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, 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?
- American Association for the Advancement of Science: The origin and popular use of Occam’s razor
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Occam’s razor
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philsophy: William of Ockham
- Wikipedia: Hanlon’s razor, Hitchens’s razor, Hume’s guillotine, Mike Alder
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.