Philosophical Razors: Cut to the Chase in Problem-Solving

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What are philosophical razors? How can you use them to solve problems efficiently? Are they always useful?

If you have a problem to solve, you might employ a philosophical razor. Philosophical razors are rules of thumb that help you quickly eliminate unlikely solutions to a problem.

Continue reading to learn a few of the most popular philosophical razors.

Philosophical Razors

Philosophers and scientists have developed a wide range of philosophical “razors” for use in argumentation. Occam’s Razor is the most familiar example, and it captures this general principle—avoid overly complex solutions when a simpler solution could suffice.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the most common philosophical razors:

  • Occam’s Razor: Occam’s Razor theory states that the simplest explanation is most often the best explanation. Given various solutions to a problem, all of which solve it equally well, you should favor the simplest answer.
  • Hanlon’s Razor: Much like Occam’s Razor, Hanlon’s Razor quickly cuts through complicated explanations. In short, it states that the most likely explanation involves the least ill intent. According to the authors, bad things usually result from ignorance or a lack of thought, rather than malice.
  • Hitchen’s Razor: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” In other words, favor the side of an argument that has stronger evidence.
  • Falsifiability: “Scientific claims must be falsifiable.” If you can’t disprove a claim through experimentation or observation, it likely has no practical value—like debating whether God exists.
  • Grice’s Razor: “Prefer conversational implications over literal interpretations.” That is, respond to what someone appears to mean rather than interpreting his argument in an uncharitable way, such as by strawmanning his points. 

Note that no razor is correct in every case. So instead of treating them as ironclad rules, use them as guiding principles that help you avoid wasting time on probably wrong solutions.

Each can be misused, too. For instance, you could mistake Occam’s Razor as suggesting that “God created and causes everything,” since that’s a very simple explanation for our universe. However, this neglects another principle—falsifiability, as above—that suggests that unfalsifiable explanations are of no use. Given this, avoid using Occam’s Razor as an all-purpose cutting tool; use other mental models to complement it and find your way to good solutions.

Philosophical Razors: Cut to the Chase in Problem-Solving

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  • What mental models are and how they work
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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