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William of Ockham was an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in.
Table of contents

The most useful statement of the principle for scientists is " when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.

In physics we use the razor to shave away metaphysical concepts. The canonical example is Einstein's theory of special relativity compared with Lorentz's theory that ruler's contract and clocks slow down when in motion through the ether. By Occam's razor it had to be eliminated. The principle has also been used to justify uncertainty in quantum mechanics.

The provocative razor of William of Occam

Heisenberg deduced his uncertainty principle from the quantum nature of light and the effect of measurement. Stephen Hawking writes in A Brief History of Time : " We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it.

However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam's razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed. But uncertainty and the non-existence of the ether cannot be deduced from Occam's Razor alone.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

It can separate two theories that make the same predictions, but does not rule out other theories that might make a different prediction. Empirical evidence is also required, and Occam himself argued for empiricism, not against it. Ernst Mach advocated a version of Occam's razor which he called the Principle of Economy , stating that " Scientists must use the simplest means of arriving at their results and exclude everything not perceived by the senses.

William of Ockham

Mach influenced Einstein when he argued that space and time are not absolute but he also applied positivism to molecules. Mach and his followers claimed that molecules were metaphysical because they were too small to detect directly. This was despite the success the molecular theory had in explaining chemical reactions and thermodynamics.

It is ironic that while applying the principle of economy to throw out the concept of the ether and an absolute rest frame, Einstein published almost simultaneously a paper on brownian motion which confirmed the reality of molecules and thus dealt a blow against the use of positivism. The moral of this story is that Occam's razor should not be wielded blindly.

As Einstein put it in his Autobiographical notes : " This is an interesting example of the fact that even scholars of audacious spirit and fine instinct can be obstructed in the interpretation of facts by philosophical prejudices. Occam's razor is often cited in stronger forms than Occam intended, as in the following statements.

WILLIAM OF OCKHAM (c. 1285 - 1347)

Notice how the principle has strengthened in these forms which should be more correctly called the law of parsimony , or the rule of simplicity. To begin with, we used Occam's razor to separate theories that would predict the same result for all experiments. Now we are trying to choose between theories that make different predictions. This is not what Occam intended. Should we not test those predictions instead?

Ockham's Ethics

Obviously we should eventually, but suppose we are at an early stage and are not yet ready to do the experiments. We are just looking for guidance in developing a theory.

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What is Occam's Razor?

Contents About. Restricted Access. By: Jenny E. Pages: 11— Pages: 71— Pages: — Biographical Note Jenny E. Pelletier , Ph. The Ontology of Knowledge Aggregate Sciences Subjects and Objects Real and Rational Sciences Metaphysics as a Science A Distinct and Most General Concept Metaphysics as General Ontology The Semantic Background The Case of God and Creatures The Case of Substance and Accident