The Razor’s Edge: Philosophical Thinking

close up photography of gray cairn stone

Philosophers use the term “razor” to refer to a principle or rule of thumb. These principles allow for the elimination of unlikely explanations and a more efficient landing on a logical point. The razor analogy is meant to symbolize how these rules “shave away” or remove fluff from our thinking. Perhaps the most commonly known one is the duck test which simply says “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

Here are a few others that are especially helpful.

  1. Occam’s Razor – Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Parsimony generally refers to stinginess or frugality. In science and research though, it refers to the most efficient way to explain something and is so important that competing models or theories are judged on their degree of parsimony. This has implications for everything from software design to investment modeling to medicine and so on. Simplicity isn’t always possible but it should always be an objective.
  2. Hanlon’s Razor – Never attribute to malice that which is better explained by stupidity. This one sounds like a quip but there is an underlying idea that is helpful. If you understand why something is occurring, your reaction to it, ability to understand it and perhaps even affect it is much greater. In the book Emotional Intelligence, the authors explain the phenomenon of the human brain where stimulus passes through the parts that deal with emotions before the signal gets to the part capable of logic and reason. Understanding the emotion’s at play (empathy) is incredibly helpful at understanding how human’s are reacting to something.
  3. Hitchen’s Razor – What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without evidence. It’s sort of the opposite of “innocent until proven guilty” or perhaps you might say it’s “false until proven true”. The takeaway for me from it is this, even if an idea sounds intuitively correct, well formed and logical – it should be tested. If you don’t test it and it turns out successful, you’ll never know if you were right or lucky and that difference matters for future success to be had.
  4. Hummes’s Guillotine – Apparently this guy’s principle was so important a razor didn’t do it enough justice! Often referred to as the is-ought principle, it refers to the need to fight the urge to describe what could be based solely on what is. Einstein once said “we can’t solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used to create them”. It requires imagination and discipline but it is important for making novel breakthrough.
  5. Grace’s Razor – Conversational implications are [more important than] semantic context for linguistic explanations. Many people have a difficult time expressing themselves articulately even when they may have a great idea. By listening and trying to understand the essence of what they’re saying as opposed to focusing too literally we have a better chance at learning from them or otherwise moving an idea forward. I needed to read this one twice myself!

There are many more “razors” and surely many more to be created still but these are 5 that stood out to me as important mostly due to the number of different things in life they apply to.

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