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Occam's Razor
Ockham, William of
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Dominic John Repici
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Ockham, William of

William of Ockham (also: "Sir William of Occam") - A 14th century philosopher who is best known for what has come to be known as "ockham's razor" (or "occam's razor"), which is almost always mis-characterized in common usage. His French peers misspelled the name of his town: Occam, and, like the town of Ockham, that misspelling continues to persist to this day.

1285 - 1349

No photograph available

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Logic vs. Marketing

William's original advice (see some quotes below) was based on sound, logical reasoning, while the commonly promoted mis-characterization of his advice is little more than a fashion statement. One possible theory as to why this appeal to a purely aesthetic "rule" may be so widely accepted without question is discussed below in the section titled: "Look At It This Way."

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"Plurality should not be assumed without necessity."
        (or: "Plurality should not be posited without necessity.")
"It is vain to do with more what can be done with less."
Disputed, but, perhaps ironically, without evidence: "Entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied."(but see resources)

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Perhaps a Metaphor

Your car is displaying a very specific set of symptoms. It is making a funny, but distinct noise, and it is running poorly in a very distinct way.

You're not a "car guy," but you do have an interest, and you suspect it could be one of three possible things:
  1. the fuel-filter,
  2. the air-filter, or
  3. the distributor-cap.

But you're not sure which one...

Are the quotes listed above starting to make sense to you yet?
  • If you change all three parts at once (they are relatively inexpensive parts) you will never know which of the three components was actually responsible for the experimentally observed phenomenon (running badly, and making a distinct noise). Depending on your goal, this may be fine.

  • If you want to learn which one of these three suspected causes is the actual cause of the specific symptoms (the observed phenomena), you must change each of the three suspected parts out ONE AT A TIME, and try the car after each one.

That's it. Read the quotes and draw your own conclusion. It's not that difficult really, but it has been completely scrummed, by the promotion and marketing types.

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Variations On a Theme

The above explanation was about as simple as you can get it (well, almost). What if you have, say, 128 things you suspect it could be? Just like before, you aren't sure which one it is. We can employ William's advice to great effect in this situation:

At the start of this exercise, your "bad group" will contain all 128 possibilities. That is, all the parts you suspect it might be.
  1. Start by dividing the "bad group" of parts in half. The "bad group," meaning the group that contains the problem-part.
  2. Swap out the first half of the bad group, and leave the second half in the car.
  3. Test the car. If the problem is solved, the first half of the "bad group" contains the problem part, and becomes the new bad group. Otherwise the second half is the new bad group.

  4. Put back the original parts, and go back to step 1.

In the above example, where we started with 128 possible parts, a maximum of seven iterations will be required to divide it down to a single part.
  1. 2 groups of 64
  2. 2 groups of 32
  3. 2 groups of 16
  4. 2 groups of 8
  5. 2 groups of 4
  6. 2 groups of 2
  7. 2 groups of 1

Electronics engineers and programmers will recognize this as "successive approximation." It is used to great effect in many applications, for example, converting analog signals into digital signals.

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How To Spot a Marketing Concept

Generally a marketing concept will be amorphous and pastel... a Rorschach test for the mind if you will. Ideally, a marketing concept should be something that only provides enough structure so that people will fill in the details by mentally painting their own ideas and understanding onto it. This lets them feel vindicated and reinforced in their own beliefs. The Ockham's Razor fashion-statement, when first presented, will usually be presented to bolster a flailing debating position on a web-site or in a forum discussion. At this point it will be presented as a logically, and scientifically sound concept for determining which "theory," among two competing theories must be the right one (based, remember, on applying this "scientifically and logically sound principle" to the matter at hand). In this morphology the fashion-statement reads:

"When faced with two competing theories, the one which is simpler is most likely to be right."

This "scientific" validity angle will be further reinforced with authoritatively related proclamations like this one, which are shouted from the blog-tops:

"Occam's razor [. . . ] forms the basis of the scientific method."

And here I thought it was experimentation.

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How to Spot A Fashion Statement

Marketing concepts are a super-set of fashion statements, and often degrade into mere fashion statements. This one is a very good example of how that happens. Fashion embraces flux, and changes with the whims of the time and current societal norms.

Somebody who cares enough about things like science, and the search for the truth might point out that the above statement can easily be demonstrated to be invalid, simply based on observed and recorded history (see resources below). If they do, however, the fashion statement will simply morph into something different (i.e., "new," "fresh," "exciting," "sophisticated," "hip") such as (for example):

"When faced with two identical theories we should pick the one which is easiest to test, so that we don't waste limited resources"

If the passionate one is foolish enough, at this point, to point out that this has nothing to do with determining the scientific correctness of a theory, but is merely an economic theory regarding use of finite resource (the law of diminishing returns, expressed more colloquially as "pick the low hanging fruit first") s/he will simply be labeled as unfashionable. That is, if s/he didn't get that this was the latest thing, it is because s/he is not "in touch" with current thinking on the matter, and therefor, has nothing to offer to the ongoing "movement."


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Look At It This Way

"When faced with two competing theories, the one which is simpler is most likely to be right."

If you turn it inside out, so that it's not advice on making a future prediction, but so that it is an observation of the history of a past prediction, you can begin to understand why many people find the common mis-interpretation so attractive. Once a thing has been discovered, it becomes, almost instantly, simple. Also, the memory of how difficult and intractable the problem seemed prior to its discovery fades just as instantly from our collective and individual memories.

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” — Galileo

Of course! The sun isn't revolving around the earth. The earth is rotating. It's so simple now, but before it was understood, it was oh-so-much-simpler to look up in the sky and see the sun revolving around the earth, and conclude with near absolute certainty that the sun was revolving around the earth. This is true of all understanding. Before it is discovered, it is not simple or obvious at all, but once a thing is discovered, it becomes clear, and becomes the simpler, most obvious, answer.

The commonly expressed misinterpretation of Ockham's Razor is not a great and powerful metaphysical truth of how aesthetics alone can lead us to discovery. In fact, it is merely an example of human nature. A useful quirk in the way humans think, that makes it possible for us to function in everyday life. But it is a quirk that can also be a hindrance when getting at truths.

It is really an example of a foible of human thought. A type of perceptual illusion (delusion?) that is ironically a great example of why we need things like the scientific method to keep us honest in our search for the truth. If you step back a bit, it is obvious that Ockham's writings aren't really a good fit at all to this bogus interpretation, but they were close enough that men can associate this belief in aesthetics that seems so right to us, with the writings of a great philosopher. In this way we can mentally validate it as being somehow scientific. Ironically, our tendency to associate things that seem right to our imperfect human way of thinking, with things of known good repute, is yet another example of why we need good tools —like strict adherence to the scientific method— to keep us on track.

"When faced with two competing theories, the one which seems simpler is most likely to have been right."

Isn't that better?

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Ongoing Spin

Those who are most heavily invested in the "fashion statement" interpretation of these quotes will tell you that all metaphors and analogies used to explain concepts are, by nature, straw-men, or worse, reification. Furthermore, they will very convincingly argue, that reifications, and straw-men are logical fallacies (they aren't in any practical sense, btw). So, be prepared to be convinced—by people whose only real gift is in the persuasive arts—that the concepts related above in metaphor are invalid from the outset, precisely because they have been related in metaphor.

Similarly, some may also claim the existence of "studies" that "prove" or "convincingly indicate" the validity of the fashion statement. If you are not able to see through that particular ploy, I have some very rare, and special invisible clothes I'd be willing to part with for the right price :-).

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In Other Words?

Opinion alert. The following is an attempt to more precisely represent Ockham's original advice. It is forwarded in the spirit of not criticizing something without offering a sincere attempt at a solution.

This is just a first shot and improvements are welcome and sought. It is recognized, also, that while the target (the concept) isn't moving, the gun (the language used to relate the concept) is.

"Always express things using the most general representation possible for the context in which the representation is being used."

But, Einstein might say, not more general!

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  • Article on William of Ockham at Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

  • Hickam's Dictum

  • Invalidating the pre-morphed fashion-statement (e.g.,):
    • All flying birds have feathers, therefor the secret to HTA flight must be feathers.
    • Charles Darwin and his contemporaries stated that cells are nothing more than "simple globs of protoplasm."
    • The idea that the crust of the earth was thin plates floating on top of a molten blob was considered ludicrous. That the earth could be anything other than a solid ball with a molten center was not even considered to be within the realm of sanity.
    • A person's intelligence, it was thought, could be precisely measured by making physical measurements of their skull. Seems logical right?
    • For millennia, men whose only agenda was a sincere desire to know the truth would walk outside, look up in the sky, and conclude that it was obvious that the sun revolves around the earth.
    • Heavier than air flight was "settled science." It was obviously not possible.
    • Surgeons, Joseph Lister, and Ignacio Semmelweis were both considered clinically insane, because they thought that surgeons should wash their hands before operating. Surgeons needed to do this, they thought, in order to get rid of tiny, unseen, organisms that live, and grow on their hands.
    • A hub-and-spoke based package delivery system that can deliver packages in one day? Son, listen, you're thinking this to death. That's far too complicated a scheme to ever work.
    • This list is never ending...

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