Ockham’s Razor, the Gordian Knot & the Thomist Marlinspike

Reality is a knotty problem. It is terrifically difficult to unsnarl it, so that we understand it. It won’t do to cut through it, as (according to the most famous version of the legend) Alexander did with the Gordian Knot. To do that is in the final analysis to surrender to befuddlement, even as one defies it and forges onward, damning all torpedoes. So while Ockham’s Razor is amazingly useful as a way of clarifying and simplifying our understanding, it is not itself a way to arrive at understanding. You want to shave with it, rather than slash.

When Ockham’s Razor cuts away entities that are inherent to the experience of understanding, it forestalls understanding, rather than facilitating it. For example, if you find that your explanation of consciousness is so wonderfully parsimonious that it eliminates consciousness from the universe altogether, you’ve cut too deep.

I used to deal with gnarly knots all the time when I was working as a whitewater boatman. [I’m not working on the River these days, but I’m still a boatman; it sticks with you.] When you put enormous tension on a knot, as happens when it is doing what you wanted it to do under stressful conditions, it can tighten so much that it becomes impossible to untie with fingers alone. It is tempting at such times to just say the hell with it, and cut through the knot. But that’s a bad idea when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest supply of line, in the deep wilderness. You never know when you might need that piece of line uncut. So an outdoorsman will never cut line unless he must.

Instead, sailors and boatmen use a fid or marlinspike:

The marlinspike is not a sharp cutting blade, but a smooth dully pointed stout poker. Poked into the interstices of a knot, a marlinspike can be used to pry apart the recalcitrant strands without cutting them, and allow for a good grip on the one that must be pulled through in order to loosen the doggone thing (sometimes pliers are needed for that).

To unsnarl the world knot, you want the right tool for the job. A razor is the wrong tool for undoing knots. What you want is what might be called a Thomist Marlinspike: neither affirm nor deny, but rather first distinguish. Once you’ve pulled the strands apart, untangled the knot, and laid it out nice and straight, then you can get to work on the line with Ockham’s Razor, shaving off the frayed bits to make things all nice and tidy, shipshape and Bristol fashion.