Reason Hell Special: Bad parsimony

"Pastinaca sativa Sturm28" by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) - Fig. from book Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen see Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Pastinaca sativa Sturm28” by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) – Fig. from book Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen see Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

I should ration my visits to John C Wright’s blog but it is such a great source of material. He has written a long post on Theism versus Atheism: It’s…well notable if not original.

The strongest argument in favor of one model over another is how much it explained, how clearly, without recourse to special pleading, lapses in logic, or ad hoc. I propose that while the Christian religion contains mysteries certain to daze even the most patient of theologians, it is nonetheless the more robust, on the grounds that it requires fewer assumptions and leaves far less unexplained. For the atheist, nearly everything his worldview seeks to explain is left unexplained, marked off with a mere somehow.

While it is possible (in that it is not a logical self contradiction) that we live in a universe where irrational and non-deliberate chemical and evolutionary processes gave rise to creatures like ourselves capable of reason and deliberation, and that our reason somehow is able to deduce and predict correctly some of the processes of that material universe as well as the imponderable truths of logic, aesthetics, law and ethics, which just so happen somehow to apply to and work inside the material universe as well, it requires a leap of faith to believe that this is the case here in the real universe in which we actually live.

His argument here uses an appeal to parsimony but it is simply a bad argument. What he is offering is not more parsimonious when it comes to explanation and it isn’t more robust. It really is little more than a verbal trick because he (or anybody) can’t possibly explain how god (or gods) work nor how a god could do any of the things that he might require god to do as part of his explanation. So when ever god is given as an explantion it always carries its own “somehow”.

To compare. We have a question – how does X happen?

  • Wright’s straw-atheists says “somehow
  • Wright’s straw-theist says “God did it”
  • but actually the straw-theist has just dropped a word off their explanation which should read “God did it somehow

Now compare the pair:

  • atheist: “somehow”
  • theist: “God did it somehow”

The theist explanation is not simpler, it doesn’t require fewer assumptions and it isn’t more robust. That doesn’t make it wrong but it certaintly isn’t a better explanation.

Part 2 of Authority and Ad Hominem soon.

2 thoughts on “Reason Hell Special: Bad parsimony

  1. Even as a Christian myself, it’s hard to disagree with this succinct summary of the flaw in Wright’s argument. (I would note, however, that he also seem to presume that all theists subscribe to his interpretation which is the solipsism fallacy.)


    1. Thanks David. Yes, this isn’t a specifically anti-theist point. The same is true with claiming any big, complex explanation is simple by giving it a one word label and ignoring the implied complexity. Using the word ‘evolution’ looks more parsimonious than spelling out ‘evolution by natural selection of traits which are inherited imperfectly over generations’.


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