Occam’s Razor Favours the New Paradigm of Identity

The simplest explanation is usually the best

Simplest among competing theories

In scientific terms, Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest explanation is usually the best. Although not applicable in every situation, it certainly has relevance in the confused world of identity studies today. Another way of comprehending this situation is through the words of Albert Einstein: If you can’t explain it easily, you don’t understand it well enough.

If you can’t explain it easily, you don’t understand it well enough

In their introduction to Identity and Global Politics, Goff and Dunn (2004; p. 3) challenge the suggestion of Brubaker and Cooper (2000) that we move “beyond” the concept of identity entirely and substitute the word with more appropriate terms.

Instead, they support the idea of unpacking the term “identity” … to grapple directly with the conceptual ambiguity, as well as the plurality of definitions and approaches, that may characterize usage of identity in the study of world politics. The dual goals of such an unpacking should be an increased intellectual clarity regarding the term and an improved methodological understanding of the concept for the field of IR [International Relations].

In this unpacking they propose that “identity” be clarified by studying what they call the four dimensions that go into its composition: alterity (otherness); fluidity; constructedness and multiplicity.

However, the original definition of identity means “sameness”. But an ancient paradox (think Ship of Theseus) prevented the use of the term with its original meaning and this problem persisted into modern times. But it is no longer a paradox. “Sameness” is shown to be contained at the personal level in an individual’s genome and at the collective or species level in the nature of human reproduction. Given that the original meaning of identity is now applicable means that current interpretations are challenged and they require a radical revision.

The new paradigm of what is called “objective-“ or “universal identity” shows that the four dimensions outlined by Goff and Dunn, can be reduced to one. Firstly, alterity (otherness), is not a necessary characteristic of identity because the new paradigm shows that we are all equal in terms of human genetics. Secondly, “identity” cannot be fluid because “sameness” is stable, not flexible. Furthermore, identity cannot be artificially constructed because it is found naturally in the human genome. Finally, identity is singular in terms of the individual and at the collective or species level; it is not multiple.

In terms of Occam’s Razor, this means that the four dimensions that go into the composition of identity, as suggested by Goff and Dunn, are replaced by a single dimension which is located in the structure and nature of the human genome and simultaneously accounts for “samemess” at the personal and communal levels in humanity here. Therefore, Occam’s Razor favours universal identity because it is the simplest of the competing theories of identity.

Goff and Dunn’s paper is but one example in a large competitive field in which different theories vie for the ultimate prize—solving the “identity problem”. Unfortunately, they are seeking solutions in the wrong direction.  

Identity – clarifications

It is important to realise that the new paradigm of “Identity” does not compete with “sense of self”. They are complementary. At the same time, it would be grossly limiting to leave out any one of these two aspects of human understanding. Excluding the scientific or objective component in the study of self-understanding is not optional because our underlying human genome is a basic and fundamental element in our makeup and is of major importance in identifying all characteristics and potentialities that are under genetic control. Besides, within our genome we find our uniqueness as individuals and the intimate connectedness we have with all other humans of our species.

Deriving visions of who we are, tend to be cognitive exercises implemented through the disciplines of psychology, philosophy and the humanities in general. Researching identity through our human genome and studying perceptions and perspectives of ourselves help us to understand the separate impacts of nature and nurture in our lives and how these intertwine and influence each other. How could we comprehend the role of nature without an adequate grasp of the functions of DNA? Without the guidance of science, especially human genetics, we have no way of gaging or assessing the correctness of our cognitive conclusions of who we are. Furthermore, “identity” is scientifically based and, by its nature is objective. “Sense of self” is, by definition, subjective. By combining both we achieve a balance between the two wings of objectivity and subjectivity that carry us forward. Like a bird in flight, one side balances and enlightens the other. For example, science places objective boundaries on the limitless possibilities of subjective perspectives.

Trouble arises when we eliminate one of these perspectives and depend on only one of them to obtain a clear understanding of our humanity. When we place overemphasis on our objective understanding of ourselves, we tend towards genetic determinism or reductionism. When we focus exclusively on subjective notions of who we are, we tend towards conceptual ambiguity and confusion. Most problems relating to identity today emerge because of an exclusive focus on a subjective understanding of ourselves.

Raymond M. Keogh


Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. 2000. Beyond “Identity”. Theory and Society. Vol. 29: 1-47.

Goff, P. M. and Dunn, K. (2004). Introduction: In Defense of Identity. In: Goff, P. M. and Dunn, K. C. (Eds.) Identity and Global Politics. Palgrave Macmillan; pp. 1-8 here.