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JAMES HUTTON
OCKHAM'S RAZOR
   
 


Why do we need Ockham's Razor and what is it?.

What the 12 year boy said about why he did not have a book report to turn in: "First a meteorite hit my father’s car in the driveway and that meant that he had to get a ride to work with a friend, who came in for a cup of coffee, and he has a nervous tic, so when he picked up the cup, he spilled the coffee on the floor, and when my mom came into the kitchen she slipped and bumped into me as I was carrying my report from the study into the living room where I forgot and left my backpack the night before, and when she bumped into me the report flew through the air and landed in the sink just as my sister finished the dishes and as she turned around to see what was going on, she accidentally flipped the garbage disposal switch which is what caused my report to be sucked down the disposal and shredded and that also caused a power spike that corrupted the electronic copy of my report which was on the hard drive of the computer. Or if you don't believe that, aliens landed in a spaceship and stole my report because it was so good that they wanted to take it back to Plant X as a model for their students."

Few adults would believe a word of it, even if they had no knowledge of the boy involved or his reputation for not doing his homework on time and for making lame excuses why not.

So why would they immediately draw that conclusion? They may not know it, but they instinctively applied one of the most powerful ideas of logical thought and natural philosophy available to us as reasoning beings—Ockham’s Razor.

Sometimes spelled Occam’s or Occham’s, the Razor is absurdly simple and perfectly obvious once it is articulated. It is used instinctively by almost everyone, but articulating it and thinking about its use makes it even more potent. In my view the best of its many formulations is – the simplest explanation for why an event takes place is usually the correct one.

Another example: The Sun suddenly dimmed dramatically, but briefly. What happened?  Would you vote for (a) a cloud passed briefly in front of the Sun; (b) a dragon ate part of the sun, but disgourged it; (c) a partial solar eclipse happened; or (d) everyone present had a simultaneous and identical mass hallucination. Well, duh. Dragons and mass hallucinations are complicated explanations—Where did the dragon come from? No one has seen one around here before; why and how could he eat something as big and hot as the sun 93 million miles away? What are the odds that 20 people had the exact same hallucination at exactly the same moment at the exact same place? Solar eclipses do happen, but we all know they are infrequent and progress slowly and are seen only from very limited places on Earth when they do occur. What are odds that the eclipse happened where you were and at that exact moment? The explanation that a cloud passed briefly in front of the sun is simple, known to happen all the time and therefore far more likely explanation for what happen on this occasssion than the alternatives.  It is the simplest explanation and, therefore, the far more likely one.  Ockham's Razor in action.

A word about where the Razor comes from. William of Occam or Ockham was a 14th century English Franciscan friar who wrote extensively on logic and natural philosophy. He built on the works of many other philosophers including Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides. His present standing may result from work by 17th century Irish philosopher John Ponce, who articulated the Razor in relatively modern English, attributing its origin to Ockham.