I had no need of that hypothesis. (“Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là”, as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn’t mentioned God in his book on astronomy.)
– Pierre-Simon Laplace
Leading on from last week where I tried to provide an explanation for a lack of belief due to a lack of compelling evidence, this week it is a lack of necessity.
I’m sure that anyone who has kicked around religious debates for more than a few months will be familiar with William of Occam and his eponymous razor. The principle of Occam’s Razor is to explain a phenomena with as few assumptions as possible and to remove those elements that make no difference to the explanation. “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” is one of his ideas.
So, when we examine a phenomena, we do not count God in the hypothesis. Not because God is or is not there but because the presence or absence of God makes no difference to our examination. It has been said that you cannot put God in a test tube but the nature of an infinite being is that you cannot keep God out of a test tube either. By not counting God into hypotheses we are left to other devices to explain them. An atheist like me extends the idea and discounts God from all things as unnecessary.
Perhaps one day I will be confronted with a question that needs God to explain it. Science is such a satisfactory way of explaining things in the universe that it has no need for God and I am happy to accept that sometimes I don’t have enough information to provide an answer. Yet, since we can explain so much with the tools of science then we don’t need to call on God to explain things.
Does this prove God doesn’t exist? Not at all. What it shows is that the assumption that God exists isn’t needed. If the assumption isn’t needed then why not abandon it?
William of Occam, a Franciscan monk, would not agree. The presumption of God was the very best way of explaining the universe in the 14th century. In the 21st century we have other tools at our disposal. Tools that make the God hypothesis unnecessary.
Whenever you have more than one hypothesis, only one is necessary. You could always throw the others out on that basis as ‘unnecessary’. The question is, how do you decide which to throw out and which to keep?
The god hypothesis involves more assumptions.
However a) fewer assumptions aren’t necessarily correct even though William of Occam preferred them and b) theists disagree that my assumptions that make God unnecessary are better/fewer/more tenable than their assumption of God which make my alternate assumptions and ‘no God hypothesis’ unnecessary.
That is where the null hypothesis comes in. The alternative hypothesis is that god(s) exist and the null hypothesis is that the alternative hypothesis is false. Unless sufficiently compelling evidence and reason exists to support the alternative hypothesis then the null hypothesis is preferred.
I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.