This article will address the use of Occam’s Razor in the non-technical way it is often employed, as opposed to its formal use in logic.
I have dealt strongly and formally with technical use of Occam’s Razor long ago, but in this article I would like to address the informal formulation of Occam’s Razor.
The informal version of Occam’s Razor is the same as the so-called “KISS Principle,” which stands for, “Keep it Simple, Stupid!”
The informal formulation of Occam’s Razor is a simple rule of thumb, and it says that if two arguments are about equally powerful, preference should be given to the simpler one. In some cases the argument-power factor is ignored and the razor is invoked to imply that we ought to prefer simpler arguments in any case.
The formal razor deals with the nature of the explanations. It will not cut a simpler argument so long as the more complex argument is fundamentally different in nature. It will not cut a longer explanation so long as the additional “planks,” or statements, of that explanation are somehow necessary. The informal razor doesn’t care about the nature or necessity of the argument, it just favors the prima facie simpler explanation.
Any intellectual will realize that this informal razor doesn’t work as a real tool of logic. If two fundamentally different explanations are equally sound they should be treated as equals, regardless of comparative length. Neither should be preferred.
Unfortunately for the intellectual, this anti-intellectual razor carries a kind of economic and practical weight. People do,in practice, prefer simpler, easier, more comprehensible, less shocking, less threatening, less offensive and less worldview-altering explanations, whether they should or not, even at the cost of accuracy.
In a rare point of agreement with the materialist, I do think people can often be described in two ways similar to a material system. People often take the path of least resistance, and they often continue in a constant trajectory until otherwise externally influenced. This applies both for their physical movements and also to their minds.
Coming full circle, the irony is that practical considerations are also moral ones, at least in many cases. In short, the simpler explanation should not be preferred because it is somehow more likely to be true. Neither is it inherently moral to be simple. Prima facie, there is no reason we should prefer a simpler explanation at all. Due to human nature, however, is seems normally and usually true, though not necessarily true, that people will be convinced by simpler explanations. For that reason, for the sake of convincing as many as possible, it becomes at second glance a moral virtue to make an argument as simple as possible without compromising its truth-power, and sometimes it even becomes virtuous to compromise the truth-power of an argument so that a greater amount of total truth-learning can occur!
Carefully understand the last part of what I just said. I am not advocating that a dishonest statement can lead to widespread knowledge. I do not ever support compromising the status of truth, but in some cases I do advocate modifying the amount amount of truth, or true information, so as to prevent overwhelming an audience. I am advocating that teaching in small steps can sometimes be beneficial. Obviously, the reverse is also true.
Truth-learning from a statement = (truth-power of the statement)*(number of people who are convinced of a correct understanding of the statement).
Occam’s Razor is the perfect example of a relatively true statement. Not in the sense that it can be true for me and false for you, but in the sense that it has a moral truth which is contingent upon the state of another consideration. A simpler explanation should be preferred if it can transmit an optimal amount of good, but that is only sometimes the case.
Reality is sometimes simple and sometimes complex. To transfer an optimal amount of truth, or true information, therefore sometimes requires complex statements be made.
Occam’s Razor is not a good truth-seeking device, but it is a useful second-tier rhetorical and practical device. If we want to make the most truthful and accurate argument possible, we do not need Occam’s Razor. If, however, we want to make the most effective, popularly favored and understood argument, we may do well to employ Occam’s Razor.