and sudden revelation. Church fathers have militated against such ideas since the third century, and continue to insist that God still moves in zones beyond our understanding.”

“Meanwhile the established faiths have fallen on hard times, rent by schisms and shamed by child-molesters. For the spiritually minded, Buddhism offers superior techniques, Taoism funnier stories, and Rasta funkier bass-lines, outcompeting pallid priests, reactionary imams, wheeler-dealer Brahmins and nitpicking rabbis who commit the ultimate blasphemy of making God boring.” 

“Many bemoan the loss of faith and morality, but in some ways we are closer to God today than ever before. A mind full of cobwebs and mumbo-jumbo is no good to anyone; but with razor in hand, the seeker is free to follow ideas wherever they wander, beyond the puke and the pretzels, beyond the bagels, and eventually beyond the confines of the beer tent.”

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The passages above were taken from an article titled “The Blunt Edge of Ockham’s Razor” excerpted from the book Science Revealed– Part 1 Of The Nemu’s End Series by the Reverend Nemu. I was turned onto this piece (and this book) through a newsletter from Psychedelic Press UK, the publishers of the book (January 2014). 

Editorially, emphasis was added throughout, the Americanization of certain words was done, and certain paragraphs were abridged. The original article/chapter is more than 4,600 words in length; the excerpts above number just over 700. So, there is LOTS more to read of this chapter, so if this interests you—and how can it not?—then click on over to the PPUK site and read on!

Occam’s Razor has been formalized in ontology (defined as “a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being” or “a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence” – Merriam-Webster)Ontological parsimony can be defined . . . [as] a “rule of thumb which obliges us to favor theories or hypotheses that make the fewest unwarranted, or ad hoc, assumptions about the data from which they are derived.” (Wikipedia)

Finally, the title of this piece—“it is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer” (Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora)—is a quote from Brother William’s Summa Totius Logicae . . .

Comments, suggestions, additions, and arguments welcome!