William of Occam was a famous fourteenth century schoolman and philosopher, born at Ockham in Surrey, England.  A Franciscan, his fundamental principle was that “entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied.”  What did he mean by this?  In coming up with an explanation for any situation, the simplest explanation that adequately covers all the facts is more likely to be correct than a competing explanation which is more complicated.  One might call this the K.I.S.S. principle: keep it simple, stupid.  It is more commonly known as Occam’s Razor, from its ability to cut through to the truth.

            To take a silly example, which do you suppose is the right explanation for your friend exiting the library carrying a stack of books?  That your friend has murdered the librarian, stolen the books, and intends to use them for kindling in her fireplace?  Or, that she checked out the books and intends to read them?

            The two theories both explain what you see: your friend walking out of the library.  But, which is the simplest explanation? 

            And yet, how swift we are to cling to the worst possible explanations for most of what we see.  Someone fails to send us a birthday card on our birthday and so obviously it proves he doesn’t really love us.  If we were important to him, he would have sent us a card.  As if we have perfect memories and have never forgotten to do anything for the people we love.

            Upon learning that an underling had failed to fulfill a task, so the story goes, the men around Napoleon Bonaparte were ready to accuse the underling of treason. Napoleon’s response was instead to comment, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."   I suspect, therefore, that most of the problems we have with service at restaurants, with merchants, the DMV, and politicians on most days, are issues of incompetence, rather than malice.  Of course this might mean that sometimes, at least, the problems we have are of our own making.  After all, we should know ourselves well enough to realize that we too, have been guilty of thoughtlessness, of pulling into a lane without looking and cutting someone off, of failing to notice a stop sign, of mindlessly blundering into the express lane at the supermarket when we had a basket loaded with enough groceries to feed an army.

            So next time you are ready to believe the worst, next time you hear a complicated excuse, ask yourself, “is there an easier way to explain what happened?”  Do I need to invoke fairies or is there a more mundane explanation?  Chances are, if your toddler tells you that the reason the cookies are missing from the cookie jar, it’s because your cat had a hankering for chocolate chips, you’ll think there’s a more likely reason the cookies are gone.  Especially when one considers the chocolate and crumbs on the toddler’s face.  Take that mindset with you into the wider world.

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