Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


presentations
Occam’s Razor

A discussion of how Occam’s Razor is sometimes used as a basis for objecting to Christianity, highlighting some serious philosophical problems with this approach.

This article was originally published on Thinking Matters Talk, and is in the public domain »

Every now and again, some atheist will claim that Christianity is falsified by Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor is the principle of parsimony, which states that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. Basically, the Razor claims that the simplest explanation is the best. The argument forwarded by atheists is generally along the lines either that (i) God is unnecessary to explain the world as we know it, and therefore is unlikely to exist; or, more strongly, that (ii) since God is infinitely complex, the Christian explanation of reality is thus infinitely more complex than a non-theistic one, and so should be rejected by default. (This second argument I find more interesting—it’s what got me thinking about Occam’s Razor to begin with, after Steve Zarbi posited it following our debate.)

It intrigues me that atheists use this as a foundation for “disproving” Christianity. Several obvious problems suggest themselves:

Question-begging

Firstly, how does (i) not beg the question against the Christian? If, in fact, the Christian is correct in asserting that God is not just necessary to explain reality, but is a necessary precondition for reality, then (i) is obviously false and doesn’t constitute an argument at all. Since the Christian has plenty of good arguments of his own which seek to prove his position, these should be evaluated on their own merits rather than dismissed on the dubious basis of parsimony.

Less obviously, (ii) also begs the question. Even if the Christian explanation is infinitely more complex by merit of entertaining an infinitely complex being, perhaps it is the case that, in this particular instance, such a being is a requirement of any rigorous and adequate explanation of reality. The atheist needs to make an argument which shows this is not the case, rather than merely asserting it.

Furthermore, what does the atheist mean by “infinitely complex being”, in reference to God? The term “infinite” is used very freely with relation to God, but is generally a qualitative term rather than a quantitative one. That is, when we say that God is “infinite”, we tend to be referring to some superlative characteristic of his, rather than to any actual number of things which inhere in him. So the atheist needs to clarify and argue for his view that God is infinitely complex.

On top of this, even if that argument is successful, he has still not shown that an infinitely complex God entails an infinitely complex explanation. In what sense is the quantitative infinity of God being imputed to the Christian’s explanation of reality? Again, clarification and argument, rather than mere assertion, are required to prove the point.

Complexity is better than simplicity

Secondly, and along similar lines to the question-begging problem, it is self-evidently the case that we can have such a thing as an explanation which is too simple, but not necessarily an explanation which is too complex. Imagine, for example, a detective trying to find an explanation for the death of a man who died from blunt trauma in a factory. It’s obvious to us that an explanation which includes a murderer is more complex than an explanation which doesn’t. According to Occam’s Razor, the detective should favor any explanation which does not needlessly multiply entities. If the death can be explained by an unfortunate mechanical accident, then there isn’t any reason to postulate a murderer. A murderer becomes a needless entity, and so the detective assumes that it was indeed an accident. That’s fair.

However, two obvious things need to be noted: firstly, an explanation which fails to include a necessary entity is too simple, and therefore is necessarily false. Imagine the dead man was 90 years old and had a heart condition. Ordinarily, natural causes would be the simplest and most likely cause of death. But there is evidence of blunt trauma; so if the detective posits a natural heart attack as the explanation for the man’s death, his explanation is obviously too simple—and thus must be wrong. A blunt object is a necessary entity in the explanation.

Secondly, and on the other hand, a murderer could have killed the man in such a way as to make the death appear accidental. So the fact that the explanation without a murderer is more simple does not guarantee its truth; and the fact that the explanation with a murderer is more complex does not guarantee its falsehood. In fact, we can imagine a fantastic and highly unlikely explanation for the man’s death, involving any number of entities that the detective would never think of, which was nonetheless true.

So an over-simple theory must be wrong, but an “over”-complex theory might be right. There are plenty of good arguments to show that a non-theistic explanation of reality is over-simple in such a way that it must be false. I hope to discuss more of these in the Philosophy section of Thinking Matters Talk as time goes on.

Occam’s Razor has no grounds in a non-theistic worldview

The last and most convincingly troublesome problem for the atheist is that Occam’s Razor itself, on which his objection is based, really has no grounds whatsoever in a non-theistic worldview. The atheist wants to say that we should not multiply entities needlessly. A Christian may well agree with him, because he knows from revelation (both special and general) that God typically does not act in a needlessly complicated way. He has designed the universe to act consistently, and in a way which is fairly straightforward, even in its complexity. He has also designed our senses and intellects in such a way that we can apprehend the way the world works, and discover things about it. Most importantly, he has built into us certain expectations about the world, such that our intuitions generally match up to reality. Thus we have grounds for affirming Occam’s Razor.

But an atheist has no such grounds. In a non-rational universe, whether mechanistic or probabilistic, what possible reason could he have for asserting that simpler explanations are better? Why should they be? As a rule of thumb, at least fifty percent of the time we should expect the more complex explanations to true. There isn’t any physical law of parsimony such that the universe must operate in such a way that simpler explanations are better, is there? So on what basis does the atheist assert Occam’s Razor at all?

He could say that, historically, the simpler explanations have been true. And maybe this is so. But then why does he think that this will continue to be the case? After all, we know very little of the universe, and we haven’t been around very long in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps our history is an aberration, and in fact it is a general rule that the likelihood of an explanation being true tends to rise with its complexity. How can he know this isn’t the case?

In truth, he affirms Occam’s Razor because his God-given intuitions suggest very strongly to him that it’s true. Unfortunately, because his intuitions are indeed God-given, he is most certainly misapplying them in using them as a basis for objecting to God’s existence.

11 comments

  1. James

    And I would like to stress Bnonn, that Occam’s Razor always breaks down when it meets intelligence. Even low forms of intelligence. The more complicated bird creates the less complicated nest. The more complicated ant creates the less complicated ant hill. The more complicated man creates the less complicated chair. So suggesting that a more complicated Creator created a less complicated universe is not out of bounds.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    That’s an interesting point Jim—one which could be be developed into a fairly strong argument that the atheist, in using Occam’s Razor as a basis for objecting to Christianity, is begging the question against intelligent design.

  3. Damian

    Occam’s Razor is used when you have more than one competing explanation and is only used as an economic way of finding the truth. When we observe termites building a north/south-facing mound that is suited to catching the maximum sun and creates good natural air conditioning we can come up with a number of possible reasons for how they manage to build this. One could be that they are intentional creatures who discuss how best to build this kind of structure and another could be that through blind chance the colonies who had a tendency to build mounds approaching this orientation were better able to procreate and therefore pass on their mound-building genes.

    In this termite example Occam’s Razor is used to select the simpler explanation because while both explanations give us a solution as to why termite mounds are so well constructed, the one that requires the termites to be intentional — without any evidence to support it — only leaves us with more questions.

    Of course, it’s possible that termites are very clever little critters but without any further evidence we have no reason to follow this line of reasoning.

  4. James

    Of course the termite example may answer why the termite builds the mound, but my point still stands, the more complex created the less complex. This is why Occam’s Razor fails when it meets creatures that create or build. If I found two lines in the mouth of a cave that was exposed to weather, and the two lines looked like this: 33 – I could suppose non-intentional causes, wind, whipping tree branches, falling ice/rock, etc… That would be more simple than assuming a intentional agent – but it would be wrong.

  5. Damian

    It’s down to evidence. If you find evidence for a couple of tree branches that rub against the rock in the wind in a pattern that would create the 33 but the rock is on a ledge that makes it seem unlikely that humans have ever scaled the cliff to get to it then you’d appropriately use Occam’s Razor to conclude that the figures were made by the tree. If, however, there were McDonalds wrappers and a scratching stick left nearby you might be left having to conclude that the 33 could be either a product of intelligence or of nature. More evidence, (i.e. typographical serifs on the 3s) would shift the argument toward them being a product of intelligence.

    We have very good evidence of the “wind-blown branch” when it comes to the likes of evolution by natural selection and no “McDonalds wrappers” at this stage.

    Occam’s Razor doesn’t “break down” in the face of intelligence. It can be fooled by intelligence and it can even be fooled by natural causes because it’s just a handy rule of thumb.

  6. James

    Hello Damian,

    Really I don’t think anyone would have assumed a natural cause for the 33. To much information. So even though we had no evidence of intelligence. But my original point was that we have clear examples of the more complicated creating the less complicated. So when a Dawkins rejects a Creator because the creator would be more complicated than the creation he is just begging the question.

  7. Damian

    Again, I point to the need for evidence. If you and I came across a rockslide on a hill and I picked up a rock and asked you to tell me whether it were made by a human or by the forces of nature, what would your answer be? If, in this rockslide, I found a rock that had crystals inside it and asked the same question, what would you answer. And, finally, if I found one that looked just like a brick and had the manufacturer’s stamp embossed on it, what would your answer be?

    In all of these examples it is technically possible that each could have been man made but I suspect that you’d pick the first two as natural and the last as the product of intelligent design. Why? Because we personally know or have heard reasonable explanations for how the first two can occur naturally and also because we have no further evidence to suggest that intelligence was used so using common sense (or Occam’s Razor) we economise and choose the simplest explanation. We could be wrong of course, someone could have faked that particular rock, but we use Occam’s Razor as a rule of thumb and it works remarkably well.

    Many people look at the wonders of biology and feel that the complexity they see there is the equivalent of the brickmakers embossed logo. But over the last couple of centuries we’ve found that everything that looks irreducibly complex eventually is found to have a natural explanation.

    The reason why science refuses to entertain supernatural explanations is because if we’d stopped and thrown the towel in with the many, many thousands of problems that seemed too tricky our quest for knowledge would have ended. How does a bumblebee fly? We can’t figure it out, must be supernatural. (Actually, they recently figured it out but it was a very real problem for a while there)

    I agree that the way you’ve portrayed Dawkins’ argument it certainly seems to be begging the question but I’ve been unable to find references to it. Would you be able to link to it here?

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Damian, you’re forgetting that Christians don’t traditionally leverage biological issues as their primary argument for a creator. Even if I were to grant you that evolution can provide an adequate expanation for the compexity of life, it wouldn’t have any impact on things like the fine-tuning argument (to take another, much more compelling aspect of intelligent design), nor the cosmological argument (to take yet another); nor arguments which I personally favor, such as those from reason or morality, which seek to show that in principle it is impossible to explain human experience naturalistically.

    These latter arguments, in particular, need to be considered carefully by anyone who wants to claim that Occam’s Razor suggests that God does not exist. On the theistic view, God is not a needless entity, but a necessary one. There are powerful theistic arguments which show his existence to be far more likely, and a far better explanation for any number of aspects of reality, than his non-existence. And there are other powerful theistic arguments which show that his existence is not merely likely, or a better explanation, but is actually required to underwrite some or other aspect of reality. So the atheist begs the question against all these in trying to utilize Occam’s Razor as a “proof” for God’s non-existence.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  9. Damian

    Bnonn, I think it would be silly to use Occam’s Razor as “proof” for anything. As I’ve stressed in each comment, it’s merely an economic rule of thumb that serves us well. Occam’s Razor doesn’t mean that simpler is better, just that if you have two equally functional explanations it’s more likely that the simpler one is is the correct one.

    Dawkins is a biologist so it’s likely he invoking Occam’s Razor on a question of biology and arguing that evolution provides a natural solution to the “problem” of complexity that is preferable to a supernatural one because it is the simpler of the two. Perhaps you are confusing his rejection of the god-did-it explanation for the god-exists one? I’ve seen him say that he doesn’t believe you can actually know that a god doesn’t exist but that he sees no evidence in support of it – a view similar to mine. I’ve never seen him use Occam’s Razor as a kind of “proof” against the existence of a god.

    I’ve also requested a link to wherever Dawkins has used such an argument as is hinted at by James so I can get an idea of the context. Who knows? I may even disagree with him.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Bnonn, I think it would be silly to use Occam’s Razor as “proof” for anything. As I’ve stressed in each comment, it’s merely an economic rule of thumb that serves us well. Occam’s Razor doesn’t mean that simpler is better, just that if you have two equally functional explanations it’s more likely that the simpler one is is the correct one.

    I agree; and your use of the Razor isn’t what I’m objecting to in this article. Don’t take my elaboration in comment #8 to mean that I think your view is identical to the naive view I refuted in the OP.

    As regards Dawkins, I wasn’t thinking of him when I wrote any of this, as I’m not really familiar with what he’s said on the matter. I find him far too jejune to spend time on, given all the actually good literature out there. I was just speaking to actual objections I’ve encountered in apologetic situations over the years.

  11. James

    Hey Damian,

    I can’t find the quote either. But there have been atheists on this blog that deny a creator because it would violate the law of parsimony. Steve and Michael are two that come to mind. Steve is a scientist. I know others have reference Dawkins on this subject of creation and parsimony, but I am working from memory.

  I don’t post ill-considered articles and I don’t sponsor ill-considered comments. Take a moment to review what you’ve written…