Occam's Razor

Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor and in Latin lex parsimoniae) is a principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) but can be traced back to earlier philosophers such as John Duns Scotus (1265–1308)[1], Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), Maimonides (Moses ben-Maimon, 1138–1204), and even Aristotle (384–322 BC).[2][3] Aristotle writes in his Posterior Analytics, "we may assume the superiority ceteris paribus [all things being equal] of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses."[4] "There are three main texts in Aristotle's Physics where the Razor is actually referred to..."[5] Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. AD 168) stated, "We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible."[6]

The term "Occam's Razor" first appeared in 1852 in the works of Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet (1788–1856), centuries after William of Ockham's death in 1347.[7]

This principle is interpreted and defined in different ways. Hauke Riesch, in his paper "Simple or simplistic? Scientists' views on Occam's razor," makes the argument for three types of Occam's Razor. He notes the following:

"Baker (2004)* distinguishes between epistemic principles of simplicity (it is rational to believe the simpler theory) and methodological justifications (it is rational to adopt the simpler theory "as one's working theory for scientific purposes") of Occam's razor. To this I will add a third type of principle, a variation of Baker's epistemological one, which I have come across on several occasions: It is rational to believe in the simpler theory because that is what the world is like."[8]

* Baker, A. 2004. Simplicity. In: E. Zalta, ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2004 Edition). Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2004/entries/simplicity/. [Accessed 24 Jun 2008].

First of all, who says God and His creation has to be simple? God is outside of this box. In fact, it is often said that the Kingdom of God is "upside-down" because it doesn't make sense according to the ways of the world. To most people, things are backwards or "upside-down" compared to the way they think. However in reality, the Kingdom of God is right and they are wrong.

That being said, Occam's Razor is sometimes controversially applied to the existence of God. It has been said, "If the concept of God does not help to explain the universe better, then the idea is that atheism should be preferred"[9]. Some such arguments are based on the assertion that belief in God requires more complex assumptions to explain the universe than non-belief (e.g. the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit). On the other hand, there are various arguments in favour of a God which attempt to establish a God as a useful and even simpler explanation. Philosopher Del Ratzsch[48] suggests that the application of the razor to God may not be so simple, least of all when we are comparing that hypothesis with theories postulating multiple invisible universes.[10]

In speaking on religion in God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens espoused his variation named Hitchens' razor, which states "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Critics have pointed out though that his razor itself is asserted without evidence.[11]

St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, uses a formulation of Occam's Razor to construct an objection to the idea that God exists:[12]

Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.

In turn, Aquinas answers this with the quinque viae, and addresses the particular objection above with the following answer:

Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

Rather than argue for the necessity of God, some theists consider their belief to be based on grounds independent of, or prior to, reason, making Occam's Razor irrelevant. This was the stance of Søren Kierkegaard, who viewed belief in God as a leap of faith which sometimes directly opposed reason.[13] This is also the same basic view of Clarkian Presuppositional apologetics, with the exception that Clark never thought the leap of faith was contrary to reason. (See also: Fideism).

William of Ockham himself was a theist. He believed in God, and in some validity of scripture; he writes that "nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident (literally, known through itself) or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture."[14] In Ockham's view, an explanation which does not harmonize with reason, experience or the aforementioned sources cannot be considered valid. However, unlike many theologians of his time, Ockham did not believe God could be logically proven with arguments. He states: "only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover."[15]

I believe we can apply this principle to Christianity but it's not that simple and like I said, God is "outside of the box" if you will. As I have said many times, we need to precisely and carefully define our terms. However, I believe when one looks at the "big picture" with more than just a scientific lens but rather a human understanding, it is simpler to believe the map of understanding that Christianity provides than a secular one. Christianity provides answers for virtually everything... "How did we get here?" "Why are we here?" Even "where are we going?" Without this framework, we are left with far more questions.


1. Charlesworth, M. J. (1956). "Aristotle's Razor". Philosophical Studies (Ireland), pg. 105
2. Ibid
3. Aristotle, Physics 189a15, On the Heavens 271a33. 4. Richard McKeon (tr.) Aristotle's Posterior Analytics (1963) p.150 5. Charlesworth, M. J. (1956). "Aristotle's Razor". Philosophical Studies (Ireland), pg. 105
6. James Franklin (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability before Pascal. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Chap 9. p. 241.
7. Vogel Carey, Toni (Oct 2010). "Parsimony (In as few words as possible)". In Lewis, Rick. Philosophy Now (UK) (81). Retrieved 27 October 2012.
8. Riesch, Hauke "Simple or simplistic? Scientists' views on Occam's razor," Theoria, ISSN 0495-4548, Vol. 25, Nº 67, 2010, pg. 78
9. Schmitt, Gavin C. (2005). "Ockham's Razor Suggests Atheism". Archived from the original on 2007-02-11. Retrieved 2006-04-15.
10. "Many Universe Theories". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford.
11. Walls, Jerry (2008), "Logical Positivism", Philosophy of Religion, Asbury Theolgogical Seminary.
12. "SUMMA THEOLOGICA: The existence of God (Prima Pars, Q. 2)". Newadvent.org. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
13. McDonald, William (2005). "Søren Kierkegaard". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2006-04-14.
14. "William Ockham". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford.
15. Dale T Irvin & Scott W Sunquist. History of World Christian Movement Volume, I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, p. 434. ISBN 9781570753961.

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