Shaving Faith with Ockham’s Razor
||Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.
The cosmological argument for the existence of God concludes that there is an uncaused First Cause Who exists beyond nature (see last month’s feature article). The alternatives are entirely naturalistic: either the Universe is eternal and uncaused, or it is finite and had a natural cause. To invoke a supernatural cause, the critics charge, is to add something quite extraordinary to the explanation; it is to ask us to believe that something wholly outside our normal experience is responsible for the Universe. A natural first cause is an improvement, they may admit, but still it requires too many exceptions and special arguments. The simplest argument, and therefore the most preferred explanation, is that some “stuff ” (whatever that may be) always has existed.
The presumed justification for this conclusion is the principle of parsimony made famous by William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349). Ockham’s razor, as it is known, attempts to “shave” away all unnecessary parts of an argument. “Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity,” he said, and “What can be done with fewer [assumptions] is done in vain with more” (Moody, 1967, 8:307). This became an important guiding principle in modern science because, statistically speaking, more mistakes are possible as a theory grows in complexity and assumptions.
Ockham’s razor became a popular excuse for removing God from any description of reality. Often this is illustrated by the legendary encounter between Laplace and Napoleon. The French scientist presented his new book on celestial mechanics to the emperor who, having scanned through the work, inquired as to why it contained no reference to God. Laplace replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”
However, while Ockham’s razor may be a fine guiding principle, some explanations are more complicated than they may seem at first. Many science students find this out when they have to unlearn the simplistic ideas of the previous year before they can go on to learn the more complicated and realistic version of the story. And the new study of “chaos” is an example of a science designed to work with highly complex phenomena that confound conventional thinking. As Rem Edwards observes:
No scientific or metaphysical hypothesis is preferable to a competitive hypothesis merely because it is simpler. It is not the simplest hypothesis per se, but rather the hypothesis that is the simplest and at the same time does full justice to its subject matter, that men of reason must prefer (1972, p. 150).
Ockham’s razor does not work in every instance, and there seem to be no firm criteria that determine when an assumption is an unnecessary complication. Hence, the theistic position is not wrong merely because it includes God in the sum of reality.
Moreover, eliminating God is as much a claim beyond experience as adding God. Neither claim is self-evident; that is, each is not immediately, obviously true. Naturalism assumes that the material Universe of space and time is all that exists, that it depends on nothing else for its existence, and that some part of it has always existed. Supernaturalism holds the equivalent but opposite views: that something does exist beyond the material world, that the Universe is dependent for its existence on this entity, and that the material world is finite. These assumptions represent competing world views that are subject, not to an arbitrary swipe of Ockham’s razor, but to philosophical debate.
Finally, we have to wonder whether naturalists have abandoned the standard of simplicity when it comes to their own descriptions of origins. The Big Bang, for example, seems impervious to disproof. Exceptions and special arguments are plastered over theoretical and observational holes. Some scientists are desperate enough to invoke the cosmological constant—a “fudge factor” pulled out of thin air to rescue the equations from the evidence (Flamsteed, 1995, 16:77). Such flagrant violations of Ockham’s razor are possible, it seems, as long as the added assumptions are naturalistic. That God cannot be the best explanation for the Universe is yet another incredible assumption.
Edwards, Rem B. (1972), Reason and Religion (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich).
Flamsteed, Sam (1995), “Crisis in the Cosmos,” Discover, 16:66-77, March.
Moody, Earnest A. (1967), “William of Ockham,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan), 8:306-317.