Occam’s Razor

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By, Surabhi Ashok

Occam’s Razor, as given by William of Ockham, is the law of economy or the law of parsimony in philosophy. Parsimony, as the dictionary definition, is the extreme unwillingness to spend money or resources. The principle “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” is further elaborated on in William’s statement in Summa Logicae: “It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer.” 

Not only can this philosophy apply to economics, but it can account for the reason so many scientists formulate their theories in simple terms while still ensuring that the important facts are understood. The idea is that when there are two competing theories that outline the same concepts, the simpler one is usually the better choice. The “razor” part of the phrase “Occam’s Razor” refers to the action of cutting down redundant portions of text that don’t affect the general meaning.

However, William of Ockham did not intend for his philosophy to decide between theories that make separate predictions but rather separate theories that would predict the same result. Occam’s Razor does not, and should not, substitute the scientific method and the process of observation and experimentation in any way.

While it can sometimes be difficult to decipher when Occam’s Razor is best to use, the rule of thumb is to remember to make fewer assumptions after a good amount of evidence is gathered. For example, if you have a headache, using Occam’s Razor, you would assume that you did not sleep well instead of attaching to the conclusion that you are getting a fever because that is a big assumption to make.

Delving into the details of the man who articulated this rule himself, William of Ockham held logic in high regard, believing it to be essential towards the attainment of knowledge. He, throughout his life, either commented about the works of Aristotle and Porphyry, who are other philosophers, or outlined his own theories in his writings. In regards to the Occam’s razor, William advised against affirming the existence of something without a reason unless the object in question “is self-evident (literally, known through itself) or known by experience or proved by the authority of the Sacred Scripture”.

Although this methodological principle was used by William of Ockham almost 720 years ago, it is still prevalent in many aspects of society today, influencing both scientific theories and everyday life decisions.