Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor

Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor (OR) seems to lie at the very core of the worldviews of naturalism and materialism. It demands only few imagination to realize the pair would completely collapse if the razor were cut off.

Also called principle of parsimony, it exists in two forms: a methodological form and an epistemological form.

Methodological Razor: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, it is preferable to use the simplest theory for the next investigations.

Epistemological Razor: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, the simplest theory is ALWAYS more likely.

Here, I won’t address the validity of the Methodological Razor (MR) which might be an useful tool in many situations.

I am much more interested in evaluating the Epistemological razor (ER), since it is under this form it most always plays an overwhelming role in philosophy, theology and the study of anomalous phenomena.

Nowadays, the most popular argument for atheism looks like this:

  1. It is possible (at least a priori) to explain all facts of the Cosmos as satisfactorily with nature alone as with God

  2. ER: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, the simplest theory is ALWAYS more likely

  3. God is much more complex than nature

  4. Nature alone is much more likely to be responsible for reality than God

Of course, since neither God nor nature can explain their own existence, ER stipulates that the existence of nature as a brute fact is much more probable than the existence of God as a brute fact.

ER is employed in a huge variety by proponents with diverse worldviews. This is the main reason why most scientists believe that UFO cannot be something otherworldly.

Despite the voluminous literature related to ER, it comes as a surprise that only a few publications deal with its justification. And unlike the expectations of its most enthusiastic proponents, such a demonstration proves a formidable task due to its universal claim to always hold true.

In this entry, I’ll show why I’m under the impression that nobody has been able to prove ER without begging the question in one way or the other.

One common way to argue is by using a reductio ad adsurbum.

Let us consider the following realistic conservation I could have with a UFO denier.

Skeptical Manitoo: „I was really shocked as I learned you believe all this non-senses about flying saucers!“

Lothar’s son: „Actually, this isn’t quite true. I do believe most of them can be traced back to natural or human causes. I’m just undecided about a small minority of them. I consider it possible that something otherworldly might be going on…“

Skeptical Manitoo:„What??? How dare you utter such lunacy before having drunk your third beer? The UFO hypothesis is the most complex one, therefore it is also the most unlikely one!“

Lothar’s son: „And how the hell do you know that, all other things being equal, simpler explanations are always more probable?“

Skeptical Manitoo: „And how do you know otherwise that the traces on the field stem from some wild living things rather than from elves?“ he replied bitterly.

At the point, the skeptics expects me to recognize this is silly indeed, AND that the only way to avoid this madness is by believing ER, so that I’ll end up agreeing with him.

But this is only a pragmatic argument, it has no bearing on the truth of ER whatsoever.

What if I stay stubborn:

Lothar’s son: „I believe your elfic intervention is also within the realm of possibilities, even if it is more complex.“

Skeptical Manitoo: „What? And would you also tolerate the presence of a Flying Spaguetti Monster which has caused the rain shower which fell on us previously?“

Lothar’s son: „„Of course!“

Skeptical Manitoo: „What? And do you also believe in a flying Dick Cheney who threw bombs upon the civilian population in Iraq?“

Reaching this level of insanity, I might very well be tempted to nod in order to escape the ordeal.

But it is important to realize that this whole discussion only shows, at best, a pragmatic MR to be valid.

If there is no INDEPENDENT ground for rejecting the crazy situations my imaginative friend has mentioned, anti-realism seems to be true, which means we can never have any kind of knowledge.

To justify the Epistemological Razor, one clearly needs non-circular arguments which might come from pure philosophical considerations or experimental inferences.

A very commonly used one is the alleged inexorable progress of science towards the simplest explanations.

There are many problems with this argument. The history of science is full of examples of complex theories who were wrongly dismissed because of their lack of parsimony, tough the future vindicated them in the most triumphant way. Continental drift and the reality of ball lightnings are only two examples on a long list.

But let us suppose for the sake of the argument that during OUR ENTIRE history, the simplest theories always proved to be the most likely.

Would this show that ER, as I’ve defined it above, is true? Not at all.

All this would prove is that we live in an universe (or perhaps even ONLY a region of an universe) where things are as simple as possible.

But modern science seems to indicate there exist a gigantic (perhaps even an infinite) number of parallel universes out there. And as Max Tegmark pointed out, these are not only limited to those resulting from chaotic cosmic inflation and string theory, but include as well quantum universes (Everett’s theory) and perhaps even mathematical universes. Simulated universes can certainly be added to this list.

So ultimately the justification of Occam’s razor would look like that:

  1. in our universe, simplest explanations are always the most likely to be true
  2. if it is true in our universe, it is also probably true in the other 10000000000000000000000000000000000…… universes we know very little of
  3. therefore, in the entire reality, simplest explanations are always the most likely to be true.

I hope that most of my readers will realize that premise 2) is an extraordinary claim, an interpolation based on nothing more than wishful thinking.

I know there have been many elegant attempts to ground ER on bayesian considerations. Like philosopher of mathematics Kelly I believe all are hopelessly circular because they smuggle simplicity into their definition of reality.

I’d be glad to learn from my reader if they know ways to justify ER which don’t presuppose the existence of a simple multiverse in the first place.

Finally, I want to point out a further problem one should have using ER against the existence of

God.

The Kalham’s cosmological argument (named after a great Muslim theologian) tries to establish the existence of a transcendence as follows:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. the universe began to exist
  3. therefore the universe has a cause

Due to the overwhelming experimental and theoretical success of the Big Bang theory, atheist apologists can no longer deny premise 2)

Consequently, they typically deny premise 1), arguing like Jeffrey Jay Lowder that it is not always true.
Lowder agrees it would be absurd to believe something in our universe could pop into existence, and this is the case because all our experience allows us to INDUCTIVELY conclude this is never going to occur. But he also emphasizes that this inference is only valid for things taking place WITHIN our universe, and not outside.
Since the grounds for believing in 1) are limited to our experience in this universe, we’ve no warrant to assert it is generally true.

But this is exactly my point about Occam’s razor or the principle of parsimony.

It might (or not) be true it holds in our universe, but this gives us absolutely no justification for believing it can be applied to transcendental realities (or to rule them out).

So, this was admittedly a very long post, and I hope to receive lots of positive and negative feedbacks!

 

 

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16 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor

  1. Perhaps the best thing would be to remind the people in question that Ockham himself was a Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher.

  2. Hi Lvka, thanks for your comment!

    It’s true enough Ockham was himself a monk, and he seemed to see no contradiction with his belief in God.

    It is also not clear if we saw his razor just as a tool to converge towards truth, a pragmatic methodology or a general principle of probability.

    It is this latter use (whether historical or not) I criticize, for I think it is utterly unwarranted and unjustified.
    It was important to go into the details since this is arguably the most popular argument for atheism nowadays.

    Lovely greetings from Germany.

    • The problem with Occam razor is that the simplest explanation is always some form of a Boltzmann brain. Hence it fails as an absolute epistemic criteria when put into reductio ad absurdum test.

      • Hello Innerbling, this is an interesting objection to ER.

        But how do you know that a Boltzmann brain would be always the simplest explanation?

        There are string theorists out there who try to argue that one can predict that there would only be a small numbers of Boltmann’s brains in the multiverse…well, an infinite number actually, but small in comparison to an even greater number of infinite objects…

        I’m not sure how I should make sense of that anyway.

        Lovely greetings from Germany.
        Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

        Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
        https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  3. Of course there’s no way to show that ER always holds, but that level of confidence is not reasonable to expect or necessary to be useful. Science deals in probabilities. ER is a good way to assess relative probabilities.

    Here’s how I would state the ER:

    All other things being equal, greater complexity is less likely than less complexity.

    This helps to show that the ER is just another way to state the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Highly complex (high entropy) scenarios are not impossible, just less likely than low entropy ones.

    • Hello Donservers.

      First of all, many thanks for having taken the time to read my long article and payed heed to my terminology!

      Your proof of ER seems to be as follows:

      1) in every possible word, the second law of thermodynamics has to be valid for EVERYTHING
      2) the second law of thermodynamics entails that complex systems are less likely to exist than simpler ones
      3) thus ER is true

      I won’t dispute 2) (tough the concept of probability it involves might not be an evidential one) but take issue with 1).

      Why on earth should we think there cannot exist things not underlying the second law of thermodynamics without begging the question?

      Maybe you’re defending a version of Occam’s razor whose scope is much more modest than ER as I’ve defined it.

      Kind regards.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

      • Since the 2nd Law doesn’t forbid anything, (it simply says entropy usually increases with time), what would it mean to say something could exist that doesn’t obey it?

        Suppose you want to say: “The 2nd Law does not rule out highly complex entities”.

        This is fine, because it doesn’t. It just says they are less likely.

        So, what do you want to say? I’m guessing it’s something like:

        “It is not impossible for a highly complex thing to be more likely than a less complex thing”.

        I think the 2nd Law would allow that, too. Although such situations would themselves be rare!

        So, if we state ER reasonably, it holds.

        But the main reason ER holds is that complicated theories introduce greater, additional explanatory burdens than simpler theories:

        The Big Bang theory is better than the ‘Big Bang theory plus God’ because God does little or no additional explanatory work and creates a huge additional explanatory burden.

  4. Hi Donsevers.

    Maybe I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough, this isn’t what I meant.

    The second law shows us that in our UNIVERSE, physical things which are more complex than others are less likely to exist.

    However, it fails to show us that in EVERY possible universe, more complex things are ALWAYS less likely.

    “But the main reason ER holds is that complicated theories introduce greater, additional explanatory burdens than simpler theories”

    Actually, it is a reason why MR might be true. You have the burden of proof to show, in a non-circular way, that an additional explanatory burden means a smaller likelihood to be true, in order for ER to hold.

    While he doesn’t use the same names, philosopher Kelly makes the same dinstinction as I:

    http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/kk3n/homepage/kelly.html

    His point seems to be that if you compare a complex and a simple theory, you cannot say that the simpler one is the most likely, but just that it is better to pursue it in order to converge towards truth in the long run.

    This is of course assume you’re going to find all the evidence necessary to understand the phenomenon, which in the case of the very existence of the universe is rather doubtful.

    Kind regards.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  5. But he also emphasizes that this inference is only valid for things taking place WITHIN our universe, and not outside.

    What an arbitrary distinction.

    He may as well say it only applies within our visible universe, and outside of our visible universe (but still within the ‘same’ universe) it applies.

    Or it only applies to things we can see, not to things we can’t.

  6. Well done; I don’t find very many people who differentiate between methodological and epistemological versions of Okham’s razor; well done. A year or two ago, I realized that only the methodological razor was valid, and only because the structure of reality is vulnerable to successive approximation.

    There is a difference between science and relationships: in science, you want to be able to predict everything; in relationships, you want to be able to predict some, and be pleasantly surprised by some. When the Christian thinks God is like A, and yet finds out that he is more like B, the scientist is tempted to say that the Christian really isn’t interacting with a being at all, but merely imagination. We don’t say this when we’re interacting with other people though, and our predictions are falsified. This makes me think that many atheists view God more as a force than a person. Okham’s razor doesn’t really apply to people.

      • Sure; there is deep stuff about Okham’s razor which relate to intelligibility. The human mind seems only capable of learning so much at once. Fortunately, reality is such that it will teach us a bit more, and then a bit more than that, and then even more. It’s all in digestible chunks, though. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine a universe which does not present us intelligible chunks. M-theory is actually a hint of this, as it currently needs parameters which cannot be computed in reasonable time (the search is NP-complete if not NP-hard).

        Research into [strong] AI will tell us more about what is required for a system to be ‘learnable’. What I am incredibly curious about is whether we have strong reason to think that our reality is infinitely ‘learnable’, or whether most realities (or parallel universes) tend to have some sort of ‘ceiling’, through which no rational mind which could exist in such a universe would have the cognitive power pierce.

        The concept I’m trying to describe should be immediately recognizable: when you’re teaching someone a topic, you have to take small enough steps so that he/she can bridge them in his/her mind. But what if the step is just too large? This could provide a permanent impediment to learning.

        • Interestingly enough, Richard Dawkins conceded the point there might very well be extremely evolved beings we could only see as Gods, our brain being able to only grasp a very small portion of their being.

          But if that is the case, his atheism seems to stand on shaky ground. For if God is defined as the greatest being who exist, there necessarily exist a God which almost infinitely outshine our own reason.

          And if God is defined as the greatest being who can possibly exist, He would almost certainly also exist given the infinity of the multiverse.

          I like science fiction and fantasy. I have written a novel (in English) concerning a parallel world called Magonia (from a French legend), a high-tech civilization, eerie creatures capable of violating the laws of physics at will.
          It is currently being corrected.
          I touche on such subjects and I will certainly publish it, perhaps on the Internet.

          Lovely greetings from Lancashire (UK).

          • And if God is defined as the greatest being who can possibly exist, He would almost certainly also exist given the infinity of the multiverse.

            This isn’t sufficient for Christian theology as I understand it; God’s existence precedes (logically, not temporally) the existence of everything else. If it were not for God, nothing would exist. There is no universe in the multiverse for which one could say, “God does not exist.”

            That being said, the above is a bit fun and not so much practical. I don’t think God wants us to believe in his exact nature nearly as much as he wants us to trust him when he tells us what human thriving is and what it isn’t.

            Let’s posit that we, being finite beings, can only ever come to a finite conception of God, who is infinite in description (not just like a repeating number, 1.333333, or 1.1010010001…). What this tells us is that no matter how well we understand God, there is more to understand. However well we learn to treat our fellow human being, there is a better way to treat each other. We are never ‘done’ on either of these research projects: research into how reality works, and how to treat one another.

            Somehow, mixed into these two research projects, is our relationship with God. Our personal relationship with another person, albeit on the other side of infinity. In Knowing God, J.I. Packer says that he thinks in heaven, every Christian will get as much of God as he/she wanted. While this statement doesn’t seem quite right (see Jn 17:3), there is something profound in it. There is always more to know about God, more intimate ways to know God. (I omitted the ‘about’ intentionally.) Should we ever falter and stop knowing God better, I think we start growing distant from him, just like happens when we no longer pursue a relationship with another human being. And yet, this is the very danger when we say we’ve “reached the end”—either that there is no more science to be done, or the current society is the ideal society.

            It seems to me that bad uses of Okham’s razor threaten to do the very bad thing which I say it is so important to avoid. Such uses threaten to say that at some point, we will reach the ideal society because reality is as simple as it can be. Such a society, while it might initially seem excellent, would ultimately grow stale and terrible and turn into a system of slavery—something Satan would love. Atheists and skeptics love to accuse theists of thinking they have everything figured out, but I see the very same threat from those atheists and skeptics, and unlike theists (at least Christians), they have no infinite God who they can remember is calling them to him. They can just say, “Sorry, this is all life has to offer, make the best of it.” That’s exactly what you’d say to a slave to keep him/her from rebelling.

  7. I know that this article is ancient, but since it contains the interesting KCA, I would like to offer a bit of Buddhist logic as a thought-provoking alternative.

    Basically one ought to understand that Buddhism, by definition, does hold the belief that there is no need of a Creator God to explain the existence of the Universe (note that certain Buddhist schools might accept the existence of God, or even several gods, but none would be omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, and none would be responsible for all of the Universe, but, at best, just part of it; ‘gods’ would in essence not be much different than humans with superpowers; this, however, is irrelevant for the following discussion).

    Buddhists also strongly defend ‘Everything that begins to exist has a cause’, or, putting it in more strict Buddhist terms, ‘Every effect is the result of causes and conditions’. This is a generalisation of Kalham’s, but it makes a very subtle and important difference: first, that most things that exist do not necessarily have one and only one cause, but more likely more than one (this will be even more generalised, as you will see). And secondly, that causes by themselves also require specific conditions, or if you wish, specific environments, in order to have some effect. Think of conditions as catalysts — by themselves, they might not mean much, but they allow causes to produce effects. And while Buddhism strictly defines that ifa certain cause is present, a specific effect will always be produced, it also allows that such a causal relationship — while inevitable — to be ‘moderated’ by the specific conditions in which the cause is applied.

    This seems unnecessarily convoluted, but it is at the core of Buddhist practice and training. To give a simple example: every human being can, in theory, learn to meditate using any one of several techniques, or, in other words, the cause for being able to meditate is to be a sentient being with a human body (I’m not going to explain why it needs to be ‘human’). However, even though such ability may be innate (more specifically: meditation is simply causally correlated to being a sentient human being), actually being able to meditate depends on several conditions. For instance, it depends on having someone to teach us to meditate. It also depends — at least at the very beginning — of being in a reasonably calm place with time to do it properly. It is also helped out if we’re not severely ill (or even worse: mentally ill!) and in pain because such conditions will affect how well we can start meditation. In other words: causation, while being an ‘absolute’ in the sense that the same cause will always produce the same effect, can (and is) be affected by conditions which hinder or aid the production of this effect. This is important for Buddhist practitioners because even though they might be unable to seek certain causes that will produce desired effects, they can nevertheless affect the conditions. A typical example: even very advanced Buddhist practitioners are still subject to strong emotions such as hate, passion, or jealousy. Such emotions are ’caused’ by being human; they cannot ‘go away’ (lest we cease to be human). However, although such emotions are causally related to certain effects (say, if we’re furious with someone, we might be verbally or physically aggressive towards them), such effects are only produced in the presence of certain conditions and the absence of others. What practitioners learn, in this specific scenario, is that they have the necessary willpower not to lash out in anger if they are feeling hateful towards someone else. This is not ‘denying’ one’s human nature, in the sense of being able to get rid of all human emotions; rather, Buddhists are well aware of all human emotions (some might even claim to be more aware of them), but they learn how to condition them so that they produce the least harmful effects on others (instead of verbally abusing someone else… you might simply remain silent as a reaction to hate. The choice is yours. Your hate does not go away; it just fails to affect you and the other person negatively).

    All right. This is to explain that cause and effect are also at the core of Buddhist logic. They, just as Kalham, also imply that there are no causes which produce no effects, and that there are no effects which spontaneously exist without a cause. Although contemporary science — namely quantum mechanics — seem to disprove this affirmation, in reality things are a bit more complex than that, from the perspective of a Buddhist.

    So how do Buddhists explain the existence of the universe? In rough and simple terms, they stick to a version of the anthropic principle: the universe (or universes) exist because there are human beings in them (the more correct affirmation is sentient beings — they can be non-human, such as animals… or ET’s, or gods, demons, other supernatural beings, whatever; Buddhism doesn’t exclude their existence, but neither is it excessively worried to prove it). The reverse is also true: human beings cannot exist outside the context of a universe. This is a clearly circular proposition: the cause for human beings to exist is the universe which is caused by human beings existing. There is an important catch here: causation relationships do not need to be immediate — or, more precisely, temporally connected. In other words: time itself is an effect produced by several causes (one of which we could argue in a contemporary way to be entropy, which defines an arrow of time — Buddhism is also very keen on ever-changing conditions which will ultimately lead to something to cease to exist, which is another core tenet of their logical propositions). The notion that ‘effect follows cause’ is just something that may appear to be true from the perspective of a sentient being observing both cause and effect. However, as Einstein has shown us, different observers may have a different experience of what is cause and what is effect.

    Where does this lead to? According to Buddhist thought, our current universe had, indeed, a definite point in time when it began to exist (the description of such a universe popping into existence is eerily similar to what we describe as the Big Bang — a superdense particle which contains all of the universe in a single point and which bursts into an explosion — but this might really just be a coincidence…). At a certain moment, the conditions for sentient life to appear were present, and because the only cause for sentient beings to appear is the existence of the universe, they will appear — once the conditions are ‘right’. The universe with its sentient inhabitants will, like everything else, eventually fade and disappear — but here is the bit with the original thought: just because the universe disappears, the mere fact that it contains sentient beings, who are the cause for universes to appear, will ultimately lead to the appearance of a new universe after this one disappears (technically speaking, there is no limit to how many universes may be ’caused’ by the sentient beings merely existing in this universe) — again, when conditions are right. Obviously Buddhists have never worried about what these conditions are, but, again, the similarities to the basic foundations of superstring theory are, again, astonishing: a timeless ‘multiverse’, where universes pop up into being when ‘branes collide, and which fade away due to entropy. In superstring theory there is no notion of a ‘first cause’ or a ‘beginning of everything’ — the notion of ‘time’ is specific to each individual universe (which has a beginning and an end according to the arrow of time defined by entropy), but ‘everything out there’ (meaning the ‘branes colliding with each other) is outside the realm of ‘time’.

    The Buddhist ‘multiverse’ is a similar construct. For Buddhists, the word ‘time’ — and the notion that we see effects being causally produced in a sequence where cause most often precedes effect — is meaningless ‘outside’ a specific universe. It is just ‘inside’ the universe that we can see things beginning to exist, exist for a while, then fade away; and the universe itself (as well as the beings in it) is subject to the same ‘temporary’ existence. The mechanism that produces a new universe is, however, not explained with scientific formulae (such as the superstring theories try to achieve); Buddhists are content with saying that it is the mere existence of sentient beings in a specific universe which will cause the appearance of a new (or many new) universe after that specific universe fades and disappears. In other words: mind is the cause of matter, but matter is the cause of mind; both are mutually caused by each other; both ultimately appear at the same time (there is this word ‘time’ again!); if there is mind, matter will eventually appear; if there is matter, mind will eventually appear; one causes the other — even across universes, so to speak, although the word ‘across’ tends to imply a distance in space and time, which from the strict perspective of Buddhist causation laws is not implied.

    This is why Buddhists are not shocked or surprised with quantum entanglement and similar non-local events; or with effects which apparently have no cause; or causes that seem not to produce any effect — all typical quirks of quantum mechanics, which, however, are more than proven, both mathematically and as observed lab experiments which are reproducible. Buddhists have no qualm with that — for them, the notion that causes, conditions, and effects are entangled is at the root core of their logic system, and the issue about ‘time’ (namely, that cause must precede effect) is irrelevant for them. In other words, when a quantum mechanic describes something that ‘spontaneously’ appears without cause, such as, say, vacuum energy, Buddhists shake their collective heads: for them, there is a cause for vacuum energy, namely, the universe in which that vacuum energy ‘appears’ — or, in other words, it is the characteristic of this particular universe that has the potential of creating vacuum energy. It doesn’t come from ‘nowhere’ — it comes, instead, from the particular conditions in which our universe was formed. Ah, but what conditions are those, you may ask? Well, Buddhists are silent about that; because they are far more concerned about the mind than the matter (always taking into account that one cannot exist without the other!), they just have this vague, abstract, conceptual model about the universe (or, rather, the multiverse), without bothering much with details such as complex mathematical formulae. You might say that this is cheating 🙂 — i.e. having good ideas but being utterly unable to produce mathematical proof that such ideas are valid — but that’s not how Buddhist logic works. They are fine with general principles which can be tested logically and argued endlessly until one agrees with them — or rejects them because the logic is flawed. From their perspective, they don’t need to delve much deeper than that.

    Why bother to set up this complex model of the multiverse, if not to ‘go deeper’? Well, the explanation of the Buddhist multiverse has two main purposes. The first is to show that there is ‘no need’ to posit the existence of a third entity, namely the ‘Creator God’, which ‘creates’ mind and matter — universes and sentient beings. According to Occam’s Razor, that third entity can simply be discarded, because the causal relationship between sentient beings and the universe they inhabit is more than sufficient to explain the existence of both; there is no need to introduce a third entity. And of course it was argued before that such an entity might exist, or have existed; Buddhist logic does not preclude the existence of ‘gods’ with superhuman powers able to ‘create’ things (such as, say, planets, suns, galaxies…) simply because we humans also have the power to create so many things on our own, at our limited scope (we cannot create stars, for instance, but we can certainly reproduce the kind of nuclear fusion that goes on at the core of stars — so we’re also ‘tiny godlets’ in a way). It just says that even if such gods may exist, they’re subject to the same causal laws than everybody else; they will also have begun their existence due to causes and conditions; and their existence will fade away eventually, possibly with the end of this particular universe, possibly surviving this universe and a few others — even a multitude of others! — but, eventually, like everything else made of matter and mind, it will ultimately fade away, no matter how many ‘superpowers’ such a ‘god’ might have. As a consequence, such ‘gods’, if they exist at all, are just superpowerful entities, sure, but not much ‘superior’ than common human beings; they are not to be worshipped because of their superior powers, but to be recipients of loving-kindness and compassion, because such ‘gods’, such as all sentient beings, are subject to the same laws of causation. Strictly speaking, what Buddhists are saying is that the existence of ‘Creator Gods’ is not compatible with the way the Buddhist multiverse works, in a tangle of causes, conditions and effects, simply because it has no place there and does not add any explanatory power; therefore, Buddhists reject the concept of a ‘Creator God’; even if a ‘god’ would directly address a Buddhist and say, ‘Yield, oh unbeliever, because I am a Creator God!’, then Buddhists might either disregard that apparition as hallucination — the more pragmatic approach — or simply say to this ‘god’ that they can accept that He ‘believes’ to be a ‘Creator God’, as He names Himself, but, ultimately, He is not responsible for the multiverse — He just thinks He is.

    Because Buddhist scholars have argued so much with Hindu scholars — which have sprouted basically all possible kinds of religions, most of them theistic — they have fine-tuned their argumentation, often specifically addressing certain particular religions. For instance, here is how they argue about what really is going on with the God Shiva, seen by many Hindu religions as the Creator God. According to Buddhists, this particular universe was caused by the existence of sentient beings in other universes which have faded away; at a certain point in time, this universe acquired the conditions that allow sentient beings to appear — and merely because universes always cause sentient beings to appear, they will appear, so long as the conditions are right. The first sentient being to appear is Shiva. He looks around himself, and is alone — the only sentient being in the whole of the universe. But then suddenly other sentient beings start popping up in the universe. ‘Ah,’ thinks Shiva, ‘because I’m alone, I’ve created other beings to keep me company — they are therefore my children, and I will take good care of them.’ So Shiva mistakenly thinks that he has ‘created’ the other sentient beings out of nowhere, when in reality such sentient beings would pop into existence merely through causal relationships from other universes — Shiva did nothing but observe, and it was just a pure coincidence that he was ‘the first’. Note that we can talk about ‘time’ in this context because universes ’cause’ time — so there will be a ‘first sentient being’, and this is what Buddhists tell to Hindus about their ‘Creator God’. Shiva, in fact, might be (or believe to be) super-powerful compared to other sentient beings, but he acts in the delusion that just because he was the first, he created all others (Shiva also appears as a ‘nice’ god who teaches humans to be compassive and have loving-kindness towards others, so I guess ancient Buddhist scholars had a soft spot for him, and instead of disproving his existence, they just ‘downgraded’ Shiva’s status from ‘Creator God’ to ‘just a sentient being with superpowers, but essentially a nice guy, only a deluded one).

    To conclude: KCA is a product of Western thought and logic, which tends to presume that all causation has a temporal relationship; therefore, one can talk about the ‘first cause’, and naturally such a ‘first cause’ can be anthropomorphised into a ‘Creator God’. Buddhist logic, akin to contemporary quantum mechanics (and in a sense very similar to some superstring theories), considers ‘time’ a property of each universe, and, as such, causal relationships do not imply ‘time’ in the sense of ‘effect following cause’. Cause and effect are interlinked, yes, and, given the right conditions, an effect will always be produced by a cause, and, conversely, there are no causes which produce no effects. However, the notion of ‘producing’ is not a temporal one, but one of connection — which is much more in accord with what quantum mechanics describes as non-local causation, or that relativity explains that ‘effect follows cause’ only from the perspective of a specific observer, while others might see the effect before the cause. ‘Outside’ a universe, there is no ‘time’ to speak off; the multiverse in itself is timeless and therefore allows the existence of infinite causes; this, in turn, gives rise to the Mahayana school of thought which says that ‘all sentient beings are our beloved mothers’, because, in a timeless multiverse, where infinite causes will produce infinite effects, and where sentient beings in one universe will be the cause of the next universe to appear into existence, there will always be a causal link which will eventually bind each sentient being with every other one (which is true if one considers the possibility of an infinity of such links); and that will also mean that ‘out there’ there will be at least one universe where we were the mother of any one of all the other sentient beings. (Strictly speaking, it is not necessary to posit that there are infinite universes in an infinitely large multiverse with infinite sentient beings in it; in fact, Buddhism tends to claim that this number is vastly huge beyond all imagination, but not necessarily infinite; nevertheless, it’s big enough to allow the existence of enough causal links between all sentient beings so that each of them, in some universe, at some time, will have been the mother of the other.)

    Buddhists therefore also use the Occam’s Razor to exclude ‘Creator Gods’, but their argument is a little more complex. Note that this complexity is necessary because of Buddhism’s worldview and consequent lifestyle: existence conditioned by this cycle of causes and effects is necessarily unsatisfactory (or, if you prefer, ‘suffering’ or ‘pain’, which are alternative renderings of the Sanskrit word duḥkha) and the purpose of Buddhist techniques is to break free from this cycle, thus achieving the end of insatisfaction. The way it is done is not germane to this discussion, but it naturally influenced the construction of this complex worldview. A fundamental tenet of Buddhism is that there is no way to achieve that ‘breaking free’ by getting it granted by someone else (i.e. a god…); it’s only you and you alone that can do that; all that can be given is a set of techniques to do so. Teachers such as the historical Buddha basically are just bearers of methods and techniques; they are not supernatural beings, but merely humans; while many Buddhist traditions may venerate such teachers in the same way that theistic religions venerate their gods and saints, the truth is that such veneration comes mostly from an Eastern form of respect towards teachers that goes way beyond of what we in the West are used to — and not necessarily from a wish to turn Buddhist teachers into some sort of ‘semi-gods’ — more-than-human, supernatural beings. Of course, it’s fair to say that not all Buddhists are highly intellectual philosophers who fully understand the logic behind all the techniques and their purpose; in fact, the vast majority of Buddhists — like people from any other religion anywhere in the world — will have just a rudimentary knowledge of their own religion (which is not, strictly speaking, a ‘religion’ in the usual sense of the word, but more akin to a ‘science of the mind’ which proposes a huge set of self-helping techniques to lead a better life) and actually believe that Buddhist teachers are gods or something supernatural, so in effect creating the appearance that Buddhism is nothing more than a strange variety of Hinduism with a different pantheon of gods…

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