Razors Gillette Did Not Make

In philosophy and science, there is the concept of a razor. The idea is to reduce a situation or observation to the most simple form possible, while retaining it’s important elements. None provide proof, merely insight.

You are no doubt familiar with some of them.

Occam’s Razor

Fourteenth century philosopher, William of Ockham proposed that given many explanations of a certain phenomenon, the simplest was most likely to be right. Not conclusive, but a place to begin. The idea is to cut away all the unneeded material. It aims to find essence and is the foundation for the Keep It Simple Stupid approach.

Hitchen’s Razor

Christopher Hitchens was a late 20th century socio-political critic. His razor claims the  burden of proof of a concept lies with the one making the assertion. It leads to a life-simplifying position, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”  This razor prevents arguing with ourselves.

Alder’s Razor

Michael Alder is an Australian mathematician. “There must be a list of observable consequences that can be shown to be necessarily attached to the thesis presented.” Similar to Newton’s idea that if you cannot demonstrate it, it is not worthy of consideration.

Hume’s Guillotine

That’s a pretty assertive razor. Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out the “is-ought problem.”  It’s premise is you cannot make evaluative statements based on non-evaluative evidence. You cannot argue successfully for what should be from what is.

“What is” comprises many more factors than are evaluated in the “ought” and until all aspects are considered there is no basis for a proscriptive remedy.

Hanlon’s Razor

This is my personal favourite razor. It warns against assigning agency to a particular outcome. “Never attribute to deceit or malice anything adequately explained by incompetence, laziness, or stupidity.”

It has been oft -repeated and reworded but the result is that assigning agency is an error-prone activity. We never know what people are thinking. Winston Churchill and Napoleon have invoked it to condition responses to situations.

The principle involved is one of risk management. If you assign agency where it does not exist, you will miss the real source of the risk you are trying to defend. You can estimate easily that laziness, stupidity, and incompetence are far more commonplace than cleverness and initiative. When unsure of the probability of something, bet on the base rate.

Nevertheless, even paranoids have enemies.

The takeaway

Life is complicated and we can be more successful if we do not add unneeded complications. Most of those are the result of heuristics or cognitive biases. The razors are intended to cut away the excess parts of a given presentation and allow us to focus on the kernel.

It is the idea of abductive reasoning. Such reasoning provides a simple, plausible answer, unburdened by exhaustive proof. This form of reasoning is quite common although unrecognized. It is a better alternative than an emotional response and requires little maintenance. Just continuing observation to be sure nothing has changed or been added.

Simplicity doesn’t lie. Thinking clearly means finding simplicity. The razors help


I help people have more retirement income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email don@moneyfyi.com

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