Talk:Occam's razor

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Simplicity vs Likelihood, Language & Etymology Issue[edit]

Just came from Dexter New Blood after hearing a show character use Occam's Razor incorrectly describing it as when faced with searching for an explanation - the "simplest" one is the "right" one.

This is incorrect.

Using the term "simple" has frankly been a poor choice of wording in the past that has seemingly lead down this path of people assuming it is entirely to do with complexity of explanation or solution. I know someone briefly mentioned this at the top of the article but just want to put this here for complete clarification rather than seeing a very common misconception spread due to poor definition.

I'm going to give you an example of what I'm talking about to entice thought and provoke further understanding that may help guide this page in future.

A husband and wife are sleeping in bed together. The next day it is found that the wife has been murdered. She has died from asphyxiation and has marks on her neck.

You could hypothesize "the husband smothered her with a pillow" or "the husband strangled her with his bare hands". Let's look at these.

Both are equally simple. One is more likely.

Given that there are marks on her neck though, strangulation is more likely. Occam's razor would lean that you can reasonably assume, the husband strangled his wife. Now you could say "yes but we had an indicator", that's exactly the point. Occam's razor doesn't mean you reject probability for simplicity because that doesn't make sense.

A further example. Take the same situation but let's say the neighbor did it instead.

Hypothetically let's say new evidence came to light that the neighbor was driven to murder after a complex love triangle of deceit and lies. Now let us say the neighbor after seeing the police arrive, gets in his car and hits the gas pedal as hard as they can. The police give chase, get in a brief firefight with him and eventually he is arrested. In essence, he acts very guilty. The police search his premises and discover an elaborate plan to murder his object of affections, the wife.

The simpler explanation is still that the husband strangled her. However because we have new evidence, the probability has shifted, although the newer explanation is more complex it is less likely.

The problem with using the term simple, is that a hypothesis can be very simple but also very unlikely. It doesn't make sense for Occam's razor to suggest a simple AND unlikely explanation is correct or to be assumed. I urge you to read that last sentence again for emphasis and think it through.

I don't necessarily think it is this page's fault. This has been a common misconception about the idea for a long time. Most likely because the sources available are frankly not great. There is a broader issue here that a preference for simplicity has become associated with the concept of Occam's razor, thus people are now assuming that anything to do with a preference for simplicity relates to Occam's razor. We are nearly on the border of just associating Occam's razor to minimalism. This is also incorrect.

To be clear, Occam's razor is about probability; not simplicity of outcome. Otherwise it does not make sense, at all.

I am saying this now because the brakes need to be pumped here before the meaning is lost permanently. We are at the point where a mainstream television show believes Occam's razor is essentially:

"The most simple explanation is usually correct".

This is borderline dangerously wrong. (talk) 07:48, 1 January 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I fully agree with you that such a simplification is completely wrong. But I also disagree with your example. As I wrote above, Occam's razor is an ontological principle – the term entia ('entities') is a technical term meaning 'real things'. Entia does not mean, "possibilities", "probabilities", "likelihood", etc., as you proposed.
Also, the razor must be viewed in its historical context – it originated at the time in the history of Christian philosophy where the latter struggled to explain the increasingly complex reality using millennium-old Biblical constructs. The time of questioning why there is devil, why Satan, what's their role and nature, how God bestows grace, etc. The time of asking how many types of angels exist, what's their role and nature, and how many of them can dance on the head of a pin. The times that directly led to the Reformation. In this context, Occam appealed to his colleagues: Do not come up with entities that are not strictly necessary.
Nothing to do with modern problem-solving advices as some editors proposed. — kashmīrī TALK 13:41, 1 January 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I agree it is entirely an ontological principle. Presumably though the motivation for his appeal is based in pragmatism as opposed to aesthetics or minimalism? Pragmatic in the sense that "what you make up will likely be wrong" versus an aesthetic desire for reduction of entities, i.e simplicity. I'm coming from a background of mostly statistical inference and Bayesian inference so I'm completely ignorant. What was Occam's motivation if that is known at all? I tried to find a good source but really struggled. (talk) 09:24, 2 January 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]


In modern engineering terms, we can express this guiding policy as a loss function. In other words, we can assert that Nature optimizes for economy. This gives the most likely reason for the truth of Occam's razor and removes it from the category of occult principle. — Preceding unsigned comment added by MikeBee2020 (talkcontribs) 02:41, 18 July 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]