Welcome to another instalment of Friday Philosophy. In this week’s post I’ll present a snapshot of the English friar and theologian William of Ockham. We’ll look his most famous idea, known as Occam’s razor, and I’ll offer a few reflections on the man and his thought.
Who Was He?
The ‘Ockham’ part of William’s title relates to a small town of the same name in Surrey in the South East of England, where he was born in 1287 AD. In the same vein as Thomas Aquinas, who we looked at in last week’s post, William was a scholastic theologian and a major Christian thinker of the Medieval period.
William wrote influential works in the fields of logic, theology, and physics, and is celebrated in the Church of England with a commemoration each year on 10th April.
What’s the Big Idea?
The idea that came to be known as Occam’s razor is as follows. Where in matters of philosophy or science there are competing theories or hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be the one with which we proceed.
It may be not entirely accurate to attribute this idea solely to William of Ockham, as many centuries earlier, Aristotle had said, “Other things being equal, we should prefer a demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.” (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics).
I think Occam’s razor highlights the fact that there is often beauty in simplicity. We all love the formula E=MC2 because it is very simple yet captures a significant truth about the functioning of the physical world that has become profoundly important in the world of science.
I believe that Occam’s razor has some application when we consider deep philosophical questions about, for instance, the nature of God. Perhaps one of the reasons why the pantheist perspective that ‘all is God’ is so appealing is because it’s such a simple theory.
On the other hand, I don’t think Occam’s razor could be applied to all aspects of theology and philosophy. For instance, if we look at moral questions, such as the theodicy problem (why is there so much suffering in the world?) I believe the answer may well be very complex. Simplicity and complexity are both facets of the nature of God, and of the world, and both should be taken into account in the study of philosophical subjects.
In next week’s philosophy post we’ll move on from the Medieval period and begin looking at key thinkers in the 16th and 17th century, which saw the beginning of modern science. If you’d like to follow the series, please consider subscribing to this blog. Feel free to leave your thoughts about Occam’s razor in the comments below. Thank you for reading!