Deeper Into Jeopardy! XXII: Wise Guys – $1600

Jeopardy! category: WISE GUYS (02-07-2014)

$1600 clue: William of Ockham used the logical “principle of economy” so effectively, it’s known as Ockham’s this tool

Correct response

The gist: It’s simultaneously one of the most useful, and the most misused, tools in philosophy. 

Ockham’s razor (also “Occam’s,” which is how I’ll be spelling it purely out of habit), aka the lex parsimoniae or the clue’s “principle of economy,” was named after 14th century English monk William of Ockham, who did loads of important work on logic and other aspects of philosophy, and according to William Hamilton, used it to great effect. The razor states that:

Among competing hypotheses, when it is uncertain which is correct, the hypothesis that makes the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.

There’s a lot going on in that sentence, and I’m no logician myself, so I’ll try to keep this brief. First, Occam’s razor is not a tool to discover which among competing hypotheses is true, it is only a heuristic to aid in predicting which is more likely to be true – and which is more warranting of further research (and further research grants). Second, an “assumption” is something that needs to be true for a hypothesis to be correct, but lacks a sufficiently rigorous evidence base to qualify as an axiom. Nearly all theories have some assumptions, but the best ones keep them to a minimum.

In everyday life, however, this is often paraphrased as “the simplest solution is probably the right one.” This is a much less useful idea. For one thing, if the idea of “simple” is understood as its frequent synonym “easy,” measurement of simplicity is clearly very subjective – what’s easy to one person is all too often next to impossible for another. Moreover, this loose definition of Occam’s razor can be used to justify magical thinking – to many, some sort of mysterious force that animates the universe is a very “simple” explanation of nature, since it doesn’t require them to actually engage with the difficult work of, you know, proving things. It’s very simple to say that God created the universe 6000 years ago out of nothing, but it ignores the vast tracts of sometimes extremely complicated but equally compelling evidence against that idea.

A pre-Occam formulation of Occam’s razor by John Duns Scotus, in a Latin manuscript: “plurality is not to be posited without necessity”

The clue: I find the last three words of this one, “Ockham’s this tool,” a bit awkwardly worded, but it’s hardly a big deal as there’s only one thing that ever goes along with Ockham. And all this clue really amounts to is word association. However, I do like that the writers have taken the opportunity to mention that the razor is a principle and a tool, not a law.

In Jeopardy!: The Jeopardy! writers don’t seem to be able to decide between “Occam” and “Ockham,” but together the old monk appears in just a dozen clues in the J!Archive, far fewer than I would have expected for such a well-known idea. And for an idea opposed to plurality, there’s certainly a plurality of correct responses when it comes up. “Razor” is only in the correct response twice (once requiring the full “Occam’s razor”). William himself is the correct response in seven. Among the other three are Britain (his country of origin), Oxford (his place of employment), and Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a fourteenth century Italian monastery with the “detective” character played by a visiting English friar and close friend of William of Ockham’s.

So, Occam’s razor is not so common in Jeopardy! clues – but it can also be applied to nearly every clue in the show, since the simplest option is probably the right one in those, too.

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