Monday, July 30, 2012

Occam's razor

What is known as Occam's razor was a common principle in medieval philosophy. The principle came to be named after the English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham (ca. 1285-1349) because of his frequent use of the principle.

Like many Franciscans, William was a minimalist in this life, idealizing a life of poverty and like St. Francis himself, battling with the Pope over the issue. William was excommunicated by Pope John XXII. He responded by writing a treatise demonstrating that Pope John was a heretic. Why get angry when you can get even?

In Latin, the principle reads: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate or "plurality should not be posited without necessity." Those words have come to mean something quite different from what William meant by them.

William's use of the principle of unnecessary plurality occurs in debates over the medieval equivalent of psi. For example, in Book II of his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he is deep in thought about the question of "Whether a Higher Angel Knows Through Fewer Species than a Lower." Using the principle that "plurality should not be posited without necessity" he argues that the answer to the question is in the affirmative. He also cites Aristotle's notion that "the more perfect a nature is the fewer means it requires for its operation." Applying Aristotle's notion to the universe, one seems forced to conclude that no perfect being could reasonably be held accountable for its existence. In any case, Occam's razor has been used by some atheists to reject the idea of a god as the creator of the universe. To some atheists, gods are unnecessary pluralities. The existence and form of the universe can be explained without positing gods. William would not have approved of such thinking.

William did argue, however, that natural theology is impossible. Natural theology uses reason alone to understand such concepts as Abraham's god [AG], and is contrasted with revealed theology which is founded on scriptural revelations. According to Occam, the idea of AG is not established by evident experience or evident reasoning. All we know about AG we know from revelation. The foundation of all theology, therefore, is faith--faith that what we take as revelation is actually the word of AG. It should be noted that while others might apply the razor to eliminate the entire spiritual world, Occam did not apply the principle of parsimony to the articles of faith. Had he done so, he might have become a Socinian like John Toland (Christianity not Mysterious, 1696) and pared down the Trinity (AG is three persons in one god) to a unity and the dual nature of Jesus (divine and human) to a single nature.

William was a minimalist in philosophy as well as in life, advocating nominalism against the more popular view of realism. That is, he argued that universals have no existence outside of the mind; universals are just names we use to refer to groups of individuals and the properties of individuals. Realists claim not only that there are individual objects and our concepts of those objects, but that there are also universals existing independently of things and our concepts. William thought that this was one too many pluralities. We don't need universals to explain anything. To nominalists and realists there exist, for example, Socrates the individual and our concept of Socrates. To the realist there also exist such realities as the humanity of Socrates, the animality of Socrates, etc. That is, every quality that may be attributed to Socrates has a corresponding "reality", a "universal" or eidos (Form), to use Plato's term. William might be said to have been skeptical of this realm of plurality called the realm of universals. It is not needed for logic, epistemology, or metaphysics, so why assume this unnecessary plurality? Plato and the realists could be right. Perhaps there is a realm of Forms, of universal realities that are eternal, immutable models for individual objects. But we don't need to posit such a realm in order to explain individuals, our concepts, or our knowledge. Plato's Forms are unnecessary metaphysical and epistemological baggage.

One might argue that Bishop George Berkeley applied Occam's razor to eliminate material substance as an unnecessary plurality. According to Berkeley, we need only minds and their ideas to explain everything. Berkeley was a bit selective in his use of the razor, however. He needed to posit AG as the mind who could hear the tree fall in the forest when nobody is present. Subjective idealists might use the razor to get rid of any gods. All can be explained with just minds and their ideas. Of course this leads to solipsism, the view that I and my ideas alone exist, or at least they are all I know exist. Materialists, on the other hand, might be said to use the razor to eliminate minds altogether. We don't need to posit a plurality of minds as well as a plurality of brains.

Occam's razor is also called the principle of parsimony. These days it is usually interpreted to mean something like "the simpler the explanation, the better" or "don't multiply hypotheses unnecessarily." In any case, something like Occam's razor is a principle that is frequently used outside of ontology, e.g., by philosophers of science in an effort to establish criteria for choosing from among theories with equal explanatory power. When giving explanatory reasons for something, don't posit more than is necessary. For example, von Däniken could be right: maybe extraterrestrials did teach ancient people art and engineering, but we don't need to posit alien visitations in order to explain the feats of ancient people. Why posit pluralities unnecessarily? Or, as most would put it today, don't make any more assumptions than you have to. We can posit the ether to explain action at a distance, but we don't need ether to explain it.

Oliver W. Holmes and Jerome Frank might be said to have applied Occam's razor in arguing that there is no such thing as "the Law." There are only judicial decisions and individual judgments, and the sum of them make up the law. To confuse matters, these eminent jurists called their view legal realism, instead of legal nominalism. So much for simplifying matters.

Occam's razor is sometimes called the principle of simplicity, which has been misinterpreted by some creationists to mean that the simpler the explanation the better. These creationists have argued that Occam's razor means we should accept creationism over evolution since it's a simpler explanation of how species got here and came to be what they are. After all, having AG create everything is much simpler than a universe emerging out of nothing or always existing and evolving over billions of years. But Occam's razor does not say that the more simple a hypothesis, the better. If it did, Occam's would be dull razor for a dim populace indeed.

Today, we think of the principle of parsimony as a heuristic device. We don't assume that the simpler theory is correct and the more complex one false. We know from experience that more often than not the theory that requires more complicated machinations is wrong. Until proved otherwise, the more complex theory competing with a simpler explanation should be put on the back burner, but not immediately thrown on the trash heap of history.

Some have even found a use for Occam's razor to justify budget cuts, arguing that "what can be done with less is done in vain with more." This approach seems to apply Occam's razor to the principle itself, eliminating the word "assumptions." It also confuses matters by confusing "less" with "fewer." Occam was concerned with fewer assumptions, not less money.

The original principle seems to have been invoked within the context of a belief in the notion that perfection is simplicity itself. This seems to be a metaphysical bias that we share with the medievals and the ancient Greeks. For, like them, we find that most of our disputes are not about this principle but about what counts as necessary. To the materialist, dualists multiply pluralities unnecessarily. To the dualist, positing a mind as well as a body is necessary. To atheists, positing a god and a supernatural realm is to posit pluralities unnecessarily. To the theist, positing a god is necessary. And so on. To von Däniken, perhaps, the facts make it necessary to posit extraterrestrials. To others, these aliens are unnecessary pluralities. In the end, maybe Occam's razor says little more than that for atheists any god is unnecessary but for theists that is not true. If so, the principle is not very useful. On the other hand, if Occam's razor means that when confronted with two explanations, an implausible one and a probable one, a rational person should select the probable one, then the principle seems unnecessary because so obvious. But if the principle is truly a minimalist principle, then it seems to imply the more reductionism the better. If so, then the principle of parsimony might better have been called Occam's chainsaw, for its main use seems to be for clear-cutting ontology.


  1. Good essay. I've never been comfortable with Occam's razor- first, because it seems folks take liberties with the translation, and second because it seems that certain areas of science multiply pluralities all the time as the body of knowledge grows, such as climate science (and not in a climate change context, but simply in forecasting weather).
    Some notions achieve perfection when there's nothing left to subtract; others beg for more complexity in order to be fully understood.
    That is, if I understood the essay properly ...

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