Refuting Popular Atheist Arguments #4: The Misunderstanding of Occam’s Razor to Dismiss Belief in God

I’m stuck at the Louisville airport again for a few more hours because my flight was canceled… so I’m going to write some more.

To continue on with the series where I address popular but fairly unsophisticated atheist arguments, I’ll move on to the simplistic notion that Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor easily dismisses belief in God.  Occam’s Razor is attributed to the Franciscan friar William of Ockham.  Though there is some debate about how he actually viewed the “razor” principle, he is generally understood as saying that additional entities do not need to be postulated beyond what is necessary to explain.  In the present, Occam’s Razor is understood as a simplicity principle; generally speaking, people think that if a simple explanation does as good a job of explaining something as a more complex one, it should be preferred.  For example, let’s say your Coke is missing from the fridge.  It is possible that a group of ninjas broke into your kitchen and covertly stole your Coke but, if all things are equal, it is far more parsimonious to theorize that someone else in your family drank it, so that is the more rational thing to conclude.

Where Occam’s Razor comes into play for many lay atheists can be illustrated by this animated gif:

Basically, the idea is that because the argument “The universe just exists” is apparently simpler than “God created the universe, and God just exists,” then belief in God is superfluous and should be cut out.  You’ll see memes or gifs just like this one littered throughout the Internet by atheists who think it is clever.  Is it really that easy?

On the outset, it should be admitted that William of Ockham himself, though he was a Catholic, did not think that the cosmological or ontological arguments proved the existence of God.  However, that does not mean he was right, nor does it take into account that Ockham did not think his razor should be used to deny any entites.  Even if Occam’s Razor did apply to the origin of the universe, Ockham would think that, based on cosmology alone, one cannot say for certain one way or the other.  In other words, agnosticism and not atheism would be the justified stance.

More importantly, people who use this argument misunderstand how the simplicity principle is utilized.  It is not merely that simpler explanations are preferred but that all things being equal, simpler explanations are preferred.  Some ways to evaluate theories, arguments, or explanations are valued just as highly or more so by philosophers and scientists, such as explanatory power.  If a more “complex” argument does a better job explaining all the available data and accords better to reason, then it should be judged the better argument.  Let’s return to my ninja example above.  Let’s instead say now that the news has been reporting that witnesses have seen a group of ninjas terrorizing the neighborhood and raiding people’s kitchens and that the cops are looking for them.  Let us further say that there are signs of break-in in your house, there is a ninja star lodged against your wall, that everyone in your family was out for the night, etc.  As more knowledge is gained and the situation is better understood, now the more “complex” argument starts to look a whole lot better than the “simpler” one.

Thus, atheists cannot simply belt out Occam’s Razor as if that proves anything; they need to deal with the actual arguments and evidence at hand.  Atheists many years ago once held to something called “steady-state” theories where the universe was eternal and more or less stayed the same.  However, as more evidence was gathered on the universe, scientists realized it was expanding and had always been expanding.  They concluded that this implied an origin point where the expansion started (and not everyone was happy with this conclusion).  Steady-state theories ceased to be a plausible explanation of the universe, and people like William Lane Craig began using modern cosmology to make arguments for the existence of God.  If the universe had a beginning, as modern cosmology points to, then Craig argues that it needs a cause.  The argument goes like this:

1.  Everything that has a beginning needs a cause.
2.  The universe has a beginning.
3.  Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This is a deductively valid argument (meaning that the conclusion follows logically from the premises), so the way to refute it is to attack one of the premises.  As stated above, atheists in the past were often happy enough to reject Premise 2 by positing that the universe is just eternally the same, but now that grates against modern cosmology.  This alone eliminates simplistic strategies like the animated gif above.  Some atheists have even resorted to rejecting Premise 1 by trying to appeal to David Hume or quantum physics, but though Hume gave a critique of causality, the critique was that he did not think causality was something that could be concluded or assumed a priori but rather that it was a conclusion from experience; he did not think it was okay to think that things pop into existence uncaused out of nothing.  Quantum physics doesn’t help much either because there is still a presumption of “something” where it occurs, which the beginning of the universe does not seem to allow.  Some atheists have even just bit the bullet and claimed that the universe did in fact pop into existence uncaused out of nothing; you can call that “simple” if you want, but it’s something that goes against basic intuitions of reason.

In any case, if atheists want to employ Occam’s Razor, they must show that their explanation is A) actually simpler and B) does an equal or better job explaining what we know.  They cannot merely assume these things.  Atheist Dan Barker once complained that the kalaam cosmological argument above makes an unfair excuse just for God; theists need to discuss other candidates and then eliminate them or else the argument is just circular.  This objection is a bit amusing given what I just said about steady-state theories.  Atheists were once quite happy to say that the universe is eternal.  Some still try to argue that the universe is eternal, not via steady state theories but via oscillating models, models that posit that the universe eventually collapses and then expands over and over again.  Too bad there is precious little evidence that A) The universe will actually contract and B) Even if it did, it would re-expand.  Clearly, atheists do try to put something else to the plate, but it just doesn’t hold up to reason and evidence.

So here are the atheistic alternatives right now.  They can 1) Posit that the universe just came into existence completely uncaused out of nothing or 2) Argue that the universe is somehow eternal or everlasting in some other way.  Option 2 has little going for it in terms of evidence, and Option 1… well, Craig said it best when he said that atheists who go this route expose themselves as people just trying to find excuses to hold on to their worldview.  Either way, Occam’s Razor is of little help to them unless they actually build a convincing case that evidence supports their view or that we should abandon our rational intuitions about causality with regards to the beginning of the universe.  It is yet another way these New Atheist types try to avoid actual argument and resort to question-begging or one-liners.

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