Jan 15, 2023
“The first known application of Occam’s Razor occurred 50,000 years ago, not in 14th century England as is generally supposed.”
From the earliest times, human beings have wondered about the world around them. Perhaps fascination with the motion of heavenly bodies is what kicked us off. Here was an almost impossibly diverse set of phenomena that could be studied safely and dispassionately from the mouth of one’s cave. The cosmic dance has all the elements necessary for ‘scientific’ inquiry: the relatively fixed background (stars) serves as a measuring device, the periodic motion of sun, moon and planets constitutes a clock. In this context we can identify, measure and now sometimes even predict ‘one-off events’ such as meteor showers and comet fly-bys.
Even better, the heavens can be studied without any appreciable interaction between observer and observed. It is a paradigm for ‘objective inquiry’. Human beings are funny; we crave objectivity but when we find it, we are terrified. A world that engages with us is dangerous, but not nearly as frightening as a world that doesn’t. Whispers in the corner rarely betoken good.
Today we are baffled by the interactivity of observer and observed in quantum mechanics, but interactivity is the nature of things. What’s truly baffling is the motions of bodies that can be painstakingly recorded but that we cannot impact in any way and that do not appear to impact us. This situation is intolerable. Impotence is more terrifying than engagement. Engagement, even in situations of extreme danger, gives us a measure of, or at least the illusion of, control. I’d rather wrestle with a lion than listen to its ominous roar in the night.
It is said that nature abhors a vacuum; so do we! And is there a better model of ‘vacuum’ than ‘outer space’? So, the first known application of Occam’s Razor occurred 50,000 years ago, not in 14th century England as is generally supposed. Nature could not be so wasteful as to perform this incredible cosmic dance each night with no effect. It must have a purpose, that purpose must include us as an end, and therefore the ‘motion of the heavens’ must impact our terrestrial lives in some perceptible and significant way. Et voilà, proto-astronomy becomes astrology!
Simultaneously, we humans were presumably becoming conscious of our identity as somehow distinct from the physical world around us. As before, the disconnect was intolerable. Et voilà encore, astrology becomes mythology! There must be a layer of ‘intentional being’ that mediates our interaction with our environment. What better solution than the gods! These entities have a foot in both worlds. They are part human, part ‘nature’: they are humanesque representations of natural processes (e.g., Poseidon and the Sea). The pagan pantheon is ready-made to explain our interaction with our world.
Could our intellectual history have evolved differently? Probably not. It was not until the 20th century CE that anyone fully explored the implications of the alternative, i.e., that we confront ‘the external world’ directly, without the cloud cover of Mount Olympus. It was not pretty, but Jean-Paul Sartre chronicled that experience in his aptly named 1938 novel, Nausea. To summarize, the experience was unbearable and the situation intolerable. We need ‘the gods’ if we are to stay sane.
What’s the use of ‘mediating gods’ unless those gods give us some influence over the world they mediate? Influence, not control. If we could control the world, we wouldn’t need the gods, or if we did, they would be like the knobs that we pull to get a candy bar out of a hospital vending machine at 2 in the morning. Instead, we influence the gods, and the gods in turn influence events in our world.
But how does one go about influencing the gods? Today we might pray, but this would have been much too ‘cerebral’ for our ancestors. They had no concept of a purely mental event. If the gods were to be propitiated, it must be via a physical process. There was, as yet, no concept of benevolence, so we must be willing to give if we hope to get.
How much do you want a good hunting/gathering season? How much are you willing to give to get it? A pile of gathered nuts? A freshly killed antelope? Or your firstborn child?
Gradually, the interaction of human beings with spirits became regularized as ritual. Liturgy is technology, and reliance on technology assumes some degree of regularity in the external world; and so ritual morphed into proto-science and proto-theology. Overtime, our understanding of the external world deepened and ultimately science, theology, and philosophy emerged as distinct, albeit related and overlapping, methods of inquiry and avenues of discovery.
Once we liberated the genie from its lamp, ‘knowledge’ exploded along all three axes; but it didn’t change its basic character. It was and still is a road map through the minefields of life. In much of the world, monotheism replaced polytheism, logic replaced speculation, and experiment replaced observation. But still the basic premise: the world must be ‘systematic’ if it supports technology that enables us to exert a modicum of influence over the course of events.
What are the qualities that make a world systematic? First, the progression of events must follow a trajectory that is consistent with what each epoch knows as ‘reason’. That may be cause and effect or habit or like from like or just plain ole common sense. Whatever, future events must feel compatible with past events.
Events, if they really are ‘events’, should be repeatable under comparable conditions; otherwise, they are not ‘events’ at all but miracles. When things appear to happen by chance, we can still find confirmation for our model by sublimating ‘chance’ to the laws of probability.
Bottom line, every event should instantiate and confirm our models. Happenings that seem to fall outside that ‘big ontological tent’ are dealt with harshly in one of several ways:
(1) We deny that the event occurred. We deny the evidence of our senses and trust instead the presuppositions of reason. After all, if we can’t repeat what happened, how do we know it really happened in the first place?
(2) We deny that what happened was an ‘event’. We assume it must just be an anomalous part of a larger ‘happening’ that does instantiate and confirm our model and (therefore?) does constitute an event.
(3) We accept that what happened was an event, and we admit that it does not fit into any of our presupposed schema. However, we attribute this disconnect to our ignorance rather than to the event itself. We assume that our understanding of the world will grow and eventually encompass all seemingly errant happenings.
(4) We attribute the event to something ‘ineffable’ – e.g., magic, an extra-terrestrial intelligence, or spiritual agency.
(5) We don’t see the ‘event’ at all. What event? What happened? I didn’t see anything, did you?
A model, by definition, abstracts from reality and so simplifies reality. The models we have today, especially in science, are extremely accurate…as far as they go. We have done a great job of identifying life’s regularities and explaining them in terms of other regularities. We don’t let ourselves get overly concerned by the fact that our various models don’t mesh; we’ll figure that out somewhere down the road.
Most events can be made to appear reasonable. Those that can’t, we can marginalize as random (see above). But there is another aspect of life that this dichotomy totally ignores: Particularity.
Life is not all random or regular. There is another whole class of events that falls outside this classification scheme. These events are not obscure; they do not take place only in Tibet. In fact, you could argue that events in this third class, the class of particular events, are really the substructure of reality from which the concepts of regular and random are abstracted.
Stochastic (one-off) events are not miracles. They are entirely consistent with the mainstream tenets of science, philosophy, and theology; but neither can they be predicted nor exhaustively described. They have no identifiable cause, but they may have innumerable verifiable consequences. Let me get specific!
Good examples of particularity come from the world of genetics. By 1,500 BCE, Homo sapiens had been around for at least 50,000 years and the human population was somewhere between 25,000,000 and 50,000,000. Many of these folks contributed DNA to our current gene pool. That said, every one of us living today contains DNA from one single human couple (so-called ‘Adam and Eve’) who lived just 3,500 years ago (not 5,500 years ago as in Jewish tradition).
‘Adam and Eve’, unremarkable fellow-travelers in some caravan, most likely in Africa (not Mesopotamia), launched a cascade of events that materially affects every single human being alive today. So, same old story: boy meets girl, makes baby; what’s the big deal?
Well, what if that exact ‘Adam’ had never met this exact ‘Eve’? What if they had never made love? Or produced live offspring? I could go on…and on. The event we’re calling ‘Adam and Eve’ is the product of innumerable past events and a contributor to innumerable future events. ‘Adam and Eve’ have revealed a world structure that is an hourglass shaped funnel: The sum of innumerable past events accounts for (but does not in any way determine) a particular event (e.g., ‘Adam and Eve’) which in turn influences (but in no way determines) innumerable future events.
One-off ‘stochastic’ events can often appear to have virtually no consequences, and sometimes that may, in fact, be the case. But other times the consequences may just be long delayed; or they may be monumental and immediate. For example, every single human being on the face of the earth today would have a slightly different genetic code than they do now had it not been for ‘Adam and Eve’. How different would such a world be? Who knows? Who could possibly ever know? Things are not quite as systematic as we had hoped.
Now consider this: What if every event is actually the neck, the focal point, of its own funnel? What if the collective past (a multiplicity) is feeding innumerable current events simultaneously, each of which in turn is projecting that collective past, uniquely modified by the pivotal event itself, into a collective future?
Interestingly, 20th century British Philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, presented just such a model in his magnum opus, Process and Reality. If Whitehead is right, what happens to our reason and random model of reality?
The Intellectual History of the Western World, at least since 50,000 BCE, can be characterized as the steady advance of models suggested by and consistent with the hypothesis of system. Obviously, these models work. They have unleashed a torrent of economic activity and technological development.
Well and good, but what if it turns out that reality has a much deeper structure, not appreciated by our models? What if it turns out that this deeper structure is incompatible with the hypothesis of system? Are we back to square one? How will we live with the lion’s roar now? How will we face the existential abyss? How will we deal with death? How will we propitiate nature to do our bidding?
Must we revert to child sacrifice? Or have we ‘grown up’ to where we can accept the fact that we have no ultimate control over events? I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer: “Accept the things I cannot change…change the things I can…know the difference.” We are all alcoholics. We may not all crave booze, but almost all of us crave control. We come by it naturally; it’s in our genes!
Image: William of Ockham, from a stained glass window at a church in Surrey.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.