Occam’s razor is a philosophical belief, associated with William of Occam (c. 1287-1347), that a proverbial razor should cut away all unnecessary variables of a given theory to attain the greatest degree of parsimony.
This means that the best among competing hypotheses are those with the least number of assumptions and which are most easily tested.
Occam’s razor has become a mainstay of the scientific method. However, many see it as reductionist, particularly in psychology, sociology and history.
For example, ancient and medieval cultures saw demons as a factor in both physical and mental illness. But 21st century science tends to dismiss this and most paranormal claims as ‘magical thinking.’ For some, this is not valid science but, rather, a biased and limiting approach to knowledge.
The other night while watching Star Trek Discovery I thought about reductionism and the prevailing view of mental illness. Lieutenant Paul Stamets (played by Anthony Rapp) is in a coma with moments of activity where he apparently speaks nonsense.
In reality, however, he is doing essential work in another dimension (generated by a ‘mycelial network’) with his mirror self from a parallel universe. The two selves, primary and mirror, work together in a kind of limbo realm, trying to get back to their respective universes and bodies.¹
For a moment I wondered if this could be a metaphor for some ‘mentally ill’ street people who might be doing important, otherworldly work that seems like madness to the worldly wise.
We can’t know, looking from the outside. Some homeless people might be psychologically wounded and deceived by evil powers. But I think the idea that some may be meaningfully engaged elsewhere is something to think about before writing someone off as a “psycho.”
Jodie Foster plays scientist, Ellie Arroway, who travels through a wormhole and meets an intelligent being at the edge of the universe. Arroway returns to Earth in a matter of seconds and, of course, no one believes a word of her incredible story. As a scientist, Arroway concedes that she could have been hallucinating due to stress overload. But as a human being, her heart tells her that her otherworldly experience was real.
Not surprisingly, holistic thinkers often question the value of Occam’s razor. And some philosophers have forwarded anti-razor theories to counter what they see as its confining simplicity, along with comparable beliefs preceding Occam’s razor.²
¹ (a) At least, that is what the primary believes. He ends up in the wrong universe. I got a little help here from this page: http://ew.com/recap/star-trek-discovery-season-1-episode-12/ (b) Margaret Atwood recently said sci-fi basically tells us about the now. In part I agree but also think sci-fi can be so much more than mere political commentary. Good sci-fi takes us to new possibilities.
² (a) Aristotle and others voiced ideas similar to Occam’s. See http://lnr.li/vUOng/ (b) Before sophisticated planetary tracking technology, in the early 19th century another issue was about drawing curves from the noisy data of planetary movement. If the dots were joined too loosely and smoothly, accuracy was lost. If joined too precisely, erratic data might have skewed the overall curve. So getting the right balance was important. See Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Edition: https://is.muni.cz/el/1421/podzim2014/LJMgrB07/um/Cambridge_Dictionary_of_Philosophy.pdf pp. 197-198, 629.