Saturday, May 9, 2009

Occam's razor

I don't think I've ever taken a formal philosophy course, but somewhere along the line - maybe in all my autodidactic reading - I picked up the appealing principle of Occam's razor. In simplest terms (and I don't promise to go far beyond that), it states that when choosing among multiple competing hypotheses to explain a phenomenon, the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. In other words, the simplest solution is usually the answer, which is the reason it is also called the Law of Parsimony. The idea is attributed to English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham (c. 1285–1349), who didn't refer to it as a "razor," but did write, "Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate" ["Plurality ought never be posited without necessity"]. Occam's razor has been put to good use in physics, diagnostic medicine, and evolutionary biology. With or without reference to Occam/Ockham, it has been stated a number of ways in a number of fields. I like the statement attributed to German minimalist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) that "Less is more."

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