Insights into Psychology

What Is… A Philosophical Razor

Philosophical razors: Occam's and Hanlon's

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week, we take a bit of a detour to look at philosophical razors.

I first heard of a philosophical razor quite recently, in a poem by Suzette Benjamin that mentioned Occam’s razor. I’ve since talked about the topic with Andy of Eden in Babylon. So, what is it and why is philosophy doing some shaving?

A philosophical razor is a type of heuristic, or rule of thumb. It lets you shave away extraneous noise by eliminating unlikely solutions to logical problems.

Occam’s razor

Occam’s razor, the original razor, is also known as the law of economy or law of parsimony. The principle states that “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” (per Encyclopedia Brittanica), or in simpler terms, when faced with two competing explanations, the simpler is more likely to be correct. This concept was described by various scholars as far back as Aristotle in Ancient Greece, but in the early 1300s, William of Ockham “mentioned the principle so frequently and employed it so sharply that it was called ‘Occam’s razor'” (per Encyclopedia Britannica). Ockham himself never actually called it Occam’s razor, and I’m not sure why the Ockham/Occam spelling difference.

Ockham was a strong believer in minimizing assumptions, since each time you assume, besides making an ass out of u and me, you introduce potential for error into the mix. His razoring focused heavily on reducing error.

Occam’s razor doesn’t always lead to the “correct” explanation. If nothing else, what appears to be the simplest explanation given current knowledge may look quite different when new knowledge becomes available. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests it’s kind of like if the car that you’re driving abruptly dies and the fuel gauge is on empty, the most likely explanation is the simplest one, that your car ran out of gas. There could be other explanations, but if you don’t consider the simple one first, you’ll probably waste a great deal more time faffing about than is necessary.

While I hadn’t heard of Occam’s razor until recently, it is out there in the popular realm. It was mentioned in The X-Files, House, and the 1997 movie Contact, which I remember seeing and being fascinated by back in the day (although not fascinated enough to remember the razor).

Other philsophical razors

Some more modern, less established, razors include:

  • Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” (and there’s certainly enough of that to go around)
  • Hitchens’ razor: The burden of proof for a claim lies on whoever makes it, and if that burden is not met, no further argument against it is needed
  • Hume’s guillotine: This was described by philsopher David Hume in the 1700s, and says that statements of fact (i.e. what is) and moral statements (i.e. what ought to be) can’t be used interchangeable, and one can’t infer moral conclusions from facts alone.
  • Alder’s razor, aka Newton’s flaming laser sword: This comes from mathematician Michael Alder, who argues that there’s no point debating a scenario involving two impossibilities. His response to the irresistible force paradox (“What happens when an irresistible force is exerted on an immovable object?”) was that the paradox itself is flawed, because “Either the object would move or it wouldn’t, which would tell us only that either the hitherto immovable object was not in fact immovable, or that the hitherto irresistible force was in fact resistible.” May the force resist you… or something like that.

Razoring (and lack thereof)

Conspiracy theorizing seems like a good example of a lack of Occam’s razoring. It actively rejects the simplest explanation and looks for the most complicated.

Now let’s have some fun and look at the recent US presidential election. The simple explanation? Joe Biden won. The anti-Occam’s razor answer? Please refer to Trump’s Twitter feed. Hanlon’s razor and adequately explained by stupidity? Rudy Giuliani’s appearance in Borat, perhaps?. Hitchen’s razor and burden of proof? Giuliani and friends can dig their own hole without any assistance (okay, maybe Four Seasons Total Landscaping will help out). Hume’s guillotine separates what is (Biden won) and what ought to be (Trump’s pretend win). Flaming laser sword? Would the moon fall out of the sky if Trump won and his orange face was natural?

Fun times. Had you heard of Occam’s razor before, or philosophical razors in general?


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31 thoughts on “What Is… A Philosophical Razor”

  1. I appreciate use of it related to our politics, sadly fitting. And, your description gave me a good and needed laugh. I always appreciate that. I also like learning this term, in particular as it relates to assumptions. A hard , but necessary, thing to avoid.

  2. No, this is all new to me!! I took logic, ethics, and philosophy 101 in college, if I recall. Hmm… I only got a B in logic, but I scored 790/800 on the logic and analytical portion of the GRE. But here’s the thing about that test–it was all logic questions like you’d find in a puzzle book. Like, If Alice’s lemonade stand is on two consecutive days as Ronnie’s, and one of them is on Monday, then whose stand is running on Thursday if Alice doesn’t sell lemonade on the weekend?

    Wow, in retrospect, that alone just fried my brain. WHAT?! But anyway, I think they changed the test to make it more academic, perhaps? I’m not sure, but they definitely did away with that format shortly after I took it. Oh yeah, I recall now. They switched to essay.

    I do love following logical progressions!! It soothes me. Often, I’ll lie in bed and think through something very, very carefully. From one assumption to the next. Generally, we’d be talking about lifestyle issues, like, why can’t I lose weight? Or anything that comes up. I find it very soothing, and I always have a moment of realizing whatever’s at the heart of the matter, regardless of whether that brings solutions, but I tend to need to get to the heart of it to find a solution. Like with my diet, I realized I’m an addict, which is tricky since we need food to live.

    I gave up on my diet (hunger by noon, hello, and that was after eating the shrimp, too), but I realized I was in the author’s corner right up until the portions and allotted meals, so I’m still going to give up sugar and flour. Go me! I CAN do that. Trying to eat far less might be outside of my control. For whatever reason, I hunger. But I’ll also keep going to the gym and trying to do occasional 24-hour fasts.

    Fascinating blog post!!

  3. Hi Ashley, thanks for the links. This was another great read, and in particular I find it fascinating how all of the razors selected might apply to the incredulity over current election results in the U.S.A. We really do need to emphasize critical thinking a little more strongly in our educational system. Rather than think for themselves logically, people seem more prone to believe whatever it is that the crowd is believing — especially when it’s convenient.

  4. Not sure what it’s like in Canada, but here in the U.S. I find they’re definitely not delivering. Combine that with that the bulk of young people’s “education” (pre-college level) is probably coming from Twitter and Facebook feeds, and we have a pretty sorry situation.

  5. I had heard of most of these, although I think Occam’s is the only one I had seen referred to as a razor. Occam vs. Ockham I would guess is because there was no standardised spelling in the fourteenth century.

    Alder’s razor, aka Newton’s flaming laser sword would throw out questions of the “Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman?” kind, so would be a bad thing for the internet.

  6. Loved this article. Found it to be really educational, well written and concise. I’ve never heard of Occam’s razor prior to this, it’s apt link to today’s politics was also great.

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