In my last post within my Back to Basics series, I gave a breakdown of and an objection to the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In the post, I pointed out that William Lane Craig, the best known modern proponent of the argument, believes that Occam’s Razor backs up his claim that God is the simplest explanation of the beginning of the universe. I rebutted his points in that I believe that the Kalam Argument, and its ultimate claim—”God did it”—couldn’t even be saved by Occam’s Razor, because they were too simple.
It turns out that “God did it” was, and is, a faulty explanation by principle of Occam’s Razor, but not for the reason that I thought. It turns out that as I was writing that post late at night in a hotel room and focusing my energy on getting the history of the Kalam Argument right, I almost entirely missed the point of Occam’s Razor. Thankfully, a few of my readers were kind enough to point out my flaw.
The Covert Atheist wrote,
“Occam’s razor is something which is often misinterpreted (by both theists and atheists). In a nutshell, it is saying that if there two or more competing explanations for how something occurred, then the one with the fewer assumptions is more likely to be correct. So often, yeah, it is the simplest explanation, but there has to be some validity to it. If you say ‘God did it’, you are having to come up with a massive list of assumptions, so it wouldn’t be a very good theory to explain how our universe started.” (Thank you to Andrew Tulloch as well, for making a similar comment!)
It turns out that I’ve heard this correct explanation of Occam’s Razor before, and I myself had misremembered it. I first heard of it in Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, and it came up again in Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. I don’t blame myself for having a hard time understanding it, because I had first read it being used in favor of God’s existence, and I later saw it being used in opposition.
In Lee Strobel’s interview with William Lane Craig, Craig defined Occam’s Razor as “…a scientific principle that says we should not multiply causes beyond what’s necessary to explain the effect” right after claiming that you can deduce from the Big Bang that “a cause of space and time must be an uncaused, beginningless, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal being endorsed with freedom of will and enormous power.” So much for not over-deducing simple explanations.
Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, gave a much longer and more comprehensive introduction to both Occam and his Razor. Born around 1285, William of Ockham was a Franciscan monk and theologian. He was interested in science and astrology; however, everything he studied was encapsulated in theology, as he lived in a religious world and in a religious time. Hitchens (using also a quote from Frederick Copleston) tells us of a way in which Occam used his minimalistic reasoning in favor of the existence of God and the nonexistence of observable stars:
“Assuming that god can make us feel the presence of a nonexistent entity, and further assuming that he need not go to this trouble if the same effect can be produced in us by the actual presence of that entity, god could still if he wished cause us to believe in the existence of stars without their being actually present. ‘Every effect which God causes through the mediation of a secondary cause he can produce immediately by himself.'”
As science has progressed, Hitchens notes, we now know that there are, in fact, stars that we really see that are unfathomably far away in both space and time. We can also make predictions about the rate of the expansion of the universe and how it will end, thanks to these observations, but we can do so with or without the assumption that there is a deity present. It makes no difference to science. Therefore, the assumption of a deity is unnecessary for explaining this aspect of cosmology, so, by Occam’s Razor, it is not the best explanation.
Unfortunately for William Lane Craig, this principle also applies to the beginning of the universe. A central aspect of Occam’s Razor advises, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Hitchens tells us that Occam, while remaining a believer, albeit an intellectually honest one, “agreed that it was possible to know the nature of ‘created’ things without any reference to their ‘creator.’ Indeed, Ockham stated that it cannot be strictly proved that god, if defined as a being who possesses the qualities of supremacy, prefection, uniqueness, and infinity, exists at all.” By Occam’s logic, Hitchens is quick to point out that the existence of a god, to Craig’s chagrin, necessarily begs the question of where this creator came from, and it inevitably leads to an infinite regress, which even Craig agrees is logically impossible.
Nevertheless, I don’t know if Occam’s Razor quite counts as an exhaustive argument against the existence of a god. It is intended more for use within the scientific method and weeding out explanations with an overabundant amount of assumptions. Scientific experiments are much more manageable with straightforward reasoning, just as logical claims are more easily testable the fewer assumptions they have. A claim being more simple or more complex doesn’t necessarily mean it is true or false, but it can certainly be preferable when weeding out convoluted or overly extravagant theories.