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Photo of William of Ockham seen in a stained glass window

Posted: 30 August 2016

An argument first formulated by a 14th century Franciscan friar born in a Surrey village is a central plank in the case against the existence of God by 21st century new atheists. William of Ockham, a major medieval philosopher, argued that when you are faced with competing theories to explain something, you should choose the simplest explanation. He phrased it in this way: ‘It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.’ The argument is known as Ockham’s razor, for its power to cut away complexity.

New atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have used the argument to claim that modern science has done away with the need for God. In his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins says: ‘Historically, religion aspired to explain our own existence and the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. In this role it is now completely superseded by science.’

However, an article published in the August/September edition of Philosophy Now argues that more care is needed when you are wielding Ockham’s razor. The article, Science, Ockham’s Razor and God by David Glass and Mark McCartney, argues that ‘Ockham’s razor doesn’t cut it with God’. It concludes that ‘using science and Ockham’s razor to explain God away is very unlikely to be successful.’

Philosopher and apologist Peter S Williams comments: ‘Scientific explanations are not the only type of explanation possible or needed to thoroughly understand reality.

‘Ockham’s razor is often cashed out as the suggestion that when choosing which explanation for a set of data to believe, we should choose the simplest adequate explanation. Some people forget that the adequate bit is actually more important than the simple bit. A lawyer who claims that “all crimes are committed by an alien” has a simpler explanation than lawyers who say, “Crime A was done by Fred, crime B by Susan…’ and so on. But “the alien did it” explanation, although simpler, is not an adequate explanation.’

Williams concludes: ‘Glass and McCartney are right to point out that God explains some things that science cannot explain – for example, why science is possible, and why a physical world exists in the first place. He is also right to note that “God did it” and “nature did it” can be different levels or types of explanation, and can therefore be compatible with one another.’

Thank you to Saints and Sceptics for pointing us to this article.

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