The Danger of Oversimplification: How to Use Occam’s Razor Without Getting Cut
Occam’s razor can be summarized as such:
Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
We should avoid looking for excessively complex solutions to a problem and focus on what works, given the circumstances. Occam’s razor is used in a wide range of situations, as a means of making rapid decisions and establishing truths without empirical evidence.
Argument: Stephen Hawking advocates for Occam’s razor in A Brief History of Time: We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.
Response: A physical razor is meant to shave away hair but can be misused to cut flesh, so too can Occam’s Razor be misapplied. This generally happens in one of two ways: treating the razor like a “law” and mishandling the concept of “necessity.” 1 Occam’s Razor is not a “law.” Many times our experience proves the opposite, that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes the “simplest” explanation, whatever that means to a particular person, is not actually the correct explanation. The problem with the popular use of Occam’s Razor is the mangling of the term necessity. Many appeals to Occam’s Razor simply assume that “simpler is better,” meaning whichever answer has the fewest words, parts, or premises is correct by default. However, one cannot remove a “necessary” component and call the result a superior answer. Simply because a sentence is made simpler in terms of grammar does not mean it’s actually a better explanation. “Joe moved the 1,000-pound safe” is not a superior explanation to “Joe, Jim, James, John, and Jerry moved the 1,000-pound safe together,” simply because the first one is “simpler.” At times, attempts to simplify fail because they remove required information.
Argument: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." — Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
No (intelligent) designer will hide copies of the blueprints of the whole factory inside each brick, pipe, cable or bar!