What is Ockham’s Razor?

At a glance: Ockham’s Razor is a principle in philosophy and science that suggests more straightforward explanations are generally more likely to be correct than complex ones. It encourages choosing the most straightforward solution that accounts for the available evidence, a.k.a. “The simplest explanation is usually the best.”

For example: When investigating a strange noise in your house, you might assume it’s caused by a loose window rather than an elaborate supernatural phenomenon, as the former is a simpler and more plausible explanation given the available evidence. Another example is when studying the origin of a particular disease, scientists would first explore well-known and established causes before considering intricate explanations.

Who’s behind it? Ockham’s Razor is attributed to William of Ockham (or Occam) (c. 1285 – 1348), an English theologian, logician, and Franciscan friar.

Although scientists have been familiar with the principle of Occam’s razor for centuries, it became more widely known to the general public after the movie Contact came out in 1997. The movie, based on a novel written by Carl Sagan and starring Jodie Foster as SETI scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, involves the first confirmed communication received on Earth by extraterrestrial intelligence.

What does it mean? Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic, or “rule of thumb”, to guide scientists in developing theoretical models. “Razor” refers to the “shaving away” of unnecessary assumptions when distinguishing between two theories.

What’s in it for me? If you have two competing ideas to explain the same phenomenon, you should prefer the simpler one.

Ockham’s Razor musical edition

Here’s a 2006 song of the same name by The Mint Chicks, a New Zealand band helping us all think about philosophy a bit more.

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