Christopher Hitchens was a master rhetorician. And like many a master rhetorician, he said more than a few things which are (1) memorable, (2) apparently profound, and (3) actually kind of dumb.
Consider the following oft-quoted sentence from God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:
“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” ((New York: Twelve, 2007), 150.)
This is certainly memorable. It’s also so apparently profound that it was given a snappy title: “Hitchens’s Razor.” Move aside Gillette and Ockham: there’s a new razor in town!
So (1) and (2) are established. What about (3) “apparently dumb”?
To illustrate (3), let’s turn to a real life situation. Imagine that Singh and Hwang get in a discussion about whether souls exist.
Singh is a substance dualist and as such he believes that human beings are a compound unity of two substances, a physical brain and a non-physical, mental soul.
Hwang is a materialist and as such he believes that human beings are a material substance and all mental properties (qualia, intentions, etc.) are produced by the physical brain.
Upon learning of Singh’s substance dualism, Hwang thinks smugly to himself: “We have a magical mental soul? Hah! What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Upon learning of Hwang’s materialism, Singh thinks smugly to himself: “Bundles of neurons in a three pound lump of grey matter magically produce irreducible mental properties like qualia and intentional states? Hah! What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
This brings us to the first problem with Hitchens’s Razor: one man’s denial is another man’s affirmation. (Put another way, one man’s reasoned hypothesis is another man’s magic.) Granted, positing the soul is a robust metaphysical position. But so is denying the soul since this commits one to affirming a thesis such as that the brain produces mental properties. Consequently if the dualist theory of mind is “vulnerable” to Hitchens’s Razor, the materialist theory is as well.
One suspects that those who are apt to appeal to Hitchens’s Razor apparently think that the beliefs to which they apply it are completely arbitrary claims with zero explanatory power, like Russell’s fabled orbiting teapot or an invisible pink unicorn. But the vast majority of claims from the vast majority of people are not like this. You may find them implausible and non-explanatory. Nonetheless, they seem plausible from where those folks stand, and there are reasons why they appeal to them.
Which is crazier: a mind attached to a body or a brain that makes a mind? It depends who you ask. And sadly, there is no World Court of the Reasonable Mind to which we can go to settle such disputes.
Consequently, Hitchens’s Razor has a deeply corrosive impact on reasoned discourse, for those who invoke it are far less likely to consider the respective merits of evidence on both sides of an issue. In our present case, if Singh and Hwang each invoked Hitchens’s Razor — and who is to say that they can’t? — then any further philosophical discussion on the nature of the mind would be quashed as each walked away from the exchange satisfied that he could dismiss the other without evidence.
Since I’ve been rather negative about this principle, let me close on a positive note. For those with self esteem issues, Hitchens’s Razor at least allows everybody to feel as smart as they thought they were. If that’s all you care about then by all means, wield your blunt instrument, slicing away until you’re the smartest guy in the room.