One of the many dumb things I did in college was to take a philosophy course at eight o’clock in the morning. My mind doesn’t function at peak efficiency at that early hour anyway, and my ability to receive knowledge may have been further impaired by the occasional hangover. Frankly, I thought I was doing pretty well to be even semiconscious when a professor was intoning, “Many idealists from Plato through Hegel reject extreme subjectivism. They regard the organization and form of the world, and hence knowledge, as determined by…”, which my brain translated to: “Sleepy, Tom. Go to sleep now.”
Occasionally my head would jerk up from my chest and a fact would force its way in. One of those that got through is a concept known as Ockham’s Razor. Postulated by a 14th-century Franciscan friar named William of Ockham, it states that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. In other words, of two equivalent theories — all other things being equal — the simpler one is to be preferred. This is also sometimes expressed as KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Ockham’s razor trims away, in effect, that which is unnecessary.
Here’s an example. Suppose we’re going to drop a grand piano from a helicopter and we’re trying to figure out which way the piano will go. (Let’s stipulate that there’s this thing called gravity, so I don’t have to bluff my way through some blather about Newtonian Physics.) OK, so our experts present us with two hypotheses…
1) The grand piano will plummet to the ground due to gravity.
2) The grand piano will plummet to the ground due to gravity. Gravity is a force controlled by alien beings from the planet Quondor, who are the sworn enemies of grand pianos.
Now, it may very well be true that there is a planet called Quondor and that there are alien beings on it, and they may hate grand pianos. But that’s a different discussion; none of that has any bearing on the flight path of the piano. The first hypothesis is to be preferred — Ockham’s razor trims away the stuff that isn’t germane. A medical school professor expressed a variation of it to his students this way: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”
A couple of years after that early-morning struggle through Big Ideas, I took another philosophy class. This time it was Aesthetics. (And this time it was in the afternoon.) The professor, Dr. Harwood, was brilliant; he led us through some deep water, so to speak. We delved into Aristotle’s views on symmetry and harmony. We explored Immanuel Kant’s insistence on the a priori. We learned how to pronounce Schopenhauer.
And one day, without calling it by name, Dr. Harwood gave a pretty good example of Ockham’s Razor. One of my classmates, who was probably enrolled in college as a time-filler while he waited to inherit the family fortune, was bored with all these philosophies of art and beauty. When the professor had momentarily paused, this kid blurted, “Why do we have to learn all this stuff?”
Dr. Harwood was perfectly capable of holding forth on the importance of absorbing the enduring values of Western Civilization; he could have expounded on our need to broaden our intellectual horizons; he could have extolled the virtues of being rational, literate, erudite human beings. Instead, when that guy questioned why we had to learn all this stuff, Dr. Harwood, making no effort to conceal his contempt, replied, “So you can make interesting conversation at cocktail parties.”
Can’t state it much more simply than that.