Our unicorn overlordsJune 9, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I thought it might be helpful to take a step back and look at the Loser’s Compromise in a more neutral context. So let’s consider a couple different hypotheses: the Autonomous Hypothesis, which declares that humans control their own governments and are therefore responsible for the current state of world affairs, and the Unicorn Hypothesis, which states that the various major world governments (at least) are under the control of magical unicorns.
The Unicorn Hypothesis might seem at first to be absurd, but let’s tweak it slightly. Despite their magical nature, unicorns are relatively few in number, and would likely lose the battle in the event of any direct, focused efforts by the more numerous humans to throw off their dominance. Thus, the Unicorn Hypothesis proposes that magical unicorns are not only running the governments of the world, but that they are deliberately creating tensions and crises and other distractions in order to keep human attention diverted from the subject of unicorns. And naturally, they are also using their magical powers to “fix” the visible, verifiable evidence to be perfectly consistent with the consequences that would result from the non-existence of unicorns.
As a further refinement, let’s also modify the Autonomous Hypothesis to declare that there is no such thing as a magical unicorn, and therefore human governments are under human control, and humans are responsible for the state of affairs in the world (at least, as much as anyone is responsible).
What we’ve achieved, in other words, is a pair of hypotheses which both produce exactly the same consequences. The lack of evidence for magical unicorns is predicted in the Autonomous Hypothesis by, well, the lack of existence of unicorns, while the Unicorn Hypothesis predicts an equal lack of evidence due to the unicorns’ magical powers and desire to remain undetected by their human thralls.
Is there anyone who would say that we are justified in concluding (as a provisional conclusion) that the major world governments are all secretly under the control of magical unicorns who are manipulating world events in order to further their own, selfish ends? We have contrived a situation that precisely matches the conditions which some say are sufficient to justify either conclusion as an equally justified belief, but does that make the idea of unicorn overlords any less silly?
I think we’d pretty much all agree that there’s no reasonable basis for concluding, even provisionally, that we’re being secretly controlled by a one-horned oligarchy. But how do we know this? If we’ve managed to contrive a hypothesis that (along with the Autonomous Hypothesis) predicts exactly the same consequences as we see in the real world, we can’t claim that the evidence rules out the possibility of magical unicorns. So how do we know that the whole idea (and a whole host of similar fanciful conspiracy theories) can best be described as nonsense?
A big part of the answer is Occam’s Razor, but I’m going to take it a step further. The basic idea of the Razor is that, when the evidence supports two explanations equally, the correct explanation is most likely to be the one that avoids needless multiplication of agencies. Or you might hear slightly different variations of that idea, e.g. that the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct.
Occam’s Razor is really just a practical application of the principle that truth is consistent with itself. When we say “avoid needlessly multiplying agencies,” what we’re observing is that the more complex factors we propose in our explanation, the more opportunities we’re creating for inconsistencies and self-contradictions. “Tell the truth,” says the pundit, “it’s easier.” The more we throw in complications and speculations and rationalizations, the more likely we are to trip ourselves up. The self-consistency of the truth creates an economy that favors efficiency and parsimony: if we increase the complexity of the causes, the effects are going to similarly increase in complexity, in order to maintain consistency. Therefore the explanation that covers the existing effects with the fewest causes is always the most likely to be the most correct.
Thus, in any scenario where we manage, by hook or by crook, to contrive a hypothesis that exceeds the minimum required number of agencies, while simultaneously asserting that the evidence fits all alternatives equally, the conclusion we are justified in reaching, the conclusion which is most consistent with all of the available evidence (including Occam’s Razor) is the conclusion that best avoids multiplying agencies needlessly.
For our two hypotheses above, that rules out the Unicorn Hypothesis and justifies the Autonomous Hypothesis, and for our broader discussion that rules out the Gospel Hypothesis (and any variation contrived to produce consequences equal to the Myth Hypothesis) and justifies the Myth Hypothesis. The Myth Hypothesis is the only hypothesis that both produces consequences uniformly consistent with real-world evidence and also succeeds in predicting real-world conditions without introducing needless additional agencies with no observable role or impact.
Under the circumstances, it would be as reasonable to believe in unicorn overlords as to believe in the existence of an all-wise, all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful Creator Who loved us enough to become one of us, dwell among us, and die for us so that He and we might enjoy a genuine, eternal, personal relationship together—even if we could rationalize our way into thinking that such a deity would produce the exact same consequences as would result from the Myth Hypothesis being true.