Occam’s Dirty Razor.

Long ago in a land far, far away (from mine, at least), there lived a man named William of Ockham. William was a pensive type who would often try to figure out the logic of everything (or so we’re told). He was so good at this that, hundreds of years after his death, another thinker named a well known philosophical tool after him: Ockham’s razor.

Ockham’s razor has, as these things do, slowly changed to Occam’s razor over the years. The point of the idea is simple: when any two explanations for something come into competition with each other, we should favour the one with the least assumptions. The simpler explanation should stay behind after the razor has been wielded.

This is something we do every day, actually. We immediately see that it is better to explain the turning of a water wheel by the obvious explanation rather than the activity of fairies. In a world where there may be an infinity of possible explanations, Occam’s razor frees us to only ponder those that matter.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misused tools in philosophy. Electricity is much more complex than simply saying lights work by magic. The razor only truly functions when all the available explanations are equally (im)plausible. The domain of Occam’s great blade is in the unknown.

Which is, once again, something that we are confronted with daily. Humans have evolved as categorisers and storytellers. When Terry Pratchett calls us Homo Narrativus, or the storytelling ape, he implies that this is what actually sets us apart from other species we know. People see things happening and immediately make up stories to connect them. It is why we have developed science. It is why we are able to plan for the future and learn from our past. I agree with Mr Pratchett (I usually do), our penchant for stories has been as important to our development as our opposable thumbs. 

So here we are, 21st century man, master of the universe. What does this have to do with me? Everything. Every day, when you click on a link or open a blog (or consume anything on the internet) you are being given a depiction of reality that says: This is how things really are.

This is where Occam comes in. The more plausible and simple these stories seem, the greater the chance that we’ll take them at face value. Writers are incentivised to work within the dominant frameworks we use to categorise the world. We all know that celebrities do silly things, so why question the newest gossip column? Big corporations are always evil, right? Environmentalists are always noble. Herbal means healthy and the news is always true.

Except it isn’t like that. Reality is almost never as simple as the heuristics we use to filter it, but our bias tends to favour the explanations that fall solidly within the narratives we are comfortable with. The problem is: The people generating the content know this.

They know that if they keep us comfortable, we will keep clicking. No worldview-threatening stories are allowed to shake the reader base, because pageviews equal money. This is why all you ever see on anti-GMO blogs are things that demonise GMO. The pattern holds true for everything from Jezebel to Christianity Today. To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The only thing that changes is the different types of hammers.

When they heard about the filter bubble, people were aghast at the implications without realising that they’d been doing the same thing voluntarily for years. We crawl into little internet ghettos where likeminded people pat each other on the back for being likeminded. I get it. It’s comfortable. I do it too.

But the world is too complex for this kind of reduction. We owe it to ourselves to escape our ghetto and see how other people live and think. Your mind is only as broad as the horizon that you paint for it. Smallmindedness is self-perpetuating and comforting. Others will feed this drive towards insignificance. Nobody will help you fight it if you don’t do it yourself first.

If Occam’s razor is dirty, the only thing it’ll give you is tetanus.