posted on Mar, 24 2010 @ 11:49 AM
I would like to discuss Occam's Razor with all of you. I've wanted to make this thread for a while. There's an issue with the way people use it,
and oftentimes, even the way they phrase it.
This thread, I suppose, is primarily aimed at the skeptics. I, too, am a skeptic, so don't think I'm doing that thing. I'm trying to
strengthen our arguments is all.
So let's begin with the razor itself.
There are many ways of phrasing Occam's Razor. Only two of spelling it; You may have learned it as Ockham's Razor. Ockham is the city of residence
-- and, by 14th century standards, a part of the name -- of the man to whom the razor is attributed: William of Ockham. His phrasing, translated into
the modern, is essentially:
1) Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.
To those of you who aren't philosophy majors, bearers of philosophy degrees, or haven't been on debate teams, this might be a cloudy phrasing. Not
necessarily, of course, but it might be. The more common phrasing is
2) If all other things are equal, the simplest theory is the most likely.
Other phrasings include:
3) The simplest answer is usually the correct answer.
4) The simplest explanation that covers all the facts is usually the best.
5) Leonardo Da Vinci's version: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
6) Isaac Newton's: We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.
7) Albert Einstein's: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
My personal favorite is number 1, mostly because I've always wanted to contradict it with a "go forth and multiply!" joke. But intellectually,
number 7 is my favorite; it says exactly what is meant.
But the way that most people at least seem to conceptualize it is
3a) The simplest theory is the correct one.
If you think of it this way, you might not even realize that you're thinking of it this way; I, for a long time, didn't notice. Now, it's quite
clear that this is a misinterpretation. So let's jump back a little bit to a more reasonable one, which is the one I'd really like to discuss.
2a) All other aspects of the two being equal, the simplest of two theories is the correct one.
This is probably the usage with the highest index of frequency-of-use and respect-of-application. But it's a deeply flawed formulation. A theory's
correctness can not be determined by its simplicity, only its likelihood of correctness.
A more serious problem, though, is the application of this thought. Occam's Razor comes up all the time here, and well it should. But in most
instances that I have seen, it is treated wrong. Occam's razor is treated, in my experience, as:
1) A hard and fast law
2) A test
Occam's Razor, properly applied, is none of these things. Occam's Razor is most properly:
3) A rule of thumb for formations of belief
4) A non-decisive element of arguments.
A rule of thumb is, for those who don't know, a rule that you give to yourself which you will tend to follow in making your decisions, but under
certain circumstances it is actually best not to follow. In the words of Captain Jack Sparrow... It's more of a guideline, really.
What do I mean by "non-decisive" though? I mean that it should underdetermine the conclusion. This is even more obscure, I suppose. I just mean
that it should not be used on its own; it is an element of why something should be believed, but has almost no force of convincing.
Ultimately, this post is a plea. Before you go about applying Occam's Razor everywhere, shaving off entities... Make sure you're doing it right.
It's a very sharp tool, and a very useful one. But in arguments, sometimes we don't want to be shaving; sometimes, to extend the metaphor past its
breaking point, an argument/debate/discussion is carpentry, not hygiene, and bringing a razor in is a mistake.
Edited to add that I suspect that I put this in the wrong subforum... I'm not sure where else it could go, but I feel it should definitely stay on
ATS and not be moved to BTS. If a mod could move it to where it's most appropriate, if that's not this one... I'd be grateful.
[edit on 24-3-2010 by Solasis]