The Principle of Simplicity

In philosophy the principle of simplicity is often referred to as “Ockham’s Razor,” named after William of Ockham, a fourteenth-century English philosopher. The “razor” signifies the elimination of unnecessary complexities when evaluating opposing theories or explanations. Put simply, Ockham’s Razor is the notion that the simpler theory or explanation is always more likely to be true. In laymen’s terms this is often referred to as the “K.I.S.S.” principle: “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”

The reason I think this is worth mentioning is the propensity for all of us to at times overlook this principle and give in to the temptation to opt for complexity. For some reason we sometimes assume a direct relationship between a theory’s complexity and its validity. Let me offer an example from the realm of health and fitness. A common belief by many people thanks to the popularity of the Atkins Diet and its various spin-offs is that eating carbs causes weight gain. The reasoning (oversimplified here in the interest of time) is that eating carbs causes a biochemical chain reaction in the body including a spike in insulin levels in the bloodstream that ultimately results in increased adipose tissue (fat storage). The problem here isn’t with the biochemical mechanism involving insulin itself; that is a scientifically proven process. The problem is rather with the overshadowing of the simpler principle of calories in/calories out (energy balance). At the end of the day (literally) if you consume more calories than you burn, the excess energy will be stored in the body in the form of fat. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, your body will draw on its fat stores for energy and you will lose fat. All other things being equal, strictly in terms of fat loss, eating 100 calories of pure sugar will have the same effect as eating 100 calories worth of raw vegetables (the former is of course less healthy from the standpoint of overall nutrition, however). The reason low-carb diets work for many people has nothing to do with insulin. The reason they work is that they cause an alteration to one’s diet that results in the consumption of fewer total calories over time. That’s the only reason any diet ever works. There are fat low-carb dieters. There are obese low-fat dieters. There are overweight vegetarians. There are portly omnivores. (There are also plenty of overweight gym rats–people who spend countless hours of their lives at the gym attempting to lose fat, a topic for another post.) Have I sufficiently beaten this dead horse?

Make no mistake: the principle of simplicity won’t solve the world’s age-old debates. After all, there are many issues on which there is valid disagreement on what actually constitutes the simpler explanation. For example, theists believe God is the “First Cause” that best explains the existence of the universe and is the reason why something exists rather than nothing. Atheists, on the other hand, argue that God is a very complex being whose own existence is incomprehensible; therefore the simpler, more reasonable explanation must be a natural one even though we may not currently have a full understanding of it. Other examples can be drawn from the worlds of politics and other “soft” sciences.

Notwithstanding the more complex issues of our day, it certainly can’t hurt to remind ourselves of the principle of simplicity to make sure we aren’t making things harder than they ought to be in our everyday lives. Are there any areas you can think of where we might benefit from a reminder to K.I.S.S.? Please share!

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2 comments on “The Principle of Simplicity

  1. Maria Diaz Schmitt
    March 10, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    On a mundane level, I would say that entertaining can be a real strain when I want everything to be perfect and home made, plus a perfectly clean house. Yet there are times when very good times have been had even though there was not much planning (spur of the moment) and food was brought in. Simplicity, something that is a struggle for me. The logic you use Louis with respect to diet is so true.I know that most of the time I am eating more calories than I can possibly burn, yet most of the time I keep doing it!

  2. Louis
    March 10, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

    But oh how the rest of us benefit from your entertainment/hosting planning! It’s probably not an “either/or” in that sense, but rather finding a balance. As far as calories, it starts with awareness. We should all be eating about 10 x our body weight or target body weight in calories. Start keeping track of what you eat in a small notebook and tally it up at the end of the day and week, and see what your average caloric intake is vis a vis the target and adjust accordingly. You know I’m willing to help with this if you like. Thanks for the comment!

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