What is Akram’s Razor?

Akram’s Razor represents my rather tardy foray into the exciting and occasionally narcissistic world of blogging.

What’s “Akram’s Razor?” you might ask.

The simplest answer is that “Akram” is my middle name–I sometimes go by this name among Muslims–and that I aspire to slice through the layers of  misunderstanding and misinformation on these topics like, you guessed it, a razor.

But I like to think there’s something more profound to it than that. The title is a play on words and an allusion to the famous philosophical principle known as Occam’s Razor, which holds that, when faced with multiple explanations for something one does not understand one is to prefer the simplest explanation until new evidence gives you reason to choose a more complex explanation. In other words, you should choose the simplest answer that explains all phenomena that you’re aware of.

This principle is viewed by many historians as a foreshadowing of the modern Scientific Method  (which is often posited as being in opposition to faith), but I don’t as a Muslim see this concept as being inherently contrary to religious faith. To get at  the heart of the matter, we should look at a quote from  another famous rationalist, Thomas Paine. He declared that no religion “that shocks the mind of a child” could be true.

Now, there are certain fundamental moral and existential truths about the sacred role of love, peace and tolerance in life which though they are at the heart of the major religions somehow get woefully neglected by people who call themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. When we roll our jaded eyes when we hear some “idealist” preaching about the plight of the homeless, the continuing legacy of racism in American society, or the incredible suffering caused around the world by “globalization”, …–That kind of talk is just so cliché, so painfully obvious, isn’t it?–we dodge the simple but perhaps best explanations for modern problems, preferring instead complex theories which confuse issues and ultimately diffuse responsible so widely that no one is responsible for anything that happens.

Also, as a Muslim American looking at contemporary Islamic thought, I find Occam’s reminder to be especially apropos, as I think there is a tendency of many Muslim intellectuals and self-professed traditionalists to engage in tortuously complex reasoning on important issues–especially gender–to avoid admitting the obvious, to avoid legitimizing widespread “liberal” or “modern” (yet, I would contend, at bottom entirely Islamic) values about justice and equality. I think these values are hardwired in people, but they can be eclipsed by religious or cultural indoctrination (which is what I think Paine was referring to).

That’s what Occam’s Razor means for me as a Muslim and as a humanist. Sometimes, the most fruitful approach to vexing moral dilemmas and theological paradoxes is to be found in heeding the murmurs of the heart rather than the intricate arguments of theologians or jurists.

  • http://www.bayyinat.org.uk/tgpblog.htm Yakoub

    I have never heard Oczams’s razor explained in this way. Warburton (1998) defines it as not introducing complexity where an explanation is ‘adequate’ -adequate meaning it does the job it is intended to. To define it as “choosing the simplest answer that explains all phenomena that you’re aware of” conveniently elides ‘adequate’. No need for string theory, then. After all, we don’t need it to explain the new curtains you bought for the living room.
    How many times have I heard the technocratic middle classes engage in this kind of specious anti-intellectualism? It’s like the age old appeal to common sense, which Bertrand Russell rightly described as ‘the metaphysics of the stone age.’ But then again, my doctor says leeches are a lot simpler to use than a pacemaker.
    Everyone wants to talk about society and culture, but they don’t want to read all those messy complex books by sociologists and social theorists and gender theorists and the like, who use phrases like ‘strategic essentialism’ which can’t be esaily defined over the dinner table. Never mind.
    We can always run a blog and just say whatever we want. ;-)

  • http://ideant.typepad.com/ Ulises

    ASA Svend,
    We’ve met briefly at a CSID meeting some time ago. Congratulations on starting a blog! I guess by now you’ve had a taste of the kind of feedback you can expect from many of our fellow Muslim brethren. But not all of it is like that! Knowing what you are intellectually capable of, I’m looking forward to reading interesting commentary here, and not just a defense of leeches ;-) Peace and blessings to you and your family.

  • Svend

    Salaams, Yakoub and Ulises
    Thanks to both of you for the stimulating feedback.
    Yakoub, my intent isn’t to write a footnoted treatise on epistemology, but to use a metaphor, one which I find meaningful. As for your observation about “adequate”, I think you read my posting a little hastily, as the words “until new evidence gives you reason to choose a more complex explanation” clearly imply that this is based on weighing evidence.
    The reason I invoke the concept in the context of religion in general and Islam in particular is that I think that, contrary to the black & white claims of many Muslims, there *are* competing explanations/interpretations for some very important doctrinal or ethical questions, and that the evidence, when viewed objectively (as opposed to through the lense of culture or highly debatable norms of Islamic “tradition”) allows for more than one theory. In those cases, I tend to prefer, for lack of a better way to put it, the human-oriented option as opposed to all these cold, overly intellectualized philosophical systems and ideologies which, like a faulty series of mathematical proofs that “proves” that 1+1=3, teach you to neglect the basic values of tolerance, love and humility.
    re: sociology etc.
    In the case of Islam, my goal here is to *allow* these to enter the discussion. The problem so often with these circular systems is that they deny the relevance of all knowledge from the social sciences.
    Thank you, Ulises, you’re far too kind. It’s nice to “see” you again.

  • http://amalnet.blogspot.com Abuljude

    AA Svend,
    Welcome to the blogosphere. Good to see you writing. Perhaps one day we will get the chance to meet in person…