from science fiction by
David Duncan

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Occam’s Razor


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Occam’s Razor

Copyright © 1957, by David Duncan


“Minimal surfaces, minimal distances, minimal time and minimal energy. All are included under one general principle, which in honor of William of Occam I’ll call the principle of universal parsimony.”

“Who’s William of Occam?” asked Ensign Waters.

“Your grammar is wretched,” Staghorn said. “The past tense is proper for that question. And since he’s dead, let’s ignore the question and stick to the principle of parsimony. There are limitless applications in every field of science and, as Ensign Waters’ question shows, even in the field of education. The least effort sufficient to gain the barely acceptable end.”


Occam’s Razor



“When I compute the minimal path of a guided missile, I want to know what I’m doing!”

“I assure you,” said Staghorn, “that anyone who computes the path of a guided missile can’t possibly know what he’s doing.”



2 For some reason which Hume couldn’t quite understand, people seemed to feel that if the moon were reached the threat of war would abate. Perhaps they believed that the accomplishment would point the way to new frontiers on other planets and thereby relieve population and ideological pressures on earth. If so, the belief was nonsense. The moon was as far as any man would ever get.
Before anything could be really humorous, certain other things had to be dead serious. People who lamented the departure of America’s sense of humor were at the same time lamenting a vanishing sense of values which made humor possible. Staghorn was something else; he dealt in absolutes, and perhaps that was why, under present circumstances, he could be laughed at.



[...] I despise the world I live in. But when I think about what people are doing to it, I get all torn up inside. There they are, millions and millions of them, friends and enemies alike, all pooling their energies and resources to make this the most detestable of all possible planets.”
3 If war came now, he was in no more danger than a man walking down the street in New York City. Possibly in even less. This situation was depressing. [...] Among individuals the differential in courage and willingness to sacrifice one’s life had vanished. Indeed, there was a question as to whether such terms as courage and sacrifice had any meaning where no one had a choice.



In one way instinct responded alike to the threat of extinction or the promise of abundant life. In both circumstances there was a kindling of passions, in one case to defy death, in the other to submit to joy.
It was a world that might vanish at any time, a world which might be taken over completely by the dancing electrons. This was the all-pervasive fact with which people had been forced to live. A shattering fact. For although no universally accepted revelation had acquainted men with their ultimate purpose, until recently they had been permitted the belief that a purpose existed. That belief was no longer compatible with the ugly fact. Any man could learn to accept with composure his own extinction, but it was humiliating and belittling in the extreme to realize that his entire species might be relegated to the tar pits. What then would be the meaning of the temples and the altars, the loves and longings, the music and philosophy and poetry?

He disliked being head of a security office. Suspicion isolated one, it filled one with reservations and dampened all enthusiasms. But it was his own fault. As a young man the intelligence service had appealed to him strongly; it promised adventure and contest with other minds. [...] But gradually, as he grew older, the adventure and contest became monotonous and his youthful love of dramatization departed. He developed a yearning to work at something that had a beginning and end so that he would know when his job was finished.

But he could not change things now. He had made the mistake of becoming an expert, which was only another way of saying that he knew the limitations of his activities so well that they no longer interested him.



10 When he touched the sore spot, it gave him a painful sensation, and by this pain he knew he must exist. Doleo ergo sum. Who was it had said that?
“Two explanations for the same phenomenon are too many,” he’d said. “Occam’s Razor must shear one of them off. The principle of parsimony will not permit two.”
15 “It has long been a matter of observation that of all the animals on earth man accumulates and saves the most rubbish. And though on rare occasions individuals have been known to discard the junk in their attics or burn the debris from their basements, few men indeed are capable of discharging the litter that has accumulated in their heads! And this is precisely where the greatest trash heaps exist. If they could be made visible and odorous, their sight and stench would make hermits of us all, and no man could stand a cave to the leeward of his brother. But being invisible and scentless, they are perpetuated from generation to generation and are manifested only by the verminous squeakings that pass for intelligent conversation among men!”

text checked (see note) Apr 2009

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