Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ockham's Razor

Something I simultaneously love and hate about bookshops are the sale tables that are strategically placed at the entrance to the store -- directly next to the front doors, even!  It is nearly impossible for me to ignore those tables.  One minute, I walk into the store to get a book on usability that will help me with a school project, and the next minute, I am in a daze, standing in front of said tables and asking myself, "Do I really need a visual reference guide to architecture?"  Oh!  They have one on classical music, too?!?  I have bought many a needless thing from these sale tables -- from a Hershey dessert cookbook to a learn-how-to-speak-German CD (and it wasn't anything close to Rosetta Stone).

A few months ago, however, I stumbled upon a real gem.  I mean, the sale tables usually have gems, but this book in particular was a great find.  It's called Essentials of Philosophy: The Basic Concepts of the World's Greatest Thinkers.  I have somewhat of a soft spot for philosophy, and since it has been years and years since my intro. class, I figured a refresher would do me some good.  Boy, was I right.  I'll probably share my thoughts on a few philosophers over the next several months because I find them all so fascinating, but today I want to write a little bit about William of Ockham.

William of Ockham lived in the first half of the 14th century.  He was an English Franciscan friar believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey.  He studied at Oxford and wrote works on logic, physics, and philosophy.  He held many progressive beliefs that got him into trouble with the Catholic Church; here are just some of them:
  • The Church was not infallible.
  • A pope should be able to be impeached.
  • Women should be permitted to play a more active role in Church affairs.
  • Rulers and royalty are not there by divine right and should be ousted, if they become tyrants.
He is most famous, though, for the theory that bears his name: Ockham's razor.  Ockham's razor is the belief that when all things are considered, the simplest answer is usually the right one.

I'm not quite sure what to make of such a philosophy.  When I first read about it, I thought it must be true.  It felt true, and yet, my overly analytical brain said, "But Sara, that's too simple!"  And there you have it:  Centuries after Ockham's razor, people are still turning simple things into complex things.  I have spent many a night wondering whether a certain guy was right for me, when in hindsight, he most definitely wasn't.  "Relationships should be easy," my mom said.  (Clearly, she subscribes to Ockham's razor, though she would hardly know it.)  "Study something you love" is the phrase many a self-help book suggests.  And then there's the oft-quoted saying, "Go with your gut."

Adages and motherly advice, then, seem to point to the truthfulness of Ockham's razor.  What do you think, readers?  Do you believe in Ockham's razor?  Is the simplest answer usually the right one?  (Let's exclude standardized tests here . . .)

Thing I'm thankful for: laughing


Blogger Unknown said...

My first thoughts reading your post were Jacob 4:14 and Alma 37:6.

Ockham is also helpful for interpreting people's actions. There is a quote about this but sadly I do not recall it or the right words to search for it. An example is to believe the government is out to get us when really the greed of politicians can explain away a lot of the complexity of conspiracy theories.

We also try to find the simplest solution in software development. A common quote for this is "A designer knows he's achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." (by some A. de Saint-Exupery). We sometimes add complexity to make things foolproof but we need to be reminded of D Adams quote "A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."

I think it can be taken too far though but the bounds of that I do not know.

5:03 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I remember the quote I was looking for earlier. Hanlon's razor states "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

Also during my run this morning I thought a little more on the bounds of Ockham's razor. The first being that non-solutions can also be simple but we might not know enough to recognize that. The second, which is more so related to the A. de Saint-Exupery quote is that there is a balance between finding the simplest solution and the fact that perfection is the enemy of good-enough.

6:52 AM  
Blogger David and Jessica Wakefield said...

I don't know if the simplest solution is the best, but I like to think that it is. What comes to my mind when thinking of the simplest solution is the story of Moses and the brass serpent when the people were told to just look and that's all that was needed for them to be healed. I easily forget about the simple solutions and am constantly looking for more advanced solutions, and this is probably the most incorrect way to solve problems.

11:05 AM  
Blogger cardlady said...

That is something I have always touted. Go with your gut feeling!
And the simplest answer. GREat article SA. I want to read it too! Bring it next time you come! Love MOM
Lets go swimming!

1:16 PM  
Blogger Cherie (and sometimes Senor) said...

We as members of the Church tend to emphasize marvelous and dramatic spiritual manifestations so much that we may fail to appreciate and may even overlook the customary pattern by which the Holy Ghost accomplishes His work. The very “simpleness of the way” (1 Nephi 17:41) of receiving small and incremental spiritual impressions that over time and in totality constitute a desired answer or the direction we need may cause us to look “beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14).
David Bednar April 2011
I think we often overcomplicate most of our lives and fail to just accept (or choose) the most simple of answers/directions.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Usually, yes. Always, no.

The trick is to apply it much of the time but to have a sense for when to think about things a little more.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Will said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Ed Page: When you say "some A. de Saint-Exupery" do you mean someone other than the A. de Saint-Exupery?

4:32 PM  
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