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Ockham’s Razor and the Case for God

 

I wrote this paper for my Systematic Theology course at Northwest University. I became interested in Ockham’s Razor after reading an article in the summer 1986 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine recommending it as a tool for refuting pseudoscientific claims. As a young, intellectual, evangelistic Christian I was always looking for ways to make the gospel accessible to people outside the faith. I recognized the possibilities of using Ockham’s Razor as an apologetic argument. But with a twist. Instead of being a proof, as apologetics usually is, it was a methodology.

Looking back, it was quite the undertaking. While probably not an original idea, I had to formulate my arguments independently because I didn’t have access to an extensive religious library. And this was before the internet, so selecting resources was challenging.  However, I made use of a very early network technology, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS.) These were computers hosted in someone’s house, with a modem attached. To connect, you dialed their number and connected with a text based terminal. You could then upload files, and leave messages for others to read when they logged in (there could only be one person connected at a time.) Specifically, I connected to the anarchist Black Flag BBS, where a few atheist members were kind enough to let me bounce ideas off them and provide push back. This was a great experience and helped refine my thoughts.

I’m posting this reasonably unedited as an expression of my thinking and writing in 1989. I’m not sure if the idea holds up. I don’t like my grammar in places. I would switch humankind for man. And my representation of atheism and agnosticism are too simplistic, with a tone of disdain. In some cases I just couldn’t bear to let things stand, so I struck-out the offending text. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed revisiting it. Click here if you’d prefer to read in its original Commodore Amiga font glory


Believing in God can be difficult. We can’t see Him with our eyes, hear Him with our ears, touch Him with our hands, or smell Him with our nose. Modern scientists have put His creation on the back shelf while they revel in man’s early history as an ape. It seems that belief in God is only for those who need something to believe in, not for the intelligent, thinking, reasonable person.

But, is faith in God truly so unreasonable? No it is not. On the contrary, it can be shown that Christianity is the most reasonable of all worldview. This is not to say that it doesn’t still require faith; all world systems require faith. But because it provides the simplest answer to the questions of the universe, Christianity is the best worldview, and most worthy of having faith placed in.

William of Ockham was a fourteenth century philosopher, logician and theologian. As with other philosophers of his time, Ockham spent much of his time in political struggles. His chief involvement pertained to the relationship between the secular world and papal power. His views eventually led the pope of the time, John XXII to excommunicate him, prompting him to move to Bavaria, where he lived out the rest of his life.

When not busy fighting the pope, Ockham devoted his energy to philosophical study, particularly in the area of metaphysics. As with his relationship to the pope, Ockham soon developed an adversarial relationship with the teachings and followers of Plato. Plato had the idea that in the metaphysical realm there existed universal forms: perfect forms of all the things that we experience here on Earth. Later philosophers and theologians refined these ideas, and eventually determined that these eternal forms were existent in the divine mind of God. Ockham resisted this idea passionately. In dealing with this issue, Ockham wielded his historic razor, the principle “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem,” which roughly translated means that things must not be multiplied beyond necessity. This principle may be rephrased in many different ways, but the central meaning is always the same: the simplest explanation for any given problem is most likely to be the best.

In dealing with the teachings of Plato and his followers, Ockham stated that the theory of Forms wasn’t necessary to our understanding of the universe. We can explain the existence of our universe, and its creation by God, without Plato’s cumbersome Forms. While Ockham was not the originator of this principle of parsimony, his prominent use of the principle gained him the notoriety of having it associated with his name.

What makes an argument necessarily simple? Edward Cornell gives three rules for recognizing simplicity.

  1. Coherence. Since an explanatory hypothesis is a possible patterning of facts which purports to explain them by arranging them in a more indelible sort of order, we should expect it to be self-consistent, or free from internal contradictions.
  2. A hypothesis is simpler than another if it resorts to fewer ultimate principles to explain things. One hypothesis is said to be simpler than another if the number of independent types of elements in the first is smaller than in the second.
  3. An hypothesis is simpler if it uses fewer ad hoc assumptions than another. [2]

The last point states that the system with the least special assumptions that cannot be related to any of the other fundamentals in the system, is the simples one. This means that while a system may appear complex, if it is able to deal with the most number of problems with the least assumptions, it is the simplest and best system.

Today, we still find Ockham’s Razor in use, primarily in the school of naturalism. Naturalism asserts that anything that is real can be explained by scientifically verifiable concepts. Therefore the idea of a creator outside of the scientific realm is impossible. Ockham’s Razor is applied by the naturalists to show that everything in the universe can be explained through natural law, and scientific procedure, and thus there is no need to bring a god from outside to explain the existence of our universe.

And so, the question before us is this: what is the most reasonable explanation for the initial creation and continued existence of our universe, and the nature of mankind in it? In determining this, two ideas are drawn together. The first is Theissen’s congruity argument: “…the postulate which best explains the related facts is true.” [3] The second idea is Ockham’s Razor: The simplest explanation is the best. Therefore, it follows that the postulate which best explains the related facts is the postulate which is absolutely necessary. We must then show that Theism is the simplest explanation for the related facts of the universe.

Theists claim that God is the ultimate explanation for the universe. The standard cosmological argument for the existence of God states that because the universe acts in a cause/effect manner, there must have been an initial first cause. However, this argument is only capable of determining that there must have been a source outside of our universe that caused the universe. This leaves us open to the possibility of a first cause that then died, disappeared, or otherwise ceased to exist. So, the cosmological argument cannot get us any farther than a finite first cause.

Instead, an appropriately infinite Theistic argument would come from the position that both the creation and continuing existence of the world make necessary an outside force. Ronald Nash puts this idea in more understandable terms:

Imagine a series of dominoes individually set on end next to one another so that toppling one causes a chain reaction, one at a time toppling each domino in the series. In order for this to be accomplished, the dominoes must be set on some surface. This surface functions as a necessary condition for the series of falling dominoes every bit as much as the finger (or whatever) that pushes the first domino. If that finger is the first temporal cause, the floor or table can be viewed as the First Cause in the logical sense. It is the underlying ground of support without which the series could not exist as a series. [4]

Theism, then, not only explains the initial first cause of the universe, but it also explains the continuing existence of the universe.

Christianity takes Theism a step farther and explains man’s nature within the universe. The Christian sees man as having been made in the image of God, and thus, able to make decisions apart from outside stimuli. But the Christian also sees man as being a fallen creature, and so it is not capable of consistently responding adequately to the world around him.

Atheism, asserting a naturalistic worldview, believes that nature is the only thing that exists. We come to know this universe through the scientific method. As Bertrand Russell puts it, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” [5]

It is also a highly mechanistic worldview. Everything in existence is seen as having a necessary and sufficient cause. In dealing with the issue of first cause, they believe that nature is its own eternal, necessary and sufficient cause. Infinite regression is not a problem. Nature causes nature. Using the previous domino explanation we could say that the first domino was never pushed, but that the dominoes have always fallen, and will always fall. Also, nature is the surface upon which the dominos rest.

Mankind is seen by the atheist as reacting to the world by pure determinism. Man’s actions are completely predetermined. He can neither do anything to change his actions, nor does it matter whether he change his actions. “The human race must struggle alone, with what of courage it command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.” [6] Choice and free will have no meaning in this worldview.

The last school of thought to be discussed here is agnosticism. Agnosticism differs from the other worldviews in that it does not attempt to make ultimate assumptions about the world. An agnostic sticks his head in the sand, and says “I don’t know.” In response to the questions of first cause, the sustaining of our universe, and man’s relation to the world, the agnostic gives the same answer: “I don’t know.” This philosophy is carried a little farther by the belief that “not only do I not know, but you can’t know either. In fact, no one can know the answers to these questions.”

Application of Ockham’s Razor to these three worldviews involves determining which one answers the questions of the universe with the least assumptions.

To begin, atheism attempts to draw the universe under the unifying force of nature. This is a very simple explanation, but it falls down under the weight of scrutiny. The atheist believes that everything in the universe is continent on nature. All that is needed to dispute the atheists’s claims then, is to show one thing that cannot be explained in a naturalistic way, and that one thing is human reasoning. [7] C.S. Lewis explains:

All possible knowledge… depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside out own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeing in our minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them – if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work – then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid, no science can be true. [8]

Reason, however, must have at its foundation something outside of nature. “The knowledge of a thing is not one of the thing’s parts.” [9] When we have knowledge of a particular thing, we step out of the cause/effect relationship between us and that thing, and know it separately. In this way, reason exists separate of nature, and demonstrates that the atheist’s claim that nothing transcends nature is shown to be false. Therefore, in order to logically defend his position, the atheist must make two contradictory assumptions: nothing exists outside of nature, and that reason exists apart from nature.

The agnostic places his faith in human reason, but claims that by its very nature, a universal existence cannot be comprehended by human reason. Thus we cannot make decisions based on the existence of a theistic being. This idea can be refuted in much the same way was atheism. If it can be shown that some universal ideas are knowable, then we cannot eliminate the possibility of knowing any universal. As has been previously shown, reason is a universal idea that is comprehended by all.

This becomes a contradiction and violates the rule of simplicity stated previously: that in order for a hypothesis to be simple, it must be self-consistent or free from internal contradictions. Because of its contradiction, agnosticism is not a simple system.

Finally, we come to theism. Applying Ockham’s Razor to theirs, we find that in answer to all three principles of simplicity, theism remains simple.

First, the theistic hypothesis is free from self-contradiction. By standing on one hypothesis rather two or more, the theist avoids the possibility of contradiction. All is related to God.

Secondly, the theistic hypothesis resorts to the least ultimate principles to explain his world. Theism has one ultimate principle: God. This rules out the possibility of atheism which must rely on two principles: nature is everything, and reasons exists apart from nature.

Thirdly, the theistic hypothesis uses the least ad hoc or unrelated assumptions to explain the world. “Under one assumption, the [theist] succeeds in unfolding the implications of his theory of immortality, rational universe, and truth.” [10]

We can now show that theism is the simplest and best explanation for the related facts of the universe that we live in.

So what do we do with this understanding? The logical next step is to ascertain which theistic religion best explains the universe. Though it is not the nature of this paper to defend this position, I believe it can be shown clearly that Christianity is the religion that best explains man and the universe and would highly recommend investigating the ideas taught by Jesus Christ.

William of Ockham knew that his razor was very sharp. So sharp, that it actually cuts away the ability to know universals through reason or experience. Instead, we must rely on a third form of knowing: faith. This is not an unpleasant position as it has already been seen that the other worldviews also rely on faith. It is our very nature to seek answers to the world around us, and because of our limited understanding, we must take a step of faith to reach an understanding. But this faith does not rest on unreasonable thoughts or ideas. It is not a leap of faith into a foggy chasm. It is a leap of faith to a God that we can see across the river, holding out his arms, ready to catch us. When we realize that this God who holds in His arms the fabric of the universe, is the simplest and the best explanation for the world around us, we can rest assured that He will catch us as we leap across the chasm.

[1] Elie A. Shneour, “Ockham’s Razor,” The Skeptical Inquirer Vol. X, No. 4 (Summer 1986): 310.
[2] Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Michigan: Wm. B. Eedman’s Publishing Co., 1948), pp. 99-100
[3] Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1949), p. 31.
[4] Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 125
[5] Bertrand Russel, Religion and Science, p. 243, quoted in Holes Rolstom, 111, Science and Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), p. 248
[6] Bertrand Russel, Mysticism and Logic, p. 52, quoted in Holes Rolstom, 111, Science and Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), p. 249
[7] Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 256
[8] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 14, quoted Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 256
[9] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 25, quoted Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 258
[10] Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Michigan: Wm. B. Eedman’s Publishing Co., 1948), p. 100

Published in Christianity