Misunderstanding “Ockham’s Razor”

OccamRazorby Jerry Richardson12/13/14
Who was Ockham?  And what was his razor? At times on this and many other websites you will read someone’s statement that they reject or disagree with a certain argument or explanation based upon “Ockham’s Razor”—often referred to as “Occam’s Razor” in the French style.

Who and what are they referring to?

The philosopher associated with Ockham’s Razor was a man name William who was born in the English village of Ockham which is located approximately 25 miles Southwest of London.

William was born between 1285 -1288, and died in 1347.  Surnames (last names) apparently had come into use in England during this time, and they were often taken from the person’s location of birth.  Hence the man whose “razor” we are discussing was William Ockham or as it was said then, William of Ockham (I’ll just refer to him as Ockham in what follows).

There are many topics, issues, and facets contained in Ockham’s philosophy; one very important one is William’s other major legacy which is the philosophy of nominalism, of which Ockham is usually considered the father (originator).

There are two basic varieties of nominalism.  One variety rejects the reality (existence that is independent of mind or language) of abstract objects e.g., mathematical structures, terms such as “justice”, “equality” etc.; and the other variety rejects the reality of universals—as a trivial example, all squares have in common the universal “squareness.”

Ockham’s brand of nominalism rejected universals.

Ockham believed that many so-called universals were simply names, hence the name “nominalism” for his viewpoint.  There is a definite connection between Ockham’s nominalism and his use of what was later called his “razor”:

In this same period Ockham began to see that his strategy required the razor to be fully sound; in short he began to see that some independent principle was needed for favoring the simpler ontology made possible by connotation theory over the richer ontology of realism.
—Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (pp. 90-91).  Kindle Edition.

Ockham was unhappy with the philosophical viewpoint that today we call realism (the state of being actual or real).  He was especially opposed to what he considered the excess of categories in Aristotle’s ten metaphysical categories that were intended to help answer one of the very fundamental questions about being (or existence) as such: “What is it”?   Here are Aristotle’s 10 categories:

Traditional name Literally Greek Examples
(Substance) substance
“this”
what-it-is
ousia
tode ti
ti esti
man, horse
Socrates
“Socrates is a man”
Quantity How much poson four-foot, five-foot
Quality What sort poion white, literate
Relation related to what pros ti double, half, greater
Location Where pou in the Lyceum, in the marketplace
Time when pote yesterday, last year
Position being situated keisthai lies, sits
Habit having, possession echein is shod, is armed
Action doing poiein cuts, burns
Passion undergoing paschein is cut, is burned

Aristotle’s 10 Categories

Much of Ockham’s philosophical efforts consisted in working to show that these 10 Aristotelean categories were superfluous or excesses in metaphysics. Ockham argued that there is no need for 10 categories of being; he endeavored to show that only two are really needed: Substance and Quality; and that any entities in the other 8 categories were simply names for non-real entitles that were being posited as real.  Hence, those entitles should be removed in any explanations, and Ockham used his “razor” for that purpose.

Nominalism versus realism is an on-going lengthy discussion that I have no intention of attempting to catalogue in this article.  My primary purpose here is to discuss the so-called “Ockham’s Razor.”

The reason I used the qualifier “so-called” for Ockham’s Razor is that 1) Ockham himself never used the term in any of his writings; and 2) because the principle of parsimony which is usually considered to be the essential idea contained in the “razor” was not original with Ockham.

Ockham’s Razor like all related principles of parsimony is based upon reduction; this is the notion that it is a bad thing to have too much. As you would expect there are logical duals to the principles of parsimony called the principles of plurality or principles of plentitude—sometimes called anti-razors—which is the notion that it is a bad thing to not have enough. I think most of us would agree that when positing a theory it is not a good thing to have too much or too little if we are interested in representing reality.

What meaning today is usually ascribed to “Ockham’s Razor”?

Some common statements encountered in this vein are the following:

“Prefer the simpler theory, all else being equal.”

“Prefer the simplest theory.”

“We should prefer the simplest explanation.”

“The simplest explanation is the best.”

“The simplest explanation is probably the correct one.”

All of the above, somewhat similar, statements may have arguable worth, but they are not what Ockham believed, taught, or wrote about.  In other words, they are not valid paraphrases of any maxim that could be legitimately called “Ockham’s Razor.” Following are some of Ockham’s own documented words.  The first one is a quote that at least sounds something like a “razor” might be expected to sound:

“Pluralitas non ponenda est sine necessitate,” “A plurality should not be posited without necessity.”
Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (Ideas Explained) (pp. 94-95). Kindle Edition.

But Ockham made different statements concerning his “razor” at different times.  Here is the one that is usually considered the most complete.

“No plurality should be assumed unless it can be proved (a) by reason, or (b) by experience, or (c) by some infallible authority,”
Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (p. 95). Kindle Edition

Here is an expanded explanation of the above Ockham qoute:

No extra-mental distinction among extra-mental things should be assumed unless the distinction can be proved (a) by arguments from premises that are either self-evident or else come from indubitable experience or, (b) by unquestionable experience of extra-mental things, or (c) by some infallible authority such as the Bible, the Saints, or certain Ecclesiastical pronouncements.
Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (p. 95). Kindle Edition

As you can easily see, Ockham’s statements do not mention or advocate preferring an explanation or a theory only because it is the “simplest.”

It is here that we often see the misunderstanding and hence misuse of Ockham’s Razor; Ockham himself would never have discarded ontological (things that are considered real) parts that were part of a theory or explanation just because it would make the theory simpler; he would only have discarded (shaved-away with his “razor”) ontological parts that could not have been proven to be distinct by at least one of his three stated criteria.

One of the best illustrations, I think, of Ockham’s nominalism and his use of his “razor” can be found in his argument that “motion” does not exist.

Now, don’t get agitated too quickly; Ockham most certainly knew and believed that objects do “move”; but the nominalism that he was committed-to caused him to deny that there was any “real” (extra-mental) entity called “motion.”  His argument was based upon his definition of an object being “in motion”, which briefly is the following:

X is in motion = Definition:  X successively coexists in different places, continuously, without intervals of rests.  

Hence, according to Ockham, X “being in motion” means X is “here”; and at another time X is “there”; and X moves through every point in between without stopping.

The important crux of Ockham’s definition is that “motion” is defined in terms of two separate and distinct instances of time; “motion” is defined strictly by the passage of time over an interval.

This is in sharp contrast to the way a “realist” in Ockham’s day, and also the way in which modern science would define “motion”; briefly for a realist today it is defined as follows:

X is in motion = Definition:  X has acquired the property of “motion” and hence is moving at any instant in time along the trajectory (path) of “motion.”

For moderns, there are two very serious difficulties with Ockham definition and reasoning.

1.  The mathematical scaffolding of dynamics, the calculus (specifically the differential calculus), postulates and calculates the velocity (hence motion is necessary) of a moving object at any specific instant in the trajectory of the object.

2.  Anyone driving a modern automobile can look at the speedometer at any given instant and see that the automobile has a velocity (hence motion is necessary).

Ockham’s reasoning is very similar and reminiscent of the ancient philosopher Zeno’s (of Elea, 490-430 BC) argument of the Arrow Paradox that “motion” is an illusion.

What both arguments, Ockham’s and Zeno’s, entail that most moderns reject—and I think for valid reasons—is that they both DO NOT account for, nor presumably believe in instantaneous motion.  Both Ockham and Zeno believed that an object had to change its position in order to have motion.

Now, why is Ockham’s argument an application of his “razor”?

Ockham’s probably believed that the only “real” (extra-mental) entities in the motion scenario were 1) The object that moved; 2) The points in space they moved through; 3) The separate instances in time in which the object occupied the points in space.  Ockham denied that there was any “real” entity called “motion”; hence for Ockham “motion” was only a name (from whence we get nominalism) for the activity of the moving object. Therefore, using his “razor” Ockham “shaved-off” what he viewed as the entity-in-name-only that we call “motion.”

Today some atheists, through ignorance, attempt to use “Ockham’s Razor” to justify their belief in atheism:

Friend, you’re trying to make it complicated, but it’s not. Atheists don’t believe for a simple reason. There is no reason to assume the existence of a god to explain the existence of the universe as we understand it. Occam’s Razor.
“Ockham’s Razor” and Atheism

This is a perfect illustration of a complete misunderstanding of the historical meaning of Ockham’s Razor, and how Ockham himself would have used, or not used, his “razor.” The atheist who made the above statement may have reasons—which he doesn’t share—for believing there is no need to “assume the existence of a god to explain the existence of the universe”; however, if he really knew and understood what William of Ockham believed and wrote, he would never append to his belief statement: “Occam’s Razor”; or as I prefer “Ockham’s Razor.”

Ockham clearly stated three reasons to accept an increased plurality of entities in a ontology: “can be proved (a) by reason, or (b) by experience, or (c) by some infallible authority”; Ockham who was a friar and a devout Christian accepted the Bible as an infallible authority; hence, he would never have discarded God, in an “explanation of the existence of the universe”—Ockham absolutely would not have used his “razor” which would have meant that he would have discarded God as un-real, a nominal-only entity, in any such explanation.

Sadly, the atheist associated with the quote above knows no more about Ockham and his “razor” than he goes about God and His grace.

 © 2014, Jerry Richardson

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15 Responses to Misunderstanding “Ockham’s Razor”

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I would not think that Occam’s Razor would apply one way to another to the subject of ultimates. God (or whatever or whomever) is under no obligation to fit our conceptions. And, particularly if we are discussing anything beyond naturalism, there is no need for the Creator (or, generically, a “creative force”) to hold to the rules of created nature.

    This is obvious…to me, anyway. And I would no more try to prove or disprove God with the notion of “Ockham’s Razor” then I would try to prove Betty Crocker by comparing various chocolate chip cookie recipes. It’s a non-sequitur, a category error.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I first encountered the concept of the Razor in an article by Isaac Asimov. His version was, in essence, that the fewer assumptions needed for a theory, the better the theory. He discussed it in particular with regard to the Continuous Creation theory of cosmology (popularized most notably by Fred Hoyle). As such, whether it reflects the philosophy of William of Ockham or not, I think it has some utility.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      It’s arguable that Ockham’s Razor has no meaning outside of teleology. Things were designed to be simple and elegant.

      • Jerry Richardson says:

        Brad,

        It’s arguable that Ockham’s Razor has no meaning outside of teleology. Things were designed to be simple and elegant.—Brad Nelson

        Since you have stated that it is arguable, I would very much like to hear some of the argument. Would you?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Jerry, order in the universe is very hard to explain via the metaphysics where everything is said to be conceived by “chance.” Even the word “chance” itself is problematic, for how can there be “chance” via a purely chaotic metaphysics? Chance is regarding the probability of one thing happening rather than another. But the “things” themselves still are left to be explained (which is a core problem with the multiverse theory…what is churning out the various coherent universes?).

          Regarding a naturalistic metaphysics, “chance” (like “natural”) is a word that gets sneaked in there without sufficient grounding in reason.

          The same with Occam’s Razor. There is no conceivable reason why pure chaos (assuming such a state of affairs is possible) would ever produce a minimalistic anything. Anyone who has ever taken to designing anything knows the often extreme brainwork and planning needed to create elegant and effective simplicity. Why would a truly “chaotic” universe have “laws of nature” that are elegant, mathematical, and simple? The expectation should be the reverse, for in “chaos” there is no opportunity to pare anything down, and no motive force (intelligent or otherwise) to do so.

          Occam’s Razor is, at heart, another trick of language…much like “laws of nature.” Again, I do suggest one and all read Lennox’s excellent God and Stephen Hawking where Lennox effectively and clearly deals with the metaphysical and logical issues that are typically skipped across and wallpapered over with such words as “laws of nature.” He doesn’t take up “Occam’s Razor” but he surely could have, for the “Razor,” such as it is, is what we call the ubiquitous effect of some extraordinary cause. But the “Razor” is no force on its own and has no grounding in evidence for reality, for chaos does not tend to make things simpler and more elegant. It’s usually exactly the opposite.

          As far as I know, it has yet to be shown how significant order can ever come from mindless chaos (Libertarianism included). This is the central argument of Intelligent Design. And the base metaphysics of our universe rests inside and around that DNA molecule. As bizarre as it may seem to those (such as myself) accustomed to science and reason, there is no known way that the “specified information” inside the cell can arise by “natural” causes. There is no known force via the blind and dumb “laws of nature” that can do such a thing.

          The universe itself, in whole, seems to be in that same position. Such deep realities are beyond our ability to understand. But we can look at reasonable starting points. And to my mind, there is no reason to believe that “chaos” can create order, let alone extremely compact, effective, and elegant order. I believe it is in his book mentioned above that Lennox also gets into the idea of nothingness, of something arising from nothing. Again, he notes how naturalists cheat using words. But Lennox takes a second look at “nothingness” and makes it plain that nothingness, indeed, is nothing and so nothing could arise from it, including chaos.

          So we’re left to explain order. And we throw around concepts like “Occam’s Razor” as if this was some real “natural” force. As far as I can see, it is not. It is simply a way we note the mysterious elegant order that is all around us and (for some) try to explain it away. And the default notion should be that this order was created by mind (teleology) rather than chaos.

          • Jerry Richardson says:

            Brad,

            Thanks for taking the time and effort to expand upon your thoughts.

            I am completely on-board with the necessity (as I see it) for design in the amazing universe we inhabit. I really like this statement you made:

            Anyone who has ever taken to designing anything knows the often extreme brainwork and planning needed to create elegant and effective simplicity. Why would a truly “chaotic” universe have “laws of nature” that are elegant, mathematical, and simple? The expectation should be the reverse, for in “chaos” there is no opportunity to pare anything down, and no motive force (intelligent or otherwise) to do so.

            I think it is a shame that the 4 classical causes of Aristotle have been so carelessly tossed aside by modern thinkers (especially many scientists); of course the main reason was to eliminate the 4th cause, purpose or reason (teleology) which as you have pointed out requires intelligence in some form. Of course I like to think the intelligence was God, but ID does not argue the necessity of that; still if design is in the picture, doesn’t that require some sort of designer?

  3. James Smith says:

    Thank you, Mr. Richardson. I have never attached much importance to “Occam’s razor” but after having read your comments and since, within the individual context of each of it’s 66 books, I also accept the infallibility of the scripture, I have decided to find and look into William Ockham’s writings.
    As to the quotation of the “atheist” given in your comments, I am reminded of something I read in a book by Watchman Nee which is, to paraphrase, “the surest sign of ignorance is someone who thinks they know everything”.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    A few observations:

    1. I think the term “Ockham’s Razor” has come into vogue due to its promiscuous use by many pseudo-intellectuals who wish to appear smarter than the rest of us. Jerry has shown how the term is often mis-used.
    2. Ockham, like most philosophers appears to be enamored of words and theoretical structures which are neither provable of unprovable. Sensual and measurable experience seems to be of secondary importance to him. But as he lived in the 13th and 14th century, I guess it should not be held too strongly against him.
    3. It is interesting that he opposed Aristotle’s 10 categories as categorizing and defining reality in more finite slices is what mankind does, particularly scientists.
    4. Perhaps he was a follower of Socrates who purportedly said, “the only real wisdom is to know you know nothing.”

    I prefer, “the beginning of wisdom is the realization of how little one truly knows.”

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Well, we all remember how loyal Ayn Rand was to Aristotelian philosophy.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Occam’s Razor, in regards to science, means that the answer to any fundamental physical question is likely to be simple rather than convoluted. Wiki states:

      The principle 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.

      What is remarkable is the Occam’s Razor has proven to be a good guideline. This is in line with Einstein’s statement of, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility….The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” This is more suggestive of an elegant design than some condensation of chaos.

      Occam’s Razor itself is not a “law.” It’s a rough guide. Nothing need be bound to it. It is not proof one way or another for God or for atheism. And only someone with a junior high school level of philosophy could think that no-god wins some kind of Occam’s Razor argument with theism. A rather good book addressing the muddled metaphysics of atheists is John Lennox’s “God and Stephen Hawking.” Atheism doesn’t simplify the problem. It just dishonestly (or ignorantly) pretends to do so by denying fundamental aspects of the world and/or shifting the problem elsewhere.

      Those who use Occam’s Razor to prove atheism (or to prove theism, for that matter) are just pseudo-intellectuals who don’t have a basic grasp on the fundamentals of the problem. First off, there is no requirement for the creator of nature (person or thing) to be simple, thus violating Occam’s Razor. We can imagine some mechanical device that is extremely elegant, simple, and robust….say something like a common LED. But to create an LED requires an enormous amount of complexity in the background that you don’t ever see (the design and manufacturing process).

      Mr. Kung wrote an article about atheists titled “Atheistic Fundamentalists.” And he’s right that atheists tend to be just that. The religious can be that way as well. But I find it out-of-hand ridiculous to try to use “laws” to prove anything as deep as the nature of existence. “Laws of nature” (or even convenient, but non-binding, rules of thumb such as Occam’s Razor) are not “laws” at all, and never can be. As Lennox (and others) have noted, a “law of nature” is not the same thing as agency. A law is simply a rule we write for ourselves (usually in mathematics, and that’s a mystery as to why this should be) after-the-fact describing some consistency that some agency has produced.

      This is all way too complex for atheistic fundamentalists, but I don’t know how to make it any simpler.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Yes, it has seemed to me that assuming God created the universe requires fewer assumptions than the atheistic alternative, most notably because everything works out so well — just a few slightly different parameters and the universe would be lifeless. (This is why atheists are willing to add multiple universes — which can’t be detected in any way — in the name of science and simplicity.)

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yes, certainly the multiverse theory is about as far away from Occam’s Razor as you can get. It’s more like Occam’s Over-stuffed Cupboard.

          To expect the physical “laws” of nature to be simple and elegant has worked out. Where the naturalistic mindset has problems with is in seeing this system as just one aspect of a larger system…or even just seeing the “laws of nature” (and mathematics) as being interesting, even important, but not the whole story. A formula is not the same thing as the thing. And it’s the “thing” part — being itself, if you will — that befuddles the naturalist mindset and has him inventing not one God but 10500 Supreme Beings in the guise of all those alleged random universes.

          I simply admit that we’re talking about realities for which Occam’s Razor, or any other type of razor, are all but meaningless and irrelevant. It’s as if the scientists of the 17the century had discovered an eight-cylinder internal combustion engine buried in the dessert. And they were using Occam’s Razor to determined that the creator of this engine must have been Ford, not Chrysler, because “Ford” has fewer letters in the name. It’s nonsense. It’s missing the point.

        • faba calculo says:

          “This is why atheists are willing to add multiple universes”

          Well, I think that it’s why a lot of non-scientist atheists have been willing to do so, as the fine tuning argument was starting to strike close to home.

          Near as I can tell, most scientists to this day don’t accept the multiple universe interpretation (see: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/01/17/the-most-embarrassing-graph-in-modern-physics/). And I think that those who do actually have pretty decent reasons for doing so, even if the other universes aren’t, even in principle, observable.

    • James Smith says:

      Thank you for rephrasing that. It is after all, only God’s grace that brings us to a belief of the truth.

  5. SkepticalCynic says:

    Why would anyone want to try to get a mental grip on what William of Ockham was doing with words. Good gosh people, don’t tie your listeners into hard knots. Things are complicated enough without making them worse. As for you, Mr. Richardson, my hat is off to you for jumping in this mud.

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