Parsimony — Its Use and Misuse in Metaphysics

Where It’s Useful
I’m a big fan of simplicity in principle but with one major caveat.  Except for a two-year break to study theology, I worked about 40 years as a design engineer designing machines, systems, and software. In that work, simplicity was an important goal. Simpler designs are less costly, easier to manufacture, maintain, and generally more reliable.  The fewer “moving parts” in a machine, system, or software the less likely there will be problems with it. But here’s the major caveat. The design had to work.  It had to meet the specifications even if that required more complexity.

This goal of simplicity could be broadly understood under the concept of parsimony. One of the most generally recognizable ways of characterizing parsimony is Occam’s Razor, named after English Franciscan friar William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347).  Often the Razor is summarized in sentences like: “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”, or the one most likely attributable to Ockham himself, “Plurality must never be posited without necessity”. The one I particularly like is probably a paraphrase of what Einstein actually said. It goes: “Everything should be made as simple as possible — but not simpler.” The key point in these is that necessity should guide how simple or complex a theory or system should be.  So what determines the necessity?

Let me offer an example from my work.  When I worked in the aerospace industry, specifications for a system often had hundreds of requirements. Now, here’s a key point. All those specifications had to be met. The necessity was meeting the entire specification.  However, one of the prominent specifications, either explicit or implied was parsimony. Systems had to work but if they were unnecessarily complex that could make them very costly to make, maintain, and be less reliable. So, “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”. Parsimony then is an essential component of the mindset and method of design so that things work well.

Now, let me turn to the use of parsimony in theology and metaphysics. I think the aforementioned understanding of parsimony is also an essential part of the mindset and method of doing them.  Metaphysics and theology both require speculations. That is the nature of metaphysics. So, the KISS method (“keep it simple, stupid”) should be taken seriously.  However, there is also a constant dialog going on.  Every step in a design (theological or metaphysical) constrains what can come next. So as the design process unfolds, every step along the way must try to anticipate the consequences for what will come later. If this is not taken into account, entities will have to be multiplied later to compensate for this lack of foresight. When that happens things can get out of hand quickly and create more opportunities for the system to become incomplete, incoherent, contrived, or inconsistent.  So, the challenge for these types of systems is finding one that works (more on this in a bit) without creating complexity beyond necessity. To do that one needs to think about the entire specification throughout the design process.

Where it is Misused
Parsimony is misused in metaphysics when it is used as an argument. There are several ways the concept of parsimony can become problematic. Metaphysicians and theologians try to make arguments for why their formulations are right. Fair enough. They offer exhibits like data, logic, consistency, coherence, explanatory power, and so on. However, if parsimony is used as an exhibit — an argument, that is problematic. It’s problematic because it can lead to a misunderstanding, be counterproductive, and/or be misleading.

The first way it can be misunderstood is when it is really an argument from simplicity. There is a major difference between “not multiplying entities beyond necessity” and an argument from simplicity.  Parsimony is neutral on whether or not an explanation will end up being simple or complex. It simply suggests that it is best to not go overboard with speculations when they are not necessary. However, if the argument-from-parsimony is really an argument from simplicity that has a presupposition embedded in it that fundamental reality is simple so it can or should be characterized in a simple way.

An example of this type of inclination can be found in physics where there can be a presupposition of simplicity such that major efforts and resources are committed to finding an equation that completely explains physical reality but can also fit on a tee shirt. Now, I don’t think searching for such an equation is problematic itself, but if there is a driving desire for such a simple solution, that can be counterproductive and prematurely cut off entertaining other more complex options. This could also apply to metaphysics.

However, the most abused form of parsimony-as-an-argument comes in from the very nature of metaphysics. Almost invariably metaphysics is systematic. Systematic metaphysics is a complex arena. There are many parts to it that are relational and often combinatorially so. 

What characterizes a system? It should be coherent, logically sound, consistent, complete, rigorous, and elegant(including parsimony in the first sense I mentioned). There is so much going on in these systems that parsimony-as-an-argument, if used, would have to apply to the whole system.  Since there are so many interrelational parts involved, how could parsimony possibly be asserted coherently?  At best it would be just a vague intuition and not definitive at all.

So, for those who are trying to evaluate a metaphysical system, an invocation of parsimony could be misleading.  An argument is supposed to contribute to the validity of an explanation or solution. But does parsimony really do that in systematic metaphysics?

A way to approach this question is to look at it pragmatically. To use an engineering phrase: “Does it work?” That depends on what “it works” means. To answer that we’d have to look at the domain of “it works”. Does it meet the entire “specified requirements?”  One way to think about this domain is to determine what questions are being asked. Metaphysics is an attempt to speculated beyond “the physics” which means explanations are sought that offer answers to certain questions. If parsimony-as-an-argument is invoked, almost invariably the domain is very restricted.  This can be misleading because as the system expands beyond that limited domain and tries to offer answers to the full gamut of questions, the so-called parsimony can evaporate with a series of ad hoc assertions, questionable brute facts, or odd contrivances in an attempt to make things work.  This is why seeking parsimony-as-an-argument for a system is ill-conceived and often misleading.

Let me offer a couple of examples where I think this issue can be the case. The problem of subjective experience or phenomenal consciousness has found a lot of interest among philosophers of mind and in social media. How do we explain subjective experience within present worldviews? Materialism (a.k.a. physicalism) seems to have a problem with this. I won’t go into this question in depth here but among the proposals getting traction that supposedly offer better answers than materialism are forms of panpsychism and idealism.  There are many varieties of these but in some of the prominent ones, the idea is to make experience fundamental.  If subjective experience doesn’t fit in with materialism, why not just make it fundamental? So, in these systems, experience is what might be called the ontological primitive upon which everything else is built.  Some forms of idealism have called this the “consciousness only” model. (Note: This is very different from the divine idealism I argue for on this website.)

So, what are the arguments for this approach?  Prominent among them is an argument-from-parsimony.  Supposedly it’s the simplest explanation that accounts for subjective experience.  Now, if the question of subjective experience is the complete domain of interest, parsimony-as-an-argument could carry some weight.  But is that really the total domain of questions? Hardly. First, when a simple primitive is posited as fundamental then how are the complexities we see accounted for? For example, in physics, the standard model has various types of particles (or excitations in quantum fields) and the four fundamental forces.  So, this physics model is complicated. To be consilient with this model, the experiential fundamental would have to be more than just a raw experience. There would have to be some relational dynamics also in play that mirrored things like mass, spin, charge, as well as the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism or the fields associated with them. Suddenly, experience as a fundamental becomes much more complex with lots more going on than just a raw experience.   

Then for human beings, there is much more. In systematic metaphysics, all related issues need to be addressed. They can’t be ignored because inevitably these other issues will enter into the conversation. We see this in interviews, podcasts, and videos.  Questions are posed like “what does this say about the meaning of life?” or “does free-will fit in somehow?” or “what does this mean for morality?” Eventually, existential issues like meaning, free-will, purpose (teleology), morality, and so on, are raised because metaphysics isn’t taken as just some neutral puzzle-solving endeavor.

How would a so-called simple fundamental answer those questions?  Is there a meaning principle in experience? Is there a free will process in experience? An experiential purpose element? A value law?  And so on.  Again, suddenly a so-called parsimony begins to seem suspect. To make it work what we might see are odd contrivances, equivocation, obfuscation, and ad hoc postulates or brute facts. In other words, “entities will have to be multiplied” to make the system work.

Now, perhaps there are ways to make this “consciousness only” model work. Time will tell. My point is that parsimony-as-argument based on an extremely limited domain is ill-conceived for systems. For systematic metaphysics, parsimony-as-an-approach is a perfectly legitimate aim but as-an-argument it shouldn’t be given any weight.

Why this might matter?
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures.  Without a sense of meaning all sorts of psychological problems arise.  To a large extent that meaning comes from a worldview — who and what we are and our place and relationship to reality. In every age, there are many worldviews in operation. They vary not only among individuals but also between cultures. Often they form a basis for how lives and societies are structured and operate. 

It appears we are in one of those periods in history where there is a growing trend to reject past worldviews and the metaphysical systems that support them. They just aren’t compelling to many people. Of course, this is nothing new. There have been periods of relative stability where certain worldviews were generally accepted for long periods of time.  However, as things change in culture and knowledge that can present challenges to a current metaphysical system or religious tradition.

As an example, polls have shown that the fastest growing group relating to religion are the “nones” — the unaffiliated. This is particularly true for younger people.  Whether or not this is problematic for someone depends on the individual.  I can speak from personal experience because I became unaffiliated over 30 years ago.  There can be a sense of loss but it can also be liberating. However, for me, it also created a feeling of being adrift religiously.  I remained a theist but wasn’t sure what that meant for me.  That situation was the impetus for me to work on the theology found on this website.

So, there is a growing number of those who do not feel the religious traditions compelling anymore but there may also be others who are outside the traditions and have an uncomfortable feeling about the worldview they presently feel aligned to.  These could be atheists, agnostics, or those who do not have a religious background.  If there is this metaphysical unrest then what is a person to do? Often this results in a search for something to address that unrest.  It may start with surveying long-standing metaphysical systems.  If those don’t seem right then it may broaden to new approaches.  As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there haven’t been many new systematic metaphysical systems recently. I can think of a couple — process philosophy and integral theory (Ken Wilber), but there does seem to be more on the horizon coming from the philosophy of mind arena like those I mentioned earlier.

The question is, how can they be assessed and which ones seem compelling?  What criteria or reasons can be brought to bear?  Well, obviously this can vary greatly from person to person. For some, it may be primarily intuitional but for others, a more explicit, detailed, and rigorous approach is needed. If the latter is the case then arguments are important.

Now, since the religious traditions have become a disappointment to many, the last thing those searching for their metaphysical bearings would want is to entertain a new metaphysical system only to find out later that it had deep flaws concerning the most pressing existential issues I’ve mentioned. This is why I think it is important to be clear about what is being argued for in a metaphysical system.

Accordingly, I think too much illegitimate weight is put on parsimony-as-an-argument for metaphysical systems.  Claiming parsimony as a major argument for a particular system can be so misleading I don’t think it should be used at all.  Systems are far too complex, combinatorial, and interrelated to claim parsimony. Instead, the totality of arguments within a system that addresses all relevant issues should determine whether the formulation is compelling or not.

Analogies for Idealism

This is a response to an article in Scientific American by Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, and Edward F. Kelly, idealism proponents, where they claim that an analogy with dissociation (as Kastrup discusses) like that found in the dissociative identity disorder (DID) can offer a solution to “a critical problem in our current understanding of the nature of reality”.  That problem being the combination problem in panpsychism where the question is, as David Chalmers briefly puts it — “how do the experiences of fundamental physical entities such as quarks and photons combine to yield the familiar sort of human conscious experience that we know and love.”  The authors of the article respond to the problem with an alternative view:

The obvious way around the combination problem is to posit that, although consciousness is indeed fundamental in nature, it isn’t fragmented like matter. The idea is to extend consciousness to the entire fabric of spacetime, as opposed to limiting it to the boundaries of individual subatomic particles. This view—called “cosmopsychism” in modern philosophy, although our preferred formulation of it boils down to what has classically been called “idealism”—is that there is only one, universal, consciousness. The physical universe as a whole is the extrinsic appearance of universal inner life, just as a living brain and body are the extrinsic appearance of a person’s inner life.

However, the authors also recognize a potential problem:

You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize the obvious problem with this idea: people have private, separate fields of experience. We can’t normally read your thoughts and, presumably, neither can you read ours. Moreover, we are not normally aware of what’s going on across the universe and, presumably, neither are you. So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain—at least in principle—how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.

They think the solution can be found in an analogy with dissociative identity disorder:

And here is where dissociation comes in. We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

This would seem to satisfy the conceivability requirement in philosophy of mind proposals and suggest some details about what is happening, but at what cost?  There is a negative connotation associated with DID.  It is considered a disorder, perhaps stemming from pathological inabilities to cope with life as a unified personality.  F. C. S. Schiller in his 1906 paper, “Idealism and the Dissociation of Personality” affirms that this analogy does solve some problems for idealism but also recognizes that it carries a negative connotation for the absolute:

Moreover, (2) if the absolute is to include the whole of
a world which contains madness, it is clear that, anyhow, it must, in
a sense, be mad. The appearance, that is, which is judged by us to
be madness must be essential to the absolute’s perfection. All that
the analogy suggested does is to ascribe a somewhat higher degree
of reality to the madness in the absolute

While I appreciate the intent of the dissociative analogy to address a problem, if analogies can offer some credence to idealism, then perhaps there are other real-world analogies that are reasonable but do not carry the negative connotations. So, I’ll offer a couple of analogies here that might also be viable but are positive and affirming for why the diversity in the cosmos came about and do not imply a dysfunction within the Divine Mind. Instead, they imagine a God who embraces taking on constrained being even with all its difficulties and challenges. Given all the problems and evils within life, this must mean there is something so very important and valuable about life itself.

Actor/Role Analogy
It is well known that many actors relish taking on challenging roles. It helps them grow as actors and, perhaps on a personal level, presents unique opportunities to plunge deeper into the human psyche, both theirs and others. So, they research the role, often talk to those whom they will portray, and try to create that role in their mind.  Then in the scenes, they shift gears from their normal selves to that role even if that role is diametrically opposite to their normal self.  They compartmentalize the role within themselves and act within that compartment, but they still have a unitary self, unlike dissociated personalities. Then when the scene is over, they shift back to their normal selves but they may also experience some change because of the experience of “the other self” in the role. This could represent God-as-transcendent, being changed by God-as-living in each aspect of the Divine Life. What this analogy suggests is that God seeks out the challenge of living perhaps because it evokes the most admirable qualities — courage, resolve, grace in the face of adversity, altruistic love, concern for both self and others, progressive action, growth, etc. In other words, God taking on somewhat distinct lives is not out of dysfunction but rather because God saw something so wonderful and valuable about living within constraints.

MMORPGs Analogy
MMORPGs is an acronym for — Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.  These are online games where multiple players take on certain character types and play those roles as the game dynamically emerges.  Those roles can vary dramatically just as personalities can. There can be noble, evil, good, childlike, magical, non-human, conflicted, etc. roles, each with its own personality, characteristics, powers, frailties, and histories.  There is also the environment within which the RPG is played. It could be realistic or fanciful. In essence, it is an imagined world with imagined characters that navigate the dynamics of a certain broad narrative.  Each player adopts a role and suspends their own self as much a possible to play that role, often within a team of other role-players. It is a simulation of life with all the intricacies of psychology, sociology, culture, and challenge.  Why do people seek out and participate in these games? Similar to the Actor/Role analogy, because it offers opportunities to embrace the multidimensions of life in an alternate reality that is both fun, interesting, and satisfies our need to be challenged, grow, be social, and reach out beyond the limitations of our ordinary life.

So, what’s the analogy? The analogy is that whereas in online role-playing games there are many separate people playing the roles, in the Divine Life, God is playing all the roles including the role of the environment. Each of us and everything else is an aspect of the Divine Life, created (imagined) in the Mind of God.  We are in God’s unitary mind but also distinct and somewhat independent, living our lives within the grand divine narrative where we also must make choices whether or not to embrace the transcendent divine transcendent depth within and actualize the divine vision for how life can be.

Now, the limitations of using analogies toward metaphysics should be recognized.  They come from within our limited, constrained being and, as such, shouldn’t be taken too literally.  Perhaps they can be accepted as metaphors — while of limited literal value perhaps they also point to some deep truths.

Here are some other posts on analogies/metaphors:
Role Play Games
Venn Diagrams
Divine Action and a Juggler

Atheism – A Grim Position

First, let me say that I think atheism can be a reasonable position, just as I think theism can be a reasonable position to take.  Basically all the term “atheism” refers to is a disbelief in God or gods.  I don’t think that is an unreasonable disbelief.  However, if one follows that position to what I think are it’s logical conclusions, I do believe it is a psychologically grim position to take.  Not only that but I also think that in many cases an atheistic position can lead to an unreasonableness and denial of its implications.  This is not to say that atheists are bad people. To the contrary, I have friends who are atheists and are fine moral people.  I appreciate them very much.  I write this just to point out what I think are the logical consequences for this position.

So how is it a grim position?  I think there are at least three things that in dealing with those implications make atheism grim —  Meaning and Purpose, Morality(Value), and Free Will.

The first thing is to set a foundation for the arguments.  One of the abilities that has provided for the amazing advancement of hominids is their ability to discern cause and effect.  This has a great evolutionary advantage because it allows for correlations between events.  These correlations can lead to planning and avoidance of threats.  It has also allowed science to flourish, as abstractions can be generated to show the relationships between events, either causes or effects.  Experimentation (especially reductive explorations) relies on the consistency and reliability of causes and their effects.  This is entailment, one thing necessarily follows from the next. Now if entailment never ends at some point, then we have what is called an infinite regression, which is a logical fallacy.  There is no stopping point. If there is a stopping point then we call that the ultimate.  There is no place to go from there.

For instance, in the United States, the Constitution is the ultimate law of the land.  All other laws enacted be they federal, state, or local must comply with the Constitution or they are unlawful.  Which brings us to another ultimate, the Supreme Court.  It is the ultimate adjudicator of what is lawful and what is not.  Their decision is final. There is no higher authority.  Now they may change their opinion later but even that decision is final.  The entailment stops with it. So the key word here is ultimate, an ultimate basis for everything in its domain.

Meaning and Purpose
I think most atheists would agree that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to reality.  The Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, famously said once: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”.  So what entails from this view is that whatever meaning or purpose an atheist finds or creates for herself, their life and everything else is ultimately meaningless. Now perhaps this may not be such a big deal to many atheists, but I think for most people this would be a grim prospect.  I think most people, at least psychologically, would like to think that their lives really meant something more than just a set of temporal events.  However, for the atheist, their passions, strivings, work, thoughts and feelings, and relationships are just dust in the wind, temporal fluctuations in space-time that signify nothing in the end.

Theists and non-theists like Buddhists believe there is an ultimate basis for value and by extension morality. For theists, God is that basis and Buddhists have their own system of ethics which they believe is rooted in the ultimate. Atheists can claim no ultimate basis for value or morality.  Now this does not mean that atheists can’t be moral. To the contrary. I have found my atheist friends and most other atheists I have known to be highly moral. However, no matter how “good” those moral positions may be to me or our culture, without an ultimate basis they are ultimately arbitrary.  This leads to an important implication, I think, for atheists when arguing for a moral position.  For the atheist there is no objective moral high ground. This means that when faced with another moral position (say like the ISIS tenets or Nazi fascism) they have no objective, ultimate basis for what is right or wrong to point to. It’s all subjective. Ultimately those other positions, no matter how abhorrent, are just as logically valid as any other.   For the atheist all moral judgments and actions are merely local preferences of a group.  The group may wish to find ways to spread that moral sentiment and even enforce it, but they have no objective argument that their way is better than any other. To me this is another grim aspect of the implications of atheism.

On the other hand, those who hold to an ultimate basis for morality, the situation is very different.  I don’t think it was an accident that Thomas Jefferson invoked the Creator in his famous Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

By invoking the creator, Jefferson appeals to the ultimate basis for value (rights) that cannot be supplanted by sub-ultimate positions, particularly any human agency (like the British King in his case). For Jefferson these truths are self-evident.  This speaks to some access to these ultimate values.

Now this does not mean that there are no problems with value and morality for those who believe in an ultimate basis for same. To the contrary.  Much evil has been done in the name of God or some other ultimate basis.  But these problems are not ontological. They are epistemological(knowing), personal, and social.  The challenge for theists and believing non-theists is to some how discern what the ultimate values are and then attempt to instantiate them.  Resources for this include wisdom literature, religious experience, philosophy, dialog among adherents, analysis of consequences, etc.

Free will
Typically, I think it is safe to say, almost all atheists accept some version of what could be called scientific materialism or physicalism.  Now materialism attributes all causes to either necessity or chance (quantum indeterminacy).  This, I think, presents a strange situation for the atheist.  If all events are caused by necessity or chance, then where is there any opening for libertarian free will?  For the atheist, they just do what they do and couldn’t have done any differently.  Their thoughts and actions are determined by prior events and the dynamics of chance and necessity.  As the key phrase in the free will debate says “they couldn’t have done otherwise”.  Sounds pretty grim to me.  Now, materialistic philosophers have played semantic games to try to mitigate this problem but if examined thoroughly, there is no relief for the problem of “could have done otherwise”.

If the atheist really thinks about this, it presents a strange mental quandary.  No matter what they think or do even that thought couldn’t have been otherwise.  And to make things worse, the “I” of the atheist is an empty concept even though it presents itself to the mind.  The “I” is not a free agent but merely a conscious representation of what inevitably goes on in the mind. From the Darwinian perspective this feeling that “I” freely made decisions is a probably just a cruel trick of evolution so that we don’t go mad and instead continue to push our genes into the next generation.

And then there are moral positions.  No matter how passionate an atheist is about some moral position, they really couldn’t have taken another.  They just do what they do. Their passions are also just the product of necessity and chance. So, if they were honest, they would also realize that those who oppose their moral positions couldn’t have done otherwise either.

It just seems to me that in a life where there is no free will, everything breaks down.  What a strange view of the self and the world. It represents life where everything is just going through the motions, mere automatons, determined by relentless forces with no real agency, no value, no will, no meaning, no nothing that we all hold dear.  A grim view.

So Why Write This?
It might seem that I have a grudge against atheism or just want to be mean to atheists. Not so. I have friends who are atheists and I like and appreciate them very much. However, there are a couple of reasons I wrote this.  I am a non-traditional theist.  I don’t hold to any religious tradition.  However, I do appreciate the good that is found in most religious people. I think their religion helps them navigate life in beneficial ways, and promotes in them the desire to help others.

But recently, ordinary religious folk have been attacked unmercifully by prominent militant atheists in books and the media.  They have been labeled as stupid, ignorant, misguided, unscientific, irrational and the list goes on.  Some of this is true.  I myself have been critical of much in religious thought and practice.  However, irrespective of the faults I see in religion and theology, in my travels I have seen a lot of people who genuinely try to follow the moral and social tenets of their religion. While they may not have thought much about what or why they believe what they do, they still feel some connection to the divine and although fragmentarily, they try to live up to what they believe the divine draws them to. They deserve to be appreciated instead of denigrated.

The irony is that these militants portray an arrogance about their rationality and scientific profundity.  What I tried to show here is that for most of them this is misguided and actually false.  Atheists are people just like everyone else. We all have our reasons for adopting certain positions. We all have our neuroses and defense mechanisms.  In my view, there should be a healthy humility in all of us.  Atheists can be just as irrational and unscientific as anyone else.  Suppression and denial about the grim realities of atheism I have addressed do not allay their significance.

Now this will sound presumptuous, but the second reason I wrote to this was to suggest that there may be reasonable positions that do not rule out some ultimate and meaningful grounding for our reality.  I myself have entertained atheism in my life. As life presents its challenges, it may come to mind. But for me the grim realities of that position pushed me on to see if there was a reasonable religious alternative that didn’t offend my intelligence.  I think it is possible.  My journey didn’t settle on anything traditional but rather drew from multiple ideas found throughout the ages.  We are all unique and it’s a personal thing. Each person will have to seek out their solutions to their own particular deep questions. Now for those atheists who accept that there are grim issues with atheism but forge ahead to live noble lives, I salute them.  But for those who feel uncomfortable with this situation, perhaps they can take a journey to look hard at their own sensibilities, the wisdom literature throughout the ages, and whatever else might be helpful, to see if there is some other position they could feel more comfortable with.