The Argument from Naturalistic Parsimony: An Examination and Refutation  

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Gordon Tubbs
(@gordon-tubbs)
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09/11/2017 2:05 pm  

In pursuit of cosmological explanations for existence, there are perhaps three reasonable and common responses that accommodate multiple worldviews. One of them is God, another is Brute Facts, and the last is Unknown. An atheist might argue that with no real ability to discern which option is the truth, we must apply cognitive principles in order to make an objective of an opinion as possible (if one wishes to move beyond the Unknown view). Parsimony is one such principle, because it does not see claims as right or wrong, but as good, better, or best according to the simplicity and explanatory scope of those claims. In other words, the hypothesis which explains the most using the fewest number of assertions and presumptions is epistemically more preferable. Based on this understanding of parsimony, I’ve encountered a style or theme of arguments made by atheists which I am dubbing the “Argument from Naturalistic Parsimony" (ANP). Because it’s not a specific set of premises, here is how it gets typically expressed: Naturalism is more parsimonious than Theism, because God is an unnecessary and complicated entity in contrast to the minimal set of brute facts on which naturalism ultimately rests. Therefore, it is more preferable to err on the side of naturalistic explanations to explain the existence of the Universe.

You may be familiar with this style of argument if you’re a fan of Carl Sagan, who at the conclusion of his Cosmos show, saw theistic explanations as “mere temporizing” and that if God has always existed necessarily according to his own nature, then why can’t we “skip a step” and merely say the same for the Universe? Why should we introduce God to explain the Universe, when God can only be further explained with brute facts? Why not cut God out of the picture and just go with brute facts?  In my opinion, this is one the best arguments for atheism in the public square, because it’s backed up with common sense. It poses a significant challenge to theists because whatever explanation is used to explain the existence of God, the naturalist can simply use that explanation for the existence of the Universe, thus making theism unnecessary. However, I think this “skip a step” method is philosophically myopic and relies completely on assertions to make its case, which is why I think it ultimately doesn’t work.

First off, if we define our terms, we'll see how a semantic reduction pans out. If God is defined as a conscious, necessary, and supernatural entity which grounds all being, and the Universe is defined as all that exists, then when the theist says "God is the best explanation for the Universe," what he is really saying is "a conscious, necessary, and supernatural entity which grounds all being (God) is the best explanation for all that exists (the Universe)." You'll notice here that God actually grounds himself, because if God exists, and the Universe includes all that exists, then the Universe by definition includes God. The theist is thus committing to the metaphysical view that God necessarily grounds all being, including himself. Sagan's "skip a step" method accepts this conclusion, but retorts "if God can ground his own being, then so can the Universe." However, what this claim is really saying is that "all that exists (the Universe) necessarily grounds all being (the Universe)." We can semantically reduce this claim even further to say "the Universe is a necessary entity that grounds itself."

The semantic reduction exposes the key difference between the theistic and naturalistic views of the Universe. On theism, the Universe is contingent, whereas on naturalism it’s necessary. The implication of this difference is huge: if a contingent Universe correlates more with our experience than a necessary one, then theistic explanations ought to be more preferable than naturalistic ones. Why? The naturalist in this case is simply presupposing the necessity of the Universe without having shown its necessity to be the case. If the naturalist can get away with assertions, then so can the theist. Admittedly though, the theist has his work cut out for him too, because while our daily lives are filled with contingent things, we don’t technically experience the Universe as a thing itself because of our place within it. Both parties here might get bogged down with compositional fallacies when trying to prove their case, so how are we supposed to figure out if the Universe is contingent or necessary?

One extreme philosophical approach might be to simply abandon the necessary-contingent distinction altogether, and try some other distinction instead. For example, one could divide the Universe into particulars-universals, or analytic-synthetic. Personally I am a fan of the fundamental-dispensable distinction because it is reductive, and thus aligns well with the principle of parsimony. The idea is to eliminate entities and properties from the Universe until you reach a point where you can no longer say the Universe is the Universe anymore. If you let this approach run its course, you ought to get to a definition of what the Universe fundamentally is, rather than asserting its definition (as I did earlier) as “all that exists.”

Here’s what my fundamental Universe came out to be: space, time, energy, mass, and constants. Take any one of these fundamentals away and everything would cease to exist. To go one step further, try to define “space” without using time, energy, mass, or constants in the definition… you can’t! The same could be said of the other fundamentals too. By getting to the root of what we mean when we say “the Universe,” we can modify our earlier hypotheses to be more reflective of what theists and naturalists actually mean.  

Theistic Hypothesis: a conscious, necessary, and supernatural entity which grounds all being (God) is the best explanation for the fundamentals of the Universe.

Naturalistic Hypothesis: the fundamentals of the Universe exist necessarily and ground themselves.

If the whole point of the ANP is to pick the hypothesis with the least number of assertions, presumptions, and entities, then by far the TH is the winner. Remember that the ANP is arguing that the NH is better because the fundamentals of the Universe need not be explained by anything because they are brute facts. Why? None of the fundamentals can ground each other in any meaningful way (e.g. space cannot ground time, nor can energy ground the constants, and so forth), thus each fundamental must become its own brute fact (an entity). On the other hand, the TH is positing the existence of one entity (God), which is far simpler. Even if we count the added properties of God (such as being conscious and supernatural), the score still comes out lower. Think of the NH and TH as golfers playing a round. The theistic golfer starts off with a massive 300yd drive and lands on the green, and from there he needs to take a couple strokes to finish the hole. On the other hand, the naturalist golfer has to progressively work his way to the hole using a sequence of shorter (albeit more precise) strokes. Both golfers played well, but the theistic golfer finished the hole more easily.

Bear in mind, we are only discussing cosmology in this case. If we were to take into account other states of affairs we experience, such as life, consciousness, and the moral arena, then I think the TH looks even better. In all fairness, none of this means the NH is a poor hypothesis, indeed, it has sufficient scope to account for how or why the Universe can exist – I just think it just does little else beyond that.  I hope I’ve shown here how semantic and fundamental reductions of these two competing hypotheses has proven that the ANP fails. This isn’t to say the conversation is over, far from it, but perhaps the atheist and theist can put the battle of parsimony to rest (or at least agree to disagree) and focus on other issues.

Regent University (M.Div. Student, Chaplain Ministry)
US Navy (Active 2004-2009 Reserve 2012-Current)


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