An analysis tool developed by a medieval Franciscan monk, Occam’s razor is as relevant today as it ever was, says author Johnjoe McFadden.
“A lot of people don’t understand science,” says Johnjoe McFadden. “They think it’s for scientists and somehow it’s a different way of looking at the world. But it’s nothing more,” says the author of Life is Simple, “than looking for the simplest solutions. “If you take that approach, you’re doing science. If you apply simplicity, it becomes science. If you don’t, it becomes something else.”
His book’s subtitle – ‘How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Unlocked the Universe’ – invites us to delve one level deeper into McFadden’s wildly entertaining ‘story of the role simplicity has played in science. It takes the reader through the really great advances of Copernicus, Newton and Galileo, who all championed the principle of simplicity.” The great founder of this idea, the man who, according to McFadden, in many ways paved the way for modern scientific thought, was the 13th-century Franciscan friar William van Ockham, from a small Surrey village. McFadden, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey, drives past Ockham on his way to work. After attending a lecture by a colleague who tried to explain why Occam’s razor doesn’t apply to biology, he recalls, “My interest was piqued and I decided to investigate”.
William of Ockham’s razor of the same name is often misunderstood today as the idea that the simplest answer to any problem is probably the best. And while that may certainly be the case, Occam’s razor (spelled that way because it’s derived from the Latin novacula Occami) should be more accurately described as a problem-solving principle in which “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”
We don’t know much about the man himself, McFadden says, and there are plenty of other “razors” (a term in philosophy used to describe rules for removing improbable explanations), but for the author, William of Ockham and combine his idea to create the moment when the world began to think like modern scientists. “The way we think today dates back to the Middle Ages. The principle of simplicity was a new light on science. It was a new way of solving problems. It doesn’t matter what those problems are. We use it in mathematics, which, of course, automatically selects for simple solutions: if you have an equation and you have ‘a’ on both sides of that equation, we delete it. That’s all math is: a formal way to find the simplest expression of a problem. It can be as simple as e=mc².”
Simply put, McFadden’s new book is an account of the role that simplicity has played in the emerging field of science over the past millennium, “and you could argue that from an engineering perspective, the tone of the book is: what has simplicity with something? Why is it important?” The answer, says McFadden, is that “after years of thinking, I think simplicity is the fundamental principle that drives science, making it vital in so many spheres of life, including engineering. Much of our modern world is built on it.” principle of the simplest solutions to problems and that is also enshrined in many technical principles, perhaps the most famous of which is ‘KISS’ or ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.” Engineers, more than scientists, McFadden suggest, realize the importance of Occam’s razor, “because they are more often faced with a problem that needs to be solved: how do I make this machine simpler, or how do I make this machine work with the smallest number of of parts?”.
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‘Life is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Freed Science and Unlocked the Universe’
“There’s no point in doing with more what can be done with less,” wrote William of Ockham, the medieval monk who gave his name to the problem-solving principle that, according to the author of “Life is Simple,” is as important today as it is. was when it was invented.
In the 13th century, Occam’s razor shaved away the undue complexity of medieval metaphysics, theology, and mysticism to pave the way for modern science. Occam’s razor was so revolutionary that it put William in hot water with the papal authorities, and he ended up on trial in France on charges of heresy.
In “Life is Simple,” Johnjoe McFadden argues that 21st century scientists routinely use Occam’s razor in their day-to-day work, often unaware that they are using it, so ingrained in the way we think today. Life is Simple is an original and entertaining analysis of the evolution of scientific thought.
Occam’s razor is a good fit with modern engineering, McFadden says, but only “because engineering is derived from Occam’s razor. When engineers made the first steam engines, they took away the parts that weren’t needed. Entities shouldn’t be multiplied unnecessarily, so get them.” out and you get a more robust system. Simple machines are more robust because they have fewer moving parts and fewer things to go wrong.”
On the other hand, “scientists often miss that they will choose the simplest solution. And I’ve had this conversation with many scientists. I point out that science uses experiments, but so does alchemy. Science uses math, just like astrology. Science uses reason, as does philosophy. Nothing is unique about science, except that science always chooses the simplest solution. There is no other field or mindset that always does this. And yet scientists will say: I’m not going for the simplest solution – the world is a complicated place.”
He is suspicious of the idea that modern thought began with the Enlightenment, the intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries: “I think much credit was taken by the thinkers of the Enlightenment.” He goes on to say that we are therefore inclined to assume that the first model for the Earth’s axial rotation comes from Copernicus. “In fact, it goes back to the Ochamistic scholars in Paris, who basically said, ‘Wouldn’t it be simpler and more logical, instead of the sun and the stars and the moon orbiting the earth every day, to say that it was the earth spinning?” Of course they were held back on this point by the scriptures, which said that God had said the earth didn’t move, but at least they thought about it.When Copernicus came along centuries later, he made the exact same argument, but completely referred to it. not to the okhamists.”
McFadden, who describes his professional expertise as being in systems and quantum biology, is adamant that while it is a widely accepted idea that modernism essentially “saved” our ancestors from the ignorance of the Middle Ages, “medieval scholars such as Ockham make sense were of the world around them and they should not be belittled in any way. It’s easy to look back and say, “oh, they believed this, and they believed that, and it’s a bunch of bullshit.” But they did what we did, and in a very real sense they became the modern world, and the direction they went in was the right direction.”
‘Life is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Unlocked the Universe’ by Johnjoe McFadden is published by Basic Books, £25.00.
Keep it simple, stupidIn 1934 Albert Einstein insisted that “The great aim of all science [is] to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest number of hypotheses or axioms.” Occam’s razor helps us to make “the smallest number of hypotheses or axioms.”
Nor is the work of Occam’s Razor done. As physics works its way into the simplest possible theories, biologists struggle to extract simple theories from the ever-faster stream of data flowing from genomics and other “omics” technologies. It remains as controversial today as it was in Occam’s time. Statisticians are constantly debating its value and significance. Recently, a group of French scientists published a paper arguing that simple razor sharpened models provide a better picture of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping their country than the bulky, cumbersome models used by most epidemiologists. At the cutting edge of science, simplicity continues to provide us with the most profound, puzzling and sometimes disturbing insights.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the value of Occam’s razor is not limited to science. Shakespeare insisted that “brevity is the soul of humor” and modernity has taken that principle to heart. From the minimalist music of John Cage to the clean architectural lines of Le Corbusier, the lean prose of Samuel Beckett or the smooth lines of the iPad, modern culture is steeped in simplicity. Occam’s razor is in the advice of architect Mies van der Rohe that ‘Less is More’; computer scientist Bjarne Stroustrup’s instruction to ‘make simple tasks simple’, or Saint-Exupéry’s comment that ‘It seems that perfection is not achieved when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away’. best known by the acronym KISS, or ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.
Edited excerpt from ‘Life is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Unlocked the Universe’ by Johnjoe McFadden, reproduced with permission.