Dawkins’ Razor

Update: I’ve done a video version of this post on my YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/anselmhart

Occam’s razor is

“a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in logic and problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected”. [Wikipedia]

Richard Dawkins applies Occam’s razor in the “central argument” [Ch.4, p.157] of his book, The God Delusion:
“The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain.” [Ch.4, p.147]
Dawkins goes on, further down the page, to talk about the theologian Richard Swinburne. Dawkins disagrees with Swinburne’s views, but before explaining why, Dawkins states that

“He begins by showing that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts“. [Ch.4, p.147]

I quote these mainly to show that Richard Dawkins must think that Occam’s razor is a sensible principle to use, as the central argument of his book relies on it in stating that the multiverse hypothesis (or other such naturalistic explanation) should be preferred over the so-called God hypothesis.
Now, let’s see what Dawkins has to say about the life we see on this planet.

On page 1 of his book, The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins wrote:

“Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose”.

In The God Delusion, he states that:

“We live on a planet where we are surrounded by perhaps ten million species, each one of which independently displays a powerful illusion of apparent design“. [Ch.4, p.139]

In the summary of the central argument of this book he states that:

“The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself”. [Ch.4, p.157]

Of course, he doesn’t go on to do this, but what happens if we apply Occam’s razor to the situation that life, in Dawkins words, gives the appearance of having been designed for a purpose? What is the simplest hypothesis that fits the fact that life gives the appearance of having been designed for a purpose? Surely it is that life actually has been designed for a purpose! Any other hypothesis must be more complex than this as it would have to take on the extra task of explaining why the appearance of design is deceptive. The so-called God hypothesis doesn’t have to do this as it automatically fits with the fact and so is inherently the most simple.
In summary:
1. Occam’s razor is a sensible principle to use (as Dawkins acknowledges).
2. Life looks designed (as Dawkins acknowledges).
3. The simplest explanation that fits the fact that life looks designed is “because it was designed”.
4. Applying Occam’s razor to the question of why life looks designed, the explanation “because it was designed” should be preferred.
In arguing against God’s existence, Dawkins has to abandon this application of Occam’s razor and instead choose a more complex explanation for the apparent design in life. He can do that if he wants to, but if he’s going to abandon Occam’s razor here, why does he insist on its use in the central argument of his book? If Occam’s razor is unreliable, why trust his main argument? Furthermore, why does he so often dismiss the “God hypothesis” as ridiculous when it is clearly at least a reasonable explanation, as shown.
Note that my use of Occam’s razor in no way relies upon a knowledge of who the designer is or how the designer came to be. That’s a completely separate issue to the question of whether there was a designer or not. To use the traditional watch analogy, if I find a watch on the ground, the simplest explanation of the existence of the watch is that it was made by a watchmaker. I may have no idea about who made the watch or where the watchmaker came from, but that doesn’t affect the situation that my simple “watchmaker” solution is still the best. Using Richard Dawkins’ reasoning, he would have to say about my hypothesis regarding the watch I found: “you’ve just made the situation more complicated without explaining anything – first you had to explain how a watch came to exist, now you have to explain how a watchmaker came to exist! Watchmakers are even more complex than watches so you’ve gone backwards!” He might even throw in a “who made the watchmaker?” for good measure. These may be interesting questions to ask, but even if I have no idea about the answers to these questions, they don’t do anything to alter the situation that the best explanation for the existence of the watch is still the simplest explanation – that it was made by a watchmaker.
Back to the God hypothesis, as a Christian I can also answer the extra questions raised in the watch example above, because the Bible makes it clear that God is eternal and therefore he requires no designer himself. Because he has always existed, the question of how he came to exist doesn’t arise. Simple.

Review: The Book of Mormon (musical) – from a Christian perspective

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I’ve just got back from going to see the new London production of The Book of Mormon. It’s a musical by the creators of South Park.

You may be wondering why a Christian would go to see such a thing, but yeeees (changing the subject in the same manner as a Mormon asked why Joseph Smith wouldn’t let anyone else see the original golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was allegedly written) we’ll move on and I’ll tell you all about it, so you don’t have to see it! What a good service I’m providing.

*Spoiler alert*

So, the story is of two budding young Mormon missionaries, sent from their comfortable Utah lives to a country selected by their church leaders for two years of mission work. The pair include the tall, good-looking star student who is rather arrogant and hoping to make a name for himself by making lots of converts (and hopes to be sent to Orlando), and the other is the short, dweeby, innocent one who is delighted to have a new best friend who (due to the missionary pairing rules) isn’t allowed to leave him like others do. These two young men seemingly draw the short straw and get sent to Uganda. The tall one is disappointed to be sent to such a low-profile place, but the short one is delighted (after it is explained to him that Uganda is in Africa) and expects it to be like the Lion King. There’s a very funny moment when you think they have arrived in Africa and are greeted by a stereotypical African tribal woman in full costume who sings a song to welcome them, but then it turns out that they haven’t actually left yet and it was just an American woman who had never been to Africa but dressed up like that to give them a good send-off!

When they arrive in Uganda, the short one is disappointed to find out that it’s very much not like the Lion King. They arrive in a world of famine, AIDS, rape, female castration and a gun-toting general who shoots one of the villagers in the face. The budding missionaries try out their planned conversations learnt in comfortable America and quickly find that these are completely ineffective to the needs of the suffering villagers. The villagers are angry at God for allowing them to suffer like this, and sing (in an ironic parody of “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King) a song that expresses their anger at God in an overtly blasphemous way which doesn’t need to be repeated here (nor would I wish to type it). An irony with this is that in the real world there are many people in Africa who live in very difficult conditions but who praise the name of God despite the suffering they go through, but anyway…

Throughout the plot there are various times when the story of Mormonism’s history is told, with particular emphasis on the more ridiculous aspects of it, for comedic effect. In the theatre, the audience clearly enjoyed laughing at these views, which really are rather odd. A few years ago, South Park (made by the same people) did an episode about Mormonism in which they mercilessly ridiculed it for most of the episode but then amazingly turned it around at the end and left the viewer feeling humbled and guilty for laughing at people with genuine beliefs who are doing their best and trying to be good people. Sadly, this aspect didn’t appear in the musical version, and the ending and overall moral of the story was a lot less satisfactory (I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this – I wasn’t expecting a grace-centred gospel presentation at the end or anything, but still…). More on that later.

Another common theme in the plot is the Mormons living a very law-based life. Doing good is very important to them and their desire to do good is based on the fear of going to hell if they don’t (as well as the attractive prospect of getting their own planet each in the latter days if they do good). They are trained to just “switch it off” if they ever get a desire to do something bad or if they get angry, which results in them having a veneer of extreme niceness, which covers over some repressed issues underneath. They strictly follow the rules and know the rule numbers by heart. These were the parts where I was hoping for grace to get a mention or an allusion, but sadly (though not surprisingly) it was nowhere to be seen.

Back to the story. The tall guy gets frustrated and leaves the village but the short guy finds himself surprisingly invited by the villagers to tell them the story of Mormonism. He has some trouble with this as he’s never actually read the Book of Mormon, as he found it too boring to read! He reads some bits out to the people but they find it boring and irrelevant to their needs. The people start to walk off but then the short guy tells a lie about Joseph Smith to make him more relevant, and the people start to listen. He gets carried away with this and ends up telling a whole different story using his imagination, which is even crazier (and quite a lot ruder) than the original Mormon story. The people profess belief and they all get baptised!

The missionaries are very pleased with their new converts and get a little carried away with themselves, singing the hilariously arrogant song, “We are Africa”, which is a real sight to see as it’s sung by ten white American men wearing all white and trying to do African dance moves, while the real Africans stand at the side. This was one of many really funny moments in the musical.

Trouble comes when the Mormon leaders come to see the new converts for themselves. Once the leaders find out what the villagers have been taught, the leaders give the young missionaries a serious telling-off for teaching the villagers a load of nonsense (with fairly obvious irony). As the dejected missionaries pack their bags and set off to leave the villagers reveal that they never really believed the silly stories anyway, but they took them as a metaphor for something bigger. The musical ends with a rendition of “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”, which is again very funny, but the general message presented is that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, and it’s not worth thinking as far ahead as the afterlife, as it may not even exist anyway. Instead we should all just think about tomorrow and making that as good as possible.

I found this ending quite unsatisfactory! Normally the makers of South Park are good at making a serious point amidst all the bad language and rudeness (they are, I would say, the masters of satire of this generation), but this one went a bit flat in my view. They’re also good at making fun of all sides, rather than pushing one sort of agenda (they even once made a South Park episode about how stupid atheism is), so this outcome wasn’t guaranteed.

So, should you go and see it? Well, there is some quite severe blasphemy and bad language, so I’m not sure I’ll be recommending it to too many people. If you can cope with that then there are some very funny parts, and witnessing the audience reactions helps to show that it is a common view in society that not just Mormonism but Christianity and other beliefs as well are generally considered to be ridiculous and scoffing at them is the norm. For some living in a Christian bubble this may come as a shock, but on the other hand people in such a bubble will find the ruder aspects of the musical very shocking so you might be better off taking my word for it!

If you’ve seen it, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought!