Occam’s Razor: Why Did the Holocaust Occur?

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.

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 in light of the above criteria? Between theist and atheist, is Occam’s razor in relation to the Holocaust 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 Occam’s Razor: Why Did the Holocaust Occur?

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    Actually, entropy does nothing to explain the holocaust, any more than the mental gymnastics of the theist. Human nature, in the form of tribalism, works pretty well, though. As an ironic aside, William of Occam actually believed that reality was completely illusory, and his famous razor was simply a matter of economy. Since it’s all made up, why make up more of it than necessary?

  2. Staffan says:

    There is nothing anomalous or weird about the Holocaust. The Versaille Treaty and the following occupation of the Ruhr district and all that is a perfect explanation. Pressure someone hard enough and he will snap. The only strange thing about the Holocaust is how people treat it like an unfathomable mystery.

  3. The holocaust – by which I mean the engineered violence by Nazis and their allies against Jews, gypsies and forces of resistance across Europe – demonstrates the sad limitations of philosophy by itself to prevent horror or explain it. The fact that the same Germany that produced the great philosophy, music and engineering feats could put its intelligence to such purposes is not so much a surprise as a constant reminder of the need of philosophy to be part of a praxis with its feet on the ground that seeks to work towards humanism and freedom from economic and political coercion. There is a logic at work here, but it is based in a social pathology, not word games.

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