Hypothetically, we can question the scientific background behind everything we know, suggesting that even common knowledge can be up to interpretation. This creates the divide between the humanities and science, where the former is based on open ended musings and the latter calls for definite findings, so it’s not often that we readily accept the intersection between science and philosophy. Occam’s razor, however, combines the two and exists as field of thought today not because it contests an area of science or provides insight into a particular field, but because it defines a method of thinking that is applicable to all approaches in any scientific discipline.
The basic principle of Occam’s razor is quite simply stated; the correct explanation is most likely the simplest one. Now, one could immediately dispute this claim by citing the immensely complicated scientific discoveries of our time, which is valid, but we must take into consideration how all resolutions come about - starting with the scientific method. With such a general postulate, it’s easily modified and added to until it can be employed in most aspects of science.
One of the most noteworthy applications of Occam’s razor exists within Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which involves reasoning on particles’ motion as they reach the speed of light.3 While we give Einstein full credit for the explanation on changes in space-time continuum, Lorentz - another physicist, came to the same conclusion about relative time and space, except Lorentz claimed that fluctuations occur in “the ether”, a medium whose existence could not be proven.3 While his and Einstein’s mathematical conclusions were almost identical, neither proved the ether existed, thus Lorentz’s explanation was considered the more complicated one and by the principle of Occam’s razor, Einstein’s theory was accepted.3
So how can we simply eliminate all of the complicated solutions to a problem? This is where the component of observability comes in. Years after William of Occam established his philosophy, scientists have molded it to mean that anything that cannot be accounted for by the senses is immediately more complicated than something that it.1 For instance, if there are two scientific theories for a phenomenon, and one has an explanation that can be observed naturally by the senses while the other does not, the former is certainly more reliable and intuitive than the latter, making it the simpler option.
Occam’s razor is used so often, we tend to forget that it even has a name or origin. For example, a computer scientist looking for a way to condense their logic into a few simple lines of code that returns the same output as a program written over several pages or a child creating a science fair project where he or she determines the properties of plants with different types of fertilizer using their senses are both empirical applications of Occam’s razor.
Ironically, all this talk of simplicity may seem extremely complicated and abstract at first, but if William of Occam has taught us anything, we should take the larger idea with a grain of salt because Occam’s razor proves nothing itself, it merely suggests an approach to a thought process.1
- Duignan, B. Occam’s razor. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Occams-razor (accessed 10/10/16), part of Britannica.
- The principle of relativity. http://www.einstein-online.info/elementary/specialRT/RelativityPrinciple (accessed 10/10/16), part of Einstein Online.
- Gibbs, P. What is Occam’s Razor? http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/occam.html (accessed 10/10/16), part of The Physics and Relativity FAQ.