All things being equal, the simplest solution is always the best. 

William of Ockham (also spelled Occam; 1287-1347), a philosopher and theologian, came from Ockham, a village in Surrey, near London. In his youth, he joined the Franciscan order and studied at Oxford, where he lectured from 1315 to 1319. At Oxford, which was then a great Franciscan centre of learning, William became the leader of a school of philosophy called nominalism.

William is now most remembered for his rule, known as Occam’s razor, which implies that the number of causes or explanations needed to account for the behaviour of a phenomenon should be kept to a minimum. It is a guiding principle in developing ideas, and it insists that you should prefer the simplest explanation to fit the facts.

For example: UFOs (unidentified flying objects) are so infrequent that they are unique to most observers. In that sense, they are true encounters of the UFO kind, but they are not encounters with extraterrestrials. ‘U’ in UFO simply means ‘unidentified’; it doesn’t suggest ‘extraterrestrial’. Most UFO fans believe that extraterrestrial intelligent beings are visiting Earth. Their belief is based on an extraordinary assumption that there are extraterrestrial intelligent beings and they visit our planet. This belief ignores Occam’s razor of preferring the simplest explanation to fit the fact: planes, jets, helicopters, balloons, strange flocks of birds; unusual light patterns caused by astronomical and meteorological phenomena; optical illusions caused by smoke and dust; psychological delusions; or deliberate hoaxes.

Advice to computer programmers to keep their programs simple – keep it simple, stupid (KISS) – is in a similar vein. But we must also heed Einstein, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’

William’s statements in his philosophical and theological writings, including the ideas on life on other worlds, aroused such opposition that he was refused his Master of Theology degree at Oxford and was ordered to appear before the papal court on charges of heresy. He fled to Germany and, according to a story, probably apocryphal, asked Emperor Louis IV for protection with the plea, ‘Protect me with your sword, O Emperor, and I shall protect you with my pen.’ He remained in Germany for the rest of his life.

© Surendra Verma 2019

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