In response to various cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of a creator God some atheists appeal to the principle of parsimony—often dubbed “Ockham’s Razor”—to argue that invoking God to explain our cosmic origins is both unnecessary and unhelpful.  Introducing a divine being to explain the origin of the universe is said to be less parsimonious than simply acknowledging that the universe popped into existence uncaused from absolutely nothing.

I wonder how these individuals would respond if we tried using this line of reasoning to explain the origin of Moby Dick?  “Yes, we could postulate an author to explain the origin of those complex, specified markings that convey meaningful information, but that would be to add an extremely complex entity into the picture to explain a less complex entity. Given the principle of parsimony, it is more reasonable to believe the book wrote itself.” We would reject such an explanation, and for good reason: it lacks the power to explain what needs to be explained.  The principle of parsimony does not claim that the explanation with the fewest causal entities is to be preferred, but rather that the explanation that posits the fewest causal entities capable of explaining the effect in question is to be preferred.  How can the absence of any causal entity explain an effect?  While postulating the absence of a causal entity is simpler than postulating the presence of a casual entity, it cannot be considered a more parsimonious explanation because it fails to explain the effect in question.  At least one causal entity is required to explain any given effect.  William Lane Craig puts it well:

Ockham’s Razor tells us not to posit causes beyond necessity. That is to say, we are justified in postulating only such causes as are necessary to explain the effect; any more would be gratuitous. In the case of the universe, Ockham’s Razor shaves away polytheistic explanations of the origin of the universe, since only one transcendent, personal Creator is necessary. On atheism there just is no explanation of the origin of the universe. And no explanation is not a simpler explanation.[1] (emphasis added)

While Ockham’s Razor can be invoked to argue for monotheism against polytheism, it makes no sense to invoke the Razor on behalf of atheism.


[1]William Lane Craig, “Time and the Kalam Cosmological Argument”; available from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/time-and-the-kalam-cosmological-argument; Internet; accessed 11 May 2012.

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