No-Evidence Arguments: Explanatory Adequacy and Ockham's Razor

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This is the the fifteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. As with the other no-evidence argument posts in this series, some of my presentation is influenced by the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within. This post in particular also takes a good deal from Peter van Inwagen's "It Is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence" and "Quam Dilecta" (part 1; part 2), which are two different presentations of the same core paper, expanded upon differently for different audiences (I assume).

I also want to issue a reminder that this series' material was largely written over a few years of teaching the course that these are lecture notes for, but I haven't organized them into blog posts except as I'm going. I've been forecasting how many posts are left on certain issues, and with each post in the No-Evidence Arguments section I've thought that I had one or two posts left. Then I've had to subdivide some of the posts as I've expanded some thoughts that I discuss in class but didn't have in my handouts. That's why the numbers of the posts I've predicted hasn't always matched up with how many posts I've gone on to produce.

So far I've presented the no-evidence argument in one popular form and looked at whether there is sufficient evidence for God, with some evaluation of how atheists and naturalists would view the evidence presented in favor of God. I'm now moving into the issue of what we should say if we decide that the evidence is inconclusive. Should we accept the skeptical argument against believing in God? This post focuses on the explanatory adequacy that naturalism claims for itself and the use of the principle Ockham's Razor to favor atheism rather than just agnosticism. In the next post, I plan to work through how various responses to skepticism will apply to skepticism about God. Then I expect to conclude this portion of the series with a few final thoughts. After that, I'll move on to arguments for theism that might better be thought of as arguments against naturalism, and then I'll look at the problem of evil, the second major argument against belief in God. That will wrap up the first half of the material for the course these posts are taken from, which has been on knowledge/skepticism and God, and the second half will cover free will, the nature of the mind, and personal identity.

Explanatory Adequacy

Whatever you say about how good the evidence is, a theist has to admit that non-theists have alternative explanations for the evidence a theist might give. This doesn't mean the theist always finds the alternative accounts to be very convincing, but the alternative accounts are there and would explain the evidence if they were true. That allows for a kind of neutrality on these issues, assuming the naturalistic explanations are equally good in every way (and assuming as I am, temporarily for these posts, that the arguments against naturalism or arguments for the existence of God are unsuccessful). The non-theist will often find the theistic evidence to be unconvincing, so we seem to be at a standstill. The chief problem for the theist is a common claim among naturalists that science is explanatorily adequate for everything that happens. No explanation is needed beyond science. Therefore, theism is explanatorily inadequate, i.e. it explains nothing. If it's not needed to explain our evidence because some other view will explain it, then it isn't necessary.

This is a claim worth investigating. Does science explain everything that happens? Some of the questions raised by Hume about scientific laws (see earlier posts in this series) might undermine science significantly. We can trace an observed phenomenon back to what Hume called its "secret powers" (whatever underlying causes explain the observed phenomena). However, that just moves the problem back a step. Explaining atomic behavior in terms of electrons and protons now gives us something else to explain. One charge against naturalism is that it really hasn't explained anything without reying on something unexplained. The cosmological argument for the existence of God picks up these sorts of concerns, as we will see, and we'll come back to the why vs. how questions. A different sort of why question comes up with the teleological or design argument. The moral argument isn't so much based on evidence but on what our moral beliefs require. In any of the cases, we might have a motivation to believe in God beyond the sort of evidence I discussed in the last post. As I said, I'm putting those issues off for the moment and assuming we will get nowhere with any of them, as many naturalists claim. What then happens? Should we be neutral? You might expect agnosticism to result, but that's not what atheists claim. They think the lack of evidence that can't otherwise be explained is reason not just to be agnostic about the existence of God. They think we should be atheists. This brings us back to the argument I presented in the last post:

1. It is wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence.
2. We don't have (and shouldn't expect ever to have) enough evidence for belief in God.
3. Therefore, we should not believe in God.

In the last post, I considered various sorts of evidence some theists claim to have in support of theism, and much of it seems to have alternative explanations. The kinds that don't seem very individualized and thus are not available to those who do not have such personal evidence. What should someone do who has no such personal evidence? Some atheists begin with the first premise in the argument above. If that's true, and there really isn't enough evidence to support belief in God, then we simply shouldn't believe in God.

Immoral Religious Beliefs

One issue here, however, is what 'should' and 'wrong' mean in the above argument. Are these moral statements about what we morally ought or ought not to do? Are they statements about what is rat ional to do? W.K. Clifford, who is most famous for this sort of argument, took them in a moral way. It's morally wrong to believe in something without sufficient evidence, and thus it's immoral to believe in God. He gave the example of a shipowner who sent his ship out without enough evidence that it would really make the trip successfully. Anyone who would do such a thing is just negligent. If the ship capsizes due to lack of repair, the shipowner is at fault. A more contemporary example would be the 9-11 hijackers. They didn't have enough evidence for their belief that it was morally praiseworthy to fly those planes into the World Trade Center, and thus they did something immoral due to having a belief without sufficient evidence.

The most obvious problem with both examples, however, is that they're not exhaustive enough to represent belief without enough evidence. Not all beliefs without sufficient evidence are like those. One involves negligence. Someone believes something based on wishful thinking that allows him not to place enough importance on something he had a moral obligation to do, which was to keep his ship in good repair. It's not the belief itself that's immoral. It's that he was willing to risk people's lives on the basis of a belief without sufficient evidence. Similarly, with the 9-11 case, what's most obviously wrong is the immoral action. The fact that they believed this to be a good action may have been morally wrong, but that's not because they held it without sufficient evidence. It's because it's an evil view, leading to evil actions.

To make the point more clear, I'll give some beliefs without evidence that seem perfectly innocent. I have no evidence at all for whether the number of elementary particles in the universe is even or odd. What if I have some wacky view that odd is better than even, and I end up concluding on the basis of this view that a universe with an even number of elementary particles would be extremely unlikely due to the fundamental principle of the goodness of odds, which will see to it that an odd number of particles will result? This belief seems to me to be perfectly innocent, even if it is wholly lacking in evidence and indeed quite ridiculous. Another example might be the belief that I ought to wear matching socks six days a week and unmatching socks on Thursdays. If I consider this my moral obligation, it doesn't seem to me to be radically immoral. It isn't even a belief that I might try to foist upon other people, in case that's what someone like Clifford would be worried about. The belief I have in mind is simply the view that I have this moral obligation. No one else has it. I just can't see how it would be immoral to hold such a view, even if it's wholly without evidence, even if we would consider someone crazy for holding such a view. So it's pretty easy to see why Clifford's view is wrong. That doesn't mean the other reading of the argument is wrong, however. Is it irrational to believe in God if one doesn't have enough evidence?

Ockham's Razor

The main issue the naturalist emphasizes is Ockham's Razor. As I discussed in early posts, Occam's Razor is the principle that we should accept the simplest theory that best explains the evidence. If a theory is inadequate, but another explains the evidence better, it doesn't really matter if the better one involves a few more components, making it a good deal more complex. It's when two theories are equally good at explaining the evidence that Occam's Razor kicks in. If the evidence for theism is equally explainable in a naturalistic theory, then Ockham's Razor tells us to shave off all that extra stuff in theism that we don't need. If God isn't necessary for the theory, then there's no reason to believe in God. Indeed, it's irrational to believe in God in the same way that it's irrational to believe that invisible goblins make magnets point north, because we already have an explanation of how magnets behave from within physics.

Now it's true that not all the evidence I looked at in the last post is fully explained in a naturalistic theory. I happen to think a few important pieces aren't explained well at all, but I know people differ on those questions. Besides, naturalists see much of the evidence for theism as a small gap in an incredibly comprehensive theory. We're just waiting to fill these gaps. Theists emphasize the gaps to highlight that the story is incomplete. If it's complete enough, naturalists use Ockham's Razor, and the simpler theory, naturalism, wins out. It explains the evidence about as well as theism, and it doesn't require all the baggage about God. But some theists dig in their heels and insist that the gaps show the theories don’t explain the evidence equally well, so it's inappropriate to bring in Occam's Razor. There’s also the point that different theories can be simple in different ways, and there are some ways that the theistic theory is simpler. Overall, however, it's difficult for the theist to convince the atheist that naturalism isn't sufficient to give us enough of what we need to think we can arrive at a full enough explanation of the evidence given enough time, especially given the track record of scientific explanation (assuming a good response to Hume's problem about science from previous posts, which I'll be coming back to in the next post).

What do we do then? What's most interesting to me about the structure of this argument is that it's just like the arguments for skepticism about other things. Descartes raises the skeptical scenario of the evil demon hypothesis. The Matrix and brain-in-vat cases raise similar problems, and Jonathan Ichikawa would be disappointed if I didn't also mention the possibility that I'm dreaming. Hume brings up the possibility that what's been true in the past won't be true in the future with regard to scientific observations, whether because of no laws at all or perhaps just that the laws may change tomorrow (or that they're complex laws that seem to be one way so far but will have very different effects from now on). In all of these cases, someone claims to know some X. The skeptic raises the possibility of some scenario that presents the same evidence we have but with X false. The skeptical argument is that. If you can't rule out not-X, you shouldn't believe X.

The atheistic argument does exactly that. If you can't rule out naturalism, then you shouldn't believe in theism. One way to challenge the atheistic argument is to debate the evidence. What I'm going to do in the next post is look at how the standard responses to skepticism (pragmatism, a priori responses, and reliabilism; I don't think contextualism has much hope with this question) can undermine the argument for atheism based on lack of evidence. If any of these responses succeeds, then the argument for atheism fails, and none of it rests on whether there really is sufficient evidence for theism. That will have to wait for the next post, however.


There are a large number of things the naturalist can't explain, consciousness, existence etc., yet they often say they believe that future scientific discoveries will solve these problems. Now it seems to me that anyone that buys into the argument above has to admit that currently there is not sufficient evidence that there will ever be a naturalistic solution to these problems. Positive science is simply not equipped to handle them. Doesn't this put them in the position of being hypocrtical?

Naturalists disagree about whether consciousness can be explained by purely naturalistic means. The vast majority of naturalists think it will eventually be able to be explained in purely naturalistic terms. I agree with you that I think that's a pipe dream, but that view is very much the minority view among philosophers today. It's even viewed as spooky by most people I know who work in philosophy of mind. That subject will come up after the God and free will posts when this series moves into the nature of the human mind, so I don't want to presume an answer to it here.

On existence, I'm not sure what you mean. If it's what I think, then my upcoming post on the cosmological argument will look at that sort of thing. I believe I have two more posts on no-evidence arguments, and then I'll come to that.

I want to be careful about the hypocrisy charge. Hypocrisy is when you state that something is wrong and then consistently do it yourself during the time that you're preaching against it, without acknowledging that you ever do the same wrong thing that you accuse others of. It isn't hypocrisy to believe conflicting things. Naturalists might be inconsistent in certain ways, if what you're saying is correct, but it's not hypocrisy.

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