Why The Simplest Solution to Life’s Problems Might Be Right One
Applying a philosophical principle known as Ockham’s Razor to solve life’s problems
If you’ve ever felt confused about the reasons the way things are — the facts of your life, the state of your relationships, the condition of your health — you know what it’s like to search for answers. And it can sometimes feel like those answers have the elusive quality of a riddle.
This can be especially true if — like me — you think of your life as the consequence of a series of commitments, not all of which agree with each other. You might be a mother or a father, you might also be a creative person or a sociable one, you might also be an ambitious or idealistic person. Not every commitment you make fits neatly into the jigsaw puzzle; sometimes you find yourself forcing the pieces to fit together.
We often turn to complicated and contorted explanations as a way of justifying the way things are, and to even more unreasonable answers in an attempt to iron out our concerns. It is an understandable feeling but it maybe a misguided one. If you’re in a state of uncertainty, have you considered that the right course of action might be the simplest one?
The Principle of “Ockham’s Razor”
William of Ockham was an English philosopher and theologian who lived between around 1285 and 1347. He is most well-known in the 21st century as the name behind a philosophical principle known as Ockham’s Razor.
Ockham’s Razor is a problem-solving idea that states — rather dryly — “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.”
As a methodological principle, it can be thought of as saying that one’s explanation of a given phenomenon should appeal to the smallest number of factors required to explain it. In other words, the solution with the fewest assumptions is usually correct. An even simpler paraphrase would be, “The simplest answer is most likely the right one.”
The power of Ockham’s Razor is evident in the field of science as a method of comparing two competing hypotheses, encouraging scientists to build simpler models that better capture the underlying structure of a given set of data.
In everyday life too, Ockham’s Razor has a power to cut through the fog of competing ideas and let the soundest notions come to the fore.
Applied to my own life, I often use Ockham’s Razor in order to compare two different options ahead of me. It tells me to consider the simplest option, even when it’s not the most comfortable.
The simplest answer is the answer that’s staring you in the face. It’s the one which you don’t always want to face up to, but never seems to go away. It’s the one that offers the shortest path to change, even if sometimes we’re not willing to accept it.
The simplest answer does not rely on an invented injustice, nor does it imagine some improbable intervention as a saviour. To seek the simplest answer is to strip away old biases and preferences, and to make space for clear-sighted decisions.
Ockham’s razor should not be considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result. To do so risks favouring the wrong theory given the available data. Sometimes — just sometimes — the more complicated answer is the right one. Or as the words attributed to Einstein decree: “Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
But if you are ever in doubt, or looking for a new way of answering old questions, consider Ockham’s razor as a first principle. It might just simplify things for you.