Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth, Uncategorized

Some Thoughts on Occam’s Razor

There’s been a really interesting discussion over on Howie’s blog for the past few weeks. It was really at this comment that Howie started me thinking along the lines that led to this post. He said:

I personally think there have been plausible naturalistic explanations for how belief in creator gods developed in human minds. While it could definitely be true that there really are creator gods that caused this evolutionary development to occur that doesn’t mean that creator gods is the correct explanation. If we can agree that we do have plausible naturalistic explanations (and obviously people argue whether or not that’s true) then that’s where I feel Occam’s razor could have a valid application. You know from other conversations that I do believe Occam’s razor is really just a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule, and that’s where I think I struggle to figure out exactly where I stand on the whole thing.

I think Howie’s right. Occam’s razor is a great guideline, but there’s no guarantee that it’s always right. Sometimes the simplest explanation is not the right one.

But despite the lack of a guarantee, I think there’s another angle to this when it comes to some religions. I’d like to come at this point in a round about manner, so let’s begin with an example. Long ago, most people believed the earth was flat. And this wasn’t just based on a whim, they had actual justification for that belief. If the earth wasn’t flat, then anything on the sides or the bottom would slip off, right? Any child could understand that. They were, of course, completely wrong about that belief, but it’s very easy to understand why they would have held it. Their belief was based on evidence — misunderstood evidence, granted, but evidence nonetheless. It’s easy to forgive their misunderstanding. In fact, most people would probably say there’s nothing to forgive.

When it comes to the existence of God, I think we’re in a similar position. It’s possible that a God or Gods set everything into motion that led us to where we are today, and for a very long time, that was the prevailing explanation for existence. But today, many of us no longer feel that deities offer the best explanation for why we’re here. There’s no clear evidence of the divine at work in our world today. Examples of evil and suffering are easy to find. And science has helped us find natural explanations for how the universe and its forms of life operate. Not all questions have been answered, but many of us feel that Occam’s razor is great justification for believing that those remaining questions will also have natural explanations.

And that brings me to my main point. Even if we’re wrong, those of us who are atheists are justified in not believing in gods. That doesn’t mean we’re right. However, while Occam’s razor isn’t a law that proves we’re right, it gives much more strength to our position when talking about certain kinds of gods. This isn’t a situation in which it could easily go either way — Occam’s razor actually stacks the deck strongly in our favor.

Consider Christianity: most versions of it teach that God is going to judge humanity for its sinful nature, and the only way to escape this judgment is to put faith in God and his son Jesus Christ. We’re also taught that this god is righteous and merciful — he is a wholly good god who can not do evil, and he loves us enough (even while we were sinners!) to sacrifice his only son. But such a god doesn’t fit a reality where one can be justified in believing that there is no god. If atheism is justified, it wouldn’t be right to punish someone for being an atheist, just as it wouldn’t be right to punish someone who lived 4,000 years ago for believing that the earth is flat.

Ryan Bell, the former 7th Day Adventist pastor who famously decided to try atheism for a year, recently wrote something similar:

For the sake of argument, let’s say, “God did it.” God kicked off the entire process by igniting the Big Bang. This is essentially the God of deism—a God who is not involved in the affairs of our world, and has not been since he got the whole thing started. So, to come back to my first question on the first day of the year, “What difference does that God make?” I’m not inspired to worship that God. That God cannot possibly be described by the Bible and Jesus was incorrect in his understanding of that God, because that God has been absent for 13+ billion years. Frankly, I’m surprised that so many Christians even make these cosmological arguments. They don’t get us any closer to the Bible or Christianity.

If we try to cover that gap and posit a God who not only caused the Big Bang but is involved in the world, we run into other problems—mostly ethical problems. Why is God so silent and inert? Why is God such a bad communicator? Why are people killing each other to defend their version of God? And why does it seem so much like we are evolving as a species and editing our view of God as we go along?

Occam’s razor works for the unbeliever in at least two ways: First, justified atheism makes it very hard to believe in a god who would punish unbelievers. Secondly, the only kind of god we’re left with probably doesn’t matter a great deal. As Bell says, what difference does he make? It’s similar to the Delos McKown quote, “the invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”

I think that Occam’s razor provides very good justification for atheism, but it’s not a guarantee — sometimes the simplest explanation isn’t the right one. But most religions define their god(s) in such a way that Occam’s razor deals them a critical blow. It’s their own assertions that do them in. At least, that’s how I see it — what do you think?

79 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Occam’s Razor”

  1. Think about any mortal who wants to exert power over human beings. Do they depend upon hearsay or vague premonitions or prophecies in books to establish their right to rule? No, they depend upon overt exercise of that power to prove its existence. Now, I have no idea how gods might think but to exert power power over human beings it must take human being’s thinking into account.

    Come on, gods, exert some power .. overtly. It would make it much easier to believe in you. Consider how many people believe in aliens now as opposed to how many would believe if an effing space ship were to land on the White House lawn.


  2. This is where I’ve been for awhile now. I don’t know that it’s possible to disprove the existence of a god who might have caused the Big Bang. But even if that god exists it doesn’t make any difference in the reality we now experience. It might as well not exist.

    Saying that there is a creator god is a far cry from having any knowledge of that god or even believing that it expects or requires anything of us.


  3. Great point, Steve. Some Christians would respond by saying that such a demonstration would eliminate faith — but why should we think faith is such a good thing? And even if we concede that point, how would they explain God’s overt demonstrations to people like Abraham, Noah, Gideon, Paul, etc? All of whom were said to have faith?


  4. Hey Nate – great post and thanks for the links. Hope it’s not rude to add another, but I think it relates:

    You can see on that post several Christian philosophers talking about how the arguments for the existence of God (in their case they are thinking the traditional mono-theistic God) are not conclusive – some of them even making statements which suggest they are far from conclusive. The opinions on this among Christian philosophers span the map of course, but for every argument that I’ve seen for the existence of God I’ve seen Christian philosophers state that they fail, and sometimes they think they fail miserably.

    Ok, maybe they are wrong – fine, I don’t see any reason to deny that possibility. But that’s not the point. As you have written here, imagining a God who would punish his creation (and some believe the punishment is eternally severe) when it is very unclear that He exists is a bit mind boggling. And it isn’t just about the philosophical arguments. At the end of the day when we live our lives we know exactly what it feels like to believe that our friends and family members exist. There is no question about what that feels like. When I think about all the things that are involved that cause me to conclude that I don’t see any of those things showing up to make me conclude that there is a God. It’s really as simple as that. And then to add insult to injury when scientific examinations are put into place to try and find effects which may be caused by deities (for example the multitude of studies done on healing) they fall short of proving anything beyond the placebo effect. It just doesn’t make sense to be held accountable for having serious doubts about the existence of such a being.


  5. Some Christians would respond by saying that such a demonstration would eliminate faith

    They would but they change the definition of faith, too. I look at faith in God as belief in something that cannot be defined and that is without visible evidence. Some Christians define faith as putting their trust in an entity that has irrefutable evidence. So even they are looking for some sort of outward sign.


  6. “This is my own experience. I cannot remove my doubts, but I cannot erase my faith. At every level, these two experiences exist together…”

    “Those who are Christians know well what I mean. You know what it is like to see no evidence of God in the world, in the church or in the mangled mess of your own heart, yet to be drawn powerfully after the Jesus of the scriptures.”
    – Michael Spencer

    My experiences and observations in life continue to draw me powerfully toward the Jesus of scripture, though I often am at a profound loss-for-words in attempts to explain how this Jesus could truly be God. I’ve gone through fits-and-spurts of trying to “prove” this via the “evidence”. Ultimately, though, it isn’t the evidence that either convinces or dissuades me. It is the scriptures’ explanation of who I am and who Jesus is that continues to draw me, often in the face of strong doubts and without explanation. I see your perspective, Nate. Sometimes all too clearly.


  7. Howie,

    Thanks for the additional link, and I couldn’t agree more with your point.


    Both your comments are spot-on. Your point about faith is something I’ve noticed too. The fact that it can be defined both ways can make conversations really vague and misleading at times.

    If we’re talking about faith as having a belief in something for which there is little evidence and no certainty, it’s hard to see why such a thing would be desirable. It also has no bearing on the character of an individual, which should be the real focus of valuation. MLK Jr said he looked forward to a day when all people would be judged, not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. That resonates with us, because it’s how we all feel. To base such a judgment on something as vacuous as belief in something for which there’s little evidence rather than on one’s character is the opposite of justice.

    And if we’re talking about faith as trust in an individual, then knowledge of their existence is a requirement. You can’t have faith in someone’s character if you’re not even sure they exist.


  8. Thanks for the comment, Josh. If you don’t mind, I’d like to as a couple of questions, but not in an attempt to change your mind or anything — just in an effort to better understand.

    I feel that certain authors throughout time have done an excellent job of capturing elements of the human condition. Shakespeare did such a great job portraying emotions like love and envy. Faulkner was very gifted at portraying madness and longing. Even Stephen King (though it seems a little odd to include him in this list) is masterful at capturing relationships. And there are many more authors (and other artists) that could be added to the list. Do you feel that the writers of the Bible could not have simply been mortals who were inspired in the same way? What is it that makes their insights require divine inspiration, as opposed to these other writers? And do we really need divine guidance to speak to us about humanity when we’re already humans? Why can’t we see these things for ourselves, as you apparently do when you read the things in the Bible and feel them resonate within you?

    Also, it’s easy to see why one might be drawn to the character of Jesus, but why does this necessitate his divinity? My oldest daughter is an avid Harry Potter fan and longs for a chance to attend Hogwarts, but her attraction to that story doesn’t make it true…


  9. Don’t mind at all, Nate. I don’t believe that my being drawn to Jesus necessitates his divinity. His teaching through parables, acted parables, people’s responses to him, and his direct assertions all resonate strongly with me, along with Paul’s main points throughout the letter to the Romans. Of course, none of this makes this story true, and I’m not of the mind that I can prove it is. He very well may only be as real as Harry Potter.

    It certainly could be the case, and in many ways I believe it is, that many other authors throughout history were inspired as the ancient writers of what we call scripture in the ways of humanity, relationships, etc. Just because it isn’t in “The Bible” doesn’t disqualify it for teaching on humanity, from my perspective. For me, in addition to what I referenced above about Jesus and Paul’s teaching, there is an element of resolution that is needed to “make the story whole”. There are a lot of writings, including other religious writings, that I think accurately capture humanity and its tendencies. What then? Is there anything that can be done about it? Many people believe we are improving, as a race, in the way we treat each other and our general humanitarianism. I tend to be one of those that is not convinced – for me, a quick glance at world news, including “civilized” societies, shows me a world that is still in the throes of humanity’s tendency toward “evil”, or whatever one wants to call it. Based on this, it seems that a “solution” cannot come from humanity. Or, if it will, it is taking an incredibly long and arduous time for this to play out. Could it happen? Maybe. So, I turn to religions for potential answers. Most major religions, however, offer the same solution – the power to change/obey/make things right/become enlightened is all taught to be within our abilities. Again, I’m led to the same conclusion as above. Jesus, however, teaches that salvation/redemption/a solution does not come from within humans. It comes from outside of us. That I can truly believe. Does this prove anything? No. But, accompanied by all my other thinking and observations it seems the most plausible explanation. Now, maybe there is no solution. Maybe this is all really meaningless and we will not become “better” before we join oblivion. I choose not to believe that, so I continue searching where searching leads.


  10. “There’s no clear evidence of the divine at work in our world today. Examples of evil and suffering are easy to find.”

    The problem of evil has been answered by apologists (including non-Christian) for some time. It’s understandable that many don’t find these solutions satisfactory, because a lot of the discourse gets confused and people often talk past one another. It’s very easy to make fun of religion a la Voltaire’s Candide. I’m not a religious person, per se, but I take the “best of all possible worlds” as a serious answer to the problem of evil. That would mean, however, that we still know nothing about the soul’s immortality, nothing about any sort of afterlife, and should hold out no hope that we are special in any way. We’ve got to make use of what we’ve got (reason) in this world of collateral damage.

    I think the strongest criticism you have here is this: “…the only kind of god we’re left with probably doesn’t matter a great deal.”

    Yes indeed. I can just barely bring myself to say God MIGHT exist in some highly conceptual, unmoved mover, supreme principle sort of way. An end to the infinite regress, really. But this is a far cry from Jesus coming to earth to save me, and who knows about my soul moving on. Even in this far-removed capacity, though, there is a function…but only when talking about some pretty esoteric subjects.

    “I think that Occam’s razor provides very good justification for atheism, but it’s not a guarantee — sometimes the simplest explanation isn’t the right one. But most religions define their god(s) in such a way that Occam’s razor deals them a critical blow. It’s their own assertions that do them in. At least, that’s how I see it — what do you think?”

    I think you’re right about most religions. There’s a lack of philosophical rigor and a hodge podge of beliefs that often render them internally inconsistent…if they were a television series, there would be a lot of dangling plot threads begging for attention.

    When I was younger I threw all of religion under the bus because of my experience living in the Bible belt. I have since come to the conclusion that I don’t have to join a club or buy into mysticism. God can be a reasonable hypothesis. I happened to be a bit of a Platonist, so that would explain a lot to you, I’m sure!


  11. Josh, thanks for your reply. Just one thing in reference to your point about society’s trend toward evil: I’d recommend checking out The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Stephen Pinker. Full disclosure, it’s not a book I’ve gotten to yet, though I intend to. But knowing what it’s about, I thought you might find it interesting.

    Thanks again for sharing your perspective.


  12. Thanks, Nate. I’ll look into it. Just a knee-jerk response to reading a bit about it on your link – I wouldn’t only categorize violence amongst people as “evil”, nor any one particular category. Just because overt physical violence has declined says nothing about our nature or tendencies.


  13. Good post, Nate !

    I’ve often seen atheists who overplay the Occam Razor point. Differentiating its power when applied to a deist god vs full-blown mega-god like Yahweh, is a great point.

    Harry McCall wrote a good post called “The Evolution of God from Yahweh in a Box to the Super Mega Deity of the Universe” where he discusses the importance of keeping a discussion with a theist clear on the rarified philosopher god vs the Omni-gods like Yahweh. I did something similar here at “How Big is your God?”. In these two, you point about Occam’s razor would be a good addition.

    Interestingly, in some forms of Hinduism, there are three main gods (all aspects of the same GodHead), and one of those is Brahma, the creator god who stepped back after creation and did nothing. So a Hindu could stop believing in interventional deities but still be a believer in God.

    But in some forms of Hinduism (and there are many), there is yet another version of God that can be less vulnerable to Occam’s Razor — that is the monkey-like God (versions of Shiva, for instance) as apposed to a cat-like God (like Vishnus). See my post here for more details) — but in summary, the monkey-like god is a non-interventional but inspirational, nourishing god but not an out-of-the-picture creator god.

    So after reading your post, I am again reminded that often atheists go too far in thinking any god is vulnerable to the razor — the creator god and a nurturing non-interventionist god can escape a little more easily than they perhaps imagine. So atheists need to be more careful when waving around razors! 😉

    Again, Nate, good points in your post. I will enjoy following the comments.


  14. @rung…

    Thanks for the comment! I agree that some god hypotheses can be reasonable.

    On the problem of evil, I’m one of those who isn’t very convinced by the apologists’ answers. I think a non-interventionist god or a god who’s well-rounded enough to be both good and bad don’t face problems from the amount of evil in the world. But that’s not the kind of god most apologists are defending.

    I’m aware of their free will argument, but I don’t buy it because it creates problems for the notion of Heaven. If free will introduces evil, then Heaven can’t exist, unless its inhabitants are stripped of free will. And that’s not a proposition most theists are comfortable with.

    Plus, it doesn’t account for “acts of god” like hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.

    But anyway, I appreciate your points — thanks for commenting!


  15. Just wanted to touch on something in nate and josh’s discussion, and that is regarding man’s nature.

    Without quibbling over terms too strictly, i think man’s nature is both good and evil. For every mass murder there are accounts of selfless heroism. For every theft or murder there are the hospitalities, generosities and overall good samaritan-ship.

    we have natural tendencies toward anger, wrath and violence, yet we also have natural tendencies toward love, empathy and compassion – the god of the bible seems to as well. Can a being with the same tendencies as us, really be very helpful in leading us out of the same tendencies?


  16. Points well taken, William. I agree that we are capable of both good and evil. I also have many of the same waxing and waning concerns about God’s representation in scriptures.


  17. I could see some theists commenting on this post and saying that “God did it” is a simple explanation and therefore, using Occam’s razor, theism should be the theory that we should all accept. I guess this really comes down to our own opinions of what constitutes a simple explanation.

    “God did it” may sound simple (because it is 3 words), but it makes a lot of assertions and leaves a trail of questions. Asserting that an invisible force with intelligence and powers has existed forever and ever is a bold claim. That this force can somehow think and act without using matter or energy or occupying time or space is another bold claim.

    Religions then take these bold claims and add truckloads of additional claims that sound a lot like man-made ideas and preferences (like living forever in eternal bliss and punishing the wicked). This fact alone should make us scratch our heads when examining theistic claims. Wasn’t it a bit odd that the priests of the Bible required jewelry and gold from everyone and were decked out in fancy robes with golden bells and tassels? And then the questions start rolling in… If a fair, loving God exists then why are some babies born with serious disabilities? What is the purpose of a baby born with only days to live? If God cares and hears my prayers then why doesn’t he answer me? Why was the God of the Bible so active and engaged in ancient times, but is now so silent and distant in the present age? The list of questions literally goes on and on and the theist responses have been poor in my opinion.

    Deists are in a better position to use Occam’s razor than most because their list of assertions is much smaller.

    Naturalism is not without its own problems too, but they can be boiled down to unsolved mysteries about reality that may one day become solved. As an agnostic I don’t rule out a higher power existing, I just find it improbable and I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t know if one exists or not.


  18. I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t know if one exists or not.

    I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say I’m not afraid to admit it, but I definitely fall squarely within the realm of uncertainty on many, many occasions.


  19. Occam’s razor is a double bladed sword. Thrust it at your opponent, and the probability is half of the time it might just stab you in the back. Occam’s razor can easily be pro-theism or pro-atheism as well. The truth is not a mechanism of probability, but a undeniable self evidence existing fact.

    “Be ready to accept reality as it is, as the truth is stranger than the strangest fiction.”



  20. I have enjoyed reading this post and most of the comments. Like Josh, I have also been attracted to the image and teachings of Jesus. I am also attracted to the image presented by Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and Buddha, in spite of their differences in details. Even though God may have started the universe, and remain distant, it does not necessarily mean that God does not interfere further. Our limited minds cannot begin to comprehend the immensity of this universe, how can we assume to understand that characteristics of God? Yet, we tend to conclude whether God exists or not based on our limited capacity to understand and interpret “evidence.” I have been more of a Deist lately, but recent personal difficult circumstances have motivated me to look up again and ask for intervention, if at all possible. I will see if I can be sensitive to the intervention that God may manifest in my life simply by my “prayer.”


  21. @ Noel

    “Even though God may have started the universe, and remain distant, it does not necessarily mean that God does not interfere further.”

    And just because I have not seen any leprechauns does not necessarily mean there aren’t any.

    “Our limited minds cannot begin to comprehend the immensity of this universe, how can we assume to understand that characteristics of God?”

    But this sentence seems to assume there is a God with characteristics. If there is any sort of God ala any scriptural claims, that is the most important fact of existence. It seems odd that this most important of all things chooses to remain invisible and undetected.

    “Yet, we tend to conclude whether God exists or not based on our limited capacity to understand and interpret “evidence.””

    But what else can we do? Apportioning belief in any proposition according to the amount and quality of evidence seems to me to be optimal. Even Dawkins says he is only 6.5 out of 7 on a scale of non belief. Like him, I have concluded on the unlikelihood of God to a similar degree of confidence. This is not a certainty, but a best attempt to weigh all of the information at my disposal dispassionately (I did say best attempt – that’s all any of us have).

    “Our limited capacity” is all we got to work with. If you say we also have faith, you used your limited capacity and decided faith was a good tool.

    I have reacted to your post, showing what ideas I had a problem with, and why. I hope I have not been discourteous.


  22. Hi Nate, it won’t surprise you that I have a couple of different ideas on this.

    1. Einstein is reported to have said “Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler”. The evidence, which determines what is possible, is the main thing. I don’t believe in Jesus because it is the simplest hypothesis, but because I believe the evidence points to it being true – and you are the same in your beliefs.

    Wikipedia says: “In science, Occam’s Razor is used as a heuristic (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models rather than as an arbiter between published models.”

    So if we are trying to choose among many religions which to investigate first, the Razor may help, but it doesn’t help much in deciding between atheism and theism (IMO).

    2. I think christians and atheists think differently about the results of Occam’s Razor because we are looking at two different questions. Take the hackneyed example of someone coming into my kitchen and asking why the kettle is boiling. I can reply “because heat applied at the base of the kettle excites the molecules of water etc” (a scientific explanation of the process) or I can say “to make a cup of tea” (a personal explanation of purpose).

    If we are trying to understand a the process of biological evolution, science understands the processes to a reasonable degree, and adding God doesn’t explain them any better and just complicates things. But if we are trying to see if there is a purpose behind the universe, and consider the origin of a fine-tuned universe, of ethics and of human rationality, science either has no explanation, or it requires different explanations, whereas theism has one explanation to explain it all, and thus does better according to Occam’s Razor. In support of this, I often hear atheists respond to theism by saying “Goddidit!” and mocking that explanation as being very broad and simplistic – but that is the very thing I am claiming here.

    So I think Occam’s Razor favours God if we ware considering purpose, but favours science if we are considering process. Thanks.


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