A Brief History
On May 26, 1328, William of Ockham, a Franciscan Friar, snuck out of Avignon fearing his execution would be ordered by the Pope. Known as “Doctor Invincibilis” (Unconquerable Teacher) at the University of Oxford, William had upset the Pope and other high church officials by preaching the Franciscan belief that since Jesus and the Apostles did not own personal property, Catholic clergymen should likewise not possess any worldly goods.
Not surprisingly, this situation was contrary to the reality of the day when Popes and Cardinals amassed great wealth. William and other Franciscans sought asylum at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV of Bavaria. There, William conveniently supplied the philosophical and logical thinking outlining the argument that Louis should be the supreme authority over the church and the state of the Holy Roman Empire.
Of course, Pope John XXII did not agree and had William excommunicated from the Catholic Church. William died at age 60 in 1347, and was “rehabilitated” by Pope Innocent VI in 1359.
So why is this guy important? Because his logical and analytical mind has provided philosophers with a fundamental rule of thought, known as “Occam’s Razor.” Although William had written all sorts of philosophical papers, it is the “Occam’s Razor” logic that stands above the rest, something that we in everyday life can apply to our thinking.
The main idea behind Occam’s Razor is applying the doctrine of simplicity to any theory, eliminating all forms of assumption to the minimum possible. Basically, the simplest explanation (without relying on unsupported assumptions) is the best. The idea is to avoid convoluted arguments relying on making up more and more assumptions to support an argument. Kind of a philosophical “KISS” rule (“Keep it simple, Stupid!”) This way of thinking tends toward explanations that are more probable than improbable.
William of Ockham (Occam) did not invent this philosophy, but for whatever reason it is by his name that we have come to know it. This straightforward thinking undermines religious arguments, and for this reason (among others) William earned the ire of the Church. Atheists often use this brand of logic to argue against faith-based thinkers, although William was definitely a man of faith.
Many forms of organized religion have sought to stifle progressive thinking throughout the ages. The works of Copernicus and Galileo are examples of science attacked by theologians, and even today there is great animosity toward the theory of evolution from fundamentalist Christians. Another example of the Bible versus Science concerns the calculated age of the Earth.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think about this situation, where religion argues against science? Can science and religion be compatible with each other? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Keele, Rondo. Ockham Explained: From Razor to Rebellion (Ideas Explained). Open Court, 2010.
Ziccardi, M. James. Medieval Philosophy: A Practical Guide to William of Ockham. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011.
The featured image in this article, a sketch portraying William of Ockham (c1285-?1349), English scholastic philosopher, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.
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