Ockham

It’s a small Surrey village just off the A3. The Black Swan[1] in Ockham is a nice place to eat on a summer day. Although Surrey is a populous county there are many picturesque spots in its countryside. It’s best to describe the village as semi-rural as it’s an easy commute to Guildford.

It’s often a dictum used by politician, managers, and decision makers. Keep it Simple Stupid (KISS) appeals because it’s simple to remember as much as it implores simplicity.

Some sayings are plain folk-law and get repeated because they strike cord with everyday lived experience. Dig a bit and there’s little logic or foundation. KISS offers both a sense that it’s common sense and that there must be some underlying reasoning behind it. Surely, it must be more efficient to try to keep arrangements as simple as possible. That might be processes, procedures, training or even designs.

Although KISS is highly appealing it isn’t, by closer inspection, how we live our lives. Layers and layers of complexity underly everything we do. The issue is that most of the time we do not see the complexity that serves us. A case in point is my iPhone. Yes, its human interface has been designed with KISS in mind, but its functions are provided by levels of complex circuitry and software that go way beyond my understanding. So, we have an illusion of simplicity because complexity is hidden from our eyes. Quite frankly, I have no need to know how my iPhone works. It would only be curiously that would lead me to find out.

Now, I’m going to sound crazy. Because within the complexity, I have ignored there’s a simplicity. Deep in the complex circuitry and software of my iPhone is a design that has converged on the minimum needed to perform its functions. If that were not so then this handheld device would likely be the size of a house.

Ockham’s Razor[2] is a principle of simplicity. It asks us to believe that the simplest theory is more likely to be the true one. It’s like saying nature is lazy. It will not make its inner workings more complex than is needs to be. Even when those inner working can appear complex.

I remember one of my teachers saying that mathematicians are inherently lazy. What he meant was that they are always seeking the simplest way of explaining something. If there are two ways of getting from A to B why take the long one?

The popular expression of Ockham’s Razor is: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

Ockham did not invent the principle of simplicity, but his name is ever associated with it. He pushed the boundaries of thinking. Not bad for a 14th-century English philosopher. 


[1] https://www.blackswanockham.com/

[2] https://iep.utm.edu/ockham/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s