Atheist Objections: Occam’s Razor

William of Ockham, stained glass window in Surrey, England

I came across the following application of Occam’s Razor on the site and thought this warranted a closer examination lest anyone be swayed by their example.

“The relevance to atheism is that we can look at two possible explanations for what we see around us:

  • There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there, which came into being as a result of natural processes.
  • There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there, and there is also a God who created the universe. Clearly this God must be of non-zero complexity.

Given that both explanations fit the facts, Occam’s Razor might suggest that we should take the simpler of the two–solution number one.”

Is this a legitimate use of Occam’s Razor? First, a refresher on Occam’s Razor. is correct when they say that William of Ockham (a priest, by the way) is the one commonly credited with the idea that we should “not multiply entities unnecessarily.” In other words, look for the minimum needed explanation for an event. Internet conspiracy theorists would do well to keep this principle in mind. When one sees the suspicious behavior of a couple of people,  a worldwide conspiracy should not be the first thing that comes to mind.  For instance, if an elaborate government conspiracy comprised of hundreds of people can explain the evidence, but so can two guys embezzling government funds on their own, don’t default to the giant conspiracy between the government, bankers, corporations, and space aliens unless you find further evidence that can’t be explained by just the two crooks.

Now, what is the difference between the 2 explanations for the origin of the universe above? Both accept as a given our observations of an “incredibly intricate and complex universe.” The first claims that this intricacy was the result of natural processes, while the second claims that God was added to the mix. Their conclusion is then that God is the “unnecessary entity” that Occam’s Razor advises against.  However, God is not an entity added to the natural processes of the first situation; in discussing the origin of the universe, God and natural processes are competing alternatives. Therefore, this is not a case of unnecessarily added entities. We have precisely one “entity” in each scenario: either nature alone, or an intelligent agent (i.e. God).  They are both proposed causal agents.

Let’s look at another example to explain this difference. I might observe a pot of water boiling on the stove. Is this the result of natural causes or intelligent agency? Which multiplies entities needlessly? The notion that my wife made a conscious choice to put a pot of water on the stove a finite time ago (for it hasn’t boiled dry yet) is a pretty straightforward explanation. We could step the explanation back farther to note that she first retrieved the pot from the cabinet and filled the pot with water, and at some prior point she bought the pot from the store.  But with an intelligent agent, those are hardly extraordinary possibilities.

How would a purely naturalistic explanation proceed? If there’s no agent to put the pot on the stove,  maybe an earthquake  shook it into place there, and a conveniently placed roof leak filled it full of water. A falling ceiling tile could potentially hit the switch just right to turn on the stove to heat  the water. But then where did this stove and pot and water even come from in a world where we ignore the possibility of free agents to procure these components? Well, maybe the stove is actually the result of erosion of a metal-rich piece of rock, and what appears to be copper wiring is really just the remnants of veins of copper ore. And the house it’s in is just an accumulation of storm debris. And the pot is actually a hollowed-out remnant of a meteorite. In fact, maybe a meteorite impact is why the roof leaks and the ceiling tile fell on the stove switch! Explaining the actions of free agents, even fairly simple actions, gets outlandish pretty quick when we don’t allow free agency as an explanation. But that’s nothing compared to trying to explain how everything that exists came to be by purely natural causes. But if we ignore the possibility of an agent who can choose to cause chains of events, and can choose between different options along the way, and can direct those processes through to their planned end, then we have to multiply entities needlessly, and endlessly, to compensate. And after all of our manipulation of freak accidents in just-right orders to explain what we want to have happened, we are left with a tale that smacks of ad-hoc, contrived wish fulfillment.

Does Occam’s Razor favor the naturalistic origin of the universe? No, in the end, Occam’s Razor shaves off the proposed natural causes and reveals the real cause: the intelligent, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe. Only a volitional being that existed eternally and transcended space and time could choose to bring those into existence, thus allowing any natural processes to even be possible. For natural processes are not possible without a nature to occur in, and if we’re talking about the origin of nature, then that cause must be outside of nature. Nothing can cause itself. Therefore, the most reasonable cause is a free agent outside of nature. But you can call Him God.