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William of Occam

The Anti Plato: William of Occam

On the winding, branching path from Aristotle to Hubble, from essence to observation, the single most important fork in the road was this English abbot from the first half of the Fourteen Century.

He gave us Nominalism, the idea that ideas are not real but only mirror real objects (How's that for a cheap, tabloid philosophy class?), and Occam's Razor. This is the same guy who sometimes spelled his name Ockham and it is a rule, not a theory or razor. His rule is known for its edge:

Of two theories, prefer the short one.

You may have heard it said in a different way:

Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.


Try to explain things by known facts before speculating about unknown forces.

But my favorite is:


We do it all the time. This habit of mind (weather balloon, not flying saucer) is what marks us apart from other times and other cultures. It is a conviction that the material universe is bound to simple cause and effect events, that our world is predictable and orderly (Chaos is not the opposite of order. Chaos is the opposite of random or fixed.), and that what we see is what we get.

It has not always been so. Even among us some still would rather have the gods or angels, aliens or witches, and seek loop holes in reality for them. For many the question is Is it possible? For others the question is answered, It is impossible. But Ockham, and science since Ockham (a three word redundancy), asks a different question: Is it necessary?

William O. developed and used this discipline of mind in biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation. The first scientist was a Christian monk and his science was first applied to Scripture, not rocks. Western science exists only because the biblical world view replaced the dead end Greek world view. Greek science and math was indeed better than the Semitic but it was ultimately ham strung by its dualism and fatalism. Father Occam's rule made Plato's shadows, ideas, and dualism unnecessary, the lowest possible category of truth.

It is hard to overstate the radical change of mind Ockam presented to the West. Plato taught the priority of Ideas over the material universe and his thinking dominated, in part still dominates, all of the West until Occam. In William of Occam we see the biblical world view breaking free of the prison of Greek philosophy and theology. Ultimately even the anti-biblical dualism of the Christian West will fall to his insights and a faithful reading of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Genesis is Occam, not Plato, not Aristotle.

Incidentally, this habit of mind is what makes scientists easy to fool with tricks. The image in the sky is a complicated chain of physical cause and effect designs and apparatus. So, once the hoaxer proves it is not a weather balloon the simplest, and most exciting, explanation is an UFO. The only other simple explanation, but it never occurs to honest men, is that the image is a lie.

I don't want to give a lesson in the philosophy of science. Read a book on that topic, perhaps mine. My interest is more like the wise Abbot's interest: How can we keep ourselves from reading our dreams and beliefs into Scripture? Can we let Scripture stand and read it in plain language? Founding science, in the sense of letting nature be read in plain sight, was a side effect of his interest. Ockham was the first Fundamentalist!

Do not be surprised when you see me use elegance as an interpretive tool for the Bible, history, and theology. As in science, this rule keeps my eyes on the reality of the text, the context, and the Person of the Christian Scriptures. Nineteenth Century speculations and superstitions be damned.
Copyright © 2011, Charles Henry Johnsen, III