Shaving with Occam's Razor

"Nature has a great simplicity and, therefore, a great beauty."

- Richard Feynman


Occam’s Razor is defined as the principle that in explaining a thing, no more assumptions should be made than are necessary. Essentially, it states that among competing hypotheses, the most elegant, simplest one should be selected. 

Occam’s razor, however, does not serve as an arbiter in modern science but rather as a guide. As Einstein put it, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience” or as he is often paraphrased, "Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler." 

The Bullet Cluster

Described as "The longest-standing, unsolved problem in astrophysics" by Neil deGrasse Tyson, dark matter continues to remain a mystery. Scientists observed that only 15% of the gravity of the universe can be accounted for by baryonic, "normal" matter and phenomena such as black holes. This means that 85% of the mass of the universe, hence the formation of all galaxies and complex structures, and the behaviour of the entire universe is attributed to missing matter

Furthermore, the speed of rotation of the edge of multiple galaxies is faster than expected, considering that the majority of their mass is concentrated near the galactic centre. This suggests that the movement of these galaxies is  being affected by the gravity of invisible matter surrounding it, aptly named dark matter.
Further evidence lies in the fact that there is a way to observe dark matter: shine a light at it. Well, it's not quite that simple. The method is called gravitational lensing, and is an effect of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. In essence, the gravitational field of matter bends light due to the warping of spacetime by mass. Mass bends light. Therefore, when observing light rays from distant galaxies we can notice lensing of light because the light will have passed through the gravitational field of dark matter.

The existence of dark matter would demonstrate that the Standard Model of particle physics is vastly incomplete. Numerous physicists considered different possibilities, such as Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) and modified versions of General Relativity in order to evade this revelation. The latter required a great deal of fine tuning to make the predictions of General Relativity and the former relied on different calculations at different scales, as well as not having made the same predictions.

These alternatives are much less useful in regard to Occam's Razor, suggesting that dark matter really does exist. 

Further evidence was found in the patterns in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB(R)), thermal radiation originating from a time shortly after the Big Bang. 

However, it was the Bullet Cluster that really tipped the scales. Made up of two clusters which collided through each other, the gas which makes up the majority of the mass was stripped from the two and stranded in between. As dark matter does not interact with baryonic matter it would not be affected. 

So, basically, if all the mass were to be between the two clusters, it would mean meant that dark matter does not exist and that Relativity is wrong. If the mass were to be concentrated around the clusters, dark matter would be known to exist and the universe would appear even more intricate and amazing than we ever imagined. This mass could be detected using the same method as before: gravitational lensing.

What happened? In short: Einstein is almost never wrong. The result found was that the great majority of the mass present was found to be surrounding the clusters, providing almost definitive evidence for the existence of dark matter, and strong evidence against MOND when applied to large galactic clusters.

This is one of numerous cases in science when the best theory is generally the simplest, obeying the premise of Occam's Razor. 

One may wonder whether the best possible theory is necessarily the truth. This is well addressed by a concept known as Model Dependent Realism. Rather than to assert that any theory is the truth, model dependent realism acknowledges the anti realist argument that we can never be absolutely sure about something and states that there is no way to find objective truth. Therefore the discussion of whether something is true or not is somewhat superficial. 

Essentially, a model is only as good as it is useful in explaining phenomena and making accurate predictions. Most importantly, a model must agree with observation. As Hawking puts it in his book The Grand Design, "There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science." 

One of the features of model dependent realism is that it allows for the possibility of overlap between different models which describe different parts of the universe and hence is consistent with dualities.

The Renaissance

Lady with an Ermine
- Leonardo da Vinci

 Rather than to be confined to science, the effectiveness of simplicity when applied to a broader spectrum of fields is even more impressive. During the Renaissance, the Humanistic intellectual movement led people to impugn things previously taken for granted, such as the geocentric universe, to value observation and logic above tradition. Copernicus revolutionised our view of the universe, proving that the Earth orbits the sun, Erasmus stood up against the Catholic Church and retranslated the Bible. 

Architecture and art were given mathematical foundations through perspective and simple geometric shapes. The portrait and the portrayal of the world of men were new, innovative ideas founded upon the simple belief that one should depict the world as one sees it.

Granting knowledge to the   people, the creation of the printing press around 1450 by Gutenberg, and the advocation of the right to read the Bible by the newly formed Protestant Church drove the culture of thought and ubiquitous social development.

There is something beautiful about simplicity. All these profound revolutions originated from the simple, yet profoundly crucial idea that humans had the right to think, to discover, and to observe the world for what it is. This concept is equally valid today, a revolutionary worldview that drove social, cultural, scientific and economic development throughout the world, as it still does. The Renaissance Man was a polymath, a philomath and a connoisseur of the aesthetic: certainly not the values of a simple man, however, this vital period of history to the society of today came about through powerful simplicity, and changed the world.

Here simplicity is not referred to as the quality of being easy but rather as the manifestation of profound meaning or complexity in an elegant and intuitive form. As put by Leonardo da Vinci, the most representative, quintessential, symbolic Renaissance man, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


The Tabor Company, where Frederik Taylor's horizontal and vertical division of labour was applied around 1905

Taylor's Scientific Management demonstrates that productivity and economic efficiency can also be greatly augmented through simplicity. This was a revolutionary concept during the 1910s, and Frederik Taylor became one of the first ever management consultants. By breaking down the manufacturing process into the simplest steps possible and through division of labor, he revolutionised our vision of industry. Workers could produce far more with no prior knowledge: they performed simple tasks with maximum efficiency. The juxtaposition of specialised workers and repetitive tasks resulted in a colossal improvement in economic productivity.

Adam Smith, in his book The Wealth of Nations, describes the immensity of this development in regard to a pin factory: “Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.”

Business and Advertising

An example of a company that embraces simplicity

Even today, simplicity is the driving force behind the achievements of some of the world's most successful companies. "Simplicity not only enables Apple to revolutionise - it enables Apple to revolutionise repeatedly" writes Ken Segall in his book Insanely Simple, "Apple’s focus on Simplicity is unique. It goes beyond enthusiasm, beyond passion, all the way to obsession." 

 Apple is often criticised about the inexhaustible willingness of customers to follow the hype of each new generation of device blindly, oblivious to the quality of the product. This may be not be far from reality, however, this is because of the overarching strategy of simplicity. Most importantly, Apple is really good at advertising.

Simple, powerful ideas are often founded upon more complex concepts, condensed into something anyone can understand. The beauty of it is, when examined and thought about, one can understand how they work, and why. 

For instance, the reason Apple's brand image, advertising, and product design ideas have been so effective is one of the fundamental reasons why advertisements are so widespread: they work. This is called the Mere Exposure Effect and, basically, it means we prefer things we are familiar with. 

If you take a look, Apple's pure white background advertisements are only one facet of the popularisation of their products. The devices themselves, the white earphones and chargers, are advertisements as such. We recognise the iPhone instantly, which cannot be said for the Samsung Galaxy Xcover 2, for instance.

When discussing his mantras and ideals, Jobs said, "Focus and simplicity. Simplicity can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."

When he returned to his company in 1997 it was rapidly loosing market share. He cut 70% of the current Apple products, and within 14 years Apple was the most valuable company in the world. Whether you like Apple or not, their fundamental approach is certainly effective. 

Coca Cola has a similar approach to advertising


As well as impose simplicity at work, Steve Jobs lived simply too. "I have a very simple life. I have my family and I have Apple and Pixar. And I don't do much else." This minimalist outlook on life is far from unique. Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama are two further prominent people who have a lifestyle pervaded by simplicity.

"You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits," Obama said, "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make." In fact, making decisions such as what to wear has a detrimental effect on further decision-making. People like Obama or Zuckerberg avoid frivolous choices, choosing a model similar to Jobs' mantras.

Evading decisions which require one to make assumptions about how these choices will be seen, in a sense taking Occam's Razor into account, allows people to innovate and not make costly mistakes. People impose simplicity in their lives to be as productive as possible without losing any insight on whatever they may be working on.

Steve Jobs and Barack Obama

Productivity and Focus

Source: Multitasking: a Survival Guide - FT.com

Simplicity is as crucial in the modern world as it ever was, but also more difficult to achieve. The tremendous access to information, to knowledge, comes at the cost of too much of it. Innumerable sources of input require us to juggle tasks, rapidly switching from work to social networks and back again. It almost resembles a kind of social entropy, though on the other hand there would also be more possible ways to do something simply.

The challenge of this in our daily lives is well addressed in Tim Harford's article Multitasking: How To Survive The 21st Century in the Financial Times. In one section, he outlines the detrimental effect multitasking whilst doing complex tasks has on what you take away from those tasks. One of the studies mentioned had a group of students who were given flash cards and had to identify patterns, and a second group was given the same task but also had to multitask, that is, count the number of high pitched tones amongst low and high pitched tones they heard. 

During the experiment, the results obtained from both groups were similar, "But here’s the catch: when the researchers then followed up by asking more abstract questions about the patterns, the cognitive cost of the multitasking became clear. The students struggled to answer questions about the predictions they’d made in the multitasking environment. They had successfully juggled both tasks in the moment — but they hadn’t learnt anything that they could apply in a different context."

A second study on driving and speaking on mobile phones concluded "that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth." 

Focus and simplicity are harder than ever to achieve, as notifications from countless sites urge you to interact with them, nurture them with information in return granting the illusion of social interaction. People become absorbed in this loop, unable to complete tasks. David Allen's Getting Things Done describes how every time you avoid completing a task, say "I'll get back to you on that", you are opening a loop in your mind.

Rather than try to ignore these loops, drowning the urge to complete tasks in oceans of information, the best way to solve this problem would be either to complete the task, or plan a solution, to write it down, or, as Tim Harford wrote, "Outsourcing your anxiety to a piece of paper". 

Free Will

On the subject of the mind, according to a study carried out by John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and his team, we may not have free will at all. In the study, participants were given a choice of which hand they would use to press a button. The results obtained were that a computer program could predict their choice to astounding precision based on brain activity almost seven seconds before a conscious choice.

The correlation was far above random chance, but it was not accurate every time. This suggests that though we may not have free will, we may, as Rupert Sheldrake comments in his book Science Set Free, have "free won’t ".

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, picks up on this idea of being governed by our biology. He depicts mankind as "lumbering robots", suggesting that we are but vessels for the self interested, self replicating genes that define us. “Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

Stephen Hawking has a similar standpoint. “Our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets.”

An interesting defence of free will comes from a surprising place: indeterminism in quantum mechanics. Before quantum phenomena were observed, the main belief at the time was Newtonian determinism. In this mechanistic model, all particles follow fundamental laws. Their position, velocity can be calculated and predicted ahead of time, in a sense, if you kick a ball at a speed of 1 m/s towards a goal 5 metres away, in 5 seconds time the ball will be in the goal (assuming there is no friction or loss of speed due to their factors). 

If you take this idea further, if one were to know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe in one timeframe, they could predict the future with absolute certainty (this also applies to the past). A mass murderer's actions were determined, therefore, billions of years ago, and we live in a clockwork universe, puppets in a grand show.

Quantum mechanics changed all that. In an experiment known as the Double Slit Experiment, scientists fired particles through two slits towards a screen. They then observed the patterns on the screen. The findings were immensely shocking. Rather than to observe what you would expect if you kicked footballs the two slits, scientists noticed an interference pattern. This means the particle was behaving more like a wave. 

Now, though this doesn't mean you can surf an electron, it does mean something pretty amazing: wave particle duality. This shows that "Rather than following a single definite path, particles take every single path, and they take them all simultaneously." as Stephen Hawking writes. Particles can even interfere with the infinite versions of themselves.

He further adds that, "Even if the chances of finding a given electron within the double slit apparatus are high, there will always be some chance that it could be found instead on the far side of the star Alpha Centauri, or in the shepherd's pie at your office cafeteria."

Therefore quantum mechanics is a probabilistic and indeterministic model. In Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: 

ΔΔp ≥ h / 4π

Δp represents the uncertainty in momentum and  Δx  the uncertainty in position.  h is Planck's constant. 

This relationship demonstrates that the more precisely you measure an object's momentum, the less precisely you know its position, and vice versa.


Therefore, we really don't know how the particle will behave.

The point here is, since there is no way to predict the future, even to an omniscient figure who knows all the positions and velocities of particles in the universe, our destinies are not determined, at least, in that sense. One may argue, then, that our decisions are governed by probability.

To Jim Al-Khalili, author of Life on the Edge, a pioneer in the field of Quantum Biology, quantum mechanics does not rescue free will, Chaos Theory does. He writes, "That future is only knowable if we were able to view the whole of space and time from the outside. But for us, and our consciousnesses, imbedded within space-time, that future is never knowable to us. It is that very unpredictability that gives us an open future. The choices we make are, to us, real choices, and because of the butterfly effect, tiny changes brought about by our different decisions can lead to very different outcomes, and hence different futures.”


So, the bottom line here is, either you get to choose whether to integrate simplicity into your life, or you don't. Either way, whether you choose to or not, and whether you actually had the choice, there's a chance that you will think about these ideas and find meaning in them, or maybe you were multitasking.

Applying Occam's Razor to your life, avoiding making assumptions, considering the simplest decision, can be a useful and powerful guide, whether it is in the running of your company, the decision of how you want to plan your future, or deciding what image of yourself you want to get across, what you want to wear. Perhaps one day, you'll be shaving with Occam's Razor.

by Gustavs Zilgalvis

Photographs - Wikipedia
The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake
Insanely Simple by Ken Segall
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith


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