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Does Occam's razor have any limitations?

That is to say, are there any philosophers/philosophies which find little use for this scientific and philosophical rule? If so, who/what schools of thought?

Though you need not be concerned with the following aspect in your response, I am particularly interested when Occam's razor is applied within the field of computer science and engineering where "...the simplest of competing theories are to be preferred..." does not always produce the best results.

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    There is no need for limitations because there is no rule. The "simplest" and "other things being equal" are too vague to prescribe anything in particular, which would then have to be "limited". Most philosophers take the razor as just that, a vague heuristic that may give some guidance in special contexts, not a rule. See SEP, Simplicity. – Conifold Dec 11 '20 at 23:15
  • Also see philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2295. There are multiple variants of statements that are loosely called Occam's razor. For questions it is this most useful to clarify which variants you want to know about. – tkruse Dec 15 '20 at 3:36
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Yes, Occam's razor has limitations.

In Why The Simplest Theory Is Never The Right One: Occam's Razor Has A Double Edge, the author describes Occam's razor as "a vestigial vestige of medieval science."

Occam's razor, like falsification, has been (mis)used by propagandists as a tool to ridicule conspiracy theory, which is essentially allied with history. This may have contributed to the apparently somewhat popular conception that they're really useful tools for rational thinkers.

In fact, I've discovered a wealth of online resources critical of Occam's razor and falsification both.

Occam's razor is based on the premise that everything in the universe is "simple." That's an exaggeration, of course, but it appears to be the general idea.

In fact, biological organisms have become more complex with evolution. And why would a team of conspirators want to dream up a simple plot that can be easily solved? In fact, criminals often go to great lengths to cover their trails and confuse investigators.

Moreover, there are cases where it may be hard to determine which theory really is simplest.

Some defend Occam's razor by claiming it is simply misunderstood or used incorrectly. That's an avenue worth exploring, but I haven't found any arguments that convince me.

I came across an article that suggested that the scientific community has pretty much discarded falsification, though I haven't verified that claim.

In that spirit, it would be interesting to know 1) the extent to which scientists actually employ Occam's razor and/or falsification, and 2) which branches of science they represent. Then again, you specified philosophy, not science, but there is a lot of overlap.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I find it hard to imagine a scientist putting his reputation on the line by admitting he puts his trust in Occam's razor when working on a life-saving drug or the next weapon of mass destruction.

I'm personally mystified by the continuing allure of Occam's razor. Seems like a tool for lazy thinkers to me - kind of like flipping a coin. Again, it would be interesting to see a list of names of specific scientists and philosophers who admit to using such a crutch...er tool. It would also be interesting to see a list of notable scientific theories, discoveries, etc. that were based on Occam's razor.

I think we can discount the theories of evolution and gravity. ;)

The Tyranny of Simple Explanations

P.S. I would like to ask anyone who posts an answer defending Occam's razor to give us some examples of philosophical problems that you have personally "solved" with the help of Occam's razor.

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    You mentioned "In fact, I've discovered a wealth of online resources critical of Occam's razor and falsification both." Can you provide a link to some of these resources? – tale852150 Dec 11 '20 at 22:19
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    Occam's razor is a "rule of thumb", an heuristic to prioritize hypotheses when investigating. It tells you were to look first, not what is the correct solution. As such, it does not "solve" any problem, it's not meant to. But it makes sense: when you can't find your keys, do you first look under the sofa or do you start by investigating a possible intrusion by a Russian spy working as a mole for the local comic shop who needs you to be late at picking up your kids at school so that they get bored waiting and have more time to consider buying the last spider man issue ? – armand Dec 11 '20 at 22:46
  • @tale852150 - I already linked to a couple. It's really quite easy finding additional resources using a search engine. – David Blomstrom Dec 11 '20 at 23:42
  • @armand - You should post that as an answer. If Occam's razor is nothing more than a rule of thumb, then that could qualify as an answer by itself. Perhaps you could give us some specific examples of how this "rule of thumb" has actually been used by famous scientists and philosophers to come up with some notable solutions. That's a question I've been dying to find an answer to. ;) – David Blomstrom Dec 11 '20 at 23:44
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    @David Blomstrom my understanding of the Razor is that it does not claim that a simpler solution is intrinsically better than a more complex one, but that a simpler solution is preferable because it’s easier to evaluate and so we need consider a more complex solution only if the simpler one is found to be flawed. – Frog Dec 12 '20 at 2:45
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I am particularly interested when Occam's razor is applied within the field of computer science and engineering [...]

An software engineer's perspective:

Occam's razor is bit more subtle than 'simplest is always the most correct'.

First: 'simplest' is very subjective. Facing a server crash, I could theorize: a bad piece of code, solar flare, a dead squirrel in the rack, the CPU falling of, or just an act of God. At some level, the first reason is the least simple. However Occam's razor doesn't call for 'simplest', but for the fewest entities. From that perspective, it recommends looking at an explanation involving just the code and the hardware it runs on before introducing a squirrel (or God) in the system.

That said, Occam's razor also says that entities shouldn't be multiplied without necessity. And if after looking at the code and the hardware configuration, I can't find a good explanation for the crash, introducing the squirrel might become necessary (yes, it did happen).

Similarly, it might be necessary to introduce relativity to Newton's gravity when it proves insufficient.

There are some pitfalls: it's easy to get enamored with the most mathematically elegant explanation, or dismiss inconvenient new data that goes against an established (or favorite) theory. But those are issues unrelated to Occam's - a scientist unwilling to consider relativity or a conspiracy theorist unwilling to not consider aliens are equally guilty.

As long as Occam's razor isn't used to justify intellectual dishonesty, it's a pretty useful guiding principle.

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  • The general consensus here seems to be than Occam's razor is nothing more than a vague heuristic useful primarily to computer/software geeks. I still haven't seen any concrete examples of Occam's razor in action, nor am I aware of any scientists who use it. – David Blomstrom Dec 20 '20 at 23:29
  • @DavidBlomstrom you appear to be on a crusade - have fun. May I suggest that finding out that Occam's razor can be explained as simple thought guide, rather than a convoluted theory encompassing all aspects of life, and/or a fallacy by hard science to dismiss other's arguments is itself an application of Occam's razor? – ptyx Dec 21 '20 at 20:13
  • "Simple thought guide" - that's another good quote, thanks. Now if we can just find at least ONE contemporary scientist who actually uses this simple thought guide. In other news, I'm not the only one on a crusade here. In case you haven't noticed, Occam's razor, like falsification, has been weaponized by propagandists. – David Blomstrom Dec 21 '20 at 21:36
  • I haven't run into someone name dropping Occam's, no. I'm not doubting it happens - propaganda is based on fallacies, and argument from authority is a classic. But I'd think the counter would be to dismiss the fallacy rather than poor Occam. (And yes, that's hard - why fallacies are effective). If you want an example of contemporary scientists using Occam, then I'd point you at the EmDrive story. In the end, conservation of momentum wasn't violated. But it made the news because proving the simplest explanation (bad experiment) got quite hard. – ptyx Dec 21 '20 at 22:39
  • I don't think you'll find a paper saying "here are theories A and B, they're equivalent as far as I can tell, so I'll use Occam's to proclaim A is right and B should be dismissed". That'd just be trolling for someone to figure out an experimental setup to falsify one of them and prove them wrong. – ptyx Dec 21 '20 at 22:50
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Ocean's razor has the severe, but by design limitation of being a simple heuristic, a rule of thumb that, when understood, can help you prioritize your investigations.

I, too, found it pretty dumb for a long time because I was introduced to it by the movie Contact, where it's used like a proof, dismissing the alien hypothesis without inquiry, which it is not meant to do. As this movie is probably the most prominent introduction of the Razor in pop culture, I suspect Jodie Foster is sadly the reason why so many people got the wrong idea about it (but I still love you, Jodie).

It kind of disagree with your assessment about engineering. Surely, the simplest system might not always be the right solution, but the simplest system that does the job is certainly preferable to an unmaintainable, impossible to concisely document mess of a solution (notwithstanding economic constraints like reuse of legacy systems, production costs and technological debt). I have done a lot of debugging in my youth, and Occam's razor clearly helped me prioritizing my investigation by looking for silly mistakes before looking into a possible but improbable compiler bug.

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  • Your analogy using engineering is not valid. And never mentioned nor implied that I was interested in comparing the "simplest system" with an "unmaintainable, impossible to concisely document mess". My understanding is that Occam's razor gives precedence to simplicity and that is not always an option in engineering. But thank you very much for your input. – tale852150 Dec 13 '20 at 15:46
  • That's just an addendum because you brought engineering up in the first place. Let's agree we disagree about engineering. I still think the main problem in your question is you don't understand what the Occam's razor is meant for. – armand Dec 13 '20 at 22:39
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No, even writers who reject specific theories despite Occam's Razor still use Occam's razor all the time. That's because Occam's razor is just a principle of common sense without which no coherent argument can be made. It's a necessary part of communication and rational thought.

Without Occam's razor, an argument would always have to made by explicitly discarding infinitely many theories. Instead, when making any argument, any writer implicitly assumes his argument does not need to mention the infinitely many other more complex ways any sentence could be understood.

Though if you look for an easy example of a philosopher rejecting the result of Occam's razor, then Pascal's wager would seem to be quite obvious (though Pascal makes only this one exception, and does not generally reject the usefulness of Occam's razor).

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