Oct. 10th, 2015

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I recently watched a video of a debate between famous apologist and Liar for Christ, Dr. William Lane Craig, and well-known cosmologist and theoretical physicist, Dr. Lawrence Krauss. Obviously all my sympathies lay with Dr. Krauss, so it was with some mortification that I watched him apparently just fail to understand Craig’s distinction between epistemic and ontological basis for moral behaviour.

Those terms weren’t used in the parts I saw, but here is how I understand it:

  • An epistemic claim would be of the nature If not for God or revealed truth, we could not know what is morally right or wrong.
  • An ontological claim is different and asserts that God is the basis, not for the knowledge of moral truth, but the existence of moral truth.

In other words, the epistemic claim is concerned with how we can know what is right and wrong, while the ontological claim deals with how there can (supposedly) be a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’.

Craig, for example, claims that everyone is designed to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong, and therefore does not claim that religion is epistemically necessary to assess moral propositions, but does claim that his god is ontologically necessary. This distinction is what Krauss loudly and repeatedly failed to appreciate.

That’s not to say that I think much of the argument itself. The standard objection is a chestnut that’s been around for well over two thousand years and never convincingly resolved: the Euthyphro Dilemma. Its modern formulation when addressing Christian dogma runs something like this?

  • Is God good because he does what is intrinsically good, or because what is good is defined by what God commands?
  • If the former, then there exists an objective moral truth outside of God, who is therefore not ontologically necessary.
  • If the latter, then “God is good” is a circular and hence meaningless claim, and in fact whatever God commanded would by definition be “good”, regardless of whether it resembles what we in actuality think of as good.

Craig is a firm believer in the latter option, and to his dubious credit he carries it all the way by affirming the so-called Divine Command Theory. According to DCT, if God says to kill every man, woman, child, and head of livestock in the land you invade (1 Samuel 15), then it’s right and morally good to do so; and Craig has consistently defended this view: The genocide described in the book of Samuel¹ was morally right. It was morally good to kill all those babies.

Personally, I find this view reprehensible if not downright monstrous. But there are further problems with this view that I don’t see brought up.


If God defines Good, he cannot be trusted

If whatever God wills is (by definition) good, then “good” is arbitrary (as is often pointed out). But this is not merely a problem for ontological grounding. Christian apologists like Craig argue that it’s not arbitrary, because to do other than what is in fact (as we instinctively see it) good is against God’s nature…but so what? On the view that good is defined by God’s will, there’s no real reason to suppose that it cannot change tomorrow. Craig would probably raise a lot of arguments to the effect that God has promised not to, it’s not in his nature, and so on; but how does he know that? Under DCT, it’s not wrong for God to deceive Craig about what his nature is: if he wants to, it’s good by definition. It’s not wrong for him to change his mind about what’s good: if he wants to change his mind, that’s good by definition. In fact, it’s rather Nineteen eighty-four-ish: It is wrong to kill people. It has always been wrong to kill people and always will be. It is good to kill Amalekites…


Craig fails to notice the beam in his own eye

But there’s a deeper yet much simpler problem with Craig’s view, which is this: He says that what God wills is by definition good, and that God has the right to determine this because he created the universe, owns us all, and has the right to do with us as he pleases. But this is a naked assertion. Craig claims that DCT provides an objective view of morality, meaning presumably one with no arbitrary propositions accepted axiomatically, and yet ultimately even his own moral view is arbitrary and axiomatic, too. When Krauss says it’s bad to cause suffering, Craig asks Why?—fair enough, and I fault Krauss for failing to understand this question: I think Craig is right when he implies that Krauss is relying on what amounts to an arbitrary axiom.² But Craig’s own argument is no better, because when he says that God’s will defines what is good, even someone who agrees with him might well ask Why? Craig will say it’s because God created and therefore owns the universe and everyone in it: to this I would retort Why does creating the universe give him the right to do what he wants with it? Craig spends a good deal of time insisting that you cannot get from a factual to a normative statement—you can’t get from an is to an ought—and then he blithely goes and does that very thing in the very same breath.


¹ Fortunately, it most likely never actually happened.

² Philosophically arbitrary—of course, it’s not arbitrary in terms of our neural wiring.

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Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate

Occam’s Razor is a famous philosophical device, a pragmatic solution when faced with multiple competing hypotheses: always choose the one that necessitates the fewest additional assumptions.

Wikipedia contains this description:

Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor and in Latin lex parsimoniae, which means 'law of parsimony') is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian.

The principle can be interpreted as

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

In science, Occam's razor is used as a heuristic technique (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models, rather than as an arbiter between published models. In the scientific method, Occam's razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.

I’d argue, however, that the paragraph cited above actually contains at least the seeds of good reasons why it is more than a mere heuristic device. Consider: There is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis…. This means that for every concrete question, there is an infinite number of answers; one of them is maximally correct, some are plain wrong, and an infinite number fit the data but make unjustified and unparsimonious assumptions. But then, the simplest explanation that fits the data is actually very special, and not just because it’s more testable, but because of that privileged position. It alone accounts for the observed data without adding extraneous assumptions.

This leaves us with a choice, not just on a heuristic and testing level, but on an epistemological level, too: Do we accept only the one explanation permitted by the data yet spared by Occam’s Razor, or do we accept more explanations? If we do not restrict ourselves to only the simplest working possibility, I do not know of any reason why we should not accept all possibilities. Then, since we have an infinite number of possible explanations, whereof only one is maximally correct, the odds of our choosing the best solution are one out of infinity—which is to say, zero. Neglecting parsimony, then, does more harm than merely making it harder to test our hypotheses: it statistically guarantees that we will choose the wrong explanations!

So:

Occam’s Razor provides a rule for choosing a single explanation with strong heuristic properties and avoiding the arbitrary choice of complex solutions that, statistically, are certain to be wrong in detail.


That’s perhaps a bit abstract, so let’s ground it a bit. This actually came up in a discussion on religious epistemology, where I set up something like this: Agnostic (sometimes called “weak”) atheists make a negative existential claim, not based on the existence of positive evidence for non-existence, but based on the lack of positive evidence for existence. Or, in plain language: I’m not an atheist because I have evidence there’s no god; I’m an atheist because there’s no evidence of a god.

But then, runs a certain standard counter-argument, the agnostic atheist is on the same rational footing as the theist. Neither has evidence either directly supporting their position, nor directly refuting the contrary. (Perhaps, this may go on to say, the ideally rational stance is ‘strict’ agnosticism, apparently meaning a refusal to commit to any stance on likelihood.)

This, however, I reject on the basis of a stronger Occam’s Razor.¹ The reason is this: Theists and I agree on the existence of physical reality, each other, rocks, trees, suns, moons, and so on. When we run out of established physical reality, I stop. The theist goes on to add unsupported assumptions—and that’s where the trouble sets in. After all, if you are willing to accept one god without evidence, why not two? Or three? Or a billion? If you accept (though you cannot demonstrate it) that the universe was designed by God, how can you be sure it wasn’t actually designed by aliens pretending to be God? Or wizards posing as aliens pretending to be God? Or Smurfs dressed up as wizards posing as aliens… Well, you see where this goes. I can extend this list into infinity.²

If you are willing to accept any proposition without positive evidence, on the mere basis of inability or to disprove it, or impossibility of so doing, then either you must regard all such propositions as equally valid; or you must have a method of separating your proposition from the infinite number of other propositions with the same property (the property that it hasn’t been disproven, or is not falsifiable); or you are being completely arbitrary and no longer rational. But you can’t have a rational method for separating it, for if you did, it would have to be positive evidence, and you wouldn’t face this problem to begin; so either you are being arbitrary and non-rational, or you must accept them all.

And if you hold that the infinity of possible explanations is valid territory to enter, then your preferred explanation is wrong. How do I justify this assertion? Suppose that each explanation can be laser-etched onto a grain of sand, and we take all possible explanations and let the wind carry them into the sandy desert. This is an infinity of explanations, and as the text is too small to read, you cannot know which is which. With no positive evidence to point to any one explanation, your choice is arbitrary relative to the truth. Maybe one of these explanations is the correct one—but it’s one grain of sand in the desert; and it is an infinite desert. When you bend down and pick out a single grain of sand, I can be confident that you chose the wrong one.

I prefer a more consistent principle of reason, Occam’s Razor: Choose the simplest explanation that fits observations (id est, that isn’t falsified). If our investigation has been thorough enough, it is the right explanation. If not, then it is a good explanation to start from as we investigate further, and our investigation won’t be cluttered up by arbitrary (and almost certainly wrong) assumptions.

That is why, in the absence of existential evidence either positive or negative, assuming the negative is more reasonable than assuming the positive. We should be agnostic in the strict sense of being prepared to admit additional evidence—but that does not mean we should be holding our breath.


¹ This is pretty close to Hitchen’s Razor; in a way, it’s the two razors put together: Occam’s and Hitchens’s. Mine is a two-bladed philosophical razor!

² Or if not infinity, then at least until the text of my post exceeds storage limitations. I wonder if I could write a Haskell program to generate an infinite list of increasingly unparsimonious complications…

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Petter Häggholm

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