Occam’s Razor and Critical Thinking

Attributed to a medieval English friar William of Ockham, Occam’s Razor is a principle that is commonly simplified and summarised as ‘simpler explanations are better than more complicated ones’. The philosopher Bertrand Russell regarded it as meaning that one should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest possible causes, factors, or variables.

This is a critical thinking technique that can help us avoid accepting explanations that are wrong or unnecessarily complicated and thereby more prone to error.

An example might be as follows. Half of a class of students failed their biology test. Was this because they need to study harder or because the publisher of the biology text book they were using had deliberately included ‘fake facts’ in the book in order to sabotage their readers? Clearly the former is simpler and much more likely. The latter is an outlandish suggestion requiring a complex web of extra factors to have occurred and no such evidence is available.

Occam’s Razor is a great tool for countering the large number of bizarre conspiracy theories that people are drawn to on the internet. It can also encourage us to be cautious before reaching conclusions with sufficient evidence.

There are many situations in which there are multiple factors over which we have little to no control. We have to be very wary of reaching a position regarding how to proceed in such a context without simply guessing how these factors may change in the future, or be quite different to our perceptions of them.

Perception and reality can be very, very different, and indeed we are human beings are limited in our perception by virtue of our physiology. If we were bats, for instance, we would have a whole new form of perception based on sonar (echolocation).