The great and wise Einstein is said to have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This got me thinking about simplicity. Thinking about simplicity is a dangerous thing to do, and sure enough I over thought it and cut myself on Occam’s Razor.
If you don’t know what Occam’s Razor is, think about this classic joke,
Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson go on a camping trip. After sharing a few glasses of chardonnay, they retire for the night.
At about 3 AM, Holmes nudges Watson and says, “Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see?”
Watson said, “I see millions of stars.”
Holmes asks, “And, what does that tell you?”
Watson replies, “Astronomically, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Theologically, it tells me that whatever made all of this is beyond human comprehension. Horologically, it tells me that it’s about 3 AM. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes retorts, “Watson you idiot, someone stole our tent.”
You can think about BIG, cosmic questions and more personal, daily questions using Occam’s Razor. Genius detectives like Sherlock Holmes (and Columbo) use Occam’s Razor to solve crimes. Occam’s Razor, named after 13th century William of Occam but not used as a phrase until 500 years later, is nicely summarized by Agatha Christie, “the simplest explanation is always the most likely.” More specifically, if you have two theories, go for the simpler one.
If you’ve got a hole in your pocket, it’s more likely that money fell out than was stolen.
If there’s a broken window and your kids are holding rocks, you’ve likely found your explanation rather than the falling meteor your kids are trying to convince you it was.
If it’s a windy night and you hear noises, it’s more likely wind than ghosts.
Etc Etc, you get the idea.
Imagine the possibilities of applying Occam’s Razor to personal situations. Life is full of hurts and disappointments. There is no denying the pain of it. But it’s the extra layers of assumption and interpretation that double and triple the pain. Shave away some assumptions about why things are happening. Stop guessing the motives of other people, and adding drama to pain. The problem with taking things personally is that you add assumption to insult.
Occam’s Razor challenges us to stick as close to reality as possible; reality as it is, not as we wish it were, or fantasize it to be. There’s an interesting example of this in the movie, “She’s Just Not That Into You.”
The girl, Gigi, is talking to a male friend about why a boy didn’t call her back. He’s trying to give her some tough love but she’s in denial. She suggests that he didn’t get the message or lost the number or his grandma died or something. Alex says, “He didn’t call you because he doesn’t want to see you again.”
She says, “What if I’m the exception?”
Alex says, “You’re not. You’re the rule. And the rule is, if a guy doesn’t call you, he doesn’t want to call you.”
Sometimes the harsh truth of reality helps us to move on with our lives rather than pining for a fantasy. Occam’s Razor can cut deep at times.
The positive side of Occam’s Razor is to get to the heart of what’s essential for you. In the words of Impressionist Painter Hans Hofmann,
Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.
It’s true in art as in life. Remove unnecessary theories and baggage from your life so that your true self can shine. For some this will mean leaving behind religious beliefs. For some it will mean leaving behind self limiting beliefs about why things happened to you in the past. For some it will mean giving up expecting the world to do you any favors.
It’s natural to ask the question “Why?” a lot. Whys can make you wise. But they can also torture you with their unsolvable, unknowable roots. Whys that are directed backwards, looking for closure or certainty, are insatiable. They look for answers to questions that only lead to suffering- like why me? Why then? Why did he do that to me? These whys lead to anxiety. Occam’s Razor offers a tool to minimize the time spent on the whys and wherefores of life. Pick the simplest explanation with the least assumptions and move on.
This is so liberating. There’s more to be said about Occam’s Razor, but this is enough for now. In the next articles I will write about the difference between straightforward and simple, and complications and complexity. The reality is that we make life so much harder than it needs to be.
The basis for living simply is to simplify your mind, rein in your wild and fantastic thoughts and desires and let your essence speak clearly through your lifestyle, choices and actions.