How does an appeal to Ockham’s Razor favor the materialist over immaterialism?
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
This is such a preposterous lie, Diana.
Let’s keep things simple. According to the materialist, physical entities — or conditions, or posits — are all that is ultimately real. They exist as a fact. We needn’t enquire how such a ‘fact’ came about because facts end where science ends. Whatever ‘is’, is whatever is posited by the currently accepted physical theory.
The immaterialist (on the simple version) accepts all of this but then adds something on top: physical entities in space are not all that is ultimately real. They are merely ‘appearances’ (Kant) or ‘ideas’ (Berkeley). Appearances can’t just appear by themselves, they must be OF something. Ideas can’t just float free, they must be IN something.
So, according to Kant, appearances are ‘of’ something beyond the reach of human experience, something that we cannot even conceptualize: the realm of ‘noumena’ or ‘things in themselves’. According to Berkeley, the ‘ideas’ we experience exist as ‘archetypes’ in the mind of God. (There are over versions of idealism or immaterialism but similar points apply.)
Well, it looks like the immaterialist is committed to a hell of a lot more than the materialist is committed to, so doesn’t that mean that if you apply Ockham’s Razor — reduce the minimum the number of posits in a theory — that materialism wins hands down?
No, it doesn’t. For one very simple reason. William of Ockham intended his principle to apply to two rival theories that are assumed to be otherwise equal as explanations or ‘best explanations’. Theory 1 posits x unexplained entities, theory 2 posits y unexplained entities. If x is greater than y, then ceteris paribus or other things being equal, theory 2 is to be preferred to theory 1.
But other things are not equal. The materialist has completely baulked the question, Why is there anything at all? Why is there not Nothing? Facts are facts, existence exists, the materialist says, we don’t need to go beyond facts or physical existence. The immaterialist laughs at the materialist’s naivete. The immaterialist’s theory explains more, so naturally you’d expect it to assume more.
Now, you are perfectly entitled to say that you don’t accept or agree with the immaterialist’s ambitions. The notion that there is ultimately something ‘beyond facts’, something with the essential character of reason or necessity or purpose may leave you completely cold. That’s a ground for being a materialist. But in making that decision you’re not applying Ockham’s Razor, because the two rival theories aren’t comparable in that way. They’re apples and oranges, not two different varieties of apple.