Ockham’s Razor: the Psychological Need for this Important Philosophical Concept

I think that Ockham’s Razor deserves wider discussion and application (“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”).  The issue for me is not that simpler is better, it’s that complexity in any intellectual artifacts will often do more to obscure meaning than it is to enlighten us. It came to my attention while listening to the Goldman Sachs testimony and the general feeling that financial engineering was too complex for the US Congress to understand.  I believe this complexity in financial systems was multiplied beyond necessity, and the most obvious reason is that this complexity helped to obscure what was going on between traders.

Science is also not without fault, not only with complex theoretical statements, but also with the expansion of vocabulary.  Sometimes theoretical or lexical complexity is necessary in order to communicate nuances.  But then the complexity often takes on a life of its own.  This not only restricts the ability to communicate, but also taxes cognition.  Reducing complexity can help us to think better.

An example from my early life in graduate school.  I once was reading Henry Giroux late at night, finished a paragraph, and realized that I had understood nothing from that paragraph.  Two more readings of that paragraph did not bring any more enlightenment.  Of course is was because I was not familiar with the vocabulary or with the arguments he was presenting.  Now when I fine a new Giroux book, I’ll scan through the pages to see if there have been any changes or development to his basic argument.

It’s not only experience that causes this to happen, it’s also that I now understand Giroux’s arguments at a much simpler level.  When we cannot simplify our cognition, we are forced to understand things in a much more route fashion.  It happens in methodology too!  The more complex the methodology is, the more likely that people will use set methodological formulas or use others work in unquestioned ways.  When it can be simplified, our ability to cognitively manipulate ideas is increased.

So, for me, Ockham’s Razor does not mean that simple theories may be the best, but that simple understandings allows us to do our best thinking.