Meanings, mechanisms, and Ockham's razor

Ted Davis (
Mon, 06 Apr 1998 11:25:15 -0400

Lots of opinions have been aired by bulletin board regulars and provocative
irregulars such as Will Provine, Eugenie Scott, and others, concerning
whether or not evolution "explains everything." It has long seemed to me to
be the type of issue to which Ockham's razor could be applied, as a way of
clarifying what is really at stake.

If we assume, as Will and his school do, that mechanistic science really
does explain everything (if I may use those words), and that human freedom
is an illusion (Will certainly says this) and love, etc is nothing more than
certain biochemical interactions (I don't know if Will said this, but some
other people say equivalent things); then we could apply Ockham's razor and
rule out "higher" explanations in terms of meaning and purpose, since there
is no need for them at the only level that counts, and these would be

If we assume as I do (and many on this board do) that meaning and purpose
are not eliminated by mechanistic explantions, then we are saying in effect
that Ockham's razor does not rule these out, because they are NECESSARY for
some reason. I think they are necessary because I think our natures
transcend the purely material, just as minds transcend brains while being
dependent on them. I'm not philosophically sophisticated so I'll beg off
trying to defend that more formally; I know others are capable, and I'll
leave it to them. But I'll offer an example to suggest that I'm correct:
the modern notion of political freedom, with which (interestingly) the late
Sir Karl Popper believed that scientific progress ultimately is linked.
It's really very modern, except primitive forms in ancient Asia minor; at
any rate, it surely isn't part of our history as a species to have this type
of organization. Yet we evolved to this state without it, so it can't be
necessary for our survival in any meaningful sense of that concept. I don't
think that Will and his school believe that democracy is meaningless or
illusory, yet it surely doesn't reduce to biochemistry.

Ted Davis