Solving Problems the Simple Way With Occam’s Razor

In the movie Contact Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey are at a Washington cocktail party debating the possible existence of God. Jodie is not a believer. She is a scientist who wants empirical evidence before she’ll believe anything. He is an intensely religious believer who feels that faith, by sheer definition, is belief in God without empirical proof.

Jodie Foster: “It’s like you’re saying that science kills God. What if science reveals that he never existed in the first place?” Matthew McConaughey escorts her out to the patio. Jodie says, “I’ve got one for you. Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor? It’s a scientific principle. It says that, all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one. Which is more likely? That an all powerful guy created the universe and decided not to give any proof of his existence, OR He simply doesn’t exist at all and we created Him so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?

Matthew McConaughey: “I couldn’t imagine a world where God didn’t exist. I wouldn’t want to.”

Jodie Foster: “How do you know you’re not deluding yourself. For me, I’d need proof.”

What’s Occams Razor all about? Occam is a tiny village in Surrey County, England about 15 miles from where I was born and not far from the M25 ring freeway that circles London. These days it’s spelled Ockham. It probably would have faded into intellectual oblivion centuries ago if it weren’t for a fellow named John who lived in Occam and fancied himself a bit of a philosopher. This was in the 14th century, so long ago that people didn’t even have surnames. John was known as John of Occam. He first postulated the theory to which Jodie Foster refers – Occam’s Razor. Strangely enough he never actually stated what we now call the scientific principle named after him that says all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one.

What he did say (in Latin, which was the language of 14th century English intellectuals) were two principles:

The Principle of Plurality – Plurality should not be posited without necessity.In simpler language that means don’t make it more complicated than it has to be.

The Principle of Parsimony – It is pointless to do with more what is done with less.If you can solve a problem with a simple solution, what’s the point of looking for a more complicated solution?

It was future generations of philosophers who promoted the theory of simplicity in his name, no doubt buttressed by the knowledge that John was a Franciscan monk who took his vow of poverty seriously. He did live a very simple life.

Occam’s Razor (the razor part refers to the process of shaving down more complicated explanations to get at the truth) is not a problem-solving tool. It doesn’t prove anything. It’s a heuristic devise, a way of suggesting solutions.

Let’s say that someone presents you with a light bulb that turns on without being screwed in. It looks like a regular light bulb but it lights up without being attached to anything. How could that be? Think about it for a while and you might come up with three possible solutions:

  1. They have invented a way of transporting electricity through the air like a radio wave.
  2. They have found a way to conceal the electrical cord so that I can’t see it.
  3. They have hidden a battery inside the stem of the bulb.

I’ve listed those three explanations from the most complicated to the simplest. Occam’s Razor suggests to you that number three is the simplest and therefore the most likely answer.

Let’s look at a more complicated problem, the sudden appearance of crop circles in farmers’ wheat fields. In 1991 circles started appearing in fields near Southampton, England. It didn’t attract much attention. Soon another more complicated pattern appeared in Matterly Bowl, a natural phenomena that is visible from several main roads. This raised a lot of publicity and public opinion on the cause of the phenomena went wild. Suddenly crop circles were popping up all over the place. The designs became more and more complicated.

Conspiracy theorists had a field day and had half of England convinced that extra terrestrials from outer space were landing at night to send us messages. A simple application of Occam’s Razor would have solved the problem. The thought that extra terrestrials were responsible was the most complicated solution. The simplest solution was that humans were doing it as a prank.

Meanwhile, a Doug Bower (the secret perpetrator of the circles) had a marital problem. His wife thought he was having an affair because he would frequently disappear overnight. She tracked the mileage on his car to determine that he was driving long distances. (In England, 50 miles is considered a long journey. You can never be more than 72 from the sea, which would be the distance from Coton in the Elms, Derbyshire to the North Sea, according to the government ordinance survey.) Evidently fearing his wife more than the wrath of the farmers whose fields he was damaging, he confessed that he and a friend of his had caused the circles.

If you’re a fan of the television series House you’ll remember that the third episode of the first season was named Occam’s Razor. Houses students at his infectious diseases ward in a New Jersey hospital are convinced that their patient has a previously unknown exotic disease. House argues that the answer is simpler, that somebody screwed up his treatment.

Why does Occam’s Rule work? Why is the simplest solution the most likely? Good question. I don’t know why. It’s why apples fall off trees and hit philosophers, I suppose. It’s just one of the laws of our universe. Remember that John of Ockham was living in a very simple world. He was not concerned with tsunamis in Malaysia or trapped miners in Chile.

We live in the very complicated world that is hard for us to comprehend. That alone makes Occam’s Razor a more valuable tool that it was in John’s day. Remember that, when your IT expert is going though reams of paperwork that explain why horse food sales are down. Maybe it’s just because the horses don’t like the way it tastes. If you’re still saying, “Yes, but I need to understand why Occam’s Rule works,” I suggest that you reread Occam’s Rule.

While strangely named Occam’s Razor may not be a problem solving tool it will serve you as a very useful heuristic or problem solving device. When faced with trying to understand a problem, consider the simplest solutions to be the most likely.