5 Misunderstood Philosophy Quotes. Ockham’s Razor

This morning i found myself yet again browsing through pages upon pages of philosophy quotes. There is just something I like about browsing through tonnes of these tiny little snippets of philosophy, each a tiny little window into vast and complex philosophical systems and ideas, any of which I could peer through by reading these short, sometimes simple quotes. Unfortunately however in my google-spree, more often than not it turns out that many of these quotes are recycled ‘junk philosophy’, that contains wisdom that one philosopher had at a time, but has been repeated over and over again to the point where it’s hard to determine which philosopher had even said it, let alone what they really mean when they said it. This awful chinese-whisper like transformation seems to remove and/or drastically change the ideas that these philosophers originally meant, and what’s worse is that these horrible corrupted versions often fall into ‘common knowledge’. We all know the people that Ayn Rand talks about in her “Why Philosophy” spiel, where she points out the various sayings that are heard every day, and shows the link to the real philosophy that is behind them but seemingly invisible to those advocating it. What ever doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, right? How many people would correctly identify that as Nietzsche, further how many people would understand him and what he means when he says it? though I think that would be asking a lot in this circumstance, i mean, it’s Nietzsche, i feel like i can’t understand him at the best of times.

So in all of my rage filled yelling directed at my monitor, inspired by these awful recycled philosophy, i feel obliged to balance the Internet out in my own small way, by going through a few quotes, and trying to re-open these little windows of insight, so that people may once again gaze in at the beauty that is the philosophy being quoted, and go past mere words. Over the coming weeks i will explore 5 of the most commonly misused and misunderstood quotes and hopefully restore them to what philosophy quotes ought to be; Windows to the world of ideas.

“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” – William of Ockham


Ockham’s razor, is one of a few philosophical razors and by far the most well known (slightly ahead of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword’ which is likely known purely because of it’s badass name). The purpose of these razors are to provide a principled ‘rule of thumb’ to help us cut down (hence razor) on the amount of theories, or the complexities within the theories, and to help us in choosing which theories to discount and which to take on board. Ockham’s razor is as the quote suggests, that the number of entities (things, concepts, variables, etc) should be kept to a minimum, as the simpler the theory, the less things that could go wrong with it. It’s purpose is to help us decide between competing hypotheses, and as a guide when creating them, when two hypotheses have the same explanatory power, the one with the simplest, least amount of assumptions and ancillary hypotheses should be preferred.

Karl Popper talks extensively about the problems caused by ancillary hypotheses and how people tend to shift the blame when something goes wrong with the hypothesis, which razor’s like Ockham’s (Popper appropriates Ockham’s razor and reformulates it, to fit his falsifiability criteria, by the way) would surely help fix.

Where people go wrong

it’s always thrown about in the strangest of ways and so widely misused it would surely raise the blood pressure of any nearby philosophers, even Galileo made fun of the misuse in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

I could write endless pages on this one, but I’ll save that for the next quote. The biggest problem I encounter when reading people talk about this razor, is when people misunderstand and say that it’s “the simpler the theory, the more likely it is to be true”, which is definitely not the case, perhaps with other razors, but not this one.

Let us consider a theoretical situation. We have just witnessed a phenomenon, which we label A. Now, we think about A, and attempt to explain and understand why and how the phenomenon came to be, and instantly, we have multiple, competing hypotheses. Ockham’s razor suggests that the one with the least ‘quantitative things’’ ought to be preferred based on practical grounds. We have hypothesis B and C. B has 4 major concepts within, and 6 ancillary hypotheses, that rely on outside theories and conceptual understandings and a vast structured metaphysics. C however has only 3 major concepts, and only 1 ancillary hypothesis; They both have the same explanatory power, in that, they both, if true, allow us to sufficiently understand this phenomenon (whether it’s causal nature or whatnot). This is a rule of thumb, this does not make that simpler theory more likely to be true, it makes it easier to test. Further if C is wrong, you do not have to look far to alter the hypothesis, because you have few major hypothesis and only one ancillary, as opposed to B. If B was called into question, we would need to sort through all those ancillary hypotheses, call into question the metaphysics, and question all of the hypotheses that it contains.


Eternal Recurrence

The most well known version of the concept of ‘Eternal Recurrence’, sometimes known as ‘Eternal Return’, was posited as a thought experiment by Friedrich Nietzsche. Though not the first to encounter this idea, Nietzsche struggled with the concept for a long time, he felt at that the idea of the Eternal Recurrence was the most disturbing and most puzzling of all value judgements, and seems to highlight his critique of values very well.

It is important to note that this is a Thought experiment and not a metaphysical claim. Though Nietzsche had originally intended it as a claim to truth, prior to the writing of the Gay Science he had reformulated it into a purely hypothetical concept.

The concept as put forth by Nietzsche is as follows.

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.

At first it seems difficult to understand the purpose of this thought experiment at all, though the beginning phrase, “The greatest weight” alludes to the problem Nietzsche had encountered. If we know we are to experience the same things over and over again, how would we value things? Even the slightest actions would be given almost infinite weight, as we would be forced to experience them over and over and over countless times. In the only case in which i could ever answer in the affirmative would be if i were to have lived every moment in my life to the highest…. highest what? Nietzsche had undone pretty much all values possible. I cannot say i live morally as Nietzsche had clearly undone that. How am i to solve this riddle?

One possible approach is that Nietzsche was putting this forth as a kind of ‘imperative’, similar to that of Kant. If we are to run our lives through this thought experiment, what will our reaction be to the demon? We are not borrowing any systemic approach, we are not being told how to value, we are simply being asked what we value by having this question asked of us. But at the same time it seems to be the greatest burden imaginable to have to re-live life over and over. In the perfect possible world, where i have done everything to the point that i am satisfied with life, i feel i have lived it to it’s greatest extent; this is the only situation i can conceive of in which i would rejoice. However where does that leave us? We cannot exactly use that in any meaningful way in life, even if we strive towards that goal, we will likely never reach it, and have to deal with these great burdens.

Nietzsche’s vague response to these issues are as follows:

To endure the idea of the recurrence one needs: freedom from morality; new means against the fact of pain ( pain conceived as a tool, as the father of pleasure…); the enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the “will”; abolition of “knowledge-in-itself.”

Greatest elevation of the consciousness of strength in man, as he creates the overman.

from The Will to Power, s. 1053,1056,1058,1060, Walter Kaufmann transl.

If we are to abolish so many of these core values that we hold, are we not just evading the problem by rendering life meaningless? Or do i contradict Nietzsche’s philosophy by taking his theory of the overman by adopting his values towards it, becoming the very thing he warns against? This mystery seems unsolvable to me, with my limited understanding of what is very clearly a complicated and radical philosophy.

It seems to understand the thought experiment, and to understand Nietzsche’s philosophy itself continually falls back on his rejection of morality and of herd mentality, which is by no means an easy task. Perhaps without a proper understanding of Nietzsche i shall never fully unravel the mystery of eternal recurrence as he saw it.

*This is just a test blog post, scrambled down in the early hours so forgive the quality!