This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Great Mental Models Volume 1" by Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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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.
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.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Great Mental Models Volume 1 summary:
- What mental models are and how they work
- How to make better decisions by using mental models
- How to use your imagination to evaluate your choices