by Jerry Richardson 12/13/14
Who was Ockham? And what was his razor? At times on this and many other websites you will read someone’s statement that they reject or disagree with a certain argument or explanation based upon “Ockham’s Razor”—often referred to as “Occam’s Razor” in the French style.
Who and what are they referring to?
The philosopher associated with “Ockham’s Razor” was a man name William who was born in the English village of Ockham which is located approximately 25 miles Southwest of London.
William was born between 1285 -1288, and died in 1347. Surnames (last names) apparently had come into use in England during this time, and they were often taken from the person’s location of birth. Hence the man whose “razor” we are discussing was William Ockham or as it was said then, William of Ockham (I’ll just refer to him as Ockham in what follows).
There are many topics, issues, and facets contained in Ockham’s philosophy; one very important one is William’s other major legacy which is the philosophy of nominalism, of which Ockham is usually considered the father (originator).
There are two basic varieties of nominalism. One variety rejects the reality (existence that is independent of mind or language) of abstract objects e.g., mathematical structures, terms such as “justice”, “equality” etc.; and the other variety rejects the reality of universals—as a trivial example, all squares have in common the universal “squareness.”
Ockham’s brand of nominalism rejected universals.
Ockham believed that many so-called universals were simply names, hence the name “nominalism” for his viewpoint. There is a definite connection between Ockham’s nominalism and his use of what was later called his “razor”:
In this same period Ockham began to see that his strategy required the razor to be fully sound; in short he began to see that some independent principle was needed for favoring the simpler ontology made possible by connotation theory over the richer ontology of realism.
—Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (pp. 90-91). Kindle Edition.
Ockham was unhappy with the philosophical viewpoint that today we call realism (the state of being actual or real). He was especially opposed to what he considered the excess of categories in Aristotle’s ten metaphysical categories that were intended to help answer one of the very fundamental questions about being (or existence) as such: “What is it”? Here are Aristotle’s 10 categories:
“Socrates is a man”
|Quantity||How much||poson||four-foot, five-foot|
|Quality||What sort||poion||white, literate|
|Relation||related to what||pros ti||double, half, greater|
|Location||Where||pou||in the Lyceum, in the marketplace|
|Time||when||pote||yesterday, last year|
|Position||being situated||keisthai||lies, sits|
|Habit||having, possession||echein||is shod, is armed|
|Passion||undergoing||paschein||is cut, is burned|
Much of Ockham’s philosophical efforts consisted in working to show that these 10 Aristotelean categories were superfluous or excesses in metaphysics. Ockham argued that there is no need for 10 categories of being; he endeavored to show that only two are really needed: Substance and Quality; and that any entities in the other 8 categories were simply names for non-real entitles that were being posited as real. Hence, those entitles should be removed in any explanations, and Ockham used his “razor” for that purpose.
Nominalism versus realism is an on-going lengthy discussion that I have no intention of attempting to catalogue in this article. My primary purpose here is to discuss the so-called “Ockham’s Razor.”
The reason I used the qualifier “so-called” for “Ockham’s Razor” is that 1) Ockham himself never used the term in any of his writings; and 2) because the principle of parsimony which is usually considered to be the essential idea contained in the “razor” was not original with Ockham.
“Ockham’s Razor” like all related principles of parsimony is based upon reduction; this is the notion that it is a bad thing to have too much. As you would expect there are logical duals to the principles of parsimony called the principles of plurality or principles of plentitude—sometimes called anti-razors—which is the notion that it is a bad thing to not have enough. I think most of us would agree that when positing a theory it is not a good thing to have too much or too little if we are interested in representing reality.
What meaning today is usually ascribed to “Ockham’s Razor”?
Some common statements encountered in this vein are the following:
“Prefer the simpler theory, all else being equal.”
“Prefer the simplest theory.”
“We should prefer the simplest explanation.”
“The simplest explanation is the best.”
“The simplest explanation is probably the correct one.”
All of the above, somewhat similar, statements may have arguable worth, but they are not what Ockham believed, taught, or wrote about. In other words, they are not valid paraphrases of any maxim that could be legitimately called “Ockham’s Razor.” Following are some of Ockham’s own documented words. The first one is a quote that at least sounds something like a “razor” might be expected to sound:
“Pluralitas non ponenda est sine necessitate,” “A plurality should not be posited without necessity.”
—Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (Ideas Explained) (pp. 94-95). Kindle Edition.
But Ockham made different statements concerning his “razor” at different times. Here is the one that is usually considered the most complete.
“No plurality should be assumed unless it can be proved (a) by reason, or (b) by experience, or (c) by some infallible authority,”
— Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (p. 95). Kindle Edition
Here is an expanded explanation of the above Ockham qoute:
No extra-mental distinction among extra-mental things should be assumed unless the distinction can be proved (a) by arguments from premises that are either self-evident or else come from indubitable experience or, (b) by unquestionable experience of extra-mental things, or (c) by some infallible authority such as the Bible, the Saints, or certain Ecclesiastical pronouncements.
— Keele, Rondo (2010-05-01). Ockham Explained (p. 95). Kindle Edition
As you can easily see, Ockham’s statements do not mention or advocate preferring an explanation or a theory only because it is the “simplest.”
It is here that we often see the misunderstanding and hence misuse of “Ockham’s Razor”; Ockham himself would never have discarded ontological (things that are considered real) parts that were part of a theory or explanation just because it would make the theory simpler; he would only have discarded (shaved-away with his “razor”) ontological parts that could not have been proven to be distinct by at least one of his three stated criteria.
One of the best illustrations, I think, of Ockham’s nominalism and his use of his “razor” can be found in his argument that “motion” does not exist.
Now, don’t get agitated too quickly; Ockham most certainly knew and believed that objects do “move”; but the nominalism that he was committed-to caused him to deny that there was any “real” (extra-mental) entity called “motion.” His argument was based upon his definition of an object being “in motion”, which briefly is the following:
X is in motion = Definition: X successively coexists in different places, continuously, without intervals of rests.
Hence, according to Ockham, X “being in motion” means X is “here”; and at another time X is “there”; and X moves through every point in between without stopping.
The important crux of Ockham’s definition is that “motion” is defined in terms of two separate and distinct instances of time; “motion” is defined strictly by the passage of time over an interval.
This is in sharp contrast to the way a “realist” in Ockham’s day, and also the way in which modern science would define “motion”; briefly for a realist today it is defined as follows:
X is in motion = Definition: X has acquired the property of “motion” and hence is moving at any instant in time along the trajectory (path) of “motion.”
For moderns, there are two very serious difficulties with Ockham definition and reasoning.
1. The mathematical scaffolding of dynamics, the calculus (specifically the differential calculus), postulates and calculates the velocity (hence motion is necessary) of a moving object at any specific instant in the trajectory of the object.
2. Anyone driving a modern automobile can look at the speedometer at any given instant and see that the automobile has a velocity (hence motion is necessary).
Ockham’s reasoning is very similar and reminiscent of the ancient philosopher Zeno’s (of Elea, 490-430 BC) argument of the Arrow Paradox that “motion” is an illusion.
What both arguments, Ockham’s and Zeno’s, entail that most moderns reject—and I think for valid reasons—is that they both DO NOT account for, nor presumably believe in instantaneous motion. Both Ockham and Zeno believed that an object had to change its position in order to have motion.
Now, why is Ockham’s argument an application of his “razor”?
Ockham’s probably believed that the only “real” (extra-mental) entities in the motion scenario were 1) The object that moved; 2) The points in space they moved through; 3) The separate instances in time in which the object occupied the points in space. Ockham denied that there was any “real” entity called “motion”; hence for Ockham “motion” was only a name (from whence we get nominalism) for the activity of the moving object. Therefore, using his “razor” Ockham “shaved-off” what he viewed as the entity-in-name-only that we call “motion.”
Today some atheists, through ignorance, attempt to use “Ockham’s Razor” to justify their belief in atheism:
Friend, you’re trying to make it complicated, but it’s not. Atheists don’t believe for a simple reason. There is no reason to assume the existence of a god to explain the existence of the universe as we understand it. Occam’s Razor.
—“Ockham’s Razor” and Atheism
This is a perfect illustration of a complete misunderstanding of the historical meaning of “Ockham’s Razor”, and how Ockham himself would have used, or not used, his “razor.” The atheist who made the above statement may have reasons—which he doesn’t share—for believing there is no need to “assume the existence of a god to explain the existence of the universe”; however, if he really knew and understood what William of Ockham believed and wrote, he would never append to his belief statement: “Occam’s Razor”; or as I prefer “Ockham’s Razor.”
Ockham clearly stated three reasons to accept an increased plurality of entities in a ontology: “can be proved (a) by reason, or (b) by experience, or (c) by some infallible authority”; Ockham who was a friar and a devout Christian accepted the Bible as an infallible authority; hence, he would never have discarded God, in an “explanation of the existence of the universe”—Ockham absolutely would not have used his “razor” which would have meant that he would have discarded God as un-real, a nominal-only entity, in any such explanation.
Sadly, the atheist associated with the quote above knows no more about Ockham and his “razor” than he goes about God and His grace.
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