Science, Ockham’s Razor & God

I just read an article in “Philosophy Now” with this title. The article is definitely worth a read as it tackles common misapplications of Ockham’s Razor.


To fill you in on this principle, let’s quote

Ockham’s razor (also spelled Occam’s razor, pronounced AHK-uhmz RAY-zuhr) is the idea that, in trying to understand something, getting unnecessary information out of the way is the fastest way to the truth or to the best explanation. William of Ockham (1285-1349), English theologian and philosopher, spent his life developing a philosophy that reconciled religious belief with demonstratable, generally experienced truth, mainly by separating the two. Where earlier philosophers attempted to justify God’s existence with rational proof, Ockham declared religious belief to be incapable of such proof and a matter of faith. He rejected the notions preserved from Classical times of the independent existence of qualities such as truth, hardness, and durability and said these ideas had value only as descriptions of particular objects and were really characteristics of human cognition.

Ockham was noted for his insistence on paying close attention to language as a tool for thinking and on observation as a tool for testing reality. His thinking and writing is considered to have laid the groundwork for modern scientific inquiry.

Ockham’s insistence on the use of parsimony (we might call it minimalism) in thought resulted in some later writer’s invention of the term, Ockham’s razor. Among his statements (translated from his Latin) are: “Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity” and “What can be done with fewer [assumptions] is done in vain with more.” One consequence of this methodology is the idea that the simplest or most obvious explanation of several competing ones is the one that should be preferred until it is proven wrong.

The article in “Philosophy Now” tackles the logical boundaries of this principle. When it can be used and when it can not be used. I won’t reiterate the article here, only expand upon it – and in a way that doesn’t require reading the article to get my point. Here goes:

One common atheist line of reasoning is that since science is successfully explaining more and more of existence, the need for God becomes less and less. And by applying Ockham’s Razor, we might as well erase the need for a God altogether. This is a theme common among New Atheist authors such authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

This logic is wrong. And it is easily proven through simple mathematics:

If you have one value decreasing as a result of another increasing, you cannot simply assume that if the increasing value gets arbitrarily high, the other will eventually become zero. Even if the increasing value becomes infinite, there is no reason to think that the decreasing value becomes zero.

Consider this simple equation:

f(x) = \frac{1}{x}

As “x” approaches infinity, the result, “f(x)” approaches zero. But it will never become zero. Because if you were to equate 1/∞ with zero, you would get the obvious absurdity that ∞/∞ is also zero:

\frac{\infty}{\infty} = \infty * \frac{1}{\infty} = \infty * 0 = 0

..which obviously is absurd. Informally, such uses of Ockham’s Razor comes under the heading of the “hasty generalization” fallacy.

19 thoughts on “Science, Ockham’s Razor & God

  1. The problematic assumption is that atheism “believes-not.”  But fundamental atheism prefers to “not believe” because using the fake assumptions of religion only finally arrive at “because-of-faith.”  Another assumption, that atheism is rooted in science is also false.  Also, possibly the more scientific leaning atheist who can understand your example of infinite large and small regression may agree with you, however, demonstrating that example as a falsification for atheism seems not to acknowledge the spectrum of not believing and as such generates yet another fallacy.Better to acknowledge the broad spectrum of religiosity, of which atheism is not necessarily one (until it becomes believing-not.)  The point being made in this post is unnecessary, imprecise, and fallacious.  Or better yet, post it to Quora and let the mathematicians have a go with “infinitely small” not being equal to zero.

    1. You seem to assume that I am presenting a case against Atheism in this post and then commence arguing against that perceived case. This is the classic Straw Man fallacy.

      I am not at all arguing against atheism here. I am arguing against the illogical and false use of Occam’s Razor.

  2. I think you are missing the points of Dawkins and Harris are actually making.

    I think Atheists believe in “God” as in “God” represents whatever the ultimate truth of the universe ACTUALLY IS, but they deny specific gods as true.

    I think they are both JEHOVAH atheists. They are both APOLLO atheists …

    Their logic holds up when one looks at SPECIFIC Gods rather than “God” in general.

    As science has described the birth of the Universe outside the Genesis Mythology better and better many of the assumptions of the mythology fall away:

    The earth is 5,000 years old; the earth was made in seven days, the earth was made before the stars …

    For these to be held as true in the light of evidence, the assumptions must INCREASE TO PROP UP THE MYTH. “Oh, you skeptical fool! God shifts time and thus made the earth first and then created billions of years of evolution in a mere moment.”

    And in this case, Occam makes sense with Dawkins and Harris as the assumptions have to get larger and larger as the evidence pours in. And remember, the caveat that “most likely” is not absolute. So we will never be able to prove that Jesus is NOT in a heart after all.

    Dawkins and Harris freely admit this. One cannot prove a negative.

    But other than that, I agree with your post and YES, Occam is misapplied.

    1. Again, as with my reply to Chris, I am not arguing against atheism or Dawkins or Harris. I am arguing against misapplication of Occam’s Razor.

      1. “One common atheist line of reasoning is that since science is successfully explaining more and more of existence, the need for God becomes less and less. And by applying Ockham’s Razor, we might as well erase the need for a God altogether. This is a theme common among New Atheist authors such authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.”

        Again, I agree that Occam like Pascal and his wager are often misapplied.

        And I think that they are referring to a “Creative God” with a magic wand and a beard. And they talk about the “need” of such a God in theorizing rather than the “reality” of a God in actual creation because…

        A 300 Pound Gorilla God can sleep wherever she wants regarding science and proof. She could make worlds that seem evolutionary when they are actually booted sims for us matrix bitches.

  3. I would agree that Ockham’s Razor does not fit this question. This science vs god is a incorrect pair to use Ockham’s razor. I could merely say everything not explained with science is explained by god. Then as science moves closer to 100% the need for god moves closer to 0. I think this is inappropriate. The correct view is that science is attempting to explain life and universe according to what it knows.

    As that knowledge base is continually expanding, being revised, and further taken apart and reviewed it is constantly in flux. Many don’t want to deal with the change, or the results and would rather start with the assumption that god explains it all.

    It is an assumption that the “need” for god is being reduced toward zero as the “knowledge base” of science is being expanded toward infinity. Only to the person who has decided to believe in god does the findings of science create a problem. Neither side currently has an answer to how life first animated matter.

    The decision to grant this ability to god is just an assumption with no facts at all. Therefore it should even be in this use of Ockham’s razor for the simplest answer. As there is no evidence behind this statement it is therefore more using Ockham’s razor for the simplest assumption versus the simplest answer.

    I am not taking the position that I am an expert in this, nor that my comment is more valid than any other.

  4. Maybe I missed your point. Are you arguing that using Occam’s Razor to support the lack of belief in God is both done and by doing so misused?

  5. My thought is Occam’s razor might or might not apply to the question of God’s existence, depending on what definition of God is being used. Here are a couple:

    capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality: as
    a : the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe
    b [Christian Science] : the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit : infinite Mind

    To me, Occam’s would apply to the idea that there is a ruling Principle in the universe, and it could even be thought of as divine.

  6. A lot of very interesting views here.

    As per this article, the trend of growing evidence disproving the existence of God is inapplicable to Ockham’s Razor, as this isn‘t how the razor is used. The razor isn’t about trend in data or shrinking probabilities by the displacement of science (God of the gaps), but in probability from simplicity.

    That said, Ockham’s Razor does apply to the argument for the existence of God as requiring ever more complex propositions in maintaining the theory of God’s existence. This is revealed in the many public debates between religion and atheism as commonly engaged by Harris and Dawkins. Much of the talking points from the theocratic side builds and adapts ever greater arguments — in response to the ever growing evidence to the contrary. Thus, the shrinking foundation in support of God is not applicable by the razor, but the growing amendments that support the existence of God is.

    The razor is meant as a guide towards what is more likely the truth, for if a theory must be amended with ever greater complex reasoning to maintain the theory, then the theory is likely false. No truth is offered by the razor, just the likelihood of something being true is higher for theories with the simplest explanations.

    1. Relevant points indeed. However, if the existence of God is relegated to merely setting the conditions for the universe, then Occam’s Razor would support the existence of God as that theory is far simpler (and no less scientific) than the postulating of multiverses to explain its fine tuning.

      1. Ah yes, the multiverse.

        To me, there seems to be a trend in finding the most complex way in finding a simple answer. This doesn’t mean the journey has to be complicated, but that we as a species who love identifying patterns — want to solve many questions with a single answer as proof to the validity of an answer so simple.

        Given the razor is only a guide, it pointing to God without argument is equal to our reality being a grand simulation. Thus, all that we perceive is but a property value in a simulation requiring no absolute continuity. Either way, the weight towards God is just as lazy.

        1. Right. And likewise the pointing against God. Because when there are unanswered questions such as the fine tuning of the 6 basic parameters in our universe to allow for our existence, then Occam’s Razor is a daft tool. And calling upon it to “prove” one’s belief is showing one’s ignorance of its real value… regardless of what one has chosen to believe. Occam’s Razor often seems to be used to feed ones own confirmation bias.

          1. Odd. How can one prove something based on a guide — as not offering any rule? This is akin to answering all questions about life — by offering a single question.

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