Friday, July 30

Bum Knees, Ockham’s Razor, and Faith


I had an experience recently that, as I realized once I reflected on it at a safe distance, pretty much encapsulates the problems I have with "god-centric" religious faith. Now, the word “religious” is critical, for there are several different types of faith, most of which I have no problem both sharing and justifying. (The adjective "god-centric" is also critical, but keep reading.) In fact, ‘way back in November of 2013, I published a column about the nature of these different types of faith. But now, I am talking specifically about religious faith as encompassing a species of human experience which, almost by definition, is beyond direct observation. Anyway, make of the following what you will …


On Monday, 7 March, I had to pick up two prescriptions. As I walked into the pharmacy, being in something of a hurry, I was fishing my debit card and my pharmacy points-reward card out of my wallet. I dropped both onto the floor. Well, that is a problem to begin with. I have very weak knees because of an ongoing plague of sciatica that began back in the early autumn of 2012. (Thanks to physical therapy and acupuncture, the associated pain has dramatically diminished, but my knees are still weak.) With my weak knees, it is next to impossible to lower myself onto the floor gradually. Instead, kneeling to pick up any dropped item is a kind of semi-controlled fall … except that on this particular occasion, you can remove the “semi-controlled” adjective: I lost my balance as I bent over and just plain fell. Again, because of weak knees, I cannot rise from a lying or kneeling position without grabbing hold of something and hauling my fat arse up: the muscles in my knees are not strong enough to do the job alone.

Problem was that, given the specific place I was lying in the pharmacy, there was nothing around – no store furniture, no merchandise racks, no counters, etc. – substantial enough to support my weight long enough for me use my upper body to haul myself up. No leverage. So I spent some time wallowing on the floor, inventing new curses, hypothesizing novel protuberances for the human organism to evolve and exotic orifices into which to insert same, and extemporaneously reinventing human biology as I writhed around gracelessly like a blind hippopotamus with CNS damage. As I flopped around, I noticed a young-ish African-American man leaving the store and pausing to check traffic. He glanced to his right, then to his left -- which took his peripheral line of sight back inside the pharmacy. He noticed me, reentered the store, asked if he could help me, and extended his arm. I grabbed hold of his forearm and, between the two of us, I was able to rise and stand. He asked if I was OK, I assured him I was, and thanked him. We hugged briefly, he gave me a slap on the back, and we parted. We never even traded names.

Now … two questions:

(1) how might an orthodox, believing, practicing, “mainline” Christian interpret those events?

(2) how do I interpret those events as a leftist, born-again secular, Dawkins-Hitchens-and-Maher-admiring, Trump-Cruz-Republican-evangelical-averse skeptic?

Regarding (1), I cannot speak for how all such Christians, least of all how all such religious people, would interpret that experience. I do not, cannot, speak for them. But I can speak for myself, and I do know how I would have interpreted it, back in the days when such a description applied to me. And I think I was pretty typical back then. Back then, I would have said that God saw my plight, sympathized / empathized with it, and providentially arranged the cause-and-effect of the Universe, at least the cause-and-effect at that particular locale in spacetime, so that I was sent the help I so obviously needed. Granted, this would have been 'way too simplistically mechanistic for me even in my most conservative phase as a Christian. But the point is that, on the orthodox understanding, God is, in some sense however subtle, an Efficient Cause, be the ontology as sophisticated and nuanced as it may. According to orthodox Christian theology, God "does stuff". (Hence the importance of the "god-centric" adjective above.) The very liturgical rhetoric of the church supports this view:  in its liturgical prayers, the church is always asking God to "do stuff," and thanking God for same, both of which would be pointless if God did nothing.


Regarding (2), the "me" I am now would now say that, yes, I fell, and that, yes, the young-ish African-American man helped me because he was a man of at least average, probably greater than average, compassion and sense of being his brother’s keeper. Out of compassion for an old broken-down dude flailing around on the floor, possibly in danger of injuring himself and certainly in danger of humiliating himself, he reentered the store, asked me if I needed help, extended his arm, and helped me stand. He also hugged me, and slapped me on the back, as if to say “Happens to the best of us, man, negative perspiration”. The hug and the back-slap are at least as important as the help up:  he not only restored my posture, he restored my dignity. And he did all that because he himself is good strictly on his own terms. I need no other framework to use in reflecting on this incident. What you see is what you get. No metaphysics needed.

Simple question ... Why?

That is, why do some / many people invoke God as a way of  "framing" my encounter "vertically" with the young African-American man, whereas other people see the same incident in purely "horizontal" terms?  I would argue now that at least part of the answer lies in different estimates of the relevance of Ockham's Razor. William of Ockham was an early-14th-century nominalist theologian who was suspicious of (what he regarded as) metaphysical flights of fancy in, e.g., eucharistic theology. We can know only what happens "horizontally" and any Thomistic account of what happens "vertically" behind the scenes is sheer groundless speculation. We can know only what happens "phenomenologically", and for all practical purposes, there is no "behind" or "within" or "beyond". Hence Ockham's admonition to not multiply explanations unnecessarily:  Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate or "Plurality should not be posited without necessity".


I have come to believe that the applicability Ockham's Razor depends on two factors:  (1) what we are "shaving" with Ockham's Razor, i.e., what we propose to do with it -- scientific explanation or non-scientific value judgments -- and (2) the temperament of the person wielding the Razor. I dealt with (1) in the previous column. But since publishing that, I have come to think (2), the issue of temperament, is at least equally important. Furthermore, temperament can change. The Christian "me" believed that acts of compassion and charity were a "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" toward a "vertical" -- "god-centric" -- context. The present "me" believes that, beyond the "human-centric" / "horizontal" frame, there is simply nothing more to understand ... at least nothing accessible to human beings. Anything more than the "horizontal" gets shaved away by Brother Ockham's Razor.  For all I know, God may be playing ping-pong with quantum black holes at the very margin of the observable universe, but if I have no reason or need to infer such, the "ping-pong" construct is superfluous. Ditto moral impulses. I know human beings have them:  I just conspicuously benefited from one such. More than that?  Circumstance and life-experience, for better or for worse, weaned me away. There may be more, but I do not -- any longer -- need more.

Of course, I still need the pragmatic, "so-far-so-good" kind of faith in, e.g., the consistency of math, the laws of nature, the reliability of cause-and-effect, etc. But, for better or for worse, I no longer need to believe in One Who Is In Charge, the Transcendent Signifier. In that sense, I no longer need "god-centric" religious faith: the "horizontal" suffices.

Whether that is good or bad, I invite you to decide.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

"Triumph of Faith over Idolatry" by Jean-Baptiste Theodon:  Public domain
Bad knee:  Tim 1965 -- Own work -- CC BY-SA 3.0
"Leap of Faith" image:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Straight razor: Horst.Burkhardt ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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