God, the Holocaust, and the Battle for Occam’s Razor

In the Letters section of the November 2012 edition of Commentary is an interesting exchange between an atheist, Itzik Basman, and a theist, Rabbi Joseph Polak, concerning the question of whether, in the light of the Holocaust, God exists. Basman’s most barbed, and I think eloquent, observations are these:

[In asking where God is in relation to the Holocaust] Polak is engaged in an imagined confrontation with his creator, from whom he demands some action of remembrance, contrition, and atonement. […]

I get no succor or relief from being able to make my God human and contend ferociously with Him. […]

If there ever were an occasion that informs Jews that God is not great, that belief and faith in Him are preposterous, and that by them we diminish ourselves and the meaning of the Holocaust, then the Holocaust must be that occasion.

To which Joseph Polak replies in part:

I am struck by how well Mr. Basman read my article [“The Last Witness,” July/August], and am grateful for the frankness with which he presents his non-belief. And, if I understand him correctly, he is proposing a kind of Occam’s razor in Holocaust theology: It takes fewer assumptions from the experience of the Holocaust to conclude that there is no G-d than it takes to conclude that there is one.

Alas, were Mr. Occam alive, I think he would take issue with Mr. Basman. […]

[The Holocaust] does raise questions about our understanding of His role in history–[…] However, let me assure Mr. Basman that Jews who observe the Sabbath or immerse themselves in the study of the tradition do not seem to feel that they are alone. Nor do they feel that they are deluding themselves.

Of course, Mr. Polak’s response begs the question in two ways:

  1. People can be deluded by their feelings, and so there’s no intellectual assurance of God’s existence in learning that theists, after the Holocaust, continue to feel God’s presence in their lives.
  2. The Catholic William of Occam, had he witnessed the Holocaust, might have become an atheist, so the fact that he would disagree with Mr. Basman cannot be fairly claimed. It is God belief after the Holocaust that is at issue, not God belief before.

So who really owns Occam’s razor here?

Obviously, the simplest explanation for why the Holocaust occurred is shit happens. In a world where things rarely go the way that good and reasonable people want them to, the Holocaust, initiated by bad and unreasonable people, is an especially horrific example. Atheists, therefore, have a tidy and plausible one word explanation for the Holocaust: entropy.

You can’t get more “Occam’s razor-y” than that.

Theists, by contrast, need a much more complicated–some might even uncharitably say convoluted–explanation for the Holocaust. God must somehow continue to be regarded as smart enough, good enough, and strong enough to have stopped the Holocaust even though He didn’t. (Insert an unhappy and disapproving William of Occam emoticon here.)

But is this a fair evaluation of the state of intellectual play? When it comes to the Holocaust, are atheists reasonable appliers of Occam’s razor and theists shameless devotees to question begging and ad hoc reasoning?

Ad hoc reasoning is improvised reasoning that adds premises to an argument to keep alive a favored conclusion. These premises arrive as afterthoughts. And the premises added, while logically possible, tend to lack warrant; that is, they tend to lack good reasons (such as evidence) that support their recent inclusion in the argument. Ad hoc reasoning is often contrasted unfavorably with reasoning based on Occam’s razor.

But I’m not prepared to give this debate to the atheist just yet. One reason is the subjectivity that attaches to what makes the simplest and best explanation for a matter. In the September/October 2012 edition of Skeptical Inquirer, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has an essay titled, “What’s So Bad about Ad Hoc Hypotheses?” In it, he reflects on a recent paper by Christopher Hunt and writes the following:

Hunt endorses Jarett Leplin’s analysis of the issue of ad hocness, coming to the somewhat startling conclusion that the history of science suggests two major generalizations about ad hoc hypotheses: first, an individual scientist’s judgment of a given hypothesis as ad hoc (or not) is largely based on a subjective evaluation and informed by aesthetic criteria; second, the judgment of the scientific community at large about a given hypothesis often changes retroactively, depending on whether that hypothesis has been of actual value in the scientific process or not–something that is often impossible to assess at the moment when the hypothesis is first proposed.

In other words, arriving at the best explanation entails no small amount of intuition, art, and checking and rechecking of premises; it’s not all cut and dried. As Pigliucci puts it:

The real lesson for scientists, philosophers, and skeptics alike is that scientific theorizing is a complex activity that is not just the result of the application of strictly epistemic rules. Subjectivity, extra-empirical criteria, and even historically evolving standards are involved. Science (and skepticism) is a human activity, done in the usual human, messy, not at all air-tightly logical way. But it seems to work, most of the time.

What does this suggest for the God hypothesis after the Holocaust? Below are some criteria for arriving at the simplest and best explanation concerning a matter (as summarized from Schick and Vaughn’s How to Think about Weird Things, 2011, chapter 6). Other things being equal, the best hypothesis:

  • Is testable.
  • Is fruitful (it makes predictions that prove accurate).
  • Has scope (sheds light on a lot of things, not just one thing).
  • Is conservative (best fits our well established background knowledge—the things we already take to be true).
  • Is simple (makes the fewest assumptions and accords with what we think we already know—again, it matches our background knowledge).

And here’s William of Occam, in his own words (c. 1324):

No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.

But a caution offered to simplicity as a criterion for evaluating truth is offered by Alfred North Whitehead (the famous philosopher who supervised Bertrand Russell’s doctoral dissertation):

Seek simplicity and distrust it.

Do you suppose the God hypothesis survives the Holocaust and the above criteria? Between theist and atheist, is Occam’s razor still reasonably up for grabs?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to God, the Holocaust, and the Battle for Occam’s Razor

  1. William of Occam did not propose an iron clad idea, though I wil not refute it. What he opined was that no extraordinary explanation be used where a simpler one sufficed. Given this understanding the god hypothesis does not survive… with or without the holocaust.

  2. colinhutton says:

    If a belief system posits an infinitely wise, merciful, etc. creator and can nevertheless rationalise the death of even a single innocent individual (the 6-yr child, if you like), it can equally accommodate 6 million. In short, It has always seemed to me that while the holocaust (and other instances of genocide) has much to teach us about human nature it adds little to the already abundant evidence that there is no personal god.

  3. Alan says:

    The simple theistic answer of free will is enough to answer for the holocaust. God has witnessed all measure of brutality, none more brutal than the survival of the fittest. If that most brutal of dances can proceed under his watch, what is he to stop?

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