Stephen Hawking once said, “I believe the simplest explanation is, there is no God.” Although Hawking may not have been intentionally invoking the popular problem-solving principle known as Ockham’s razor, he does invoke the concept. It has also influenced other atheists to reduce their defense of atheism down to this “simplest explanation” idea. But is that the right understanding of Ockham’s razor?
The adage is credited to William of Ockham, who was a 14th-century English philosopher, and ironically, theologian. It is frequently referenced as, “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity,” though he never used that exact phrasing. In common terms, the principle is known as, “The simplest explanation is usually the best one.” Many philosophers before Ockham espoused the same idea, including Aristotle and Ptolemy, the latter stating, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.
The idea, though not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result, has invariably stood the test of time as at least good reasoning. Isaac Newton in the mid-1600s stated, “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore, to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.”
It has been applied to other fields besides philosophy. It appears in mathematical form as a theory of prediction based on observations, in physics as the Principle of Economy to use the simplest means possible to find results, and even in medicine to look for the simplest, more common explanation first rather than the rare medical diagnosis. In science, Ockham’s razor is generally used as a guide when developing theoretical models and has been used in that effort by scientists such as Max Planck, Leonhard Euler, and Albert Einstein, who supposedly said that everything should be kept as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Granted, Ockham’s razor is not always correct. Sometimes it is the more unusual medical diagnosis or maybe the scientific results do require some complicated testing methods to be used. But in general, the simpler explanation – the one with the least number of additional assumptions – is the correct explanation.
For example, imagine coming into your house to find garbage strewn around the kitchen. You could conclude that a rogue army of aliens has invaded the planet and was searching your house for signs of the easiest places to conquer, but that requires a lot of additional assumptions and plenty of other things that require their own explanations. Or, you could choose the simpler explanation that your dog managed to knock over the trash can. That explanation is more straightforward and doesn’t require a litany of other assumptions.
As used in the discussion of the existence of God, however, Hawking asserts that the simplest explanation to our existence is that there is no God. Presumably, the explanation that God created this universe is too complex. In one respect, Hawking is correct. God is incredibly complex. By definition, God is a superior being that we could never fully understand, much more complex than we are.
But being a simple explanation and being a simple thing in the explanation are two different things. The simplest explanation may be that God created this universe (and I would posit that is the case), even though the “God” part of the explanation is highly complex. Yet many atheists fail to see this distinction. The claim is made that since God is complex, God cannot possibly be the simplest explanation.
However, that reasoning isn’t accepted for most other things we try to explain. For example, if you were to enter your house and instead of finding the garbage scattered everywhere you find a note with the recipe for your favorite cake on the counter. There is clear organization to the note with information and directions. Accurate measurements are given. Proper grammar and syntax are used. It is even written in a language you can read. And even more than that, it isn’t just any recipe, but the recipe for your favorite dessert.
What would the simplest explanation to this note be? Would it be that someone intelligent and loving wrote this down for you, even though that person who is intelligent and loving is also highly complex? It would appear in this case that the simplest explanation involves a complex entity.
What would an explanation look like that only used “simple” things as part of the explanation? It would have to explain the existence of ink strokes on a piece of paper, yet the pen is lying in a drawer. So now the movement of the pen from the drawer to the counter and back into the drawer must be explained. The paper also came from a notepad located on the desk in the office. There must now be an explanation as to how the paper moved from that location to the kitchen. And how can it be explained that the pen was able to move across the paper on its own? How could it also make strokes that resemble letters and arrange those letters so that they can form coherent words? How could the pen mark down the accurate measurements of each ingredient necessary to make cake? Could it possibly know that information? And more importantly, why would this pen suddenly do this?
No, the simplest explanation is that someone intelligent wrote that recipe down, someone loving to think of you to choose that particular recipe to share, and someone with intent and purpose to go out of their way to do this for you. That is Ockham’s razor accurately applied.
That is the proper way to view the cause of this universe. The universe is designed with coded information within our cells, irreducibly complex systems in our bodies, and anthropic fine-tuning to the universe.* The simplest explanation is that someone loving and intelligent purposefully created this universe for mankind to be able to live within it.
By contrast, the atheistic explanation to this universe requires so many additional assumptions and just-so-stories taking place. It must assume that something can come out of nothing, that chaos can produce order, patterns, and design on its own. It assumes that information can be produced out of nothing. It requires the one-in-a-trillion chance to happen every time as a mistake in DNA transcription produces a beneficial feature for an organism, to generate every features of that organism for every organism that has ever existed. It assumes life can suddenly come into existence out of only non-living things – but only for the first living cell that plopped out of the primordial soup, not ever again.
Ockham’s razor honestly applied to the existence of this universe would shout to us there must be an intelligent designer. It is, after all, the simplest explanation.
Interestingly, the rest of Stephen Hawking’s statement is this: “No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful.” How ironic that he should appreciate the grand design of something he believed has no designer.
(*For more explanation on irreducibly complex systems or anthropic fine tuning, check out chapter 2 of Teaching Others to Defend Christianity, available at defendthefaithministry.com/shop/)
1 thought on “What Is the Simplest Explanation?”
While in the Navy we called this K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Hawking is proud of his pedantry. Keep It Simple, Stephen.