Ockham’s Razor: Does It Help the Atheist’s Position

“Simplicity purchased at the price of explanatory adequacy is a fool’s bargain.” – William Lane Craig

Ockham’s Razor (or Occham’s Razor) is often evoked by atheists in order to show we have no need to postulate a god or deity to explain the existence of the universe. If you are unfamiliar with Ockham’s Razor, it is a principle (named after theologian William of Ockham) stating that if we are attempting to understand the cause of a phenomenon, we should adopt the simplest answer that sufficiently explains the phenomenon, or that we should not multiply causes beyond necessity. Ockham’s Razor shaves off all unnecessary explanations.

For example, if I discover that a tire is flat on my car, and I wonder what the cause was for this dreaded event, I should look for the simplest explanation that provides sufficient explanatory power. I should not (says Ockham) immediately believe that a local rattlesnake has developed a taste for rubber and is moving around our neighborhood fanging tires. But what if I see evidence that a rattlesnake has been around? Let’s say I find the shed skin of a rattlesnake near the car. Then would my hypothesis of the rubber-loving snake be justified? No, Ockham’s Razor would still advise me to being with something simpler like: I ran over a nail. Though not nearly as entertaining, it is much more likely to be the real cause of the flat tire. It is unnecessary to postulate a rattlesnake when the nail is more probable and is a totally sufficient explanation.

The Fool’s Bargain

Atheists have frequently stated that a god or deity is an unnecessary or overly complicated explanation for the existence of the universe, and that, therefore, it should be shaved away by Ockham. I’m sure that William of Ockham himself would have disagreed with their assessment, but I’ll leave that alone.

However, is the atheist correct in using Ockham’s Razor in this way? In a recent Q/A segment, apologist William Lane Craig (author of Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics) shows that Ockham’s Razor does not help the atheist when used in that manner. Why? Because in shaving away the existence of deity, they are left without a sufficient explanation at all:

Internet atheists sometimes misuse Ockham’s Razor by saying that because atheism is simpler than theism (having one less entity), it is the better view. But Ockham’s Razor does not say, Prefer the simpler theory. Simplicity purchased at the price of explanatory adequacy is a fool’s bargain. An explanatorily adequate theory will posit some additional causes to explain the phenomenon in question, and Ockham’s Razor counsels us not to postulate more causes than are necessary to explain the effect… Of course, reality is not always simple, so that a more complex explanation may in fact be the case.

In other words, it is smart and logical to invoke Ockham’s Razor unless you shave off so much that you end up with an insufficient explanation for the cause of a phenomenon. So I may say of my flat tire: “It wasn’t a snake or nail – both of those explanations are too complicated.” Well, you see, I so simplified my potential explanation that I am left with very little to explain how my tire was flattened.

It Must Have Been… Nothing

This is similar to the atheist’s position in regard to the existence of the universe. Too much shaving leaves them saying things like, “The discoveries of modern particle physics and cosmology over the past half century allow not only a possibility that the Universe arose from nothing, but in fact make this possibility increasingly plausible” (From Everything and Nothing: An Interview with Lawrence M. Krauss).

Krauss maintains that the best explanation for the cause of the universe is… nothing, which is a common view among atheists. Now, to be left with “nothing” is to shave away a whole lot! Its like a man cutting his face off with his Gillette – you don’t want the cut to go that deep! When shaving a beard, it is a mistake to be left with nothing but a skull at the end of the process.

Of course, atheists are also quick to evoke science as evidence for this “nothing,” as the Krauss’ quote and book show. But a fair reading of high level scientists from multiple worldviews will quickly reveal that not everyone is interpreting scientific findings the same way. What an atheist cosmologist sees as evidence for “nothing” as the cause of the universe, a theistic cosmologist will see as evidence supporting the existence of deity. So to merely tag, “Science points in this direction,” does very little to support a hypothesis that says, “Nothing caused the universe.” In fact, doing so is to commit the logical fallacy commonly known as The Appeal to Authority.

We don’t want to use Ockham’s Razor to shave away a reasonable and adequate explanation.
[Quick Side Note: Theists do believe that God created the universe from “nothing” (ex nihilo), but this is much different than saying that the cause of the universe is nothing. Theists believe God is the cause of the universe, and he is not “nothing.”]

The atheist’s use of Ockham’s Razor is similar to me saying of my flat tire: “Both nails and tire-loving rattlesnakes are too complicated as explanations for my flat tire, so then, the cause of its flatness must be nothing. That is the simplest explanation. Oh, and obviously science makes this view increasingly plausible.”

William Lane Craig’s point is clear: “Simplicity purchased at the price of explanatory adequacy is a fool’s bargain.” We don’t want to use Ockham’s Razor to shave away a reasonable and adequate explanation. If there is strong (and often overwhelming) evidence that a singular deity (God) created the universe – and there is – and this is a sufficient explanation for the existence of the universe, then we are logical to believe God exists and that he created the universe.

Ockham and the Number of Gods

And what of Ockham’s Razor? It can actually help us in another way. In the Q/A Segment quoted above, Craig also makes the point that we should not postulate more than one god or deity as the cause of the universe. Why? Because the existence of one god is sufficient to explain the existence of the universe.

With my flat tire, I should not believe that five nails caused it to deflate, unless I have strong evidence that this is the case (like finding five nails stuck in the tire). I shouldn’t believe five nails are the cause when only one nail is a perfectly sufficient explanation.

Likewise, if the existence of one God is sufficient to explain the existence of the universe and the phenomena we find in the universe – like life, for example – then I should not assume or believe that there must be five gods, or twelve gods, or whatever.

Bottom line: When used properly (and especially when informed and driven by God’s self-revelation in the Bible) Ockham’s Razor shaves away everything but the God who is there as the sole sufficient cause for the existence of the universe.