Ockham's razor / La navaja de Ockham

Ockham’s razor

It is said that simplest explanations are usually the right ones. This statement is known as the Ockham’s razor – after an English philosopher named William of Ockham.

The rationale behind is easy to understand: why should we complicate things that apparently have a quite straight reasoning?

This fallacy is so powerful that it’s easy that we fall for it.


When we find a complex problem, our brain tends to simplify in an attempt to explain what happens. To accomplish this task, we usually take what we find more relevant, pealing reality from nuances and other details. We picture the world as we want it: comfortably linear and explainable. But the devil is in the detail.

What are the criteria we use to simplify? Why do we select a certain set of data and not other?

Our education, background, experience, and knowledge have to do with it. So do our beliefs, values, and biases. That is to say that two different people would eventually choose different data from the same reality; after the simplification process, the picture they come up with could differ a lot. And thus, their explanations for the same event.

With a lot of complexity, simplification is far from being a panacea.

Our need to order the chaos

The chaos brings uncertainty, and the uncertainty triggers our fears. Simplification is our natural response to put some order and have some sense of control. The truth is more complicated, and this strategy is no longer paying off.

In the 60s, David Snowden came up with the Cynefin framework. A tool to make decisions when things get complex and we couldn’t explain the reality.

As it is defined, the world is divided into two realms: the ordered and the unordered.

When we operate in the ordered side, we can definitely explain what is happening, even if it’s complicated. Thus, we can come up with a good practice to solve the problem.

And what it’s more important, we can have a method. A method is not but a way to solve a particular kind of problem. This is quite useful because we don’t have to think about it anymore.

When we operate in the unordered side, we try to follow the same sequence: building a theory to explain the event. Unfortunately, we can’t, due to the complexity. Here is where simplification doesn’t work.

When we simplify and fall for the Ockham’s razor, we build a theory without having a complete understanding of the event.

Even if reductionism make us feel comfortable, we should avoid it. Acknowledging complexity is a real change of mindset to be able to find solutions.

But, of course, we don’t have time to dig in every issue or every problem that occurs. Practically speaking, we should question if simple explanations are accepted by people who have put sufficient effort to have a better understanding than we have.

Otherwise, we should go on pursuing the answers.

Image: Sigmund en Unsplash