Defeating Religion in One Easy Step, part 3

Part 3 — Simplicity

Luke Muehlhauser, the proprietor of Common Sense Atheism, has proposed that we can defeat religions in one easy step.  To do so, he takes a broad look at different arguments for God and notices what they all have in common: They all posit God as the best explanation for something.

Luke identifies the following four criteria for a good explanation:

  1. It’s testable and it passes the tests we give it.
  2. It’s consistent with our background knowledge and experience.  (What philosopher Tom Morris called The Principle of Belief Conservation).
  3. It’s simpler than the alternatives.
  4. It has good explanatory scope — in other words, it explains a wide variety of data.

I’ve argued that God creates a testable hypothesis and that this hypothesis passes that test.  Yesterday, I argued that God doesn’t violate Morris’s Principle of Belief Conservation.  Today, let’s find out if God, as an explanation, is too complex.

Is the God hypothesis simple? If you’re talking about the God of the Bible, definitely not. The God of the Bible is an extraordinarily complex person; a being with thoughts and emotions who loves and hates and condemns and forgives; a being who turns a staff into a snake and a woman into salt; a being who changes his mind; a being who starts fires and throws rocks from the sky; a being who kills and resurrects; a being who takes part in personal relationships and political struggles; and a being who incarnates himself as a complex biological organism known as Jesus of Nazareth. The God of the Bible is far from simple.

Yesterday, I noted the fallacy of begging the question.  Today, we see here another fallacy — equivocation.  “Simple” refers to the mechanics of the explanation, not the entities involved in the explanation.  God creating the universe is the simplest explanation, even if God is a complex entity.  God’s attributes matter little for the purpose of declaring his involvement to be the simplest explanation.  Let’s look at an illustrative example.

Let’s say I wandered in the desert and came across a battered Apple II/e computer laying in the sand.  After lamenting that there was no electricity and I couldn’t therefore play The Oregon Trail, I would probably wonder how this ancient machinery got here:

  • Perhaps someone else was wandering out here and dropped the computer.
  • Perhaps NASA loaded it into a space capsule and launched it into outer space.  Then the astronauts wanted to play a really funny joke, so they sent it back to earth and crashed it in the middle of the desert.
  • Perhaps a tornado could have picked the computer up from a junkyard and carried it miles into the desert and dropped it.

The first explanation is the simplest because it has the least number of variables involved.  The other two stack supposition onto improbability and hope for the best.

However, according to Luke, the first and second explanations are more complex (and therefore less likely) because humans are involved, and all humans are beings with thoughts and emotions who love and hate and condemn and forgive; beings who change their minds; beings who start fires and skip rocks across lakes; beings who take part in personal relationships and political struggles; and beings who are complex biological organisms.  Far from simple, right?

Hopefully the equivocation is clear now.

Luke thinks God isn’t the simplest explanation because God himself is complex.  That, however, isn’t what “simplest explanation” refers to.

To use one more example, this would be like seeing that a giant boulder was moved from one spot to another:  perhaps a crane moved it; perhaps the wind moved it.  The wind is the simpler entity, but not the simplest explanation because when was the last time large rocks were moved place to place by the wind?  The crane is the better explanation despite being the more complex entity.

And it isn’t necessary to figure out who built the crane, or where it is now, before I posit a crane moved the boulder.

About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on February 1, 2014, in Apologetics. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I believe this relates to what is called “Occam’s Razor”. Not sure I spelled that right. Simplicity and truth are indeed related. One of my favorite Einstein quotes is, “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Showing his great sense of humor and wisdom at the same time! God Bless you.

    • Occam’s Razor (you did, indeed, spell it right) is the principle of not multiplying entities beyond what is necessary to explain the event.

      What I believe Luke should have done here is show that God is one entity too many. What he did, however, was equivocate on “simplicity” by pointing out that God is a complex agent. Well, no one is doubting that or attempting to argue otherwise, so he’s basically preaching to the choir.

      An entity can, itself, be complex and yet still be the simplest explanation behind an event.

  2. “God creating the universe is the simplest explanation, even if God is a complex entity.”

    Energy, a multiverse of Big Bangs or something being created from nothing are all simpler explanations. Basically anything naturalistic. They don’t require naturalism plus intelligence. Naturalism alone does it as is the case for say evolution by natural selection. The human brain was created via this process no God required. Having said that I don’t see why complex explanation are inferior, as in your examples the more complex is actually better. I just think that perhaps (not sure) more often than not the best explanation is simpler. Also I’m glad you agree that tornados don’t require an intelligence. They happen naturalistically.

  3. I should add that in the specific case of the human brain every time the explanation has been naturalistic (the brain was created through evolution by natural selection from a relatively simply single cell progenitor), every time the origin has been getting simpler: evolution, abiogenesis, the Big Bang in which our universe came from a simple single point of energy and matter. So that’s why we tend to look for naturalistic, simple explanations. So far there has been no evidence of a God being involved in the creation of the human brain, for instance evolution happens through living things reproducing, genes being shuffled, no God required.

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