The principle of parsimony, or “Occam’s Razor,” is a principle of deduction developed by the Franciscan Father of Nominalism, William of Ockham. There is much to commend about William of Ockham, including his development of parsimony. But I want to look at it another way.
The famous example of Occam’s razor goes like this: “What do you think when you hear hoofbeats? Do you think it is a zebra or a horse?” The horse is chosen because it’s the simpler explanation. In most places, for most people, there are a lot more horses than there are zebras. And that’s the basis of Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is usually the best.
Again, there is nothing wrong with this way of deduction. Sherlock Holmes would be proud. However, Occam‘s razor has its problems. It is often thought of as axiomatic among many in the debate community. Let me put that another way: a redefined Occam‘s razor is often thought of as axiomatic. This re-definition would go something like this; “The simplest explanation is always the best.” This adverb of indefinite frequency shuts the debate down in too many cases. As we will see, the simplest explanation is not always the best. Oftentimes, it is lazy.
Again, while a rightly defined Ocaam’s Razor is valuable, it does have its limitations and problems. Here are a few to keep in mind.
1. Subjectivity: The principle of parsimony is often seen as subjective because what counts as “simplest” is a matter of personal opinion. Who is the actual judge as to what is the most simple? We all view things through our own subjectivity.
2. Relativity: The principle of parsimony is dependent on the relative context and the available data. In some cases, a more complex explanation may be required due to the complexity of the phenomenon being explained. In other cases, a simpler explanation may be inadequate.
3. Discrediting Evidence: The principle of parsimony may lead to ignoring or discrediting evidence that does not fit with the so-called (see 1 and 2) simplest explanation. This can lead to a biased view of the phenomenon being explained, as it may not take into account all available evidence.
4. Worldview Anaysis: the principle of parsimony does not account for the individual worldview of those investigating the matter. One persons worldview may allow for the supernatural while another’s does not.
5. Circular Epistimology: The principle of parsimony does not provide an explanation for why the simplest explanation is usually the best. How does one come to the axiom that the simplest explanation is normally the best? Subjective experience? Relative context?
All one must do is look to the modern age and see that which is simple becomes very complicated, quickly. Things that we thought were simple before, like the human cell, have become complex beyond belief.
I am not saying that we discard Occam‘s Razor. That would be too simple. It’s more complex than that!! But the brute force of our engagement with truth must come down to more than just “the simplest explanation is usually the best, therefore, always the best.” Maybe it’s not hoofbeats at all!
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