Occam’s Razor Cuts Both Ways

Is it true, that when (other things being equal) given a choice of explanations for something that the simplest explanation is most often the best? Being of medieval origin, should this principle of simplicity still be elevated to such an important part of our scientific approach, today?

Many scientists even still sight the medieval principle of Occam’s Razor also spelled, “Ockham’s Razor” to justify their pet “simplest explanation” over any competing theories that in their view are “too complicated”. An odd argument, in light of increasing discoveries that our very Universe seems to be growing in complexity over time, and apparently has been doing so for at least 13.7 billion years.

Occam’s Razor or Ockham’s Razor

Occam’s Razor, named after the medieval philosopher, William of Occam, (Ockham) can be stated, “Given a choice between two explanations, choose the simplest — the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions.” Upon researching Occam’s razor, I found that scientists have many different ways to state this general principle. Here are a few of the most prevalent.

“The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations.”

“The simplest explanation is usually the best.”

“The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.”

This is also known as the Principle of Parsimony or the Principle of Simplicity, and is a criterion for deciding among scientific theories or explanations. The Principle of Simplicity can be stated, “One should always choose the simplest explanation of a phenomenon, the one that requires the fewest leaps of logic.”   Occam’s razor, and the Principle of Simplicity sound fine in theory, but sometimes the simplest explanation does not actually reflect reality. You see, as the title states, “Occam’s Razor cuts both ways”.

     Image Source          Fractal Me a River        by Bill M. Tracer

There be Order in Chaos

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7 Responses to “Occam’s Razor Cuts Both Ways”
  1. OhSugar Says...

    On December 14, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I too, believe that simple is the best choice. ” a man of few words,” if you will, says much.


  2. The Quail 1957 Says...

    On December 19, 2010 at 3:49 am

    Yes sometimes the simplist explanation can be the correct one. However, it may not always be the best one. When thinking of “Occam’s Razor” I like to think outside the box of perpetual reality.

    Awesome article.


  3. C.Sense Says...

    On December 28, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    You really thought you had to write this?


  4. Bill M. Tracer Says...

    On December 29, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Yes. You really thought you had to ask?


  5. Alan Says...

    On January 7, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    How does it cut both ways? What are the two ways?

    You have spent an entire post giving examples and explanations of the Razor, and then in the penultimate sentence simply asserted that it “does not reflect reality”.

    Why should anyone believe such an assertion, against the combined wisdom of generations of philosophers and scientist? Where is your argument? Where’s the beef?

    Seeing as I’m here:

    a) How is the complexity of the Universe related to the complexity of explanations?

    b) “sight” in the first line of second paragraph should be “cite”


  6. atheist Says...

    On January 14, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Alan is right. Where are your examples of Occam\\\’s Razor cutting both ways? I certainly cannot think of one.


  7. Ian Maxwell Says...

    On February 3, 2011 at 1:52 am

    You are awfully confused about what Ockham’s razor actually says. In particular, you are confused about two words:

    1. ‘Simplest.’ As you yourself say, “[I]n the end, we find that even complexity can be deceptively simple. It is out of a relatively simple mathematical formula, placed within a repetitive computer routine, known as a recursive iterative process, that incredibly beautiful and intricate complex patterns can be generated, with the afore mentioned fractal geometry.” So how does this argue against the idea of seemingly complex phenomena having ultimately simple representations? Simple doesn’t mean “simple in result,” it means “simple in the number of free parameters.” Another example: the quark-lepton model (an outgrowth of quantum mechanics) has greatly simplified particle physics, since it allows the seemingly large number of different particles to be explained—indeed, predicted—in terms of two basic types. Several seemingly arbitrary constants like the mass of the proton turn out to be predictable consequences of a much simpler theory. The aim of areas like M-theory and string theory is to reduce the number of free parameters further (and indeed the major criticism of string theory is its failure in this regard).

    2. ‘Explanation.’ At a minimum, an explanation has to predict what we actually see. The reason classical mechanics was discarded was not because it was too simple, but because it wasn’t an explanation—it failed to predict what researchers actually saw happening in the lab. Likewise, the problem with “A wizard did it” isn’t that it fails to be simple, but that it fails to be an explanation: you still have to say exactly what the wizard did, in what manner he did it, and why he did that rather than something else.

    Here’s an example of a claim that would fail Ockham’s razor: “In addition to the properties we know, quarks have an an additional property called ‘wetness’, which varies on a continuum from perfectly wet to perfectly dry. Wetness has no influence on how quarks interact with other particles.” This fails because it adds no explanatory power to the standard model; there is no experiment you could create in which you would expect to see X under the standard model, but would expect to see Y because you knew about the wetness postulate. Since the standard model is simpler and just as accurate without it, we can discard it out of hand.

    So you see, the point of Ockham’s razor is not that all explanations ought to be simplified or simplistic. The point is that, once you have explained everything you actually see, there is no point in embellishing further.


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