Recalling Occam & His Marvelous Razor

Recalling Occam & His Marvelous Razor May 26, 2022






“It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Bertrand Russell

It was on this day, the 26th of May in 1328 that the minister general of the Franciscan order and three other friars, including William of Occam, fled the papal court at Avignon.

They were reasonably confident if they stayed they would be condemned as heretics and executed at the order of the pope. As it turned out that feared condemnation indeed followed, but without a bodies to burn, there was no death sentence.

The issue at that moment was the extent of papal authority. While of importance to the development of the relationship between church and state, this is not what makes me interested in the medieval friar, William. Nor, why I consider today such an important thing that I want to pause and reflect.

I’ve looked back into my blog and see I’ve visited this date and the events around it several times. I suspect as long as I’m an active blogger, I’ll return again to this, and more than once…

The reason I care, and I really care, is that William, throwing a couple of wrinkles into scholastic thought, would be critical in the advance of both philosophy and science. And with that added a wrinkle into the spiritual life I find extremely important.

It turns on philosophical parsimony, what is often called “Ockham’s Razor.” Which is that one should not multiply entities beyond necessity. Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate. Basically, if there are two possible explanations for something, in all likelihood the simpler will be correct.

And. Also worth noting. As often turns out in such matters, Occam (I prefer this among the possible spellings) did not actually write the formula we understand as the Razor. The rule is in fact much older than William. Aristotle warned that postulates should be “as few as possible, consistently with proving what has to be proved.” Thomas Aquinas touched on it as well.

And also before William Duns Scotus famously wrote,

Plurality is not to be posited without necessity.
What can be done with few would in vain be done with more.

It appears William Hamilton coined the term “Occam’s Razor” in 1852. He also introduced the term “parsimony” into the deal, as in philosophical parsimony. This second William wrote:

“There exists a primary presumption of philosophy. This is the law of Parcimony: which prohibits, without a proven necessity, the multiplication of entities, powers, principles or causes; above all, the postulation of an unknown force where a known [force] can account for the phaenomenon. We are, therefore, entitled to apply ‘Occam’s Razor’ to this theory of causality”

So, maybe the person who gives us this amazing tool wasn’t actually William of Occam  But. Still. He carries the name. And, possibly equally important to the principal is the story. Stories capture our hearts. We think at least as much through story as through reason.

So, that story and this date. Points for the heart to notice, to recall, and hopefully to provide a perspective from which to act.

There really needs to be a story. And this is the story of philosophical parsimony, of Occam’s wondrous razor. For me Occam is a prophet guiding us toward the holy land. Even if he doesn’t himself get to cross over the river. Still, his rejection of essences, of platonic ideals, his relentless looking into the matter as it actually presents, with as few additions as necessary, is breath taking. And I’m so grateful.

For our lived lives, both in the scientific endeavor and in our personal and spiritual lives, Occam’s razor cuts through a great deal of nonsense and points us toward the real thing. The thing in itself. And this is of enormous value both for knowing the world, and for knowing our own hearts and minds.

We need to flourish that razor with close to the same abandon as Sweeney Todd making his meat pies. And tasty though they may be, allowing us to see they’re just meat pies. Leaving us to see what is left with clarity, or, at least, a lot more clarity.

For me the razor has been a way to sort through the many truth claims presented by the religions of the world, and allowing me to set aside the larger majority of their assertions as somewhere in the highly unlikely area, and to instead focus on those that by their simplicity and clarity have a better chance of being true.

Of course, the simplest explanation is not always the right one. Of course. But, if someone multiplies the universe in suggesting the reason something happens the onus is on that person to justify the more complex explanation.

In my life, this has give me the space to focus on the more likely. And, for my life this has led me to a great feast, for which I will never cease to be grateful. My path has been greatly helped by the wisdom of Occam’s razor.

And so, I, for one, am glad the friar fled the clutches of the pope and continued his work. For me as important as that other story, of a family fleeing a murderous king, carrying with them a secret hope for the world.


A day to celebrate.

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