Occam's razor

Occam's razor
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

William of OckhamOccam's razor (sometimes spelled Ockham's razor) is a principle attributed to the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating, or "shaving off," those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory. The principle is often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae ("law of parsimony" or "law of succinctness"):

- entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem,

which translates to:

- entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

This is often paraphrased as "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one." In other words, when multiple competing theories are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest hypothetical entities. It is in this sense that Occam's razor is usually understood.

Originally a tenet of the reductionist philosophy of nominalism, it is more often taken today as a heuristic maxim that advises economy, parsimony, or simplicity in scientific theories.

Aesthetic and practical considerations
Prior to the 20th century, it was a commonly-held belief that nature itself was simple and that simpler theories about nature were thus more likely to be true; this notion was deeply rooted in the aesthetic value simplicity holds for human thought and the justifications presented for it often drew from theology. Thomas Aquinas made this argument in the 13th century, writing, "If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices".

Empirical justification
One way a theory or a principle could be justified is empirically; that is to say, if simpler theories were to have a better record of turning out to be correct than more complex ones, that would corroborate Occam's razor. However, this type of justification has several complications.

Karl Popper
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 his falsifiability criterion: We prefer simpler theories to more complex ones "because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable" (Popper 1992). In other words, a simple theory applies to more cases than a more complex one, and is thus more easily refuted.

Jerrold Katz
Jerrold Katz has outlined a deductive justification of Occam's razor:
If a hypothesis, H, explains the same evidence as a hypothesis G, but does so by postulating more entities than G, then, other things being equal, the evidence has to bear greater weight in the case of H than in the case of G, and hence the amount of support it gives H is proportionately less than it gives G.

Richard Swinburne
[...] other things being equal -- the simplest hypothesis proposed as an explanation of phenomena is more likely to be the true one than is any other available hypothesis, that its predictions are more likely to be true than those of any other available hypothesis, and that it is an ultimate a priori epistemic principle that simplicity is evidence for truth.

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