Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Occam's Razor

The Library at Biltmore
I couldn't sleep last night, and it wasn't any particular anxiety I was dwelling on.  Rather I was just feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic: what it has meant for our lives, what it will mean for our lives in the next weeks and months, and every unknown outcome that we will be facing.

Eventually my mind wandered to that famous philosophical principle: Occam's Razor.  This principle, like many that have been around for hundreds of years, has most certainly had its share of misinterpretation and casual use.  For example, William of Ockham (the spelling of his name varies) didn't write things like "keep it simple", though his theories could be interpreted down to that essence in our modern life.

The meaning of Occam's Razor is that it doesn't do us any good to multiply entities unnecessarily.  So, we shouldn't bring up more things than are necessary to offer an explanation of something.  Some people interpret that as the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, or that we shouldn't overthink things unnecessarily, or that we should adhere to a rule of Simplicity in all things.

As far as I'm concerned William of Ockham's main point was Ontological Parsimony.  Parsimony is a much-maligned word, I cannot stand it when people describe themselves as parsimonious when they mean "thrifty" with money and resources.  Parsimony means spareness, take the razor to an explanation and shave away the unnecessary bits, so that you can see clearly the meaning, make your inferences and work from there.

Of course Occam's Razor is an extremely influential principle in areas of logic, metaphysics, and mathematics.  William of Ockham, in my view, just really wanted to distinguish between faith and reason: there can be no complicated arguments towards the proof of the existence of God, it has to be done on faith alone: Ontological Parsimony.  What exists and what can exist?  Put a spareness to the answer, shave away the complicated arguments, reduce it to what can be known and what cannot be known, what needs to be "known" by faith alone.

So how does this principle help us now?
As we sit in our homes confused about best practices, about what our life will look like in two weeks, or two months, and the advice and rumours and confusing data about the pandemic swirls around us, an approach that utilizes a certain spareness might really help us.
Our government is telling us to stay home, wash our hands, avoid contact with those not in our own households, and to take things day by day.  It is a spare approach, it requires patience and a trust that these very simple measures will have the most profound effect.
It is a remedy to something unknown and terrifying that is simple, without a lot of complication to it, that is so basic it almost cannot be believed.

This is what is comforting my sleep-deprived brain today.

Other comforts?  I'm cooking white beans for our dinner, and again today I watched our Prime Minister give his daily news conference (so thankful for this). I did my barre workouts this morning, I'll be disinfecting all of the doorknobs and countertops as soon as I'm done writing this, and I'll FaceTime my friends later today... with a big glass of wine.

How is your day going?  Are you having trouble sleeping?  I hope you're not.
Take Care,


  1. I like being informed and so I am listening to the CBC for the daily BC Dr. Bonnie Henry and Adrian Dix conferences.
    Walking, reading, knitting, cooking and tidying up here are keeping me focused and busy. Trying not to dwell on the gravity of our circumstances as I don't want to go down that rabbit hole and I would never sleep!!
    Take care and BTW those shoes you bought for your trip are gorgeous!

    1. Hi Hostess, yes me too I'm watching the CBC for the updates, it's good reporting and I like knowing what's going on across the country. I think our Public Health and provincial and federal governments are all doing a great job. That aid package better get passed in Parliament though! Maybe it already has, come on guys get it done.
      Stay well Hostess xxx

  2. I find your posts so charming and calming. I've had a very stressful day--my dad and his wife, who live on Seattle's East Side, have had what they called the flu, but nothing serious. Yesterday my dad had to go to the ER for an unrelated reason, and because he'd had flu symptoms they put him in isolation and tested for COVID. Sure enough, he had it. Fortunately the other matter is clearing and he is not experiencing any other COVID symptoms, but they are going to keep him for a couple of days. So that make both my parents and their partners. Lots of phone calls, etc. Now I am going to put on some lipstick and pour a glass of wine for a Zoom cocktail hour with the GFs. Thanks for posting; your blog is always a source of glamour and cheer.

    1. Hex, no! My gosh all of them. I hope they all recover well without going into the very severe symptoms. Stay safe and take care, I hope you have everything you need so you don't have to go out. Thank goodness for virtual cocktail hour that would have been a balm to the soul. What a worry, I hope they get well soon.xxx

    2. Hexicon, hoping your family members make a quick recovery. I can only imagine how stressed out you must be!!! Take Care!

    3. Thank you both; my dad will be in the hospital another day or two but now that we know he has it that's the best place for him, and it will allow his wife a rest so that she can more fully recover. He's in good shape and getting good care.

  3. I love this! I was a big fan of postmodernism in university and got into all sorts of discussions along these lines. I've been organizing the house like a madwoman to de-stress. Keep calm and carry on (albeit inside!) Xx

    1. Jen yes stay inside! Thank you, yes I love using philosophy to organize my thoughts it's a good trick for the mind. Calming! I'm very grateful to be inside I have to say. I guess I should walk more but just the minimum walk up the hill with the dog is fine. Praying none of us gets sick.
      I hope you fixed that xbox, I just bought video games for my girls, the kids need things like that right now. xxx

  4. That was me above as "unknown". I am trying to fix my son's Xbox and was logged in as him!

  5. I can sleep through anything. I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse. The great thing about it is I'm always well rested. With the current goings on, I might prefer to be less alert. I have taken to avoiding the news except my BBC feed. I've been spending my confinement working which gives me something to focus on. My days are longer than when I'm in the office, though that's related to the current circumstances. It's nice to have no commute and I'm enjoying the home cooking. I would like your white bean recipe!

    1. SD I would say it's a blessing though I know what you mean, maybe not such a blessing to be alert these days, the news is very grim indeed.
      I'm really happy you can still work, what a good distraction.
      I soak white beans overnight, I use a variety called Great Northern, they look like a cannellini bean, the large white ones. Then I drain them and add them (in a dutch oven) to some olive oil, butter, dried herbs (I used bay leaves, thyme and herbs de Provence) with salt and pepper, water to cover and let them simmer for about an hour and a half. So good! I stir them occasionally and top up the water, adding more salt and pepper as I do that, if the liquid looks a little low.
      I cooked them yesterday and I have enough to make a dinner out of them again tonight. They go a long way because they are so filling too.
      Beans are definitely our friends these long weeks.
      Hope you have a good day today SD stay healthy xxx

  6. I hadn't ever heard of this philosophy stuff, my education while in school was focused on science and math, so I just learned something new today. Thank you!!
    I'm definitely isolating myself from the outside world, but my husband works in a medical field and so he is potential source of infection for me because he's still working. He's religious about sanitation though, so hopefully we can both avoid getting this virus. He is used to grocery shopping like a European and so now he's cut way back on that, going just once a week. It takes a bit more thought, but is certainly do-able. I just made a veggie omelet and am thinking that will hold me until dinner tonight with him. Trying not to gain weight under these circumstances. I do like to go for long walks alone during the day, avoiding bike trails or parks, just doing an urban walk-about with no human contact. I did that before the pandemic though, so the only thing that is different is being more aware to not walk next to anyone. I wish my wine drinking friends were in my time zone, the idea of a virtual happy hour sounds like fun! I don't think I'd want to start at 2PM my time, though! ha.

  7. Thanks for this interesting post, Dani. I like things that make me think, ponder, consider. More, please :-)

  8. Dani, I did not know about Ockham or this idea, but I love it. If everyone could just apply this to their lives now we would be so much better off. Too many people refuse to do the simple and most effective thing we have against this virus! It’s maddening. I worry the longer people resist the longer this pandemic will last. Like you I am awake thinking of this, and life! Will we ever be back to how things were? One thing for sure is we will appreciate it all the more. Thanks Dani. ❤️