© Gavin C. Schmitt, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ockham's Razor is a tool well-known in the philosophical community and a fine instrument for high school debate teams. But what happens when you apply this device to religion? In the grandest sense, you invite a logical position that atheism just might be the wisest set of beliefs to have. What is the razor and how does it suggest atheism? If incorrect, what are the flaws in this thinking?
In a bit of historical irony, the man who I argue put forth a device in favor of atheism was none other than a Franciscan friar. He lived and died by the Church, quite literally; when Ockham died he was in a convent.
At the same time, though dedicated to God, he was also an enemy of the Church, being under investigation by the papacy. Ockham went so far as to accuse the Pope of being a heretic after the Pope declared the Franciscans out of line with their belief in apostolic poverty.
In the world of philosophy, Ockham is best known for his razor (the rule of parsimony), but also had a much broader influence on the fields of nominalism and conceptualism. While these topics are fascinating and deserve study of their own, the focus now is solely on the razor.
The razor is a very simple statement that can be applied to everyday life and rids the world of nonsense while promoting logical simplicity. Ockham expressed the razor as something like "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem or Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate" (Ockham personally never wrote these words). Roughly translated into English, we say that "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity."
When presented with a situation that needs explaining, the razor asks you to weigh the two or more options and choose the one that applies all the evidence and yields the simplest answer. Suppose we find a woman shot to death in her kitchen. If we know the woman has a history of fighting with her husband, we know the husband owns a gun matching the kind she was shot with, and we know that the husband is mysteriously absent, we should assume the husband committed the murder. Is it possible the murder was committed by a crackhead who enters unlocked houses for his own amusement? Certainly. But with the evidence available, the simplest possibility is suspecting the husband - not another variable (the crackhead) which must be invented.
Common sense, right? That is the beauty and succinctness of the razor.
Can we use the razor on religion? We certainly can, as long as we keep it in strictly theoretical terms. Remember, the razor can only point to the most likely answer - this is not an exact science for finding truth.
If we use the Bible or other holy book for our foundation, the razor cannot lead us to atheism. Having a preset belief in a deity makes it impossible to remove this belief without removing the foundation it rests on. Disproving the Bible is much more complicated than I wish to delve into during this article.
However, if we use only the most general principles, atheism is suggested. Let us say there are two equally plausible options: we live in a universe that has imply always existed since the beginning of time; or we have a God who created this universe that existed since the beginning of time. Religion tends to favor the timeless God creating this universe. But the razor would set up the following options. Either A, or B>A. That's either a timeless universe or a timeless God creates a timeless universe. Clearly the timeless universe theory is more simplified and by the razor's criteria more likely. God has no reason to exist in this theory.
Religious people might ask such questions as: without a god, who created the universe? But this really begs the question. Timeless universe people could just as easily ask who created God? To have a being with timelessness and superhuman powers seems more far-fetched than simply a timeless being.
Conclusion: the razor suggests that no god created this universe.
Some people use the razor to say creation is more likely than evolution because it's "simpler" to say "God created everything" than to try to explain all the biology of evolutionary theory. But this mistakes the point of the razor: not only to make things simple, but to keep them simple with all evidence available. Creation simply has no evidence, nor can it explain the evolutionary evidence.
Saying "God created everything" without any evidence is about as reliable as saying "blue fairies created everything" or "Sasquatch lives where no one can find him". You cannot make assertions about things that are unobservable or suggested by logic.
And whether evolution is correct or not (I am by no means endorsing it), there are many things that favor evolution and seem to discount creation. For example, dinosaur fossils. Such answers as "the devil put them there to trick us" do not best fir the evidence. Vestigial organs are also a mystery, as why would a perfect god create organs in a being that could never use them?
Conclusion: evolution may not be the best answer, but Ockham would have to favor this choice over creation based on the evidence when using the razor.
Misuse of the razor can be summed up in two ways. First, misunderstanding the razor as preferring simple or complicated answers. As outlined above with the creation example, simplicity alone is not what the razor is all about. The other misuse is the belief that the razor "proves" something; it does not. The razor can only suggest the most likely solutions, it does not prove anything.
Let us return to the story of the husband with the murdered wife. While the immediate evidence suggests the husband is the murderer (since this is the most common sense explanation with the available facts), this alone is not proof. A few days later, another man might be apprehended while carrying a pistol that matches the pistol used in the murder. Suddenly, the suggestion of the husband becomes less likely. So anything the razor suggests can be un-suggested upon further evidence being discovered. Hence, to say it "proves" anything would be false - the conclusions drawn are never final, only temporary until a better solution comes along.
As shown above, in the general sense the razor suggests atheism is the correct belief. A timeless universe is simply more logical than a timeless god creating such a universe. With this suggestion as a foundation, we are lead to accept a scientific view of the nature of the universe.
However, we have also shown the razor can only make suggestions and never prove anything. So we have not proven atheism. At any time a new piece of evidence (say, an angel) could come along and the theory would have to be reworked with the new evidence. A god certainly could have created this universe, and this conclusion might have to be accepted once further evidence leads us to such a belief. A proof of the Bible, for example, might warrant this solution.
But until then, atheism logically prevails for the Ockhamist. What ramifications can be drawn from this are for the reader to determine.