To understand the concept of Ockham’s Razor, I’d like to begin by explaining a few basics.
A concept is an abstract idea, a complex thought that could result in some value.
You know what a razor is. The most basic form of a razor is the tool that men use to shave unwanted hair off their face, so that one might see the beauty of their jawlines and the shape of their chin that would otherwise be hidden under a hirsute canopy.
So, a razor is something that helps in getting rid of stuff that unwanted and not useful, leaving us with something that we want.
Occam’s Razor, which is a philosophical razor, a concept that says: the best way to solve problems is by cutting out the fluff. Or, using the visual metaphor, it shaves off the unnecessary thoughts that cloud your vision and stop you from seeing the real “face” of the issue and hence prevent you from arriving at the correct explanation.
So here are a couple of examples:
Example 1: The tomatoes in the refrigerator are turning black.
- Long-term effect of the pesticides used.
- Aliens got into our refrigerator and began experimenting on our tomatoes.
- The tomatoes are getting stale.
Rather simple…right? The first explanation that jumps out at you is the third one. Here’s another one.
Example 2: An employee applies for leave to care for his elderly mother.
- The employee is speaking the truth and wants to care for his ailing elderly mother.
- The employee wants to take interviews and leave the company.
- The employee had a horrible fight with his boss yesterday, and wants to spend some time preparing his revenge.
But this was a tricky one. It could be anything.
Because instead of tomatoes that don’t have emotions, don’t get hurt, don’t manipulate things…a human often can and does these things.
And that, in my opinion, makes the razor invalid for situations in which we must understand people as individuals.
Back to the example,
If the employee is known to have a high degree of integrity – then it could be 1. If not, then it could be 2, but if we know that this employee is low on empathy and borders on cruel – he might be thinking of exacting his revenge.
So, the simplest, the most likely explanation, doesn’t always work when we deal with people.
Objective situations, such as those of medicine, science, etc. are different, and yes, the simplest explanation after erasing all the complex ones might be the best. (Though what is simple for one person might be quite complex for another.)
But then, a particular fictional character, Dr. House may disagree.
If you’ve not watched the series “House” before, I recommend you watch it. The series is about what is called “Zebra” in medicine, which means an exotic and rare diagnosis of symptoms that appear to belong to a common disease, and so, it’s the exact opposite of what Occam recommended, which is: shave off all the crazy, out-of-the-world explanations and go for the simplest one.
Aren’t we having a ball with these mad-mad terms today?
Because Theodore Woodward who was awarded the Louis Pasteur Medal in 1961, said, “When you hear hoof-beats, think horses, not zebras,” which means, think of the most likely explanation first.
That is all that I’ve assimilated about Occam’s Razor (ensuring that I use Occam’s Razor to clip off the unnecessary confusion from my understanding of it,) and I for one, won’t use it on people. And yes, one last bit to help you neatly round it off.
Who was Ockham?