Tag Archives: Objections

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 infidels.org 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. Infidels.org 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.


Source: https://infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/arguments.html#occam

The Effectiveness of Prayer – Part 2

Saying Grace - by Norman Rockwell, 1951
Saying Grace – by Norman Rockwell, 1951

Last week, we looked at some background of what prayer is (and is not), and what possible reasons God might have for not answering prayers the way we think they should be answered. This week, I’d like to continue with the 2nd and 3rd potential objections of skeptics that I mentioned last week: competing prayers and coincidence.

One might question how God can answer prayers when millions of people are praying for often-competing goals. For instance, what does God do when both sides of a battle are praying for victory? The issue there isn’t who’s side is God on, but who is on God’s side. God’s not going to violate His holiness to answer anyone’s prayers. James told the early church that they asked and did not receive because of their wrong motives [James 4:3] Matthew Henry expands on that in his commentary, saying, “When men ask of God prosperity, they often ask with wrong aims and intentions. If we thus seek the things of this world, it is just in God to deny them.”[1] Selfish motives are often a cause of unanswered prayer. But what about sincerely offered and purely-motivated prayers that nevertheless require contradictory answers, like a couple praying for good weather for their wedding day while a local farmer prays for rain for his crops? This comes back to God’s omniscience and His sovereignty. He is the only one with perfect foreknowledge of how an answer to prayers would play out in the long run for each party asking for opposing results, and is therefore uniquely qualified to judge truly fairly between competing requests. Also, it is within His right as Creator to answer in the way He sees best, maybe a “yes” for one, maybe a “no”, maybe a “not yet.”

But what about people from different religions praying for opposing things? Does God answer Christians on Sundays, Muslims on Mondays, and so on? Does He pick the most sincere prayers from each religious group to answer? As politically incorrect as it is to say these days, this comes down to whether they are praying to the true God or not. All religions simply are not equal. As Jesus said, nobody comes to the Father but through Him.[John 14:6] In this case, there aren’t actually conflicting prayers, because the Christian’s prayers are directed to the true God, while the prayers of a follower of a false religion, however sincere they may be, are not.

A final objection to the legitimacy of prayer is that the skeptic might say that prayer doesn’t actually “work”, and that any appearances to the contrary are only coincidence. It is true that God often orchestrates natural events in such a way as to accomplish His will. And part of our growth as Christians is aligning our will with His. So our prayers that are aligned with His purposes are often fulfilled in ways that could be explained solely via natural events, however unlikely the chain of events may become. So, are we Christians being biased toward God and seeing divine intervention when there was none? That’s a fair question to ask. But we should distinguish between different types of causes first. For instance, we could say my sipping coffee was the result of hot water percolating through finely ground coffee into a cup. Or, we could say that it’s the result of my choice to fill the coffeemaker with water, put a filter in, fill it with coffee grounds, choose a cup, turn the machine on, and push the button. The coffee ingredients coming together in a certain way may describe the physical causes necessary for my invigorating caffeine intake, but just as critical is the agent (me) involved to start those physical events occurring, guide them, and sometimes intervene if they go off-course. To ignore the agent behind the physical causes is to not really answer how the final result came to be.

In fact, all of us instinctively recognize what Bill Dembki calls the “design inference”: when a result didn’t have to happen of necessity, and there appears to be a goal-oriented nature to the result that defies explanation by chance. We are justified then in supposing there to be an agent behind the events. Consider a more familiar example: a staple of American western movies is to have a scene where a cheating gambler is called out because the other players recognize his winning streak is not just the luck of the draw. Why does a fight break out over his “random” card selections? His supposedly randomly-dealt cards have had a suspiciously contrived appearance and a very non-random effect: repeatedly taking all of the other players’ money! It’s that aspect of recognizing events working toward a predefined goal, or an independent pattern, that often leads us (in hindsight) to recognize a design behind the events. In fact, an end goal and the ability to select between alternatives to achieve that goal are the two primary characteristics of any design. And design always requires a designer.

Many Christians have witnessed extraordinary chains of events in their lives that led them to accept that design inference, and look for the Designer behind the events, and devote their lives to Him.[2] Whether it was in the form of answered prayers, or divine guidance and protection before they ever even knew enough to ask, they look back and recognize God’s hand in their lives. And through it all, regardless of whether our prayers are answered the way we wanted, we can trust that God’s way is ultimately the best way.

[1] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on James 4, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/james/4.htm, accessed, 2016-10-04.
[2] Like Bob McNichols, founder of McNichols Metals. Read his story here.

Why Only One?

The Olympians by Nicolas-André Monsiau
The Olympians by Nicolas-André Monsiau

After presenting in Honduras on the evidence for intelligent design in the genetic code, and thus the necessity of a Designer of DNA (God), one observant lady asked a good question that evening. How do we know there’s only one designer? In other words, while the argument from design can bring us from atheism to theism, what’s to say polytheism isn’t really the best explanation? She’s right – the teleological argument from design that I was presenting can’t tell us if there were multiple designers, only that the design we observe required some designer. But it is quite common for any man-made project to be divided up among a design team. In fact, on almost every project I’ve worked on in my career as an engineer, I’ve simply been one member of a design team, dealing with my area of knowledge. So does the idea of a “divine design team” of gods bear up to scrutiny? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Part of the strength of the case for the God of the Bible is the interlocking nature of the evidence. While the evidence from design doesn’t address this particular question, other line of reasoning do. First we have to look at the law of causality: everything that begins to exist has a cause. Anything that fits in this category is considered contingent because its existence depends on something prior – its cause. A design team of angels or “lesser gods” responsible for the design we see in different natural objects would simply be an intermediate link in the chain of causation. They might be immediately responsible for the objects we investigate, but if we go back far enough, we must eventually arrive at something that does not need a prior cause because it has always existed. They would ultimately need to trace back to a non-contingent source, which we would then call God.  Even if God delegated the design of nature to a “design team” and did no specific design Himself, He would still be causally responsible for whatever was designed by them.

But one might ask if there could be multiple non-contingent beings. Let’s follow that line of reasoning. To be non-contingent (or metaphysically necessary) requires eternal existence in order to not have a prior cause.  A necessary being cannot  not exist, hence the title “necessary”. So this being can never cease to exist without all of reality that is contingent on him ceasing to exist at the same time. Therefore, no other being or group of beings could be more powerful than the one in question. For if any other being(s) could control or change the subject being, then its actions would be contingent on their actions, and he would turn out to not be a necessary being after all. For these reasons, you can’t have more than one non-contingent being in any possible reality. It’s also worth noting that the axiological argument shows that God exists due to the existence of objective moral values, which have to come from a source beyond humanity to truly be objective. But if multiple non-contingent beings existed, there would not be a single source for the objective moral values we observe. This is not to say that those values couldn’t have been established by consensus of a group of deities, but that does seem to multiply assumptions needlessly. I don’t know that we could say the axiological argument alone is sufficient proof of God’s uniqueness, but I would count it as contributing evidence.

But could we have necessary beings in different “dimensions”, “parallel universes”, or some other concept of separate but coexisting realities? This is basically just an updated idea of henotheism, the idea of locally supreme deities, applied to more abstract regions than the original geographical ones. If a god were all-powerful in his dimension, but limited to that dimension, then he wouldn’t really be necessary, even in that dimension. He would be, in effect, a caged deity contingent on that dimension’s existence and the higher deity who established that dimension. A truly necessary being must transcend all possible worlds/dimensions/realities to not be contingent.

In the end, we come to the conclusion that if God exists, He must be a non-contingent necessary being in any possible reality. We can look at the teleological argument (from design) and the various cosmological arguments (from causality) to see that God exists. Then we can look at the axiological argument (from morality) and ontological argument (from being) to see that polytheism is false and the Bible is correct when it says that “there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.“[1]

[1] 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, NASB.