Screw You, Occam's Razor!

Josh McPaul Encourages PhD Students to have "Confidence in Complexity"

How many of you have been told that “it’s not that deep?” How many times do people tell you that things are simpler than you try to make them out to be? Do you ever wonder what is so wrong with trying to figure it all out? Well, simple might be good enough, but good enough, just isn’t good enough for me.

This past winter, I attended a retreat with graduate students from Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSC. I wrote about the overall experience and promised that I’d write a little bit about the teaching.  I really don’t know who Josh McPaul is or what he does, except that he is a ministry leader at UC Berkeley with ties to First Presbyterian Church (or perhaps he is a ministry leader at First Pres with ties to UC Berkeley). More importantly, his teaching, at the retreat, was intellectually captivating, and, in conversation, this guy is legit.

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore, we are saved by love.
– Reinhold Niebuhr

He hands out, what could be, a research paper on complexity, the Psalms, accompanied by a number of secondary sources. The overall takeaway is that, in addition to being very simple, Christianity is (especially intellectually) very complex. With complexity in mind, peace that “transcends all understanding” arrives, I believe, when we can accept that complexity is ok (when petitioned to God). McPaul takes it a step further to quote Tolkein:

Tolkien stated in a letter: “Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.

Appropriately, King David’s book of Psalms demonstrates the ups and downs as an example of what it is like to live out our calling. Honestly, Christianity is in the poor state that it is because there are so many of us (in America) who aren’t meant to be simple-mindedly joyful (yet try to be). Our faith suffers because we are surreptitiously feeling rejected, misunderstood, lonely, and depressed. There’s always something missing, isn’t there? But rather than processing and holding strong to the truths we profess, we just settle for (what I call) the cheap imitation. Rather than dealing with it, we convince ourselves that there is no better.

So how do we endure this “long defeat?” Well, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Perhaps believing that our work isn’t for naught and that our anticipated rewards serve as a glimpse of the final victory is how we are to have “confidence in complexity” (and not turn into nihilistic losers).

Also, I want to mention to any grad student who’ll be in the bay are around Valentines Day next year to consider being part of this grad student retreat.

Here are the awesome book excerpts and quotes from McPaul’s study (each quote is a blog post in itself (here’s the pdf: gradretreat.winter2010.mcpaul):

“Together, sin and hope shape both the context and the form in which we practice social witness…. Sometimes, one can almost witness the increasing frustration of activists as they encounter new sources of injustice, new resistance to change and new tellings of the same old stories. The brokenness of the world seems to have a life of its own; and, despite sincere human striving, situations of injustice and suffering get worse, not better. The seemingly insurmountable character of social evil leads even the most committed activists to frustration, and sometimes weariness, fatigue or even numbness.”

How can faithful activists persevere in light of this complexity and its seeming potential for despair?

-Rev. Jennifer Ayres, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, McCormick Theological Seminary

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship, their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements, and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a super-intending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not toward final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his future, the disappointments of life, the death of the good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,” – all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

-John Henry Newman (Apologia pro Vita Sua)

“This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see…. brigands on the land, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It really is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. YET, in the midst of it, I have found a quiet place and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are Christians….and I am one of them.

-St. Cyprian in 3rd C.

Sometimes our quest for orderly meaning comes from fear of a disorderly life, from our need to dampen disrupting rapture… We do just that when we heap layer upon layer of spiritual meaning on life’s elemental forces – when we use theology or any other meaning system to bury the incarnation.

-Parker Palmer

“Contemporary images of what it means to be spiritual tend to value the inward search over the outward act, silence over sound, solitude over interaction, centeredness and quietude and balance over engagement and animation and struggle.”

“In the spiritual literature of our time, it is not difficult to find the world of action portrayed as an arena of ego and power, while the world of contemplation is pictured as a realm of light and grace. I have often read for example that the treasure of the true self can be found as we draw back from active life and enter into contemplative prayer. Less often have I read that this treasure can be found in our struggles to work, create and care in the world of action.”

-Parker Palmer, The Active Life

No one is ever really at ease in facing what we call “life” and “death” without a religious faith. The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

It often appears to those outside the Churches that this is precisely the attitude of Christian people. If they are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a Church.

-J. B. Philips, Your God is Too Small

Frodo Baggins : I can’t do this Sam.

Sam Gamgee: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

-Lord of the Rings

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to’another due, Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain, But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

-John Donne

When the theologian or pastor talks the talk of relationship and community rather than the talk of obedience and holiness, he just might be hawking a postmodern prosperity gospel. The poor man’s prosperity gospel is: “Never mind all that stuff about obedience and holiness; Jesus wants to make you rich and happy!” But many of us today in the West are rich. We don’t need the poor man’s prosperity gospel. Rather, we suffer from ennui, angst, and media overload. The relationships we do have are shallow and unsatisfying, so the intellectual sophisticate offers a postmodern prosperity gospel instead: “Never mind all that stuff about obedience and holiness; Jesus will give you relationships, purpose, community.”

-Jonothan Leeman

“I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. . . . You know, people from our background — like you, like most PIH-ers, like me — we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”

-Paul Farmer, Mountains beyond Mountains

It is at first very surprising that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scripture is the Word of God to us. But prayers are the words of men. How do prayers then get into the Bible?… Are these prayers to God also God’s own word? That seems rather difficult to understand. We grasp it only when we remember that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, from the word of the Son of God who lives with us… to God the Father, who lives in eternity…. In his mouth, the word of man becomes the Word of God. and if we pray his prayer with him, the Word of God becomes once again the word of man.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible

To be sure, the one who prayers his Psalms remains himself. But in him and through him it is Christ who prays…. How is it possible for a man and Jesus Christ to prayer the Psalter together? It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God and who stands in our place and prays for us. He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we. Therefore it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by him which comes before God. It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer…. Who prayers the psalms? David prays. Christ prays. We pray.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible

God does not save us so that we can cultivate private ecstasies. He does not save us so that we can be guaranteed a reservation in a heavenly mansion. We are made citizens in a kingdom, that is a society. He teaches us the language of the kingdom by providing the psalms, which turn out to be as concerned with the rough and tumble world of politics as they are with the quiet waters of piety….

In a time when our sense of nation and community is distorted, when so many Christians have reduced prayer to a private act and when so many others bandy it about in political slogans, it is essential that we recover the kingdom dimensions of prayer. Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure is

“What a lesson it is to a man not to set his heart on low popularity when after 40 years [of] disinterested public service, I am believed by the Bulk to be a Hypocritical Rascal. O what a comfort it is to have to fly for refuge to a God of unchangeable truth.” William Wilberforce wrote in his diary on July 20, 1820:

Thus, at chosen seasons, the Christian exercises himself, and when, from this elevated region he descends into the plan below, and mixes in the bustle of life, he still retains the impressions of his retired hours. By these he realizes to himself the unseen world: he accustoms himself to speak and act as in the presence of “an innumerable company of angels and of the spirits of just men made perfect, and of God the Judge of all. “ William Wilberforce, PVOC

[He saw that the nominal Christians of his day had the idea that] “morality is to be obtained by their own natural unassisted efforts: or if they admit some vague indistinct notion of the assistance of the of the Holy Spirit, it is unquestionably obvious on conversing with them that this does not constitute the main practical ground of their dependence.”

-William Wilberforce, PVOC

“with indignation every idea of attaining it by his own strength. All his hopes of possessing it rest altogether on the divine assurances of the operation of the Holy Spirit, in those who cordially embrace the Gospel of Christ.”

-William Wilberforce, PVOC

LORD HIGH AND HOLY, MEEK AND LOWLY,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,

where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;

hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox

that the way down is the way up,

that to be low is to be high,

that the broken heart is the healed heart,

that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,

that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,

that to have nothing is to posses all,

that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,

that to give is to receive,

that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,

and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;

Let me find thy light in my darkness,

thy life in my death,

thy joy in my sorrow,

thy grace in my sin,

thy riches in my poverty,

thy glory in my valley.

“One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet – people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant and futile, who looked beyond all these existing alternatives for the source of their strength so entirely in the past or in the future, and who yet, without being dreamers were able to await the success of their cause so quietly and confidently. Or perhaps one should rather ask whether the responsible thinking people of any generation that stood at a turning-point in history did not feel much as we do, simply because something new was emerging that could not be seen in the existing alternatives.

The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems. But for the Christian who frames his life on the Bible it simply confirms the radical evilness of evil.

The failure of rationalism is evident. With the best of intentions, but with a naïve lack of realism, the rationalist imagines that a small dose of reason will be enough to put the world right. In his short-sightedness he wants to do justice to all sides, but in the mêlée of conflicting forces he gets trampled upon without having achieved the slightest effect. Disappointed by the irrationality of the world, he realizes at last his futility, retires from the fray, and weakly surrenders to the winning side.

Worse still is the total collapse of moral fanaticism. The fanatic imagines that his moral purity will prove a match for the power of evil, but like a bull he goes for the red rag instead of the man who carries it, grows weary and succumbs. He becomes entangled with non-essentials and falls into the trap set by the superior ingenuity of his adversary.

Then there is the man with a conscience. He fights single-handed against overwhelming odds in situations which demand a decision. But there are so many conflicts going on, all of which demand some vital choice–with no advice or support save that of his own conscience–that he is torn to pieces. Evil approaches him in so many specious and deceptive guises that his conscience becomes nervous and vacillating. In the end he contents himself with a salved instead of a clear conscience, and starts lying to his conscience as a means of avoiding despair. If a man relies exclusively on his conscience he fails to see how a bad conscience is sometimes more wholesome and strong than a deluded one.

Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such men however are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action. For all that they achieve, that which they leave undone will still torment their peace of mind. They will either go to pieces in face of this disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.

Who Stands Fast?

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer: After Ten Years

9 thoughts on “Screw You, Occam's Razor!

  1. So I’m a “nihilistic loser” facing a “long defeat” if I don’t prostrate myself to an imaginary super best friend?

  2. caleb, i’m glad you call me out on my poor writing…

    1) who am i calling a nihilistic loser?…

    i think i am poking fun at those who believe that there is “no hope for humanity”… (poking fun in a jovial way, of course)…

    and… i’m calling christians losers…. for this reason:

    “Our faith suffers because we are surreptitiously feeling rejected, misunderstood, lonely, and depressed. There’s always something missing, isn’t there? But rather than processing and holding strong to the truths we profess, we just settle for (what I call) the cheap imitation. Rather than dealing with it, we convince ourselves that there is no better.” = NIHILISTIC (christian) LOSER

    2) the long defeat is a major point in this blog…the point being that christians are not all meant to be happy and full of glee.. on the contrary, that in many cases (both biblically and in my personal life), do i find myself in a long defeat…

    “Tolkien stated in a letter: “Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

  3. Occam’s Razor is a principle that makes science effective. But anyone who claims that the simplest explanation is *necessarily* the truth has a flaw in their reasoning.

  4. hi richard!!

    this title may have been a failed attempt to sound smart and edgey (i guess, it gets me readers when i try to sound smart…haha)…

    i admit to be taking a lot of “occam’s razor” for granted, and, perhaps, i meant to say “screw you, simplicity!”.. this actually makes me want to investigate the actual purpose for occam’s razor as opposed to how it is often used colloquially..

    however, had it not been for a conversation i had right before i was to write this post, it’d probably have been called “confidence in complexity” instead 🙂

    “Dicto simpliciter” is what i found researching logical fallacies (it may not be the right one)… but i recently had someone use occams razor as a counter argument…

    —-

    so i bring up the point that, for me, someone who knows a lot of people, i often feel disconnected…

    he says (in addition to being spread too thin), that i exert too much energy in trying to connect with people who may not want to connect..

    i respond with… wondering whether i do this b/c i actually dont want to connect with anyone…

    he says.. “well then stop trying to connect with people”…

    i say, “i wish it were that simple”…

    then he says…”occam’s razor”…

    my response to that was: well, the problem is that it may be a calling or purpose in life for me to connect with people… so, i’d not be willing to settle…

    …i suppose occam’s razor exalts simplicity, given all other things equal… so it’s perhaps “dicto simpliciter” or a misuse and not a fallacy of occam’s razor itself…

  5. in regards to [long suffering], i wanted to add this from LOTR…

    Frodo Baggins : I can’t do this Sam.

    Sam Gamgee: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

    Frodo: What are we holding on to Sam?

    Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

    -Lord of the Rings

  6. “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” HL Menken.

    Menken although an atheist, like me, had a sardonic, mean spirited wit. Menken was also a Libertarian, a political viewpoint I find particularly loathsome and greedy.
    I would vastly prefer to be surrounded by Christian Humanists than Libertarians any day.

  7. Thanks for your reply Sherol, your article is a lot clearer to me with that context. And indeed, Occam’s Razor isn’t a principle I’d apply to all of life!

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