A Simple Explanation of Occam’s Razor

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.

12 Replies to “A Simple Explanation of Occam’s Razor”

  1. Excellent breakdown. Me – one of the things I note about ILK like Craig is they have no fundamental understanding of the Quantum physics. The argument how do you get something from nothing – space-time isn’t empty by a long shot. And the things science has demonstrated QED is too hard for apologists to grasp. For example we now KNOW there are stars like our sun out there, and there are planets orbiting those stars just like ours or similar. And we’re gaining more and more knowledge about the quantum world – with giants even inadvertent ones like Shrodinger, Heisenberg etc. advancing the knowledge. But the religious apologists are essentially dumb as a box or rocks when it comes to scientific knowledge.

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  2. I’d like to add that Ocham’s razor isn’t a scientific principle its more of an heuristic principle. But I wouldn’t judge yourself too harshly over the error. This principle is one of the most misquoted lines I’ve seen in shows, movies, literature, and debates.

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  3. Hey thanks for the shout out! I wasn’t actually intending to refute what you had written before or anything, just to point out that it can’t really be used as a case for or against the existence of a God. What you said then and here was great.

    Craig’s quote about Occam’s Razor was a little bit ironic, I’m guessing he doesn’t realise that he’s going against his own advice. If you know exactly how a house was built, you can’t then go and say some unknown entity magically created it.

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  4. I had to return to say this: I just got back from a drive to the grocery store and one of the local churches has on its billboard the following:

                                                "Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it."
    

    I’m reminded of Sam Harris’s remark that platitudes such as the above are “conversation closers.” Christians cannot tolerate sensible discussion that challenges their faith-based attitudes because they desperately hold onto the idea of the Bible being the inerrant word of God…even though every year we see countless new translations!

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  5. I like Chris Hitchens’ argument that asks where was God during the four billion years of earth’s evolution before we even crawled out of the mud? Was he sitting around wondering what to do next? Maybe try out a few mass extinctions, just to see what it would look like? I think the only worth of the God argument is that it pushes one to learn excellent rhetorical skills–nothing else.

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  6. It all began a long time ago and here we are. In the very beginning, when our ancestors first began thinking, they created the supernatural, and humanity has been saddled/blessed with that delusion ever since. All religions are based on the supernatural, but the real nut cases are those who believe this was all done for them. GROG

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  7. Something either exists or it does not. This includes any of the gods. These arguments that contend because thing A exists (an effect, a universe or us) that is sufficient proof for the existence of other things B, C, etc. is insufficient logic for me unless I can tell somehow that B caused A. Call it Bill’s BS if you like, if it’s so complex no one can understand it, it proves nothing. Analyze till the cows come home, there has never been proof of any god.

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