The Word of the Day is Occam’s Razor
by Farnam Street edited by O Society August 4, 2019
Occam’s razor (also known as the ‘law of parsimony’) is a problem-solving principle which serves as a useful mental model. A philosophical razor is a tool used to eliminate improbable options in a given situation, of which Occam’s is the best-known example.
William of Ockham‘s razor can be summarized as such:
Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
In simplistic – yet perhaps misleading – language, Occam’s razor states the simplest solution is correct.
Another summary of Occam’s razor comes from the paranormal writer, William Hall: ‘Occam’s razor is summarized for our purposes in this way: Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.’
In other words, we should avoid looking for excessively complex solutions to a problem and focus on what works, given the circumstances. Occam’s razor is used in a wide range of situations, as a means of making rapid decisions and establishing truths without empirical evidence. It works best as a mental model for making initial conclusions before adequate information can be obtained.
A further literary summary comes from one of the best-loved fictional characters, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. His classic aphorism is an expression of Occam’s razor: “If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
A number of mathematical and scientific studies have backed up its validity and lasting relevance. In particular, the principle of minimum energy supports Occam’s razor. This facet of the second law of thermodynamics states that, wherever possible, the use of energy is minimized. In general, the universe tends towards simplicity. Physicists use Occam’s razor, in the knowledge that they can rely on everything to use the minimum energy necessary to function. A ball at the top of a hill will roll down in order to be at the point of minimum potential energy. The same principle is present in biology. For example, if a person repeats the same action on a regular basis in response to the same cue and reward, it will become a habit as the corresponding neural pathway is formed. From then on, their brain will use less energy to complete the same action.
The History of Occam’s Razor
The concept of Occam’s razor is credited to William of Ockham, a 13-14th-century friar, philosopher, and theologian. While he did not coin the term, his characteristic way of making deductions inspired other writers to develop the heuristic. Indeed, the concept of Occam’s razor is an ancient one which was first stated by Aristotle who wrote “we may assume the superiority, other things being equal, of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.”
Robert Grosseteste expanded on Aristotle’s writing in the 1200s:
“That is better and more valuable which requires fewer, other circumstances being equal… For if one thing were demonstrated from many and another thing from fewer equally known premises, clearly that is better which is from fewer because it makes us know quickly, just as a universal demonstration is better than particular because it produces knowledge from fewer premises. Similarly, in natural science, in moral science, and in metaphysics the best is that which needs no premises and the better that which needs the fewer, other circumstances being equal.”
Early writings such as this are believed to have led to the eventual, (ironic) simplification of the concept. Nowadays, Occam’s razor is an established mental model which can form a useful part of a latticework of knowledge.
Examples of the Use of Occam’s Razor
In theology, Occam’s razor is used to prove or disprove the existence of God. William of Ockham, being a Christian friar, used his theory to defend religion. He regarded the scripture as true in the literal sense and therefore saw it as simple proof. To him, the bible was synonymous with reality and therefore to contradict it would conflict with established fact. Many religious people regard the existence of God as the simplest possible explanation for the creation of the universe.
In contrast, Thomas Aquinas used the concept in his radical 13th century work – The Summa Theologica. In it, he argued for atheism as a logical concept, not a contradiction of accepted beliefs. Aquinas wrote ‘it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many.’ He considered the existence of God to be a hypothesis which makes a huge number of assumptions, compared to scientific alternatives. Many modern atheists consider the existence of God to be unnecessarily complex, in particular, due to the lack of empirical evidence.
Taoist thinkers take Occam’s razor one step further, by simplifying everything in existence to the most basic form. In Taoism, everything is an expression of a single ultimate reality (known as the Tao.) This school of religious and philosophical thought believes that the most plausible explanation for the universe is the simplest- everything is both created and controlled by a single force. This can be seen as a profound example of the use of Occam’s razor within theology.
The Development of Scientific Theories
Occam’s razor is frequently used by scientists, in particular for theoretical matters. The simpler a hypothesis is, the more easily it can be proved or falsified. A complex explanation for a phenomenon involves many factors which can be difficult to test or lead to issues with the repeatability of an experiment. As a consequence, the simplest solution which is consistent with the existing data is preferred. However, it is common for new data to allow hypotheses to become more complex over time. Scientists chose to opt for the simplest solution the current data permits while remaining open to the possibility of future research allowing for greater complexity.
Failing to observe Occam’s razor is usually a sign of bad science and an attempt to cover poor explanations. The version used by scientists can best be summarized as: ‘when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.’
Obtaining funding for simpler hypothesis tends to be easier, as they are often cheaper to prove. As a consequence, the use of Occam’s razor in science is a matter of practicality.
Albert Einstein referred to Occam’s razor when developing his theory of special relativity. He formulated his own version: ‘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.’ Or “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This preference for simplicity can be seen in one of the most famous equations ever devised: E=MC2. Rather than making it a lengthy equation requiring pages of writing, Einstein reduced the factors necessary down to the bare minimum. The result is usable and perfectly parsimonious.
The physicist Stephen Hawking advocates for Occam’s razor in A Brief History of Time:
“We could still imagine there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”
Isaac Newton used Occam’s razor too when developing his theories. Newton stated: “we are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” As a result, he sought to make his theories (including the three laws of motion) as simple as possible, with the fewest underlying assumptions necessary.
Modern doctors use a version of Occam’s razor, stating that they should look for the fewest possible causes to explain their patient’s multiple symptoms and also for the most likely causes. A doctor I know often repeats, “common things are common.” Interns are instructed, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” For example, a person displaying influenza-like symptoms during an epidemic would be considered more probable to be suffering from influenza than an alternative, rarer disease. Making minimal diagnoses reduces the risk of over treating a patient, or of causing dangerous interactions between different treatments. This is of particular importance within the current medical model, where patients are likely to see numerous different health specialists and communication between them can be poor.
Prison Abolition and Fair Punishment
Occam’s razor has long played a role in attitudes towards the punishment of crimes. In this context, it refers to the idea that people should be given the least punishment necessary for their crimes.
This is to avoid the excessive penal practices which were popular in the past, (for example, a Victorian could receive five years of hard labour for stealing a piece of food.) The concept of penal parsimony was pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. He stated that punishments should not cause more pain than they prevent. Life imprisonment for murder could be seen as justified in that it may prevent a great deal of potential pain, should the perpetrator offend again. On the other hand, long-term imprisonment of an impoverished person for stealing food causes substantial suffering without preventing any.
Bentham’s writings on the application of Occam’s razor to punishment led to the prison abolition movement and our modern ideas of rehabilitation.
Crime solving and forensic work
When it comes to solving a crime, Occam’s razor is used in conjunction with experience and statistical knowledge. A woman is statistically more likely to be killed by a male partner than any other person. Should a female be found murdered in her locked home, the first person police interview would be any male partners. The possibility of a stranger entering can be considered, but the simplest possible solution with the fewest assumptions made would be that the crime was perpetrated by her male partner.
By using Occam’s razor, police officers can solve crimes faster and with fewer expenses.
Exceptions and Issues
It is important to note that, like any mental model, Occam’s razor is not failsafe and should be used with care, lest you cut yourself. This is especially crucial when it comes to important or risky decisions. There are exceptions to any rule, and we should never blindly follow a mental model which logic, experience, or empirical evidence contradict. The smartest people are those who know the rules, but also know when to ignore them. When you hear hoofbeats behind you, in most cases you should think horses, not zebras- unless you are out on the African savannah.
Simplicity is also a subjective topic- in the example of the NASA moon landing conspiracy theory, some people consider it simpler for them to have been faked, others for them to have been real. When using Occam’s razor to make deductions, we must avoid falling prey to confirmation bias and merely using it to backup preexisting notions. The same goes for the theology example mentioned previously – some people consider the existence of God to be the simplest option, others consider the inverse to be true. Semantic simplicity must not be given overt importance when selecting the solution which Occam’s razor points to. A hypothesis can sound simple, yet involve more assumptions than a verbose alternative.
Occam’s razor should not be used in the place of logic, scientific methods and personal insights. In the long term, a judgment must be backed by empirical evidence, not just its simplicity. Lisa Randall best expressed the issues with Occam’s razor in her book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe:
“My second concern about Occam’s Razor is just a matter of fact. The world is more complicated than any of us would have been likely to conceive. Some particles and properties don’t seem necessary to any physical processes that matter—at least according to what we’ve deduced so far. Yet they exist. Sometimes the simplest model just isn’t the correct one.”
Harlan Coben disputes many criticisms of Occam’s razor because people fail to understand its exact purpose:
“Most people oversimplify Occam’s razor to mean the simplest answer is usually correct. But the real meaning, what the Franciscan friar William of Ockham really wanted to emphasize, is you shouldn’t complicate, you shouldn’t “stack” a theory if a simpler explanation was at the ready. Pare it down. Prune the excess.”
I once again leave you with something Einstein probably didn’t say: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Occam’s razor is complemented by other mental models, including fundamental error distribution, Hanlon’s razor, confirmation bias, availability heuristic and hindsight bias. The nature of mental models is they tend to all interlock and work best in conjunction.