Occam's Razor and the historicity of Christianity

Occam's Razor is a logical principle described by William of Ockham, a 14th-Century logician and Friar. I first heard the phrase in the movie Contact with Jodie Foster, based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name. In the film, Occam's razor is stated as, "All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one." The original principle is stated as "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" or, alternately, "plurality should not be posited without necessity". I feel like the phrase "all things being equal" is a little vague, so I prefer a simpler way of understanding Occam's razor: that the fewer assumptions one has to make, the better. Let me give you an example.


A silly example of a serious concept

I'm sure most of us have heard the theory that aliens either built the Egyptian pyramids, or that aliens taught the Egyptians how to build the pyramids. The idea came from the fact that the pyramids seem like an impossibly complex feat of engineering for such a primitive people. Some hieroglyphics look like they may be pictures of aliens or space ships. So, maybe highly intelligent extra-terrestrial beings told the Egyptians how to do it. Now, such a theory is essentially impossible to disprove. There isn't much evidence for it either, but it can't be "disproved". But, you have to make the following assumptions in order to accept the theory:

1. Aliens exist
2. These aliens are highly intelligent
3. These aliens are capable of interstellar space travel
4. These aliens came to Earth
5. These aliens had an interest in teaching the Egyptians how to build pyramids

I'm sure there are many more assumptions we could think of (such as motivational assumptions), but those five will do. Now, to accept the theory that the Egyptians themselves figured out how to build the pyramids without any help from aliens, you have to make the following assumption:

1. The Egyptians were clever engineers

That's it. Smart people figured out how to do something complicated with the resources available to them. Isaac Newton invented calculus. Einstein invented General Relativity. The recently completed Burj Dubai is the tallest building in the world — over half a mile high. So clearly, humans can and often do complete incredible feats of intellect and engineering. So, the assumption that the Egyptians were clever engineers, while indeed a mere assumption, is an assumption that is consistent with the rest of human history; we have lots of evidence that people are clever, and occasionally do amazing things. But we don't have any evidence that super-intelligent, space-traveling aliens exist (UFO conspiracy theorists not withstanding), much less that they had a vested interest in teaching the Egyptians how to build pyramids.


Occam's razor and the historicity of Christianity

Christian apologists and scholars, such as my favorite punching bag William Lane Craig (someone who's done a lot of lectures and debates on the historicity of the Resurrection), want Jesus to be treated the same as any other historical figure. There are multiple accounts of his ministry, purportedly from eye witness accounts. I've seen debates in which Dr. Craig is challenged on the lack of corroborating documents and contemporaneous evidence of the Gospels, and he insists both that there are corroborating documents, and that the Gospels themselves are sufficiently self-corroborating that they do not actually need any further external sources.

The fallacy, though, is one I discussed in my post comparing the Bible to other historical works. Most historical works do not require us to make supernatural assumptions. It's disingenuous for any apologist to act like Jesus should be treated as any other historical figure, because even by their own measure, Jesus was not any old historical figure — he was God. Not just any god, mind you, but the one true god, and a god you should believe in, pray to, and devote your life to. A god who performed amazing miracles and will save your soul from eternal damnation. Those are pretty extraordinary claims. And, as Carl Sagan famously said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

I don't think it would be much of a stretch to suggest that around 2,000 years ago in Palestine, there was a Rabbi who had devoted followers. There were probably lots of Rabbis, and lots of them with devoted followers. It's certainly plausible that a person like Jesus existed. But does that mean all the other stuff — the blood sacrifice, the miracles, the virgin birth — are also true? Just as we can't disprove the theory that aliens taught the Egyptians how to build pyramids, we can't disprove any of the supernatural claims of the Bible. But we can apply Occam's razor to ask, skeptically, what the most probable scenario is.

To believe in a secular, non-Christian viewpoint of Jesus, you have to make the following assumptions:

1. Someone like Jesus — a Rabbi, teacher, etc. — may have existed and may have had followers
2a. People have a tendency to believe silly things
2b. People 2,000 years ago were more probably more likely to believe silly things due to the lack of education, scientific methodology, and communications technology. 
3. The supernatural claims of the Bible are probably not true, just as any other claims about supernatural things are probably not true.

Note that all these assumptions are consistent with what we observe. We have a fair amount of historical evidence to suggest that there were plenty of Rabbis around two millenia ago in that part of the world. Like any religious teacher, they may have had followers. Now, try turning on TBN. You might be lucky enough to see Benny Hinn miraculously healing people of all kinds of afflictions. Literally thousands of people — if not millions — believe his acts are real, despite the fact that not a single case has ever been documented. Sathya Sai Baba is a Hindu mystic with millions of followers who believe he performs miracles. People believe in astrology, psychic communication with deceased relatives, voodoo, and all kinds of other strange and silly things. And human history is filled with claims about supernatural encounters, from ghosts and psychics to gods and demons. But even the most devoutly religious believer rejects most of these claims, and favors only the ones tied to their own faith.

To believe that the Bible is historically true, these are just some of the assumptions we have to make:

1. God exists
2. God is not deistic, polytheistic or pantheistic; God is a personal, monotheistic god
3. God resides in a spiritual plane, called "Heaven".
4. God created the universe and everything in it, including people.
5. God can intervene in the natural world and suspend the laws of physics
6. Human beings have eternal souls that survive their bodily death
7. There is an innate evil force corrupting people's souls and keeping them from fellowship with God, called "sin".
8. God loves human beings and wants to rid them of sin so they can live in Heaven with him when they die
9. God will forgive people of their sins if they symbolically eat his flesh and confess their wrongdoings.
10. Most or all other claims about supernatural, divine intervention are not true, but the claims in the Bible are.

Again, these are just a few of the assumptions Christianity requires. I'm sure we could think of many more, but these alone are a lot of big assumptions to be making. We don't actually know whether God exists. We can't possibly know whether there would be one god or an infinite multitude of gods, or whether god would exist separately from the universe (deism/theism) or is the universe itself (pantheism). We don't have any particular reason to favor the supernatural claims of one culture over another. We don't know whether humans have souls, or whether Heaven exists. These are all mere assumptions — assumptions that illustrate the hopelessly circular reasoning that is required to be a Christian, or a believer in any other religion for that matter. A litany of assumptions must be made simply to create a context in which to interpret the historical claims of Christianity; unlike the previous scenario's assumption about human ingenuity — which is reinforced through innumerable observations of human behavior — we don't have any particular reason to regard the Christian assumptions as truthful or valid.



Keep it simple, stupid

Skeptics will never be able to conclusively disprove any of the supernatural claims of Christianity, and some believers will foolishly convince themselves that this is some sort of triumph for their faith. But there are an infinite number of things we cannot disprove, such as the obviously silly example of aliens teaching the Egyptians how to build pyramids. What we can do is use Occam's razor to rid ourselves of baseless assumptions and decide which explanation is the most likely. Any fool can plainly see that far too many assumptions must be made about Christianity to view its historical claims as anything but myth.

Comments

  1. Bro, I’ve been reading lots of entries in your blog up and down and I think there’s some really good stuff in there. But I think this particular post may not be too lucid. If you’re going to employ a philosophical principle like Occam’s razor, you must couch it in an argument which is philosophically sustainable (otherwise you’re just hijacking stuff), and I feel this is not the case.

    My problem is that you make some pretty arbitrary selections as to which assumptions are necessary to sustain any given argument.

    For instance. In the example about the Egyptians, assumptions 2 and 3 can be conflated. If the Egyptians have interstellar travel, then it’s implicit that they’re going to be highly intelligent. Conspiracy theorists who believe in aliens will believe that their evidence is as overwhelming as that of any other established historical fact. So it wouldn’t be contentious of them to frame the ‘rational’ reading of the Egyptians as requiring the following assumptions, and therefore no more valid than their own:

    1. Egyptians existed
    2. Egyptians were smart
    3. Egyptians had the means to build pyramids
    4. Egyptians found out ON THEIR OWN how to do something no-one ever did before
    5. Egyptians actually did it.

    Of course, you’ll argue that none of these assumptions go against what we observe. But the believer in aliens will argue that his own assumptions don’t, either. The problem is that ‘what we observe’ is itself a constructed argument and itself object of assumptions.

    You’ll argue that there is such a thing as evidence for the existence of the Egyptians. I am uncertain that any evidence can be called ‘incontrovertible’ (seeing the pyramids doesn’t prove to me that the Egyptians were there to build them, it only proves to me that I’m seeing pyramids), and I’d also like to ask you, as a way of course, whether you’ve researched this evidence yourself. Have you actually been to Egypt and seen the temples and buildings, and are you knowledgeable about Egyptology?

    These problems carry over to your second part of the argument. For instance, you speak of ‘God’ as though there were some kind of dictionary definition for it (and the current semantic meaning of the word ‘God’ is not, I would argue, consistent with the divinity of the New Testament). But God is itself an assumption – whatever further attributes you throw on it are all part of the original assumption. What I mean is that it doesn’t take much to conflate assumptions 1 through 5 into a single voice. If you believe in the Christian God, then it is implicit that he will be able to affect the natural laws, etc.

    Since you do not provide a (philosophical) grounding for how we make our assumptions and which of these assumptions are valid, the opposite is also true: you can stretch the ‘required’ assumptions to no end, just as long as it fits the point you want to make. 1. God exists. 2. He is male. 3. He created us in His image. 4. He exists in Heaven. – See? Since any piece of Christian dogma can be tagged as an ‘assumption,’ and since you can do pretty much the same with any other worldview as well (including the secular), the utility of Occam’s razor ceases to be.

    Mind you, I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying (or with any of the ‘assumptions’ which are suggested by your conclusions). But it strikes me as a superficial treatment of Occam’s razor, and one which only too easily slips into anti-theist rhetoric not unlike the kind used by the theists. Closing the article with such a worn rhetorical turn as ‘any fool can plainly see’ only reinforces this impression.

    Good luck on your future posting. Don’t be bothered if I vanish from sight after posting this, I’m off for a few days.

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  2. While I appreciate your thoughts and criticism, I think you're overlooking the fact that the principle of parsimony is not an end unto itself. Parsimony alone does not, and is not intended to, establish the validity of an argument. It's just a framework by which to establish what components need to be independently verified before the argument can be accepted.

    The only mildly valid criticism I'm seeing here is the contention that I'm not establishing how assumptions are validated, but I was – no pun intended – operating under the assumption that assumptions are validated by independent observation. This isn't the same thing as asserting something as "incontrovertible". Maybe the Egyptians did not exist. But based upon the independently verifiable evidence we have, it is reasonable to assume they did, and in this case the evidence is so abundant that it's implausible that they did not.

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