plurality must never be posited without necessity (on occam’s razor, part 2: walter chatton, william hamilton, and john punch)

 The term Occam’s Razor, or Ockham’s Razor, is bandied about in our culture on a regular basis in a variety of circumstances. The average joe using it generally uses it to mean something along the lines of “The simplest solution to a complex problem is usually the correct solution.” While that definition/use is workable, it is not entirely accurate. Occam’s Razor is more complex, with a long and complex history . . .

Almost always true: the fewer assumptions that are made, the better

Occam’s Razor is a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.

Occam’s Razor] states that one should proceed to simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power. The simplest available theory need not be most accurate.

For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are [more] testable and falsifiable.

The term Occam’s Razor first appeared in 1852 in the works of Sir William Hamilton (1788–1856), centuries after William of Ockham’s death. Ockham did not invent this ‘razor’; its association with him may be due to the frequency and effectiveness with which he used it.

William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) is remembered as an influential medieval philosopher, though his popular fame as a great logician rests chiefly on the maxim attributed to him and known as Occam’s Razor.

This maxim seems to represent the general tendency of Ockham’s philosophy, but it has not been found in any of his writings. His nearest pronouncement seems to be Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate (‘Plurality must never be posited without necessity’).

The words attributed to Ockham—entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem—are absent in his extant works. This particular phrasing owes more to John Punch. Indeed, Ockham’s contribution seems to be to restrict the operation of this principle in matters pertaining to miracles and God’s power: so, in the Eucharist, a plurality of miracles is possible, simply because it pleases God.

The razor’s statement—that simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones—is amenable to empirical testing. Although, another interpretation of the Razor’s statement would be that simpler hypotheses are generally better than the complex ones.

The common form of the Razor, used to distinguish between equally explanatory hypotheses, may be supported by the practical fact that simpler theories are easier to understand.

Karl Popper argues that a preference for simple theories need not appeal to practical or aesthetic considerations. Our preference for simplicity may be justified by its falsifiability criterion: we prefer simpler theories to more complex ones ‘because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable’ (sic).

Occam’s Razor has met some opposition from people who have considered it too extreme or rash. Walter Chatton was a contemporary of William of Ockham who took exception to Occam’s Razor and Ockham’s use of it. In response, he devised his own ‘anti-razor’: If three things are not enough to verify an affirmative proposition about things, a fourth must be added, and so on.

Although there have been a number of philosophers who have formulated similar anti-razors since Chatton’s time, no one anti-razor has perpetuated in as much notability as Chatton’s, although this could be the case of the Late Renaissance Italian motto of unknown attribution, Se non è vero, è ben trovato (‘Even if it is not true, it is well conceived’) when referred to a particularly artful explanation.” __________________________________________________________

The piece above consists of passages taken from the Wikipedia entry for “Occam’s razor.” Editorially, emphasis was added throughout and certain paragraphs were abridged. The original article is more than 7,000 words in length; the excerpts above number just 540. So, there is EVEN MORE more to read here than on the Psychedelic Press UK piece above! So if this interests you then click on over to Wikipedia and read more more more!

I am going off on a bit of a tangent here: I have generally found that most people do not really understand Occam’s Razor and so misuse it in conversations or arguments. While I do, in fact, refer to Occam’s Razor in my own debates, I am much more likely to rely on Arthur Conan Doyle’s aphorism, “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This was, of course, attributed to Sherlock Holmes in The Adventures Of The Beryl Coronet (1892). And there are variations on this statement in other Holmes stories.

Yet another tangential insight: In my attempts to understand what other people are attempting to communicate to me, I am often reduced to interrupting—politely, of course; I often raise my hand as though still in school to get their attention—a meandering discourse often merely a string of disconnected threads of thought and asking a series of yes/no questions.

I do this to understand what is being said. I have found that other males simply answer the yes/no queries with a yes or a no. I have found that females—regardless of age—often take this as me “grilling” them, “interrogating” them.

Or, worse, instead of a word word response that clarifies the situation for me, I receive several paragraphs that usually leave me more confused than when I asked the question!

This is something that I have experienced over and ver and ver through the decades. (I tend to have as many female friends/acquaintances as male.) And this is something that has solidified into what I see as sound advice when a younger man confides in me about his feelings/attraction to a certain young lady.

And I have boiled down decades of interactions with countless women (spouses, lovers, dates, friends, strangers) to this: “If everything else in the relationship is going well, ask her three yes or no questions. If she answers just ONE question with just ONE word—a simple yes or no—then she’s a keeper . . .”

My Rants

4 thoughts on “plurality must never be posited without necessity (on occam’s razor, part 2: walter chatton, william hamilton, and john punch)

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  2. April 1, 2015 — 8:07 AM

    Excellent post. I am dealing with a few of these issues as well..

    1. DESCAR

      Compliment appreciated and hoping your issue is resolved gracefully!


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