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Matt:

What's the skinny on clean-shaven prisoners? Since they take away shoestrings and belts from them to prevent hanging, I would assume they don't issue razor blades. So how come so many prisoners are clean shaven?

-- Dave Salina, North Park

Hey, Matt:

Ever heard of Occam's (or Ockham's) Razor? It's a theory propounded by William of Occam, an English scholastic philosopher, back in the early 1300s. I think. Has something to do with not producing or owning more than one of anything one needs. Anyhow, here's my question: What exactly is Occam's Razor, and why on earth is it called that?

-- John Mann, the net

So, like, if I need shoes, I can only own one? One car? One TV? Hah. That idea'd never fly these days. Occam was a Franciscan monk, venerating poverty, and he did fire off nasty letters to the glittering Vatican about the subject and annoyed the pope in many other ways. But lucky for us these days, Occam's Razor has nothing to do with conspicuous consumption. Bumper-sticker style, Bill's razor would say, "Keep it simple, stupid!" He was a strict logician, and in his philosophical musings he felt the best arguments were those that assumed the fewest hypotheticals. In one form or another, the principle had existed for centuries. Occam simply used it so often and so strictly that it eventually came to bear his name ("razor" from the idea of shaving away that which is unnecessary). Scientists today might use Occam's Razor to choose between two theories that seem to lead to the same result. The simpler is the true one. Atheists are fond of invoking it to argue that the idea of God is not necessary, therefore not true. And much to Bill's dismay, I'm sure, today his name is shown three ways (William Occam, William of Occam, William Ockham); the razor is also known as the Principle of Simplicity, Principle of Parsimony, and the Principle of Economy; and there are at least three common Latin translations for his famous rule of thumb.

Occam was excommunicated but never ended up in the slammer, as far as I know. But if he did, he'd have to check his razor at the door. Prisoners these days in California are clean shaven and short haired because it's the law -- so you can't radically change your appearance (if you escape) with a quick haircut and a shave. The guards give you a razor, then take it back when you're through. And they're not afraid you'll do yourself in; they're afraid you'll do in somebody else. A razor makes a nifty weapon. And that belt and shoelaces stuff is just for inmates on suicide watch and maybe bad TV.

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