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“Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate“
“Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora“
Either of these Latin sentences, loosely translated as “Plurality should not be posited without necessity“, are statements of the medieval English philosopher, logician and Franciscan monk William of Ockham (1285-1349 A.D. Ockham was the village in the English county of Surrey where he was born), and this principle is known as Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor.
The razor is used to shave off unnecessary ideas from an inference in the stages of formation of a hypothesis. In simple terms, if there is no need for an idea to exist in your explanation of a concept, you should probably shave it off.
Occam’s razor was not an entirely new idea with William of Occam, though. It was a common principle in medieval philosophy but due to his frequent usage, his name became associated with it. Centuries earlier, Aristotle had said “Nature operates in the shortest way possible“, which is a simplistic rule of thumb that can work in some areas of observation (e.g. philosophy, physics and chemistry) but will fail woefully in some other complicated study areas like psychology and astrophysics / cosmogony where inexplicable cases can be expected at any point in time.
This principle is also known as the principle of economy or the parsimony principle. Like other Franciscan monks, towing the path of St. Francis of Assisi himself, William was a minimalist and he idealized a life of poverty and abstinence. This made him at loggerheads with the incumbent Pope, John XXII who excommunicated him when William used his razor to explain that “God’s existence cannot be deduced by reason alone“; and in turn William wrote a treatise telling people that the pope was a heretic.
It is unlikely that William will appreciate what people have been recently doing in his name. For instance, today many atheists often try to apply Occam’s razor in arguing against the existence of God (and some would even go as far as using the razor to shave off the entire spiritual realms), saying that God is an unnecessary hypothesis. Such analysis totally kicks against the goads of William’s intents; and I also firmly disagree with the atheists’ stand in this case.
In my opinion, just like Aristotle said and William of Occam agreed, “the more perfect a nature is, the fewer means it requires for its operations“. Thus at the most perfect pinnacle, there must be one necessary hypothesis (if there were none, then there would also be no hypotheses below that level of perfection). That necessary hypothesis tells of God’s existence as the necessary perfection, and this axiom can be appropriated by faith. Below that level of perfection, there will be other hypothesis but they must all be contingent upon something or the other, and work in conjunction with the necessary hypothesis. Going down from the pinnacle of perfection, more hypothesis will be required to describe natures.
Some historians, (of which Erich von Däniken is one of the most notorious proponents) question the capacity for ancient civilizations to have developed the art, social organization and technology that is attributed to them and rather believe that astronaut-aliens must have assisted them way back in the day. This is not impossible but it adds three pieces of contingent theories into a mix of plurality in history. First, we assume aliens exist. Second, we assume they came to earth. Third, we assume they assisted the ancient civilizations and then they never bothered coming back to say hi to us, their old friends (we won’t mind some out-of-this-world technology actually, and we’ll say thanks). The alternative theory is this: the ancient civilizations had intelligent people who came up with the theory. Occam’s razor to the rescue, and we’ll choose option two.
Also, depending on how you look at it, some brands of theism (which simply relate creation to a prime mover, God, and singularly say we can find that God by faith outside these realms) are a much simpler theory than atheism, which has to come up with theories such as evolution, and yet explain why the evolution happened the way it did, and what happened before the evolution began. Simplistic in truth, is the Occam’s razor.
Sometimes I’m about to logically judge a set of alternative ideas or suggestions. Then I apply Occam’s razor and I start to discard the unnecessaries. I think it’s a really good idea.
In summary, along most lines of reasoning, and until proved otherwise, the more complex theory competing with a much simpler explanation should have a reduced priority, but not totally discarded until proven false.
In words attributed to Einstein,
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The Occam’s razor as a keyword was a random idea that popped into my head to blog about