Definition: Occam’s Razor

This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 1 March 2010, was last revised on 23 April 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 11:03(04).

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The name is a reference to William of Ockham, a 14th-century logician who asserted that, when explaining a phenomenon, one should use the fewest assumptions necessary. Thus Occam’s razor argues for minimalism and opposes complexity; for simplicity and against excess; toward direct approaches and away from abstruse ones. A modern rendering, with particular respect to the second of these, is “Keep it Simple, Stupid!”, properly described as the KISS concept.

Minimalism’s virtues, when applied to scientific undertakings, occurred not only to William of Ockham, but to multitudes of earlier thinkers. We find references to the same concept in the writings of Aristotle (384-322 BC), and most notably in the works of the Babylonian physicist and optician Abu Ali Hasan Ibn al-Haitam, known today as Alhazen (965-1039). More recently, Paul Dirac, Albert Einstein, and a host of other 20th century scientists have made more than passing references to the notion. It was first termed “Ockham’s razor” by Sir William Hamilton, in 1852. Hamilton used a razor to illustrate stripping away superfluous assumptions that may surround a scientist’s core propositions.

For all those who sing praises to Occam’s razor, there exist others to decry its defects. The American satirist H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) is often cited favoring the latter crowd, having written that “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” It is not difficult to find examples to prove Mencken’s point. Minimalism, simplicity, and directness imply a deep understanding of the problem at hand, and have to be applied consistently and intelligently to produce correct solutions. But even when these conditions are met, some problems are not amenable to simple, minimalist approaches.

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— Questions? Corrections? Comments? BUG ME RIGHT NOW! Feel free to e-mail jerry.cates@bugsinthenews.info. You may also leave a comment in the space provided below.

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