Philosophical Razors That Will Sharpen Your Mind | Critical Thinking

Life can happen at such a speed that our minds struggle in a constant state of flux. There are many aspects to manage, which can lead to long-term fatigue and burnout. Our brains are constantly pulled into different directions, and we can’t assist ourselves by over-analyzing everything. Who wouldn’t want to eliminate all of the noise in their life?

The choices we make in life and work depend on our attitude. Sometimes we get lost, and this is when we need tools to make better choices and be more efficient. One such tool is the philosophical razor.

What is a Philosophical Razor

Philosophical razors are principles or rules of thumb which allow you to rule out unlikely explanations for a phenomenon or to avoid taking unnecessary actions.

They’re mental techniques that aim to focus on the most important things and cut out all the other distractions. Their fundamental principles can help you make faster decisions when eliminating distracting thoughts. While reducing stress on your brain, these razors can minimize confusion and increase clarity.

Philosophical Razor: What is it?

“A razor cuts off the needless assumption.” — Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

Philosophical razors in everyday life can be used as tools for critical thinking to remove noise, cut away unnecessary elements, be aware of the issue, and help you make better choices.

Similar to cognitive biases, which can cause mistakes in thinking and are due to the capacity of our brain to use shortcuts, Razors are mental techniques that allow for better judgment; however, they’re not right 100% of the time. The use of razors can prove very beneficial if used correctly.

List of Philosophical Razors

In essence, philosophical razors aid us in understanding the reasons for and what happens even when we do not have all the facts and come up with theories that appear more plausible. With this in mind, here are a few of the most influential philosophical razors:

Occam’s Razor

The most simple or straightforward explanation should be preferred over a more complex explanation that has many variables. This is also known as the “law of parsimony.”

There are different possible interpretations of Occam’s Razor as well. Bertrand Russel says an explanation for the unknown should be first based on theories from the well-known. Newton states that the most effective explanations of natural phenomena are typically simple and enough to provide an explanation. If they are not enough and too complicated, you should drop these explanations and go with something that is just adequate.

“Entities shouldn’t be multiplied unless absolutely necessary,” the law of Occam’s Razor.

The explanation should not be a multiplication of causes in the absence of a need; when several explanations are provided, the most simple, comprehensive explanation is preferred.

Effect of not applying Occam’s razor

When we are faced with a problem, we are affected by ideas that are easily conceived in our minds. Without applying Occam’s razor, we might choose the information that supports our beliefs and select solutions that match our ideas, even if they need more scaffolding to help.

How do you Apply Occam’s razor?

  • Use first-principle thinking to cut an issue into its most fundamental elements and then formulate an answer from the ground up.
  • Utilize second-order thinking to evaluate the effect of your decision in the long term. Ensure you optimize for long-term gains at the cost of short-term pain. 
  • Concentrate on the key elements of the issue.
  • Eliminate the most unlikely choices.
  • Find solutions that don’t require any assumptions.

As Ray Dalio says in Principles, “Failing to think about the consequences of second and third order can lead to many painfully poor choices, and it’s particularly deadly when the initial less desirable option is one that confirms your own biases. Do not take the first option you have, regardless of how appealing it appears, before you’ve questioned it and explored it.”

In sum, Simple solutions are better than complex assumptions.

Hanlon’s Razor

“Never attribute the blame to something that can be more easily explained by ignorance or inattention .” — Hanlon’s Razor

We see the world from our point of view. The range of lenses that can be adapted to the world around us is astounding.

For most people you’ve met, you’re just a tiny part of their perspective, but our underlying assumptions can make it easy to believe their negative actions are to resent us. 

I don’t think most people are devious; they’re just missing some data we may have. They may have incorrect information or some other thing that caught their attention. There’s no reason to think the worst of them as we don’t have the ability to discern minds.

Stupidity is a loaded term; however, what it could really be is ignorance. For my attention, many things compete in our brains, and the same is true for other people.

Never assume bad intent when it can be explained by incompetence, ignorance, negligence, or other plausible factors.

Example of Hanlon’s razor

If a fellow student isn’t willing to assist you in studying instead of assuming the worst motives (they do not want to share their knowledge), a different reason could be that they are overwhelmed with work and cannot take any additional responsibility.

The impact of not applying Hanlon’s razor

The assumption that the person in question is acting with bad motives can cause communication to break down and restricts what you are able to accomplish together. You may also disengage yourself from other people as well as refuse to work together and even ignore opportunities that can benefit you.

Humans are wired to bear an emotional weight of an emotional experience more than a positive one; not using Hanlon’s razor can cause excessive thinking that can affect your mental health and personal well-being.

How do you apply Hanlon’s razor?

  • Take a look beyond your personal narrative.
  • Think about the issue from a different person’s viewpoint.
  • Remove yourself from taking on a central position in every act.
  • Instead of blaming other people for the wrongdoing, take a moment to reflect on the incident and consider alternatives.

Hitchens’ Razor

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” — Christopher Hitchens.

The razor of Hitchens is an excellent time-saver and pressure-reducing technique. If someone makes claims without evidence to back them up, you don’t need to waste time and energy disproving them; it’s up to them to change your mind.

The Hitchens razor is relevant to fake news that floods social media; there are new and bizarre conspiracy theories every day.

You can safeguard your mind by asking yourself a few questions.

If the information you’ve received doesn’t meet these tests, you can ignore it. It isn’t to be malicious towards the source.

Applying Hitchens’ razor to our lives can be uncomfortable, but it will allow us to improve our lives. Confirmation bias refers to when we believe things and information consistent with our current assumptions. The issue is that a large portion of us have poor reference points for the reality of the world. The book Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, found even people employed in the UN have outdated mental models of what the world looks like.

Sagan standard

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – Carl Sagan

If someone claims their name is Justine, it’s not an extraordinary claim; It’s reasonable to just believe them.

Sagan made the idea a hit through his Cosmos series in the 1980s when he debated whether aliens had ever visited Earth.

Suppose someone claims that they, or their guru/religious/spiritual teacher, can contact the dead, see the future, read minds, cure or heal any disease or sickness, talk directly with God (and have God talk back unambiguously), perform miracles, or that they have supernatural powers of any kind. In that case, these are extraordinary claims, which must be backed up by extraordinary evidence such as a live demonstration. What counts is not what sounds plausible. Not what we’d like to believe. Not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Effect of not implementing Sagan standard

In not adhering to Sagan’s rules, you give into the ideas and beliefs residing in people’s minds instead of explanations grounded in research and testing. Buying products and not using Sagan razor can result in bad decisions when big claims are given priority, even if there is less evidence to support these claims.

Businesses and people alike have to be cautious when making decisions. What is good in the abstract may not be the case in reality.

How do you implement Sagan’s Standard?

  • Don’t take claims of extraordinary magnitude as it is given. Instead of deciding between two sides, take a look at the evidence.
  • Ask questions to better understand the situation or the person claiming something.
  • Make use of experiments to test the theory, hypothesis, or notion.

In conclusion, make sure to distinguish the fanciful claims that make false claims to be good stories with actuality and feasibility.

Grice’s Razor

“As a principle of parsimony, conversational implications are to be preferred over semantic context for linguistic explanations.” — Paul Grice.

Parsimony is a fancy word for Occam’s razor. What Grice says is to read between the lines of what people say. Many people don’t spell out precisely what they are saying but assume that you are able to comprehend. If I say I can accomplish something in just a minute, it doesn’t mean I’ll accomplish the task in 60 seconds. 

Grice’s Razor is a reference to Occam’s razor, highlighting the importance of simplicity (Parsimony) in interpreting the meaning.

“Senses are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” — Paul Grice

Grice Razor says that context is paramount and the ‘literal’ interpretation of the message should not be taken as a whole. Let’s look at a quick example:

John: Kelvinare you planning to attend the ongoing meeting?

Kelvin: Let me take a cup of coffee

When John asked the question in terms of literal meaning, Kelvin did not answer his question. You’re probably thinking, Naa; We already know what he was saying; but ‘how’ do we know?

As a listener/reader, you draw the meaning of the phrase; for instance, Kelvin will be attending the meeting right after having the coffee (because the meeting is likely to be quite long). While there’s no definitive yes or no answer in his reply, he’ll likely be there soon; when we make these assumptions, we’re applying Grice’s Razor.

It can be a frustrating experience for both sides when a person isn’t able to apply Grice’s razor. Although you would like for someone to be more clear, however, you aren’t able to force them to be clearer. It’s up to you to understand the implications yourself.

How to apply Grice’s razor

  • Do not focus on what words mean in their literal sense; look beyond words and purpose.
  • Refrain from wasting your time with the meaning of words or irrelevant details. Instead, concentrate only on the message.
  • Pay attention and ask clarification questions.

Accept the imperfection of communication and concentrate on the intention.

Hume razor

“If the cause, assigned for any effect, is not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.” – David Hume.

Hume’s razor states that the causes have to be able to cause the result that they are assigned; e.g., The fall of a power line isn’t enough to trigger a national blackout.

Suppose the proposed cause isn’t able to create the effect we observe. In that case, We must either remove the reason for it and develop an alternative hypothesis or demonstrate what needs to be added to cause the effect. What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is.

Alder’s Razor (or Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword)

If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate.

This approach could help you quit arguing about irrelevant issues. However, it could turn you into the perfect party spoiler.

Imagination and fantasies are art forms that don’t require experimenting and observation but are valuable nonetheless. Thinking in hypotheticals is an effective method of building empathy. Ill-logical thoughts and fantasies enrich children’s minds because they increase mental flexibility.

There are many more motives than the pursuit of knowledge: To have fun and to feel intelligent, but when it comes down to professional work, such answers or statements won’t be able to change anything as they can’t be verified.

For most people, logic and science aren’t the only methods to comprehend the world. Most people dislike uncertainty; they need explanations and answers. Two psychological processes are in the picture here. In this case, Sense-making and the need for closure; Newton’s laser sword flames attack both and may cause more harm than good.

  • Sense-making: Individuals want to communicate their experiences in a way they believe to be acceptable and credible, even if they’re incorrect.
  • Need for mental closure: Some people are inclined to detail, structure, and completeness. They actively search for answers because they are uncomfortable.

Newton’s laser sword can be used to cut through and stop pointless arguments. It can also be viewed as a threatening method of debate and could affect conversations in casual settings. This method is widely used when it comes to denying and promoting the scientific perspective.

The Popper Falsifiability Principle

Scientific claims have to be proven.

“It is easy to obtain confirmations or verifications for nearly every theory if we look for confirmations. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify or refute it.” – Karl Popper

The explanation is in-depth within an article on Scientific Argumentation. Fundamentally, due to the inductive logic problem, the falsifiability principle allows us to inductively eliminate other theories. In a different way, say X is so abstract that we can’t ever verify X or falsification of X. The claim cannot be used for any practical reason in the first instance. 

Arena Razor

“It is not the critic who counts; it is not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat, and blood.”

If you’re the founder of a startup, you are the man in the arena. You’ll feel uncomfortable, and many will doubt your professional and personal decisions. It is essential to develop a solid and desirable stance and take the time to avoid people who aren’t able to provide any helpful advice. However, you should be able to rely on the advice and opinions of other individuals in the arena, especially those who have managed to find success in the arena.

Luck Razor

You should put yourself in a situation in which luck is more likely to come to you.

It’s difficult to make a fortune in a situation where you work in a closed environment, but it’s reasonably easy to become lucky when you’re working on exciting projects in a booming market and working with people at the forefront of your field.

Success in a startup is unlikely, So you’ll require a lucky break or two on your way to success. The ability to increase your chance of spotting gold is valuable.

Einstein’s Razor

Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. 

Feynman’s Razor

If you cannot explain a concept to a child, then you don’t understand it yourself; it’s only when you completely understand a subject that you can break everything down to its core.

This is a crucial principle on two levels. When communicating your product or business plan to other stakeholders, you must clearly explain what you are offering, or you risk being misunderstood.

As the owner of a business, you’ll need to deal with the arguments offered by others. Develop the ability to discern the noise of people’s opinions to understand the meaning behind their words (or lack of).


Read More: Deductive and Inductive Reasoning

Read More: Objective And Subjective Reasoning: How It Affects Our Decisions

Read More: Game Theory: Concepts To Effectively Navigate Life


Rooms Razor

Being the most knowledgeable person in the group can be good for your ego, but there are better options if you’re looking to improve your skills. It’s only sometimes comfortable; however, sifting through areas where you’re the least intelligent (and skilled) can be where you’ll see the best personal and professional improvement.

This is especially the case for people who are trying to reach beyond their current capabilities.

Russell’s Teapot

The burden of proof in a philosophical sense is on the person who makes an empirically non-falsifiable claim instead of shifting the burden of proof to other people.

Gell-Mann’s Razor

Consider that every article in the media contains an element of falsified information.

Naval’s Razor

If you cannot decide between two alternatives, go with the route that’s more difficult or painful in the short term; this will help counteract hyperbolic discounting, which is the brain’s tendency to overestimate short-term pain and underestimate long-term pain.

Discomfort Razor 

The more uncomfortable an activity is, the more likely it is to lead to expansion and growth; however, the more relaxed the activity, the more likely it is to cause stagnation.

Everyday Razor

If you shift from completing the same task every week to completing it daily, you will achieve 7 years of output in 1 year. If you apply 1% compound interest each time, you achieve 54 years of output in 1 year.

Tarzwell’s Razor

The more emotional you feel, the less you should trust your judgment.

Narcissism Razor

If you’re concerned about other people’s opinions, be aware that they’re focused on the opinions of others about them (99 percent of the time, you’re extra in someone else’s film).

Network Razor

If you know two individuals who could benefit from an introduction to each other, Do it.

Smart Friends Razor

If you’re unsure about a tiny bet, but your trusted and smart friends are confident, place the bet. If you wait for the rest of society to affirm the bet, you’ll be too late.

Conclusion

This is a partial list of all possible razors; in reality, they are more of a rule-of-thumb than formal tools. The decision of whether a razor should be used is dependent on the context that is being debated, as razors have little influence. If your objective is to persuade someone to adopt the merits of a different viewpoint, a razor will likely provide little assistance. Grice’s razor is by far the most universal of razors, as it can be applied to any discussion as well as Popper’s, which is essential to science. While the other razors may be highly effective, they should only be used to evaluate your personal beliefs by keeping an open-minded view rather than convincing others that their beliefs have been slashed.

Occam’s Razor – rational principles explained

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