The Razor’s Edge



As strange as it may sound, I’ve loved the idea of Ockham’s Razor from the first time I heard about it. I’m pretty sure the fact that I had not yet graduated to razors in my personal life had little to do with this, although at the time it must have seemed rather seductive. Rather adult. But no, I think it was the idea of a simplified rule for deciding things that intrigued me most.

You know about the Razor, right? The way Miss Umba first described it in Grade 6 was a bit of a put down, I suppose. She had seen Garner, who always sat in the back row of the classroom, whispering to a friend while she was talking -she had never been able to tolerate that kind of thing. At any rate, he was having his usual trouble answering, but after equivocating for a few seconds, finally circled the answer and then incapsulated the drift of her question in what I thought was a clever riposte.

I can still remember Miss Umba standing in front of the class shaking her head and slowly folding her arms over her chest -her solipsistic way of contesting an answer. “Never postulate more things than you need to explain something, Garner,” she said sternly. “That’s Ockham’s Razor,” she added to the rest of us, and proceeded to write it on the blackboard, the chalk squeaking noisily with her irritation. She spelled it ‘Occam’ I think, but maybe that was just a Prairie affectation. She then had to explain what ‘postulate’ meant for those of us whose faces still looked puzzled.

Miss Umba never mentioned Ockham again, and I think everybody except me promptly lost the pearl that she had, in Biblical fashion, cast before us. But I figured it might come in handy someday, so I stored it until recess. I remember rolling my eyes theatrically at Garner when he began to brag about how he’d actually stumped Miss Umba with his answer. He got mad and started showering me with bits of dried mud from the playground, so I yelled at him never to use more mud than was necessary to hit somebody; I don’t think he ever understood how really clever my taunt was.

But the paint had already dried: I had become a Razor acolyte. The first thing I had to do was sharpen it a bit, though -customize the edges so they fit my personality. Let’s face it, you can’t just go around Ockhamizing things willy nilly. People get annoyed -bigger, more powerful people.

At first, I thought it meant something like, ‘simple is best’ -after all, why use big words that people don’t understand? But that cut rather sharply into my forte: a small kid needs big words to stand out in a more powerful world, and I had acquired a rather large stock of sesquipedalian put-downs that, let’s face it, are best kept blurred -incomprehensible- to deter, or at least delay, retaliation. So, I kept the Razor in reserve for more pedagogical occasions.

Later, when I had managed to escape the bonds of adolescence and hidden myself in university, I realized that I had misunderstood Ockham -or, more likely, misunderstood Miss Umba: ‘simple is best’ was not at all what Ockham had meant, and my Umba Interpretation could be better characterized as the Law of Parsimony -or, as one of my Philosophy professors deprecatorily called it, the ‘lex parsimoniae’.

No, what the Razor was aimed at, were hypotheses. “Sometimes,” the professor explained, “there are several hypotheses that come to the same conclusion. What William of Ockham suggested was that we simply choose the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions… He was not referring,” he added sternly, peering over the top of his glasses, “to simpler hypotheses that come to different conclusions.”

I foolishly decided to risk ridicule, and put up my hand at that point. “But why wouldn’t you be better just to choose the simplest explanation, even if it came to a different conclusion?” For some reason I felt the Umba Interpretation deserved at least a token defence.

He stared at me for a moment before the faintest trace of a smile appeared and then as quickly faded on his lips. “Because when faced with alternative hypotheses that do come to the same conclusions, the simpler ones -indeed, the simplest one- is the most testable.”

We both realized he hadn’t actually answered my question, but I could see that Ockham was not his strong suit, so I smiled, nodded, and then pretended to transcribe his explanation.

And yet, the more I thought about it and the more I wondered about the wisdom of the Razor, the more I wondered about its applicability in everyday, non-academic life. Maybe I had put too much trust in it.

Suppose there were competing explanations for something -competing hypotheses- and, depending on how they were presented, each had its own scale of complexity -the value of a particular political party, say, or maybe even the value of a political system. Both purport to describe the best way of being governed, and either could describe their assumptions with varying degrees of simplicity depending, perhaps, on the audience.  Would short, clever sound-bites be the best way to go -or would that even be appropriate? Should people who only want simple answers to complex issues get to judge?

I began to rethink my earlier zealotry: the Razor is not a panacea, nor had it been intended as such. It was a tool, designed for a particular job -and you can only expect a hammer to bludgeon, not saw through arguments.

And yet, the years are sponges, and the more they soak up, the softer they get. Retirement is a stage when time does not press as heavily; it is a period for reflection, and reformulation. Finally, I think I’m beginning to understand what Miss Umba really meant when she scolded Garner all those years ago. His answer, as I recall, was clever, but in his embarrassment, he had overly embellished it, used too many unnecessary predicates -too many excuses. Sort of a back-row me, I guess -although I have mellowed over the decades.

I find it interesting that the Razor has come full circle and returned to roost on an acolyte turned apostate, in a way I could never have anticipated in those salad days. When you think about it, Ockham was offering a proto version of Pascal’s Wager in which the best way to bet is with the side that offers the highest likelihood of success. But in any wager, only after the result is known can you discover if you’ve chosen wisely.

And I have no regrets…

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