Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go.
The term for this week’s entry into the philosopher’s lexicon is “Occam’s Razor,” also rendered as “Ockham’s Razor”, is the argumentative principle that says that the simplest possible answer is most often the correct one. Named for 14th century philosopher William of Ockham, this principle is taken up by mathematicians, scientists, doctors, woodworkers, teachers, and more as a way to solve dilemmas and save time.
But ironically, as far as principles go, this one isn’t simple. There are, in my estimation, at least three ways to understand Occam’s Razor, and each of these ways come with their own set of complications.
In the first place, Occam’s Razor hinges upon our preference for simplicity itself. Simple things are easy to grasp and understand. Complex ideas are painful to grasp and difficult to keep clear in our minds, so we – simply – like the easier ideas better. All else being equal, if you have two ways to solve a problem, and one is for more complex than the other, the more elegant version is preferable.
In the second place, the problem with a complicated explanation isn’t just that it’s difficult to grasp; when there are more details in an explanation, there are more points where you could admit error, and more chances that parts of your explanations either conflict with each other or lead in different directions. There are more variables to control, more assumptions to validate, and more places where a moment’s thoughtlessness can lead to ruin. The simplest explanation is often more likely to be correct than a complex one because there are fewer places where it is vulnerable to change, error, and uncertainty – frankly, it is more likely to be right because there are fewer places where it can go wrong.
In the third place, we can also view Ockham’s view of simplicity from the perspective of the Scholastic theologian (and here I hope you’ll permit me to paint with an exceedingly broad brush): simplicity itself had inherent value. That which was simple wasn’t just preferable in this world view, it was inherently superior to complexity. God, goodness, and truth were conceived to be utterly simple and thus immaterial and infallible in contrast to the unpredictable decay of material complexity. While there’s definitely some common ground here with the explanation above – that is, to say that a being made of several complex parts has in it more potential for conflict and failure than a being made up of fewer parts – the “simple” truth here is that the more simple an idea was, the closer it was to Truth itself, with a very deliberate capital T, and Goodness itself, abstracted from all of the messy complexities and failures of mortal, material life.
Regardless of the motivation behind the search for simplicity, finding the simplest answer or simplest course of action isn’t always itself a simple task. When it comes to optimization, there are a lot of times when its actually easier and more efficient to do things the complicated, hard way. For example, running errands when all of your stops are pretty close together: you can sit down and look at maps and plot out the best way to hit each store on your list without ever doubling back, and without letting the shrimp sit in a hot car for too long, and so on, or you can just get in your car and get the errands done in the same amount of time, zig-zagging back and forth across town in a complex way. Sometimes there are constraints that make optimization obvious (say, if the post office closes first, and then there’s a long drive out to the fish market, the order of events is pretty easy), but sometimes, optimizing just isn’t optimal.
Something else to watch out for is Occam’s Razor’s evil twin: confirmation bias. Sometimes the simplest answer or explanation is the one that fits in most easily with a person’s existing worldview. Basically, if a proposition makes sense according to what you already believe, you’ll automatically think that it is more correct than the proposition which challenges your worldview and forces you to do some complicated and difficult reconfiguration of your thought-process. In choosing the simplest answer, we may often be just choosing the answer that allows us persist in our own biases, rather than judging possibilities on their own merits.
I think will stick with Albert Einstein’s (alleged) contribution to this principle: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Or rather, I should stick to the original quote from which this aphorism is thought to derive, taken from Einstein’s Herbert Spencer lecture delivered at Oxford, Jun. 10, 1933:
It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
I do apologize for my overuse of the word “simple” throughout this post. Once I started writing, I found myself unable to avoid it, and after making an attempt to reword and work out the redundancy, I decided that it would be, well, simpler, just to leave it in.