Sunday, June 01, 2014

Dawson's Razor

I think it may be beneficial for readers to have a specific blog post on what I have come to call “Dawson’s razor.” So in this entry I cull together some pointers to help make clear what exactly this principle means, why it is important, and how it can be used.

In philosophy, a “razor” is “a principle or premise that allows one to eliminate unlikely explanations for a phenomenon” (per

The most famous example is Occam’s razor, the principle which states “that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”

Other “razors” include:
Popper’s falsifiability principle: “a theory can be scientific only if it is falsifiable”;  
Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”; 
Hitchen’s razor: “the burden of proof or onus in a debate lies with the claim-maker, and if he or she does not meet it, the opponent does not need to argue against the unfounded claim”; 
Newton’s flaming laser sword: “If something cannot be settled by experiment then it is not worthy of debate” 
For Objectivists, there is also “Rand’s razor” (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 72):
concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity—the corollary of which is: nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity.
Leonard Peikoff elaborates on “Rand’s razor” as follows (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 139):
"A 'razor' is a principle that slashes off a whole category of false and/or useless ideas. Rand's Razor is addressed to anyone who enters the field of philosophy. It states: name your primaries. Identify your starting points, including the concepts you take to be irreducible, and then establish that these are objective axioms. Put negatively: do not begin to philosophize midstream. Do not begin with some derivative concept or issue, while ignoring its roots, however much such issue interests you. Philosophical knowledge, too, is hierarchical."
Naturally it is important to know what one’s ultimate starting point is, and I have addressed the need to identify one’s starting point numerous times in my writings (see for example my blog entry A Reply to Matthias on Philosophical Starting Points).

But suppose one claims that “God” is his starting point. After all, the theist supposes, if he begins with his god-belief as his starting point, he figures that its alleged truth would be unassailable. So why not start with “God” and assert that all challengers must assume it as well?

This is where “Dawson’s razor” comes in handy. Briefly, Dawson’s razor can be summed up as follows:
One’s epistemological methodology must be consistent with the nature of his consciousness and the relationship it has to its objects.
The truth of this principle should not be hard to recognize. Since epistemological methodology includes the mental procedures which one must perform to acquire and validate knowledge, the methodology which one uses must be fully compatible with the nature of his consciousness and the implications it has for epistemology in terms of the subject-object relationship.

To tease this out, let us ask:
Do the objects of one’s consciousness conform to conscious activity, or do they exist and have the nature they have independently of conscious activity?
Consider the question: “Does wishing make it so?” People generally recognize, even if only implicitly, that reality will not alter itself to conform to one’s wishes, that one’s wishes do not hold metaphysical primacy over reality. If one focuses his awareness on a specific object, say a coffee cup or a tree, and wishes that it become something other than what it is, say a Ferrari sports car, the object will either be altered by the act of wishing, or it won’t. So we have two proposed outcomes resulting from conscious activity with regard to an object to consider here: conscious activity can alter its objects, or conscious activity cannot alter its objects.

The view that the objects of consciousness will conform to one’s wishing or other conscious activity (e.g., that wishing that a coffee cup will turn into a Ferrari will in fact turn the coffee cup into a Ferrari), is known as the primacy of consciousness - i.e., the view that the objects of consciousness depend on and/or conform to the contents of consciousness – either one’s own, or some other consciousness or consciousnesses. On such a view, consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over its objects (‘primacy’ being the state of ranking first or being primary in a relationship with other things). One who supposes that the objects of consciousness conform to conscious activity, such as wishing – whether one’s own or someone else’s – is assuming the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.

The opposite view (e.g., that the coffee cup will remain a coffee cup regardless of what one wishes, hopes, imagines, prefers, likes, etc.) is the primacy of existence. This is the recognition that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity. Thus, if the primacy of existence is true, then neither a coffee cup nor a tree will be altered by one’s wishes or any other conscious activity. In precisely this way, the adage “wishing doesn’t make it so” is a recognition of the truth of the primacy of existence metaphysics.

As a principle, the primacy of existence is not restricted only to wishing, but in fact applies to all forms of conscious activity, such as preferring, commanding, insisting, wanting, hoping, imagining, assuming, liking or disliking, dreaming, forgetting, etc. For example, if I forget to close the door of my car on my way into my house after I get home from work, the door will not close itself in order to conform with my forgetfulness; when I go back out later, I will discover that I had in fact forgotten to close it. Similarly with disliking: I might dislike the fact that my electric bill is unusually high one month because I left my air conditioner running while I was away on vacation, but my disliking of this fact will not alter anything: reality is what it is independent of my liking and disliking, and I must conform my conscious activity to what actually is the case.

So a choice needs to be made here, one that is entirely testable. We can test whether or not the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness is true. All of my own tests unanimously confirm the truth of the primacy of existence (otherwise I could be out driving around in a different Ferrari every day of the month!). Thus the choice one must make here is whether or not he acknowledges a fundamental fact about his own consciousness’ relationship to the world around him: Does he insist that the primacy of consciousness is true in spite of the overwhelming evidence on behalf of the opposite viewpoint, or does he acknowledge the truth of the primacy of existence and express willingness to conform his epistemological methodology accordingly?

Thus in practice, Dawson’s razor can be applied as follows:
If one concedes the fact that the primacy of existence accurately characterizes the relationship between his own consciousness and the objects of his consciousness (e.g., he acknowledges that his own wishing will not turn a coffee cup into a Ferrari), then his philosophical affirmations and epistemological methodology must be wholly consistent with the primacy of existence metaphysics.
If a theist claims that a god exists (whether or not he affirms this as his starting point), we should apply Dawson’s razor. To do this, ask him if he acknowledges the fact that his own wishing doesn’t make it so. Does he acknowledge the fact that reality does not conform to his own conscious activity? If so, then he should acknowledge the fact that the primacy of existence does in fact apply in the case of his conscious activity, which means: his epistemological methodology must therefore align consistently with the primacy of existence in order for his affirmations and conclusions to have any chance of being true. Otherwise he makes use of a methodology which is inconsistent with the nature of his own consciousness.

If for some reason he is reluctant to acknowledge the fact that reality does not conform itself to his conscious activity, ask him why he is so reluctant. Does he think that reality actually does conform to his conscious activity? If so, ask him to give you a demonstration of this ability; ask him to wish a coffee cup into a Ferrari. If he is not in your immediate presence, but in contact with you through some electronic means, for example on the internet, ask him to demonstrate in some way that you will be able to confirm firsthand. Perhaps he can alter something on your table right before your eyes, like a pen or computer mouse. If he does not do this, ask him why.

Or perhaps he acknowledges that his consciousness does not have this ability, but insists that some other consciousness does. Ask him to specify whose consciousness he has in mind, and ask him to explain how he knows this. Has he himself witnessed another consciousness conforming reality to its wishes? If so, how does he know that this is what was happening? Ask him how you can get a demonstration of this remarkable ability. If he cannot explain how he knows this in a manner which is consistent with his own acknowledgement of not having the ability to conform reality to his own conscious activity, ask him if he thinks it’s possible that he’s mistaken here.

If the theist is willing to acknowledge that his conscious activity does not have the ability to alter reality, he is (at least tacitly) conceding that the primacy of existence applies in the case of his own consciousness. So now we can ask him how he can justify his theism in a manner that is consistent with the primacy of existence. Since he acknowledges that reality does not conform to his own conscious activity, his epistemological methodology must be consistent with this fact, which means he cannot simply wish that his god is real and be done with it. If reality does not conform to his wishing, then his wishing is not sufficient to serve as a means of knowing or validating truth claims. The same is the case with other types of conscious activity: since existence holds metaphysical primacy, reality does not conform to any conscious activity on his part.

So if he acknowledges that reality does not conform to any conscious action he might perform, what epistemological steps did he take (if any) to establish his theism? In order to determine whether or not any epistemological steps he took to establish his theism are consistent with the primacy of existence, which at this point he has conceded in the case of his own conscious relationship to reality, he needs to identify what those steps are.

This raises the question of one’s starting point. If a thinker acknowledges that the primacy of existence applies in the case of his own consciousness, then not only his methodology, but also his starting point must be consistent with this fundamental fact about the nature of his consciousness and its relationship to the world. What exactly is his starting point? Does he begin with the fact that existence exists, or does he deny this – either implicitly or explicitly? Does he characterize existence as the product of some conscious activity? If so, then he begins with a form of consciousness and has already derailed his train of thought by violating the primacy of existence and assuming the primacy of consciousness.

The primacy of existence teaches us that knowledge of reality must be based on objective input from reality. Thus we must begin with perception - i.e., looking out at the world and identifying the objects we perceive by an objective process – i.e., the objective theory of concepts. But already the Christian is off to a bad start, for his own worldview teaches that the believer must begin by looking inward rather than by looking outward. For example, Proverbs 1:7 asserts (without any sort of argument or analysis) that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Thus some form of emotion serves as the basis of knowledge, according to Christianity, specifically the emotion of fear. So according to the teaching of the bible itself, the Christian does not begin by looking outward, but by looking inward and taking some content of consciousness – namely an emotion - as though it were a primary and assembling everything he calls “knowledge” on this emotion as its fundamental basis.

Theists may object that we are making a hasty generalization about consciousness in general based on what we learn about our own consciousness. He may say that just because our consciousness operates on the primacy of existence, it does not follow from this that no other consciousness operates on the primacy of consciousness. The question at this point becomes: on what basis would we accept the notion that some consciousness enjoys metaphysical primacy over its objects? Could we consistently accept this notion on the basis of the primacy of existence, which we know obtains in the case of human consciousness? Or, would we have to grant metaphysical primacy to consciousness in order to entertain this notion, thus violating the nature of human consciousness?

What theists often ignore is the fact that the primacy of existence is observable, not only in the case of human consciousness, but also in the case of animal consciousness – i.e., in the case of consciousnesses belonging to animals other than human beings. In fact, throughout nature we find no exception to the primacy of existence among the many species of animals that we find in the world. Whether they are other mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects and other “creeping things,” many organisms other than man possess consciousness to varying degrees. So we can test forms of consciousness other than human to see if the primacy of consciousness obtains anywhere in the world which we access by looking outward. Are we to suppose, based on the primacy of existence which we know characterizes human consciousness, that reality might conform to the conscious activity of a squirrel or cockroach? How would we make sense of the fact that the world existed before said animals began to live and that the world continues to exist after they die?

Thus the Objectivist is on safe ground here: he does not cite only human consciousness as evidence informing the primacy of existence, but all instances of consciousness which we observe in nature in addition to human consciousness. The question for the theist, then, is:
What inputs from reality allow the theist to form the concept ‘consciousness’ such that it includes within its scope of reference a type of consciousness which we never observe in nature and yet whose activity can create and alter reality?
Theists are notorious in their failure to identify any objective inputs which they can integrate into the concept ‘consciousness’ such that it is compatible with the primacy of consciousness. That’s the beauty of Dawson’s razor: it exposes the fact that the theist cannot affirm his theism in a manner consistent with the nature of consciousness which the theist himself possesses.

Of course, the primacy of existence does not deny the fact that human beings possess the ability to imagine things. This is internally self-evident to any thinking person. We can, for example, imagine a form of consciousness which creates its own objects and controls all of reality. But notice that imagination is distinct from what is real. Notice also that what is real does not derive from, depend on or conform to what we imagine. If I see a car approaching me at a high speed while I am crossing the street, I can indeed imagine that the car will stop or that it will turn into a butterfly. But will reality conform to my imagination? The primacy of existence answers this with an emphatic no.

But the fact that reality does not derive from, depend on or conform to imagination, will not stop thinkers from confusing what they imagine with reality, especially if they adhere to a worldview which does not explicitly affirm the primacy of existence. Since thinking is volitional in nature, nothing will force a man to think in a certain way. Each individual thinker must make the choice to govern his thinking according to relevant facts (including the fact that existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness), or to evade those facts and fantasize alternatives to them.

So we must ask: 
What alternative do we have to the imagination as a means of contemplating what the theist calls “God”?

If someone tells me about an invisible magic consciousness which exists “back of” everything we perceive, what alternative to my imagination do I have to entertain such a notion? He may tell me that there are all kinds of evidences supporting his claim that an invisible magic consciousness is ever-present but beyond the reach of our senses. But what does he cite as evidence for such a thing? He may say that the world itself is evidence for its existence, claiming that it “created” the world by an act of will. Admittedly, we can imagine this, but pointing to the world and claiming that it was created by an invisible magic consciousness does not provide an alternative to imagination as the means by which one can contemplate such a claim; indeed, we would need our imagination to contemplate this as well! Nor does pointing to anything else provide an alternative to the imagination here, for the object(s) pointed to in such cases is not the object in question (i.e., the invisible magic consciousness), but something other than the object in question which is characterized as having its origin in something that we can only imagine.

Again, Dawson’s razor shines a light into darkness here: if the theist’s “means of knowledge” is in the final analysis indistinguishable from imagination, then clearly he is not employing a methodology of acquiring and validating knowledge that is compatible with the primacy of existence. If he acknowledges that the primacy of existence obtains in the case of his own consciousness, then he has already mischaracterized the nature of his own consciousness by claiming as real that which is merely imaginary. If he rejects the primacy of existence, then he openly embraces metaphysical subjectivism, and far from adhering to reality, it can only invite conflicts (as has been the case throughout Christianity since its earliest inception – doctrinal disputes were already cropping up among the faithful even in the Apostle Paul’s day).

It’s hard to see how one could claim to be epistemologically self-conscious and yet deny the principle that I’ve laid out and defended here, either performatively or by open declaration. And yet, it seems that Christians are guilty of just this while at least some of them claim to be epistemologically self-conscious. Where does the bible discuss the nature of man’s consciousness? Where does it discuss the nature of the relationship man’s consciousness has with its objects? Where does it discuss the importance of carefully distinguishing reality from imagination? Where does it endorse the virtue of objectivity in human cognition? It does none of these things. Indeed, to do so would be to give away the game, and that would be contrary to the bible’s purposes.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...


Haven't started reading the new entry yet, but just wanted to say: Good to see that you're back!


Justin Hall said...


glad your back, was a little worried to tell the truth.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks, guys! I'm okay. I'm extremely busy though. It's a strain even to check email these days...

The coup here has had little effect on most day-to-day activity, but there have been a few mob flare-ups here and there causing closures and detours. There is a curfew and everyone was following it quite to the letter at first, but things have seemed to relaxed for the time being. But there's a heavy air of uncertainty here about what's to come. But the young ladies here are loving it - they are finding lots of opportunities to take "selfies" with the handsome young soldiers stationed around the city. So that is at least some indication of how seriously many are taking this. But the guns are very real, and so are the tanks. The question is how real the resolve is, and what's behind it.

I have lots more in the mill, but little time to prep it up for posting. I will try over the next week or so to get some more up.

So stay tuned!


David Barwick said...

Glad you're back and well! Thanks for churning out more great content.

Ydemoc said...


You wrote: "If he is not in your immediate presence, but in contact with you through some electronic means, for example on the internet, ask him to demonstrate in some way that you will be able to confirm firsthand. Perhaps he can alter something on your table right before your eyes, like a pen or computer mouse. If he does not do this, ask him why"

I did this with my Christian relative, telling him over the phone that if he could cause my television to fall off its stand, right then and there, by whatever conscious means he so chooses -- prayer, wishing, hoping, thinking, faith, etc. -- then I would accept Christianity right there on the spot.

Now, I don't know whether or not he silently prayed, wished, or whatever as I waited for the television to move, but, of course, the end result was that the television didn't budge. And, of course, all he could offer up was that, "it doesn't work that way," while failing to grasp or accept that this is because it doesn't work **any** way.


l_johan_k said...

Just wanted to let you know that the Matt/Sye-debate is available on YouTube:

Unknown said...

But can I shave with it? That's the real question.

wakawakwaka said...

Hey Dawson I was wondering do you believe Christian ethics are subjective? Because I do,and i found this from your friends at triablogue claiming otherwise so what would be a good way to respond to Evan May that his ethics are indeed subjective in a meaningful way?

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Wak,

Thanks for your question.

I think I remember seeing that post way back when.

Unfortunately, Evan May’s conception of “objective morality” raises far more questions than his expressed views can address.

For example: given his stated conception of what “objectivity” means in ethics, how does his definition protect ethics from based ultimately on something that is merely imaginary?

He states that “objective moral norms” are “moral principles that are transcendent, unchanging, and universally binding on humanity.”

Where did he get this definition? I doubt he got it from the bible.

In Christianspeak, “transcendent” is code for the imaginary.

His conception makes no reference to the role of facts in informing “objective moral norms.” Nor does he seem to understand the antithesis between objectivity and subjectivism in terms of the subject-object relationship. There’s no way anything he says in his blog post reduces logically to the primacy of existence. His conception of morality thus props the door open to subjectivism by allowing for the primacy of consciousness to dictate all the terms.

He states that “The only basis for such moral norms is theistic,” which again can only mean, in the final analysis, that imagination plays a central role here in determining the basis for morality.


Bahnsen Burner said...

He writes: “These are based in God’s nature, not in his emotional whims.”

If ethics were “based on God’s nature,” what could this possibly mean? The Christian god is supposed to be “infinite” – which can only mean that it has no definite nature. Also, if ethics were based on or a reflection of the Christian god’s nature, why doesn’t its own actions conform to those ethical norms? We are told that the Christian god “controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160). So when people die, this god is controlling everything that leads to their death. This includes old people, people killed in accidents, people killed by diseases, people killed by other people, etc., etc. Even little babies. So the Christian god is killing all the time. But one of its commandments is not to kill. Supposedly its moral commands are based on or are a reflection of its character, nature, what have you. But it’s out there killing all the time, thus not acting in a manner consistent with moral norms it is said to have authored.

To say that ethics in this context would not be based ultimately in emotional whims, is to ignore the context of what Christianity teaches about its god. Its god is not restricted by anything; there are no facts that it would have to obey. It has nothing but whims to guide its actions. It certainly does not need to find food, earn money, procure shelter, clothe itself, save for the future, etc. It can simply do whatever it wants and reality is supposed to conform to its wishes immediately on the spot. Moreover, we keep hearing that the Christian god is “unchanging” – it “cannot change,” they say. But how often do we find in the bible that its god is angry and wrathful? Answer: many times. Well, if this is an angry god that cannot change, then it’s eternally angry. And if it’s omniscient, it knows that it cannot change – it knows that it will never be able to escape its own anger. So emotions would likely rule its every action. So whim and emotions are all it has; it has no objective reference points to guide its choice and actions.

Also, what about man’s nature? How does May’s conception address the questions: Does man need morality? and If yes, why?

Man needs morality because he faces a fundamental alternative – to live or die – and has no automatic means of survival. Man needs to use his reason and guide his choices and actions according to a code of values suited to his nature as a biological organism capable of rational thought. This is not the biblical view of ethics; quite the contrary. This is a code of ethics based on fundamental facts that are relevant to man’s life needs. Nothing less will suit man.


Bahnsen Burner said...

But May’s view guarantees that what he considers “ethical norms” can only be irrelevant to man’s nature and thus completely dispensable. The first commandment is “thou shalt have no other god before me.” But people of other faiths have other gods instead of the Christian god, and yet they go right on with their lives. “Violating” this “norm” does not in any way lead to consequences that harm a man’s life. Thus it’s all irrelevant, and Christianity guarantees that it’s all irrelevant by systematically disregarding man’s nature and his life needs from understanding what ethics/morality is.

Ethical notions that are based on an alleged being that we can only imagine, are by virtue of this fact subjective in nature.

May writes: “If ethics were a standard extrinsic to God to which he must submit, he would not be God, which is incoherent.”

This is what concerns May: where would a morality based on something other than the imaginary god leave that imaginary god? Well, it would be irrelevant. But May wants his god to be centrally relevant to everything. So he defines morality in such a way that only his god can presumably satisfy its foundational requirements. But as we saw, this simply opens everything up to blind subjectivism (since it’s all ultimately based on the imaginary) and has no relevance to man’s life and his life’s needs.

May writes: “Christian morality is rooted in the eternal will of God and the unchanging nature of God,”

Morality is a code of values which guides one’s choices and actions. Man must act in order to continue living. He faces a fundamental alternative. He does not automatically know what to do in order to live; he needs to learn and build a sum of knowledge suited to just this task. Thus he needs reason, and he needs to apply reason to his life’s needs.

By contrast, the Christian god is said to be immortal and indestructible, and it’s supposed to have no needs whatsoever. Unlike man, it does not face a fundamental alternative and it does not need to act in order to exist. It can rest motionless for all eternity and still be what it is always. Since it does not need to act and has no needs whatsoever, it does not need a code of values to guide its choices and actions. Thus morality would be completely useless to it.

Basing moral norms on an invisible magic being which (a) we can only imagine, (b) does not face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death, (c) does not require values in order to exist, (d) does not need to act in order to exist, simply leaves man completely out of the equation. The result does not provide man with objectively informed principles which he can use to guide his choices and actions.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Notice that most of the “commandments” that Christianity presents as its “moral norms” are in the form of negative imperatives: don’t do this, don’t do that, etc. Telling man what not to do does not give man those principles he needs to determine what he should do. Christianity’s bottom line on this matter is that man should sacrifice and hate: he is to sacrifice himself, hate his father, his mother, his siblings, his spouse and children, even himself (cf. Lk. 14:26). Morality for the Christian worldview is about teaching man how to suffer and die. A genuinely objective morality is pro-reality, pro-reason and pro-man, and it teaches him how to live and enjoy his life.

I’ll go with life and enjoying it on my terms. The Christians can have their suffering and death-worship all to themselves.

May writes: “Yes, God is personal, but ethics must be personal by necessity in order for them to be normative.”

Why? Here “personal” – especially in Christianity – implies a consciousness to whose activity reality conforms – cf. wishing makes it so. But that’s the primacy of consciousness. Why would ethics need to be based on the primacy of consciousness in order to be “normative”? That’s easy: because “normative” ultimately means, for the Christian, someone dictating to everyone else what they can and cannot do. So no matter how much he wants to continue declaring that Christianity’s ethical norms are “objective,” it all continues to reduce to the primacy of wishing and divine whim-worship.

Hope that helps!