Opinion: Sharp as a razor


Even before the disposable variety, there was Ockham’s razor. Granted, they are very different kinds of devices. The former removes unwanted body hair, and the other is an intellectual device in philosophy that pares off the doubtful to focus one’s attention on the more likely.  In the 14th century, William Ockham is attributed with formalizing some earlier thinking into his notion that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, whatever is most likely the cause can be assumed to be it. While the outraged conspiracy theorists among us may advance innumerable alternatives, Ockham would have suggested that we stay with the simplest probable causation.

The term “razor” to define the thinking came in the 19th century from Irish academic William Rowan Hamilton. Now, the expression is used in a variety of mostly scientific, philosophical, or economics concepts. It is all very highbrow. But in 1980, comedic writer Robert J. Hanlon compiled a joke book centered on the notion of Murphy’s Law (namely, that if anything can go wrong, it will).

In a clever riff on Murphy, Hanlon took the notion that “we’d better be prepared because it is tough out there” to a new level, asserting, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Like Ockham’s, Hanlon’s razor attempts to walk we humans back from our all-too-eager willingness to imagine conspiracy where a more simple but less dramatic cause is probably the root. Evolution has brought us to be curious, unrelenting and suspicious. Caution has kept us alive. Still, the principle can go too far. We imagine all manners and sort of slight, insult, and intrigue. Most people act through ignorance, incompetence or disinterest – not malice. Knowing it could improve our relationships and calm our anxieties, a sharp razor reduces the burn.