Philosophical razors are general problem-solving and decision-making strategies that help us find and choose explanations when there is limited information.
Why did Ethan ignore Rajesh’s comments on a project? This question can have many possible answers without knowing more information. It can have a complex, unlikely answer like Ethan was mind-controlled by an alien to ignore Rajesh because the alien thought Rajesh’s ideas would inevitably lead to humanity getting more powerful than the alien race. There is also a simple explanation like Ethan was distracted by the pressure of completing a project on time. A philosophical razor can help us reduce the total number of answers to a few that are most likely, assuming no new information comes up.
Essentially, philosophical razors help us theorize about why and how things happen when we don’t have all the information and find explanations that are more reasonable on average.
I’ll describe 5 such razors and choose an explanation for this question “why did Ethan ignore Rajesh’s comments on a project?” using each razor.
1. Occam’s Razor
The easiest or simplest explanation should be preferred over a complex explanation with more variables. It’s also called the “law of parsimony”.
There are other interpretations of Occam’s Razor too. Bertrand Russel says an explanation for the unknown should first use ideas from the known. Newton says the best explanations for natural events are usually just true and sufficient to explain. If they are more than sufficient and overcomplicated, one should reject those explanations in favor of something that is just sufficient.
Example: You enter your house and see something is off, like an open door. It is more likely that you forgot to close it than someone breaking in. Use the simplest explanation because it has the least assumptions, least variables, and is more likely.
Occam’s Razor is usually right because it doesn’t contain farfetched assumptions about what happens.
In general, it’s good to use this logic to arrive at a conclusion or hypothesize what may have happened when the range of explanations contains simple ideas to complex ideas.
Occam’s razor is great to dilute overthinking and overtheorizing. This has personal and scientific implications. Occam’s razor can be used to reduce jumping to conclusions during interpersonal problems. And scientists can use it to make better theories that don’t use unnecessary variables. When it’s interpersonal, there is a mental health bonus. Overthinking is often loaded with assumptions and negative predictions. They are a complex alternative to simple thoughts. Fixating on assumptions and ideas while overthinking is a cause of stress and switching to Occam’s razor can help – you reduce your overthinking to the easiest and least complex train of thought.
The primary reason why occam’s razor is an intuitive way to approach problems is that nature almost always chooses the shortest path or the simplest path. So this guiding principle must also apply to us because we are a part of nature.
Why did Ethan ignore Rajesh’s comments on a project? Maybe because Ethan was busy and made independent decisions.
2. Hanlon’s Razor
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Don’t assume someone has bad intentions without ruling out their ignorance or human error. We have biases and expectations. We have fears. And our brain is more in-tune with negative information than positive or neutral information. So we have a tendency to feel threatened quickly. This is when Hanlon’s Razor helps, particularly in a professional context.
If someone makes an error that makes your job more difficult, it’s not because that person hates you. It’s probably because that person just doesn’t know how to do it correctly. It is very unlikely that the person maliciously tried to hurt you or has other bad intent toward you.
You can use Hanlon’s Razor to reduce taking things personally and reduce anxiety or fear.
Why did Ethan ignore Rajesh’s comments on a project? Maybe because Ethan didn’t understand the comments so they were meaningless to him. If he were smarter or Rajesh explained them better, the situation may have been different.
3. Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword
If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate. Also called Alder’s Razor.
This logic can help you give up on pointless debates/arguments, but it might also make you a party pooper.
Imagination and fantasies is a creative process that doesn’t require experimentation and observation. There is value in it still. Thinking in hypotheticals is also a way to build empathy. Children’s minds enrich with fantasies and illogical ideas because they promote mental flexibility.
People debate for many more reasons than scientific inquiry. For fun, to feel smart, to confirm their beliefs, to win, to spend time, to bond with each other, etc. But when it comes to professional work and when resources are limited, it can be impractical to figure out why something happened. An answer would not change anything because it can’t be proven.
For most people, science and logic isn’t the only way to make sense of the world. Astrology is one popular way. But there are more, so there isn’t always a need to win a fight with Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword. Still, people generally do not like uncertainty. They want answers and explanations. 2 psychological processes come into play here. Sense-making and Need for cognitive closure. Newton’s flaming laser sword is a threat to both of these and can do more damage than good.
- Sense-making: People want to explain their experiences in any way they find acceptable and believable, even if they are wrong.
- Need for cognitive closure: Some people have a strong preference for structure, details, and completion. So they actively seek out answers because not having them makes them uncomfortable.
Newton’s flaming laser sword can cut and end pointless debates. But it can be seen as an aggressive way to argue so it might hurt casual conversations. This approach is very common while dismissing pseudoscience and encouraging a scientific point of view. However, it isn’t the best way to refute pseudoscience, this is.
Why did Ethan ignore Rajesh’s comments on a project? Maybe we don’t need to answer this. No one saw the ignoring, and we don’t have time for this, so it’s pointless to figure it out and see if we stay on schedule.
4. Hitchens’ Razor
What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
If someone claims there is a flying spaghetti monster looking down from the sky and is the creator of all things, you can dismiss it by just saying “no.” You don’t even have to see if it’s cloudy with a chance of meatballs.
If you feel creative, you can easily argue that it is false because it doesn’t rain spaghetti sauce.
This is a more playful approach to rejecting explanations that require too many assumptions. It can also be used to annoy others and get out of pointless arguments.
When we engage in arguments or find explanations for grand events like how the universe came to be, who created us, why we are here, or why is the internet controlled by cats, an explanation with too many assumptions can be rejected by saying, “no”. No proof for your explanation, so I need no proof to dismiss it.
Pseudoscience explanations often invoke magical explanations that cannot be observed like God made the universe while chilling with other Universe’s Gods and this one wanted to see whose universe is better. A realistic example of this is using quantum mechanics or some “energy” to explain away consciousness without having any evidence. These explanations become a belief system or spiritual approach that needs no evidence because they offer comfort and some sense of certainty. But just as these explanations come with no evidence, they are dismissed with no evidence.
Why did Ethan ignore Rajesh’s comments on a project? If you say Ethan must be going through a breakup and lost his partner to a guy named Rajesh, then it is an explanation without evidence. I will reject this explanation because there is no evidence.
5. Hume’s guillotine
If an effect is not sufficiently explained by a proposed cause, you must alter the cause or add/subtract from it to make it adequate.
When you seek an explanation for why something happened, you may consider the “size” of the effect and then reverse-engineer the size of the cause. We often make a mistake in thinking that the size of a cause should be proportional to the size of the effect. This is the proportionality bias.
Hume’s guillotine is a version of the proportionality bias, but it looks at how adequate a cause is, not how proportional it is. For example, getting distracted is an adequate cause to forget to pick up laundry. However, if forgetting to pick up laundry leads to not having good clothes for a meeting and then doing poorly, one may assume that getting distracted is insufficient because now the effect is much bigger. This is an error in judgment, the cause doesn’t have to be proportional to its effect.
Sometimes, we create conspiracy theories using Hume’s guillotine. If a political event leads to massive protests, should you assume that there was “additional” propaganda to make those rallies happen?
Why did Ethan ignore Rajesh’s comments on a project? Maybe Ethan not reading the comments clearly is sufficient to explain why he did not respond to them.
The 5 razors are a good set of “cognitive tools” for evaluating the world and navigating through uncertainty. They can help with better (or reasonable) decisions and you can apply them wherever you see fit.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
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