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What is Occam’s Razor?

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor (or Ockham’s Razor), named after 14th-century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham, is one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts in philosophy. Occam’s Razor can be stated this way: “Plurality ought never be posited without necessity.” This is really just a fancy way of saying, “Simpler is usually better.” In practice, the razor means that, if there are two plausible explanations for the same event, whichever is less complex or involves fewer assumptions is generally the one to be preferred. Isaac Newton worded the razor like this: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” Occam’s concept is called a “razor” because it can “shave away” unlikely theories.

Occam’s Razor works well as a general guideline. Human beings are fallible, so the fewer assumptions we make, the less likely we are to be in error. Nature tends to follow the path of least resistance, and that reasonably applies to things like probability. The more complex a system (or explanation) is, the more opportunities exist for it to fail. For all of these reasons, Occam’s Razor is a sensible way to pick between options that are otherwise equally likely.

In practice, however, Occam’s Razor is frequently misunderstood and misapplied. This happens routinely in discussions of religion when skeptics attempt to use the razor to declare belief in God illogical. Just as a physical razor is meant to shave away hair but can be misused to cut flesh, so too can Occam’s Razor be misapplied. This generally happens in one of two ways: treating the razor like a “law” and mishandling the concept of “necessity.”

First of all, Occam’s Razor is a philosophical guideline, not an actual rule of logic. It fits into the same category as rules-of-thumb, proverbs, and other generalities. For instance, it’s reasonable to say “ten-year-olds are usually shorter than adults.” This is generally true, so if you know nothing about a particular person other than the fact that he is ten years old, it would be practical to assume he’s shorter than the typical adult. However, you can’t state in absolute terms that he must be shorter than a typical adult. A rule of thumb is not an absolute. Occam’s Razor is the same: the simplest explanation is not necessarily the correct one.

The second problem with the popular use of Occam’s Razor is the mangling of the term necessity. Many appeals to Occam’s Razor simply assume that “simpler is better,” meaning whichever answer has the fewest words, parts, or premises is correct by default. However, one cannot remove a “necessary” component and call the result a superior answer. Simply because a sentence is made simpler in terms of grammar does not mean it’s actually a better explanation. “Joe moved the 1,000-pound safe” is not a superior explanation to “Joe, Jim, James, John, and Jerry moved the 1,000-pound safe together,” simply because the first one is “simpler.” At times, attempts to simplify fail because they remove required information.

In discussions of religion, these two errors are how Occam’s Razor is most frequently abused. Atheists, for example, will frequently claim that a universe without God is “simpler” and therefore more logical. However, rather than accounting for things like specified complexity as deliberate arrangements, they must resort to luck and happenstance. “It was an accident” is not a valid counter to the concept of necessity. Rocks and mud can be randomly thrown around by a landslide, but that doesn’t mean an earthquake is the best possible explanation for a straight, smooth stone wall.

At times, non-believers will attempt to say that God is not necessary, since evolution and probability can explain things more simply without Him. Therefore, per their interpretation of Occam’s Razor, it is more rational to deny God than to believe in Him. Philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach, for example, suggested modifying Occam’s Razor to rule out the supernatural: “Scientists must use the simplest means of arriving at their results and exclude everything not perceived by the senses.” Of course, saying that God is not “necessary” simply hinges on an abuse of necessity. As in the example of the 1,000-pound safe or the stone wall, there comes a point when the assumptions required to make things “simpler” strain credulity. Given all that has to be assumed about probability, abiogenesis, and so forth, God can hardly be called “unnecessary.”

Regardless of any particular merit in the use of Occam’s Razor in discussions of religion, logic dictates that such concerns are ultimately irrelevant. Occam’s Razor is not a “law.” Many times our experience proves the opposite, that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes the “simplest” explanation, whatever that means to a particular person, is not actually the correct explanation.

Occam’s Razor is an excellent guideline, but in and of itself it tells us nothing about whether any particular idea is actually true or false. As applied to religion and spirituality, especially by skeptics and other non-believers, Occam’s Razor is often accompanied by faulty logic and sloppy handling of evidence. The razor represents no threat to Christianity and is, in fact, far more useful against proposed alternatives than it is against biblical beliefs.

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What is Occam’s Razor? Does Occam’s Razor disprove the existence of God?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022