By S M Chen, posted July 21, 2016 by D Kovacs

‘Plurality must never be posited without necessity.’ – William of Occam

I first heard of Occam’s Razor when it was mentioned by radio astronomer Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) in the 1997 film Contact, based on a novel by Carl Sagan.

Since then, I have encountered the term a number of times, and find resonance with the principles of parsimony and minimalism.

Often profundities can be articulated simply.

This problem-solving principle, named for William of Occam, an English Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian (1287-1347) states that, in explaining something, no more assumptions should be made than are necessary. Or, put another way, the simplest answer is often correct. The simpler the explanation, the better.

‘Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler’ (+/- Albert Einstein).

This was a common principle in medieval philosophy and did not originate with William (others of similar mind from earlier times: Aristotle <384-322 BC>; Ptolemy <90-168>; Thomas Aquinas <1225-1274>), but he frequently used the principle and his name became attached to it. I like the appellation and would be hard pressed to come up with an improvement.

The Razor is not universally applicable. There are some who reject it outright. One foil, called Crabtree’s Bludgeon, states: ‘No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.’

A variation of this is something I try to recall in perplexing moments: ‘There is no problem, no matter how complicated, that, if looked at a certain way, cannot be made to be more complicated.’

I favor, in general, the Razor over its foils for most situations.

One acronym I’ve found useful is the acronym KISS (one interpretation for which is: keep it short & simple).

A few examples, in no particular order:

Freeway travel. I choose a maximum safe speed to drive, and occupy the farthermost left lane that allows me to maintain this speed without being overtaken by other drivers. If I try to stay in the fast lane, there are others who opt to driver faster; I don’t wish to vex them. Also, decades of driving has taught me that if I’m in a slow lane and change, the one into which I’ve changed often slows and may become slowest.

Tires. I check auto tire air pressure monthly. Maintaining proper pressure is important for the operation of the vehicle and for peace of mind. My commute, although irregular, is lengthy. Although I used to inflate tires on my two vehicles to different psi, I now inflate all 8 tires to 36 psi (tires on one car are worn as if underinflated; tread wear is even on the other car).

Finances. I decide on an asset allocation mix and largely maintain it, correcting only when it deviates (at least 5%) from my goal. For equities, I largely use index mutual funds, accepting the fact that I won’t beat the market (which, while the acknowledged best investment vehicle for long term growth, can remain irrational longer than one can remain solvent; latter from British economist John Maynard Keynes), but neither will I significantly lag it.

Food. Breakfast is almost invariably the same (when home, usually the case). Banana, cold cereal, soymilk, frozen blueberries. Lunch and dinner also vary little from day to day.

Boring? Perhaps. Reliable? Definitely. I’m at the place in life where order trumps excitement.

First impressions are important, and one should act upon them. To do otherwise invites later chagrin and sorrow. View impressions beyond the first with some skepticism.

Prudent people choose and change slowly. Imprudent people choose and change hastily.

Decisions made in haste are often repented at leisure.

However, these words of Henri Frederic Amiel are also worth remembering: ‘Be swift to love, make haste to be kind.’

Holy Writ advises parsimony in speech (‘Nay nay and yea yea’). To say what we mean and mean what we say.

It’s often hard to improve on silence.

Solomon had this to say about the wisdom of silence: ‘Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise…’ – Prov. 17:28

Abraham Lincoln’s take comes to mind: ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.’

*

Christ, in distilling life’s essentials to loving God and loving our fellow man, emphasized simplicity. His own truncated life was consistent with that principle. He, too, was often silent.

I think He would have related to William of Occam.

–Photo by Debbonnaire Kovacs


Sam Chen biopic

 

S M Chen lives and writes in California.