What Is Occam's Razor?


Quick Answer

Occam's razor is a principle stating that, "entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily." The principle is employed by scientists and mathematicians in decision-making and when evaluating theories.

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Full Answer

The principle originated in the 14th century and is attributed to William of Ockham. William was a Franciscan friar and logician. The principle is stated multiple ways, but the most practical application is in decision-making. To apply Occam's razor when reviewing two potential theories with similar outcomes, choose the theory that is the simplest. Historically, Occam's razor has been applied to rule out theories that make too many assumptions that cannot be observed.

Occam's razor is not a restatement of Aristotle's principle of simplicity, and the two are not applied similarly. Occam's razor is meant to be applied to two theories with the same outcomes. Theories with different outcomes should be tested for validity, with the most valid and reliable theory determined to be correct. The level of simplicity is irrelevant. This is in disagreement with Aristotle's view that "nature operates in the shortest way possible," because scientists have discovered that sometimes nature is quite complicated. Albert Einstein summarized this misuse of Occam's razor by stating that, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

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