Happenings, News

Watch that Razor!

Christians should use the Word of God as lamps unto their feet, rather than Occam’s Razor to cut out thinking and discernment

DO YOU know what Occam’s Razor is?

What is known as Occam’s Razor was actually a common principle in medieval philosophy and was not originated by the English theologian, William of Occam (1285-1349), but because of his frequent usage of the principle, his name has become indelibly attached to it.

Occam’s Razor says Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. (Plurality should not be posited without necessity.) It basically means, “The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations.”

In 1995, not long after the Oklahoma City bombings, American applied Occam’s Razor to slice away facts and quickly blamed international terrorists for the explosions. Only later did they realise that it was the work of their own Timothy McVeigh.

Occam’s Razor is also called the Principle of Parsimony. These days it is usually interpreted to mean something like “the simpler the explanation, the better” or “don’t multiply hypotheses unnecessarily”.

Isaac Newton has his own version: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”

I have my own, albeit not very original, adaptation too: “If all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail.”

As an adviser to CEOs and board chairmen, I have seen consultants trying to convince their clients to sign up for courses on problem-solving and decision-making when what their clients need is a massive revamp of their entire organisation.

I have seen software vendors trying to sell companies database programs when what those companies need are some radical corporate culture change initiatives.

Today as we grapple with the knowledge-based economy, I have met people who think that knowledge management will take place when organisations buy and install some software.

Occam’s Razor is convenient but the management of knowledge is never so simple. Yes, deciding what to do with the knowledge you have is no easy task indeed.

I saw Occam’s Razor being waved in my son’s school as well.

Eight-year old Joshua, a second-year elementary school student, has never failed his mathematics but was nevertheless one of those singled out to attend remedial classes for mathematics. They told him that they had enrolled him for the “Enable Programme”, but when I looked at his file, there it was – “Underachievers Programme”, printed in black and white.


They use Occam’s Razor to slash away the facts and label this kid an “underachiever.”

Joshua is demoralised. And he should be. At the age of 10, he was made to undergo a year-end examination to determine which stream he would be placed in.

Negative labelling has the effect of lowering children’s self-esteem. Already we are seeing children killing themselves over school-related issues. A 10-year-old committed suicide recently. Last July, the 16-year-old daughter of an acquaintance jumped to her death the day she received the results of her physics examination. The first-year junior college student had scored 38 out of 80 marks.

Psychiatrists have become much sought after because students end up with anxiety disorders resulting from classroom stress. In 1990, 5,600 students had consulted mental health professionals. By 1998, the number jumped to 20,000 with two-thirds coming from primary and pre-primary school age groups.

Ever been to a “health centre” for foot reflexology? Well, Occam is alive and well in those places too!

I went recently. Here was how the conversation went between the foot masseur and I.

Foot masseur: Wow, you’ve got thick legs – water retention, bad kidneys.
Me: Am I doing to die?
FM (ignoring me): Wow, heart also not so good.
FM (after further poking): Wow, liver also got problem.
Me: Wow, so you are a doctor huh?
FM (still ignoring me): Wow, this part connected to your brain …
Me: Wow, my brain damaged huh?
FM: Wow, you got a lot of problems.
Me: Wow, I’m so scared, and what should I do?
FM: Come for foot reflexology every day lah.
The bad salesmanship I can forgive. But someone should regulate these clowns for masquerading as health care professionals. How many people have they scared to death?

The old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing is still true. May I add a corollary? Knowledge badly managed is a damaging thing.

When it comes to spiritual matters, how often do we conveniently apply Occam’s Razor?

How often do we “jump to conclusions” (or is it “concussions”?) when we make observations about people?

Do we condemn someone as being unspiritual simply because he does not come to church anymore?

Do we chase people away because they parked at the front porch, without first finding why they have parked there? (One man who parked there for a minute or two, with the engine of his car running, to pick up his infant so that the baby would not be drenched by the rain, was hauled over the coals by a LCEC member for parking under the porch.)

Do we dismiss those who suffer from mental anguish as being demon possessed?

Do we blow up insignificant issues all in the name of spirituality?

When we see a Christian businessman entertaining clients at a setting where alcohol is served, do we immediately label him unholy?

In Romans 1:22, Paul wrote about how some who “professing to be wise” have “became fools” instead.

James reminds in James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

Watch that Razor! Use God’s wisdom instead, for His Word should be like lamps unto our feet, and lights unto our paths, (Psalms 119:105) providing perspicacity and wisdom. Brandish God’s word indeed, for it is “sharper than any double-edged sword … it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12).

Dr Michael Toon-Seng Loh is a member of Covenant Community Methodist Church.