Ockham’s razor is a postulate developed by Friar William of Ockham. What this postulate shows is that when we are faced with a problem or question, the simplest solution is the correct one.
Ockham’s razor, also called the principle of parsimony or the principle of economy, is a postulate considered a methodology. It consists of affirming that the simplest and most vague explanation is the correct one to discern the solution of a question or any problem.
What we just mentioned was not exactly what Ockham said, but his explanation.
The literal phrase that he coined was “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate”, whose translation is “plurality should not be postulated unnecessarily”. That is, it is not necessary to expose many answers, solutions and variables if this is not necessary, since generally the cause-effect explanation is simpler.
Origin of Ockham’s razor
The author of this postulate is William of Ockham, an English friar, philosopher and theologian born in the late 13th century. Whose theories and methodology were transcendental in their time.
The term stems from the conflict between Ockham and philosophers whose way of understanding the world was very complex, mainly Plato. It is said that “razor” comes from metaphorically cutting Plato’s beard, thus showing the meaning of what was recently mentioned. The author did not accept Plato’s complexity to explain metaphysics, he was in favor of simpler ideas and theories.
The term was not coined by him, but was later adopted. It is generally thought that it was in the 16th century, some two hundred years after the development of his work and thought.
Examples of Ockham’s razor
This methodological principle of choosing the simplest answer can be applied to any branch of knowledge.
A simple general example can be that of finding the mobile turned off: it could be that a hacker has introduced a virus to it; that your brother has broken it; Or that the battery has simply run out. According to Ockham, the latter is simpler and probably more accurate.
But we are going to see more concrete examples, applied to different disciplines.
If there is a science characterized by being involved in constant controversy, especially in its relation to politics, that is economics. This controversy comes because in order to achieve certain objectives, numerous solutions are proposed.
For example, you want to solve the problem of unemployment. All the solutions proposed seek to end it, however, they are all very disparate.
An example of Ockham’s razor would be the following:
Tobacco use has fallen and we are looking for an explanation, we have the following possibilities:
- Because we live in a context of decrease, disposable income is lower and people prioritize other goods over tobacco.
- Because the UN, seeing the health spending problems of the States, advises against and penalizes its use.
- The net smoking balance is very negative.
According to Ockham, the simplest explanation is the correct one, so we chose the third. Simply smoking adds nothing and takes a lot out. Although it must be emphasized that really anyone can be possible, even a combination of them.
It seeks to get a certain number of people out of poverty, for which the following proposals are made:
- They are given work and training, because it will improve their conditions in the long term, improving their situation for themselves.
- They are given money and food.
The second option would be the simplest, if you give money and food, their problems are solved in the short term. Although the second, more complex option may be more desirable in the long term.
Why has Party A dropped notably in the polls? Many things can happen, but a simple explanation may be that your candidate’s change has had a negative impact on the electorate.
How can we give smaller parties a real presence? Well, a simple explanation could be to give public resources to them, thus facilitating competition with the largest parties.
Ockham’s razor can also be applied to the field of medicine, especially with diagnostics.
A patient goes to the consultation with a tummy ache, the doctor has three options:
- You have eaten something that has made you feel bad in isolation.
- You are allergic to something for which you are not diagnosed.
- You are developing the symptoms of a more serious illness.
The doctor, following Ockham’s razor, would choose the first option.
Criticisms of Ockham’s razor
Like any idea or theory, this one also has its detractors, and with a certain reason.
In such a complex world it is very difficult for the simple explanation to always reign. This is due to the large number of variables that influence a certain problem.
For example, in economics, regarding unemployment in a country, it is necessary to consider many aspects such as: the most damaged sector, the international economic situation, applied policies, recruitment costs, the educational sector, the quantity and quality of the workforce, etc.
Therefore, there are problems that need a great diagnosis before being solved.
The same happens, for example, with medicine. It is very common the case that a person has gone to the emergency room with a discomfort, the doctor has made a poor diagnosis and the case has subsequently worsened, leading to a serious illness.
In fact, new areas of knowledge such as quantum physics are quite counterintuitive, creating the need for deep and complex research.