No, this isn’t a history lesson.
(But really, look into the dude. William of Occam He’s interesting.)
It’s the first in our on-going series about Critical Thinking!
And to begin our journey towards being better and more efficient bullshit detectors, we’re going to start with a little Latin.
(It’s just a little Latin, calm down. Especially you, in the back. I’ve got my eye on you.)
Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate.
(There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?)
That’s the formulation of Occam’s Razor I learned in philosophy 101. Roughly translated – because my Latin is so rusty you’d need a tetanus shot to handle it safely – it means:
Plurality should not be affirmed without Necessity.
Ok, what the hell does that mean?!
Glad you asked.
You’ve probably heard it explained, in various media, thusly:
“All things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably the right one.”
If that’s all you remember about Occam’s Razor, you’ll be doing fine.
Here’s what it emphatically does not mean:
“All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the right one.”
Occam’s Razor is not a perfect sieve, separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s not a push-button solution to all of one’s problems. It’s not even rigorous logic.
It’s a tool to help you think, more clearly about complicated subjects.
Why is that important?
(Look at you, asking all the right questions.)
Well, for one, Life is a complicated business. Too complicated, as a matter of fact, for one person to actually understand. So, we break it down into smaller bits, and try to understand those. But even those bits can be super complicated in their own right, consisting of even smaller bits, on and on, ad infinitum.
Beginning to get the picture?
For two, people tend to needlessly complicate things – especially when they’re trying to bullshit you.
For three, and probably most importantly, we tend to keep adding conditions to make situations fit the idea we have in our heads about it.
Especially if it’s idea we’re emotionally attached to.
We will add heaps and heaps of conditions onto a thing, to make it feasible/ logical/ right, if it’s a thing we already believe- or already want to believe.
We know we will. We’ve seen us do it.
And that’s one of the best services Occam’s Razor does for us: it helps us to recognize when we might be adding layers and layers to a thing to make it work, when likely, it wasn’t going to work in the first place.
Let’s take an example of how Occam’s Razor might help you think about subjects:
At this point, we don’t have a definitive answer, historically, for how hey were built. We have lots of guesses that range from Good Old Human Ingenuity™ all the way to direct alien influence.
Now, like I said, we don’t have a definitive answer here, so let’s apply the edge of the razor and see if we can slice away the less-likely of scenarios.
On the Alien hand, well, first, we have to explain why they aren’t still around. Then we have to explain why there aren’t clear records. Then we have to explain the purposes for such a specific undertaking (pyramid building) and why on our planet, of all the possible planets in the universe, et cetera…
You can see how the number of things we need to explain, to make the alien hypothesis work, keeps growing and growing.
Whereas, if we posit Good Old Human Ingenuity™ the only thing we might need to explain is some of the building techniques, but only for funsies. We know that the Egyptians had the man-power and the know-how to get it done.
In this case, Good Old Human Ingenuity™ seems to be the more plausible answer.
It is definitely the simpler of the two.
Does that mean it’s right?
But it does mean that it’s more reasonable to believe than the other option.
In situations where there is a lack of concrete evidence, Occam’s Razor is useful for coming up with a best guess.
So, how can you use this in your everyday life?
(Another good question. Look at you!)
Here’s where the Razor becomes an EDC (every day carry):
Liars tend to add more details than someone telling the truth, generally because of the misapprehension that the extra details will seal the belief deal, so to speak.
(ok, a caveat here – expert liars, you know, professional con artists and politicians, usually don’t make this mistake.)
But the average, everyday liars, they make this mistake constantly. And, in the absence of evidence, you can think of Occam’s Razor, and all the moving parts in the story, and just maybe not give away anything you’d rather keep.
Another everyday use is on yourself.
Regardless of what we think, we all need a good shave now and again.
(especially me, with all the razor puns…)
We all have things we believe a priori.
(shit, not more Latin! Relax, it’ll be over soon.)
A priori, in very simple terms, is something we believe independent of experience. Things we know. We just know.
We all have our sacred cows, and they can jam up traffic on the highways of our thinking. Judicious use of Occam’s Razor can clip the horns, neaten up the ragged coats, and get the bovine obstruction moving again.
Being a sufferer of ANXIETY, I find it helpful on a daily basis.
ANXIETY (anyone who suffers from it knows the all-caps is completely warranted) tends to tell me outlandish things about how IT’S ALL GOING TO BURN UP AND FALL DOWN, JUST YOU WAIT, YOU’LL SEE! And it’s very good at constructing chains of scenarios where even the smallest of mistakes escalates into me having to move into a cave, put out both my eyes, and walk around covered in ashes.
And because my imagination is a powerful instrument, these phantasmagorical visions of the future have all the verisimilitude they need to leave me paralyzed with fright. And that’s where the Razor earns its keep, and then some.
Because all of those scenarios build and become ever-complex. The mind doesn’t give a shit if none of those things will actually happen, it’s got a script and it’s trying to problem solve its way to the ending. Cave. Ashes. Blind in both eyes. Check.
But, thanks to my admittedly-not-as-scholarly-as-I’d-like-knowledge of William of Occam and his peculiar bladed instrument, I have a tool to deconstruct all of the terror inducing scaffolding my brain has erected.
Yes, folks, Occam’s Razor can even work on the bullshit we try to sell ourselves.
I hope, by this point, I’ve managed to sell you on Occam’s Razor.
Or, at least, to go look it up for yourself.
It’ll come in handy.
Until next time…