There are two historical arguments that I find intriguing for the way in which they have been used for and against Christian apologetics: the first is Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor, and the second is Pascal’s Wager. I address these, not because I find either particularly compelling (in fact I don’t), but rather because I’ve seen them come up in apologetics debates with sufficient frequency that I don’t think it prudent to ignore them.
Occam’s Razor, also known as the “Law of Economy,” is a principle advocated by the 14th-century philosopher (and Franciscan monk) William of Ockham: “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” Essentially, the idea is that given two competing hypotheses, the one that requires the fewest complicating elements is to be preferred. It’s not a bad guiding principle, and in fact it makes a lot of sense that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is often preferable to a more-complex one. I find it interesting and somewhat amusing, however, that Occam’s Razor seems to be invoked with about equal conviction by both my theist and atheist friends. The theist argues, for example, that a conscious and deliberate creative act by a creator is a far simpler explanation for the universe than the appearance of a singularity out of nothing. The atheist, on the other hand, argues that the mere introduction of a creator into the mix is a complicating element, rendering the atheist explanation the simpler. The upshot, it seems to me, is that Occam becomes somewhat of a wild card, played by each to trump the other’s hand, and holding a value in the mind of each that is not shared by the other. As such, it’s not particularly helpful in the theism-atheism debate.
Interestingly, though, neither camp seems to recognize in its invocation of Occam that the Razor is merely a guiding principle, not a logical argument. Absent additional evidence, preferring a simple explanation over a complex one certainly does seem to be a reasonable bias, but in point of fact some things actually are complex. Absent the biological evidence we now have, it seems to me hard to dispute that the ancient notion that the man “sows his seed” in a woman and it grows into a baby, is vastly simpler than the meiosis-fertilization-recombination process that we now know happens in human reproduction … but until we had the necessary tools to study this biological process, the ancients would certainly have found their own explanation better suited to an “Occamian” evaluation. Knowing what we know now, the evidence provides the “necessity” side of Occam’s principle, so of course we accept the complex explanation. But before we had microscopes, the facts weren’t different; only our ability to evaluate them was. Humans who correctly applied Occam in evaluating theories of where babies come from, would’ve gotten it wrong.
Consequently, to appeal to Occam as anything other than a guiding principle is fallacious. One cannot prove–or disprove–any hypothesis on Occamian grounds. It’s silly for either theists or atheists to hold otherwise. Incidentally, that’s exactly the conclusion that the “Skeptic’s Dictionary” article linked above (http://skepdic.com/occam.html) suggests, and I heartily commend the whole article to my readers. As author Robert Todd Carroll concludes:
“Today, we think of the principle of parsimony as a heuristic device. We don’t assume that the simpler theory is correct and the more complex one false. We know from experience that more often than not the theory that requires more complicated machinations is wrong. Until proved otherwise, the more complex theory competing with a simpler explanation should be put on the back burner, but not thrown onto the trash heap of history until proven false.”
Therefore, as a tool for evaluating the claims of theism or atheism, Occam’s Razor is ultimately unhelpful.
On to Pascal. Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French mathematician and scientist who, among many other works, applied probability to the question of belief in God. Pascal’s argument has been distilled by apologists and philosophers into a construction which goes something like this (my summary):
- Either the Christian God exists, or he doesn’t.
- We are compelled to choose to believe in the Christian God or not. Either way, it’s a gamble and we don’t know the outcome, but we cannot avoid the choice.
- If the Christian God exists, he will reward those who believe in him with infinite blessing (those who don’t believe either get nothing — i.e. lose the blessing — or are infinitely cursed).
- If the Christian God doesn’t exist, believing in him is harmless, and not believing in him is equally harmless.
- Therefore, the principle of maximizing utility compels us to choose to believe in the Christian God; at best we’ll get an awesome reward, and at worst we’re no worse off than if we didn’t believe.
This is obviously a vast oversimplification, but this simplistic level is about the depth at which I find most Evangelical apologists applying the principle. To those who are interested in reading more deeply, I recommend this nice summary by Tim Holt: Pascal’s Wager on the Philosophy of Religion website (http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/theistic-proofs/pascals-wager/), and a much more analytic, philosophical article by Alan Hajek: Pascal’s Wager on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/). Both provide a solid and, I think, reasonably dispassionate analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Pascal’s logic. Holt appears to come from a position of theism and Hajek from atheism, but both appear to be careful and non-polemic enough that I’m not sure about either one.
My own objection to Pascal’s Wager (supported by both authors linked above) starts with the false dichotomy that the only theistic choice we have on offer is to believe in the Christian God or not. I pointed this out in one of the earliest articles in my series, in which I said “There is a common error among many Evangelical Christians (and some others) I have known, that the opposite of Christianity is atheism, and conversely the opposite of atheism is Christianity, as though faith is a merely a single, bivalued choice.” Footnote 5 in the Stanford article says the same thing with much more academic force, and best when quoting Mackie: “the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or the Mormons or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshippers [sic] of Kali or of Odin.”
Of course, a corollary point would be that an argument from utility isn’t actually a proof of God at all … rather, it’s a way to weigh the probabilities and choose a course of action that’s most likely to “win” selfish gain. It seems to me somewhat doubtful that “belief” (whatever that means) driven solely by selfish ends–what my Mom calls “fire insurance”–is likely to be sufficient to merit whatever rewards God might have on offer, if indeed God’s intention is to reward “belief.”
My second objection is that, as I’ve already said, the possibility (or not) of an afterlife doesn’t really compel me. As I wrote in Part 13, I find enough desirable in the Christian faith that I don’t think I’d change much about my life if I decided that it wasn’t true, or that there’s no heaven or hell. Of course, I’ve already taken issue with the whole idea that eternal destiny as usually preached by Christians, is at all Biblical. From this perspective, I think premise 3 is erroneous at best (atheists would also reasonably take issue with premise 4, as they often do NOT consider belief to be harmless). So I find Pascal’s argument both flawed and uncompelling. Once again, this theist sides with the opponents on a major apologetic gambit.