Ockham's Razor and Chemistry

Hyle 3 (1):3 - 28 (1997)
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We begin by presenting William of Ockham's various formulations of his principle of parsimony, Ockham's Razor. We then define a reaction mechanism and tell a personal story of how Ockham's Razor entered the study of one such mechanism. A small history of methodologies related to Ockham's Razor, least action and least motion, follows. This is all done in the context of the chemical (and scientific) community's almost unthinking acceptance of the principle as heuristically valuable. Which is not matched, to put it mildly, by current philosophical attitudes toward Ockham's Razor. What ensues is a dialogue, pro and con. We first present a context for questioning, within chemistry, the fundamental assumption that underlies Ockham's Razor, namely that the world is simple. Then we argue that in more than one pragmatic way the Razor proves useful, without at all assuming a simple world. Ockham's Razor is an instruction in an operating manual, not a world view. Continuing the argument, we look at the multiplicity and continuity of concerted reaction mechanisms, and at principal component and Bayesian analysis (two ways in which Ockham's Razor is embedded into modern statistics). The dangers to the chemical imagination from a rigid adherence to an Ockham's Razor perspective, and the benefits of the use of this venerable and practical principle are given, we hope, their due



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