“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” – William of Ockham

This quote, often referred to as Occam’s razor because it gets rid of (like a razor to hair) unnecessary explanation of events, was uttered by William of Ockham. William was a well-known friar, theologian and scholastic philosopher with much of his attention being focused on natural philosophy and theology. Occam’s razor did not begin with Ockham’s utterance but can be traced back to Aristotle and many others who along the same lines, postulated that an explanation should be established using the simplest hypothesis possible. It was later adopted by the likes of Isaac Newton and Bertrand Russell.

Occam’s razor is a strong principle that mirrors the colloquial phrase KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). In philosophy, this quote is very relevant as it seems very easy to get caught up in the abstract and infinite possibilities of deeper questions. The gist of this quote is that if you have two or more explanations that work equally well (ceteris paribus) in answering a question, the simplest hypothesis is generally best. Occam’s razor is continued to be used today in the field of science and medicine as a general rule for observational evidence. While this principle may seem like common sense, it appears our society is moving in the other direction seemingly paradoxically.

Now before I get into the “practical” application of this, it is worth noting that we are an era where we have more knowledge and technical capabilities to answer more questions than ever before. However, the more answers we get, the more questions arise.

For example…

Is the universe static? Develop tools and methods to understand this and come up with an answer… No, it is expanding.  Alright, but why? Develop more tool and more methods to understand why it is expanding… Alright and now we also know that not only is it expanding, but it is accelerating in its expansion! Alright, but why and why? And on and on ad infinitum.  And this is only one (poorly fashioned) example!

Every day we are answering more questions, in more fields, and arriving at even more questions. While development and change are integral to our evolution as a species ( and who doesn’t like to be able to look at their wrist to see the time, the date, their heartbeat, who is messaging them, if they slept well, and if they hit their “step” target for the day) some (presumably Occam) would say that we are, in fact, multiplying entities unnecessarily.

In an attempt to gain understanding and make our lives easier we seem to be doing the opposite of Occam’s razor. We are, at a frightening rate, answering more and more questions allowing us to make more and more decisions and have more “freedom” and choice in what we do. The problem is, you and I and most humans for that matter, aren’t always the best at making decisions and in fact studies show that the opposite is true.

With more options, comes more choices, with more choices comes more decision making, and with more decision making, we have less time to truly apply ourselves to meaningful things. We are multiplying entities and creating more work for ourselves on a daily basis. The question of utility seems to be getting farther and farther away.

Have you ever walked into a large retail store and left after 5 minutes because there is just too much there? Or walked into a store to purchase one item and then end up with multiple items? If you haven’t, then I may be the first blogger to have tapped into the alien demographic! All joking aside, in theory you and I like the idea of having all these options and the freedom of “choice” but by multiplying our options unnecessarily we are causing more work for our brains and to what end? If the answer is a small dopamine rush, that can hardly be worth the hours of thinking over trivial decisions causing decreased cognitive ability.

As a philosopher, I am not one to normally chastise thinking, but this is wasted thought. By spending time thinking about what clothes to wear, what smartphone to buy, what Netflix show to watch (the average time to pick a show is 18 minutes!!!!) we are wasting our brain power on trivial matters and feel exhausted at the end of it.

So how can we apply Occam’s razor to our daily life? The options out there aren’t going to get smaller any time soon and so the choice will remain, so I would suggest tweaking Occam’s razor to be a little… edgier (get it).  In the case of the 21st century individual, at least “reduce multiplying entities unnecessarily” OR “prepare to deal with entities multiplied unnecessarily”.  I am by no means saying we ought to go back to archaic times and live in a cave (although I do think it would be simpler) because there are lots of benefits in our advancements, all I am saying focus on the necessities of life.  If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Do you need to own several pairs of jeans in all shades of blue? Probably not, but if you do need a new pair of jeans, know beforehand what you are looking for, give yourself a timeline, get the jeans and get out. Then you will have all the time in the world to put your brain to good use, answer some of life’s question, create more questions and create more options for yourself… wait a minute… Well hey, I did say at the outset it was paradoxical!


The Practical Philosopher


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