Occam’s Razor, a Feast for William, and a Celebration of Critical Thinking

Occam’s Razor, a Feast for William, and a Celebration of Critical Thinking April 10, 2019






Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

Marcus Aurelius

For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.


That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

Christopher Hitchens


As it happens today, the 10th of April, the ever lovely Anglican Church marks out as a feast in honor of William of Ockham.

The reason I care, and I really care, about a Fourteenth century English Friar being celebrated by the Episcopal churches is that William, yes, throwing a couple of wrinkles into scholastic thought, would become terribly important in the advance of both philosophy and science.

And William would become the symbol, the archetype, the saint, if you will, of critical thinking.

Wikipedia’s article on the friar states the important point with moderate clarity.

“One important contribution that he made to modern science and modern intellectual culture was efficient reasoning with the principle of parsimony in explanation and theory building that came to be known as Occam’s Razor. This maxim, as interpreted by Bertrand Russell, states that if one can explain a phenomenon without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it, i.e. that one should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest possible causes, factors, or variables. He turned this into a concern for ontological parsimony; the principle says that one should not multiply entities beyond necessity – Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate – although this well-known formulation of the principle is not (actually) to be found in any of Ockham’s extant writings.”

So, he did he not actually write the formula we understand as the Razor. The rule we have come to call the Razor is in fact much older than William. Aristotle warned that postulates should be “as few as possible, consistently with proving what has to be proved.” Aquinas touched on it as well. And also before William Duns Scotus famously wrote,

Plurality is not to be posited without necessity.
What can be done with few would in vain be done with more

It appears William Hamilton coined the term “Occam’s Razor” in 1852. He also introduced the term parsimony into the deal, as in philosophical parsimony. This second William wrote:

“There exists a primary presumption of philosophy. This is the law of Parcimony: which prohibits, without a proven necessity, the multiplication of entities, powers, principles or causes; above all, the postulation of an unknown force where a known [force] can account for the phaenomenon. We are, therefore, entitled to apply ‘Occam’s Razor’ to this theory of causality”

So, maybe the person who gives us this amazing tool wasn’t actually William of Occam (or Ockham). But. Still. He carries the name. And, possibly equally important to the principal is the story. Stories capture our hearts. We think at least as much through story as through reason.

And so there needs to be a story. And this is the story of philosophical parsimony, of Occam’s wondrous razor. For me Occam is a prophet guiding us toward the holy land. Even if he doesn’t himself get to cross over the river. Still, his rejection of essences, of platonic ideals, his relentless looking into the matter as it actually presents as cleaning with as few additions as necessary is breath taking. And I’m so grateful.

For our lived lives, both in the scientific endeavor and in our personal and spiritual lives, Occam’s razor cuts through a great deal of nonsense and points us toward the real thing. The thing in itself. And this is of enormous value both for knowing the world, and for knowing our own hearts and minds.

We need to flourish that razor with close to the same abandon as Sweeney Todd making his meat pies. And tasty though they may be, allowing us to see they’re just meat pies. Leaving us to see what is left with clarity, or, at least, a lot more clarity.

For me the razor has been a way to sort through the many truth claims presented by the religions of the world, and allowing me to set aside the larger majority of their assertions as somewhere in the highly unlikely area, and to instead focus on those that by their simplicity and clarity have a better chance of being true.

Of course, the simplest explanation is not always the right one. Of course. But, if someone multiplies the universe in suggesting the reason something happens the onus is on that person to justify the more complex explanation.

In my life, this has give me the space to focus on the more likely. And, for my life this has led me to a great feast, for which I will never cease to be grateful. My path has been greatly helped by the wisdom of Occam’s razor.

And so, I, for one, am glad the friar that stands for us in our contemporary culture as a reminder the world isn’t completely without ordering, and truth may in fact be aspired for, and we can come to conclusions that actually have positive consequences in our lived lives.

Thanks to all who’ve followed that thread of critical thinking. And thanks to William for being the symbol of this divine possibility…

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