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Occam's Razor

Separating the Likely from the Unlikely

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    Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity.
    - William of Ockham, Quadlibeta, Book V. (c. 1324)

Quite often we’ll hear someone say that assuming the existence of a god, of souls, of angels, of ESP, etc. violates “Occam’s Razor.” But what does the mean? What is “Occam’s Razor” and who is this “Occam” person anyway?

William of Ockham (“Occam” is the Latin spelling) was an English theologian of the fourteenth century who has become relatively obscure today. Others, like Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, are much better remembered and are practically superstars in comparison. Yet, it was actually William whose ideas and writings prefigured modernity.

Ockham was probably born sometime between 1290 and 1300 and he died on April 10th, probably in 1349 due to the fact that the plague was especially strong that year (although some think that he may have died one year later). He sided with other members of his Franciscan order against Pope John XXII on the subject of poverty.

Previously, property left to the friars was turned over to the pope so that they could enjoy the benefits of the property without suffering from the sin of ownership. This arrangement was ended by Pope John XXII, who said that they should simply accept ownership themselves. Some, like Ockham, were charged as heretics and he was excommunicated in 1328. Fortunately, he escaped and took refuge with Emperor Louis and settled in Munich.

The question about whether or not the church should be poor is an issue which still creates controversy today. A leading contender to succeed Pope John Paul II insists that while poverty may be a virtue, it is not a virtue for the church itself. Cardinal Giacomo Biffi said Catholics should follow Christ’s example of poverty by donating all their wealth to the church, which should, in turn, be rich. This is the same cardinal who has also claimed that the Antichrist is already on earth in the guise of a vegetarian philanthropist whose concern about human rights and environmental problems hides his desire to destroy Christianity.

There is one thing for which Ockham is well known and remembered — his so-called “razor.” What is his razor? It is a logical tool he used to cut absurdities out of arguments and philosophical systems. According to Ockham, the simpler an explanation is, the more preferable it ultimately is. In other words, if it is not necessary to introduce certain complexities or hypotheticals into a situation or explanation, then don’t do it. Just say No. Not only would the result be less elegant and convincing, but it would also likely be less correct.

Nowhere does Ockham assert that the simpler explanation is always more correct or that the more complex explanation is always less correct. Had he done so, he would have been mistaken and remembered quite differently. The point is to start from the simplest possible explanation and only make it more complex when absolutely necessary.

An example of this which is relevant to atheism is the following two hypotheses:

  1. There is a universe.
  2. There is a universe and a God which created the universe.

The first hypothesis is obviously simpler than the second. Thus, without sufficient reason, the first is preferable to the second. That doesn’t mean that the second hypothesis is wrong — it does, however, mean that we should not simply assume the second. Interestingly enough, this theologian himself recognized that his logical tool essentially eliminated the hypothetical of the existence of God in pretty much all arguments and explanations. You might think that this would be a problem for Ockham, but that judgment would be a bit hasty.

It’s not that he didn’t believe in God — on the contrary, he was very devout. He did not, however, think that the existence of God could be logically proven with arguments. Doing so would require introducing all the extra complexities which are unnecessary and which he deliberately sought to eliminate. Most other theologians of the time — and today, too — might have sought scientific arguments to prove that God exists, but Ockham said that that simply wasn’t possible. In his mind, science and theology are two totally different systems dealing with totally different realms.

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