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Introduction: How to reason

Section 8: Occam's Razor

The simplest interpretation is almost always the best.


William of Ockham - also spelt Occam - was a fourteenth century English philosopher and friar whose claim to fame is the formulation of the principle known as Occam's Razor: in any situation offering two or more explanations, the simpler or simplest explanation is always best.

0.8a Cats and crop circles

We apply Occam's Razor - usually calling it common sense - every day of our lives. Children may come up with bizarre explanations for accidents and other errors of judgement ("the dog ate my homework"), but adults know that the simpler explanation ("you didn't do it") is usually right. You come into the kitchen and see a half-eaten mouse on the floor; perhaps the rodent came in, chewed off half its body and hid the rest, but the body remnants are probably a gift from precious Tiddles.

Take crop circles - the geometric patterns that used to appear in fields. Some people argued that these patterns could not be made by human beings or earth-bound phenomena such as wind or rain; they had to be created by aliens from outer space. Others respond that human beings are responsible.

The human theory has simplicity on its side. The patterns were often complex and it was not always clear how they were made, but it is always physically possible for one or more people to enter a field, flatten some sections of wheat and leave the rest alone. There was also a strong correlation between the appearance of circles, publicity and ease of access to the field, which suggested human involvement.

The alien theory, on the other hand, depended on a race of beings traveling billions of miles for the sole purpose of

How good is your reasoning?

Can you distinguish lies from truth? Or a good argument from a false one? Can you when tell someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes?

We keep physically fit by exercising regularly and eating healthy
food. The same is true of our minds - we need regular mental exercise and a good diet of solid facts and logic.

This chapter offers basic reasoning skills to help you understand the contradictions that lie at the heart of all religion.

0.1: Basic principles
Start at the beginning

0.2: What do we know?
Separate fact from fiction

0.3: Start with the question ...
... not with the answer

0.4: All the evidence ...
... not just some of it

0.5: Cause, correlation and no connection
What's the difference?

0.6: Don't jump to conclusions ...
... or you could land in the ...

0.7: No way
Proving a negative

0.8: Occam's Razor
The simplest solution

0.9: Facts, knowledge and science
What we know and how we know it

0.10: Know or believe?
The impossibility of God

0.11: Reason and faith
Understanding the difference

0.12: Summary

Finished the introduction? Move on to

Chapter 1
Defining God

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

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leaving geometric patterns in remote fields. To do so, their spaceships somehow avoided the complex network of satellites and radar systems that cover every square inch of this planet.

Those who suggested aliens make crop circles must not only explain how they did it but also why? If little green men or large blobs of chemicals want to communicate with the human race, why do so this way? If their technology is good enough to bring them to Earth, it is surely also so advanced that it can identify the primary forms of communication that we humans use, and the best people to communicate with. Why would they choose to announce their presence in such an obscure fashion?

Occam's Razor suggested that humans were far more likely to be behind crop circles than aliens. Not surprisingly that explanation was confirmed in the early 1990s when people confessed to making crop circles and demonstrated how they had done so.

0.8b Cutting through c**p

Occam's Razor can be applied to any alien "manifestation". Many people believe that visitors from space visit Earth frequently to abduct specimen humans to perform bizarre experiments or they come every few thousand years to give human civilisation a kick-start. Here too Occam's Razor can be applied, since for every alien visitation there is always a simpler and more likely natural explanation. No, there are no alien abductions, but there are individuals who are less grounded than most in reality. No, aliens did not assist the Mayan or Inca cultures - the indigenous people were pretty smart on their own. And so on...

When we apply Occam's Razor to the 9/11 conspiracy theories discussed in Section 4 we see the absurdity of the idea that the US government engineered the attack. If the theory is true, who in government circles ordered this bizarre event? why did they want to kill so many of their own citizens? who planted the explosive devices in the World Trade Center that apparently caused the buildings to tumble? when and how did they do it without alerting WTC security? what has prevented the hundreds or thousands of men and women aware of this conspiracy from coming forward to admit their role in it? And so on and so on.

Occam's Razor - common sense - is a simple tool that cuts through all such ridiculous theories and other crazy ideas (Queen Elizabeth as an alien lizard or drug smuggler?). The simplest answer is invariably true - and if the truth doesn't appear simple, you're not looking at it clearly.

0.8c Occam and God

What happens when we apply the Razor to God and the universe? Atheists say that if God is not necessary to explain the universe, Occam confirms that he does not exist. On the other hand, most believers use Occam's Razor to come to the opposite conclusion - God is a simpler explanation of the origins of the universe than the idea that it has always existed or came into being unbidden out of nothingness.

At first glance, the argument of believers seems simpler and therefore more reasonable than the idea of no God, but the closer we examine it, the less certain it seems. So many questions arise when we assume that there is a Creator - why did God make so many mistakes in the development of species? how can God's internally incompatible nature be explained? where did God come from? and so on - that the self-existing universe is seen to be the simpler and more likely explanation.

We will return later to the specific question of God and Occam's Razor. For the moment, let's stick with one point: the simplest interpretation is almost always the best.

Next: Introduction: Section 9
Facts, knowledge and science

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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