Lost Among Europeans

Occam's razor

There are a number of objectionable strategies that are sometimes used in discussions. Occam’s razor, properly applied, means that among several competing explanations for something, the simplest is the most likely. In the hands of fools, it becomes a tool for declaring explanations to be true, because they’re simpler than some other possible explanation that they’ve chosen. I have a negative reaction to this type of argument, just as I do with many of the arguments coming from people who describe themselves as rational. “If you think about it …” is thrown around too lightly.

But this article is not a diatribe against of Occam’s razor, which I like as a principle. Rather, I want to say that I find it a difficult principle to apply. I have a hard time finding the simplest and likeliest explanations, and a natural tendency to think in convoluted webs of cause and effect.

For instance: the last couple of years, come winter, my knuckes have been becoming dry and chapped. No matter that I put cream on them and treated them gingerly, my poor knuckles suffered well into spring. Oddly, my lips were just fine. What were my explanations for this? An effect of growing old, or perhaps, some nutritional deficiency that was leaving my skin weakened to the elements. I found the right explanation after my third consecutive winter of knuckle redness: my gloves had an inner seam that was rubbing my knuckles raw. A few weeks after replacing my gloves, my knuckles are as good as new.

I’m particularly thick in this department. My mind finds simple things too mundane.

But I’m not alone. In fact I see offense to simple thinking all around me. An example: people looking with dissatisfaction at the photos they take, and envying some friend’s photos. The likely explanation: their friend has practiced more, has taken more shots and chosen to show less of them, has learned composition, and has mastered his camera. The explanation likely chosen: the friend’s camera, or lens, is better. Boy that Nikon sure is better than my dumpy Canon. Man, what I could do with that pro lens.

Another one: this woman, or man, is being cruel to me, playing hot and cold, being inconsistent. Probably a sadist. The likely explanation: that person is not thinking at all about you.

Complicated explanations can be true, of course, and often they’re more interesting. Nothing wrong with getting lost in some mental mazes now and then.

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