Applying Ockham’s Razor Correctly

imagesMost atheists I’ve debated have been fond of referencing Ockham’s Razor.

For those not already familiar with it, Ockham’s Razor (sometimes spelled “Occam’s”) is the position that we not “multiply entities unnecessarily”. That is, we shouldn’t propose two or three different things to explain something when one will do the trick.

It is often claimed that God is an “unnecessary entity”, and that Ockham’s Razor is, therefore a reason to reject belief in God. For this reason, and because it helps to undergird science, it is one of the few metaphysical principles that even the most anti-metaphysical materialist is loathe to abandon.

Which is why I think it is so significant that a real belief in the principle leads to theism.

This because the concept of God explains so many things: moral truth, the origin of the universe, the existence of contingent objects, the intelligibility of the universe, the existence of consciousness, etc. Materialism, on the other hand, has a great deal of trouble explaining any of them, and tends instead to refer to them as brute facts.

But what is a brute fact, if not another entity? There are, therefore, a great many more inexplicable things under materialist philosophy than under theism.

Nor do the responses to this help. Materialists often claim that God isn’t an explanation because it’s a simple appeal to “God did it”. This is only true, however, if one refuses to learn any more about the specific nature of God. Otherwise, it is very much an advance of knowledge.

But, if the first response is untrue, the second is off-topic. It is also very common for materialist to claim that they have accepted not having answers to things. Whether or this is commendable as a personal trait, it is not a response to the argument. Rather, it is simply the admission that materialism has no unified explanation for these things, and is therefore less parsimonious.

And, therefore, it should be rejected by anyone who accepts Ockham’s Razor.

The only real alternative, I think, is to simply reject Ockham’s Razor. However, this would be to reject the materialist’s central argument against belief in God: that it is a an unnecessary add-on.

Of course, I don’t accept this last. But the point is that neither does the person who rejects Ockham’s Razor.

10 responses to “Applying Ockham’s Razor Correctly

  • muggleinconverse

    The idea of an all-powerful deity is infinitely more complex than any non-supernatural answer. That is why it is *super*natural.

    • Debilis

      I don’t see how infinite complexity follows from any standard definition of God.

      But, to address the term “supernatural”. This term refers simply to the non-natural: not being part of the natural realm. But this doesn’t imply anything about the complexity of the thing being described.

      • muggleinconverse

        I didn’t say infinitely complex, I said infinitely more complex than any natural explanation. Since you reference Christianity, I assume you are speaking of the Christian God. Yahweh is described as eternal, immutable, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.

        Any being described as beyond time and before creation is by definition supernatural. Anything outside of our natural world raises far more questions than it answers, bringing us back to Occam’s razor. We have to ask where God came from, how he exists, how he can be everywhere, as well as know and control everything. Simply saying that it is so is not enough.

        Occam’s razor helps us understand that the easier the explanation, the more likely it is to be true. The existence of a supernatural deity is a magnificent claim to make and as such it requires extraordinary evidence to prove its validity.

    • Debilis

      I completely agree with you that the idea of something being outside of time raises many questions. But there is not reason even bring in the Christian God at this point. We already know that the cause of the universe must be outside of time.

      So, those questions have been raised already. Referencing God is not what is bringing them in.

      But asking where God came from is a misconceived question. God is a necessary object. That is, it is logically impossible for God to not exist. Thus, to ask the question “what made God” is to misunderstand what the word “God” means.

      I agree, however, that there is much further to probe here. I completely endorse the view that simply saying that God has these traits is not enough. Good inquiry will go further; it will ask many more questions–getting both more detailed and more profound. This is exactly right.

      What is completely wrong is halting inquiry here. Some atheists want to halt inquiry just before God is mentioned, and some theists want to halt it just afterward. The better approach is to never halt it.

      However, I disagree with this:
      “Occam’s razor helps us understand that the easier the explanation, the more likely it is to be true.”

      Ockham’s Razor claims no such thing. It is not about ease of understanding, but about simplicity in terms of composition. By proper definition, God is remarkably parsimonious. One can reject the idea, but not for not being simple enough.

      “The existence of a supernatural deity is a magnificent claim to make and as such it requires extraordinary evidence to prove its validity.”
      I’ve never seen any good reason to think that theism is more extraordinary a claim than materialism, and have given many reasons to think that it is materialism which is the extraordinary claim.

      • muggleinconverse

        There are a few theories about how the universe began and what started The Big Bang, none of which include God. To say that a deity is a necessary object is quite an assumption and I see no reason to make it. It is illogical and hypocritical to say that the universe has to have had an intelligent cause but that God himself did not.

        Just defining God as logically necessary does not make it so. What is the thought process that takes you to that point? What have you read or seen in your inquiries that convinced you of that? I have done plenty of research and have found no such proof.

        Perhaps I worded my statement about Occam’s razor incorrectly. Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” When discussing Occam’s razor is often described as ‘when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better’.

        Theism and Science do overlap and make similar predictions. Science always offers the simpler answer in my view, that is all I meant.

        I don’t think we will agree about the nature of a deity with the qualities of the Christian God. I find his said traits and existence to make him a more complicated explanation than those given to us by Science and the natural world.

        Occam argued for empirical evidence and I have yet to see any for the existence of a deity. I would like to know why you believe that materialism is the extraordinary claim if you don’t mind continuing our conversation.

    • Debilis


      Okay, let’s see here…
      There are indeed speculations about what might have caused the Big Bang. But to say that God is not part of any of them has two problems.

      First, it is false. This could only be true if one is limiting one’s self to scientific theories, which (as God is a metaphysical, rather than scientific proposition) would not address this possibility.

      Second, no proposition which is consistent with the facts can be extrapolated to an eternal past. That is to say that, even if the multiverse exists, it had a beginning, meaning the argument would simply be pushed back a step.

      As far as God being a necessary object, this has been part of the definition of God at least since antiquity. To say that this doesn’t make sense is to misunderstand what people mean by the word “God”.

      The thought process that gets one there is laid out quite thoroughly in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. But this is moot. Really, the arguments already given on this blog lead to an uncaused, immaterial, timeless, personal, morally good, and logically necessary creator of the universe. If you don’t want to call that “God”, we can use another word. But, surely, I can be forgiven for thinking that this bears quite a bit of similarity to the God of classical theism?

      More simply, God does not need a cause, because necessary objects do not need a cause. Or, in terms of the more familiar Kalam argument, God did not begin to exist.

      I completely agree, however, that Ockham’s Razor is about simplicity. I’d only underline that simplicity, in the appropriate sense, does not mean “easy to understand” but “composed of fewer parts”.

      By that definition, God (or the entity described above), is simple. And, by either definition, the multiverse is not simple. Multiverse scenarios have frequently been called bloated ontologies because they, quite specifically, propose astronomical numbers of complex objects.

      But I see very few places where theology and science overlap. Almost every time this is suggested, it is based on an abuse of one or the other of these disciplines.

      As to why I consider materialism to be an extraordinary claim, I’ve written quite a bit in the posts. The summary is that I don’t think it is compatible with real world experience. Specifically, I find that the existence of thought, moral truth, the consciousness of other people, and meaning in general, are inconsistent with materialism.

      Moreover, I no of no good justification for this view of metaphysics. Nearly every attempt I’ve ever heard is grounded in the long-discredited verification principle (the position that empirical evidence is the only good grounds for knowledge). That, however, is a self-contradictory view.

      As such, I see materialism as inconsistent with both itself and the facts. As such, it strikes me as rather extraordinary.

      Okay, that is definitely long enough.
      More than anything else here, best to you.

  • Eduardo

    “There are a few theories…”

    This as far as I know is correct as long as you remove creationism as possible science, still this means nothing, because a group of beings don’t make use of some concept or entity it doesn’t follow that therefore that entity doesn’t exist, so if this was suppose to be an attack on “G*d as the explanation of the universe”, not that you are doing this necessarily, you would have somehow show that scientists while looking at Telescopes and data receive knowledge that doesn’t seem to include G*d in any way or it removes G*d completely out of the equation… sort of a Gnostic type of knowledgre I suppose. If you depend on the scientist inventing concepts, then that means nothing, he can invent anything he wishes, is just that I think is not socially acceptable to put G*d or anything remotely religion/supernatural related in the sciences, but still you would end with an argument of authority nonetheless, I mean the argument with the objective I have written would weak if not nullified.

    “To say that a deity is a necessary object…”

    Well, considering that Debilis have not defended this in the reply your reply seems completely fair, however, because you don’t see any reason for that means nothing. You of course means that given all the characteristics meantioned about the Christian G*d, and you don’t see how they must follow G*d’s necessity, which means that any argument outr there that shows G*d as necessary of course fails… I mean NO WAY you gonna be able shrink all this theological work in a combox, so really I think the only reasonable way to go here is just adventure oneself in the literature and take our own conclusions about the matter.

    “It is illogical and hypocritical to say that the universe…”

    I don’t see anything illogical so far… you would have to say that the characteristics that G*d has does not follow the characteristic of being necessary, second… is not hypocritical to defend that a series of causes have an end and you have an uncaused cause… I mean this makes no sense. Of course this conversation is part of metaphysics and it is the good old choice between infinite regress and finite regress that end up show that the universe has a cause that is not caused, I mean this once again is crap loads of literature that we certaintly can’t put on a combox, unless maybe to discuss small parts or something like that. So once again… the reasonable route is just to read the literature and take our very own conclusions *At least when the topic is as wide as this one*

    “Just defining God as logically necessary does not make it so.”

    I tend to agree to this, but there is just one little problem, if you put G*d as a model…… there is no reason for you NOT TO claim that He is necessary, I mean when it is a theory you can define it any way you desire just have to be careful not to define in ways that other people find objectable from the very start. But of course once again, people have argued for the necessity of G*d, so the situation is not an assertion but an argument… is just Debilis is too shallow and not so technical in his critiques…

    “What is the thought process that takes you to that point? What have you read or seen in your inquiries that convinced you of that?”

    He read crap loads, of theology, philosophy, apologetics…. got convinced… I mean he is going to take a lot of time to say exactly what he did… you would save more time simply reading what he will tell to read *See I think this is a major problem about discussing religion and philosophy is that everything is way too damn complicated for a combox XD*

    “I have done plenty of research and have found no such proof.”

    Anecdotal evidence…. Personally I would bet you have done no such plenty research, mainyl because…. seriously if you have done some reasearch and I happen to saw an atheist that done CRAP LOADS of reasearch, you wouldn’t be asking what Caused G*d as some form of critique or refutation… so really, when it comes to religion, there is no reason to believe you atheists do extensive research… I mean let’s face it, why would you do it??? Religion is all manjo jambo, who the heck waste good part of one’s life reading stuff they find worthless… *well, maybe you might be paranoid like me and you do read a lot of stuff you don’t see any value in… but I am supposing that you are not crazy*

    “Perhaps I worded my statement about Occam’s razor incorrectly.”

    Look as far as I can see, and have read of other people that have actually read the guy, Ockham was a nominalist so having a simpler form to explain things is just … you know… more useful, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that the world or reality is as simple as we can have it. And this claim falls prey to your own critique, just because you define that event must be as simple as your mind can think of, with the minimum of entities as possible doesn’t make it so… And quite sincerely, If are hardcore enough, the simpler answer to anything is shit happens, so really… I suppose all we have to do is actually read Ockham’s work… so yeah…

    “Theism and Science do overlap and make similar predictions.”

    …. you are sort of comparing apples and oranges here…. I mean either you bring gods as models, that do work, and yeah they will always work with the evidence but lack detection, or maybe they could be detected depending how you define a god. Or you make science closer to religion, wwhich apparently to maintain the logic of your phrase, would mean Science=Atheism, so they the competition would make sense XD.

    “I find his said traits and existence to make him a more complicated explanation than those given to us by Science and the natural world.”

    Well not necessarily… for instance let’s say it takes 5 natural forces to produce an event but if you use G*d you explain with a simgle blow… I really wouldn’t put complexity on the line but more concretness on the line, like 5 forces can actually be detected *followed by a hardcore philosophical defene of why they are really 5 and 1 trillion that we can just pretend to be 5*

    “I have yet to see any for the existence of a deity.”

    Well, this is anecdotal avidence too, but what exactly is your model of G*d and what you expect to find in case G*d exists… I mean you just said that Science(atheism) and Theism makes similar prediction but Science beat theism because of simplicity, so how can you conclude that there is no evidence for G*d if it makes predictions that science makes too… i mean, shouldn’t you conclude that you simply like Science-Theism theories better then conclude no evidence….

    “I would like to know why you believe that materialism is the extraordinary claim”

    Because he believes and have overall tried to argue that materialism fails in several parts…. the only problem is that materialism is …. just a no definition deal, so really the question would be, what Debilis think as materialism and why is it extraordinary… And to finalize ordinary is a criterion and as far as i am aware… criterions only exist in your head as projections or inventions… I mean you two going for a long ride XD, in talking about extraordinary.

  • paarsurrey

    Reblogged this on paarsurrey and commented:
    The myths have to be cut with it; not realities and facts.

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