OCCAM’S WHETSTONE

We’ve all heard of something called Occam’s Razor, though I suspect most of us are vague on what it is.  Hint:  the relation to Damocles’ Sword of is only incidental, thankfully (same with Hobson’s Choice now that you mention it, and Faust’s nefarious Bargain too).  Always a matter of context, isn’t it?  But about the Razor, you know how casual dissent can intensify until at least one interlocutor needs to retrench before lunging further?  That’s the kind of moment when Occam may spring from overhead like oxygen masks in a jet — just in case.

But what if the pilot you’re arguing with is yourself?  Soaring, like so-called ‘real’ life, is fraught with moments where we have to make time-sensitive decisions based on information that’s not entirely certain, and almost any kind of help is welcome.  Well I wondered if Occam’s Razor might be useful, and made the mistake of googling it…  Immediately cracks began to form in the earth’s crust (and my skull) beneath the mass of pedantic jargon and multisyllabic verbiage that poured forth.  In briefest form, plagiarizing Wiki:

Among competing hypotheses, the one with fewest assumptions should be selected, and for each accepted explanation, there are infinitely more complex, and ultimately incorrect alternatives.

And that’s the Cliff Notes version!  Beyond there we wade into brambles like the Akaike criterion, variational Bayesian methods, false discovery rate and on and on across all academic disciplines.  In logic it’s epistemology versus extraevidentiality; in biology it’s cladists vs pheneticists; in medicine it’s Hickam’s dictum (watch your mouth!) visa vis what normal folks call hypochondria.  And in theology even William of Ockham himself found that his semantical scalpel can cut both ways.

The heck you say.

Then – also just in case – we have a whole family of ‘anti-razors’ believe it or not, none more enigmatic than pataphysics:

the science of imaginary solutions in which every event in the universe is completely unique, subject to no laws but its own.

An apt description of my life story, if I were honest, all corralled together by a personal favorite, Crabtree’s Bludgeon:

No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which intellect cannot conceive an explanation, however complicated.

How nice!  I.e. there’s no Knot Gordy can tie that I can’t tangle tighter.  So what are we supposed to do with that?  Durned if I know.  All these eruditial analyzations only leave me feeling even dumber than before.  Makes me want to call the whole business Occam’s Eraser and move on.  Please, let’s do.

Now if you can still move, forgive me, there is one word that might actually help: heuristic. (A word no bigger than that, you ask, what chance does it have? Oh ye of inadequate belief.) Wiki again:

Heuristic signifies any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal.

Still hard to chew, but easy enough to swallow.  Then further down that same page comes the punchline.  Turns out the most fundamental heuristic is – wait for it – trial and error.

Uh, what?!  All of that to get to this?  Yup, the smartest philosophers say when you’re unsure which solution to choose, try one, then maybe try another, and eventually you might learn which works best.   Talk about clever!
So now we know.

One caution though.  Whatever trial you’re erroring, keep in mind our benevolent nemesis gravity will continue unabated…  When tinkering with any of those Oldstimers’ clumsy Gimmicks, try not to drop it on your footnotes!