May 26, 2013 - William of Ockham Flees

– 1328

Why would a friar and theologian have to flee for his liberty—and maybe even his life—from the Pope?

Well, it may not surprise you a bit. Many people have argued and fought over religious ideas—is THIS the right way? or is THAT?—and sometimes the Powers That Be have had people who disagreed with them arrested or even executed. In this case several Franciscans disagreed with ideas being taught by Pope John XXII, but the Pope was the one with the power. So the Franciscans, including English friar William of Ockham, stole away in the dark of night, and ran off to live in the court of another who disagreed with the Pope: Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV.

Now, here's a question:

You probably know that the Vatican, where the Pope heads the Catholic Church, is in Rome. Wouldn't you also think that the Holy Roman Emperor would ALSO be in Rome? Just how far did Ockham and the other Franciscans have to flee, going from the Pope's place to the Emperor's court?

It turns out that, during this turbulent time of the Middle Ages, neither this particular Pope nor this particular Emperor lived in Rome.

You see, Louis IVwho had lived and ruled in Munich, in Bavaria (part of what is now known as Germany)was in a constant state of feud with Pope John XXII . John excommunicated Louis (which means kicked him out of the Catholic Church), and Louis deposed John (which means kicked him out of being the Pope). John didn't accept the deposition, of course, and moved from Rome, Italy, to Avignon, France. (To this day we consider that John XXII remained Pope at this time, and the guy that Louis installed as Pope, Nicholas V, is now called the Antipope.) Robert, King of Naples, sent a fleet and an army to kick Louis out of Rome, and both Louis IV and the Antipope fled—all the way back to Munich.

So, when William of Ockham fled from the Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, he traveled from Avignon, France, to Munich, Bavaria (Germany).

The story is much more complex than even that, but I don't want to get into any more of those messy details. Instead, I want to tell you why we know Ockham's name:

Because of “Occam's Razor.”

(AKA Ockham's Razor.)

We're not talking about the thing Ockham used to shave. Instead, we are talking about a philosophical principle. Ockham wrote many scholarly papers, and one logical principle that he used over and over in his papers is that the simplest explanation is often best.

According to Occam's Razor, if there are several hypotheses about why the universe is the way it is, all other things being equal, we should select the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions.

In other words, if there are two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is better.

The principle is called a “razor” because, with it, one can shave away unnecessary assumptions.

Here's an often-used example of Occam's Razor:

If you live in America and you hear hoofbeats—but you can't see what made the sounds—you should assume horses, not zebras. And certainly not unicorns!

Here are some other examples:

If you zipped a dollar bill into your jacket pocket and a few hours later you discover a hole in your pocket, and no dollar, you should assume that the money fell through the hole, not that someone hypnotized you, unzipped your pocket, and stole the money.

If, on the other hand, you accidentally left your wallet (bulging with money) on the bench of a diner and then went back three hours later, only to discover that it was gone and, no, nobody turned it in—well, in that sad case you should assume that somebody stole your wallet and money rather than more elaborate possibilities.
  • Did the wallet somehow disappear into another dimension?
  • Was the person who bussed the table blind, and did she or he accidentally sweep up the wallet and throw it into the trash?
  • Did, perhaps, a small flying saucer whisk into the restaurant, undetected, and disintegrate your wallet with a carefully calibrated laser beam that left the bench unmarked?

Oh, boy, without Occam's Razor, we could come up with soooo many different scenarios of what happened to that wallet and money!

But we really don't need to spin a hundred unlikely explanations when there is a mundane-but-likely explanation that fits the evidence.

Important Note:

Occam's Razor is just a guideline for our thinking. It can prove nothing! Careful observation, measurement, experiment, replication, modeling, mathematical calculation—all are more important to figuring out what's what, and why, then just thinking up “the simplest solution.”

For example, a homicide detective should be alert to the possibility that the simple solution “the butler did it,” even when backed up with a piece or two of circumstantial evidence and an eyewitness report, might not be correct. A shrewd detective would realize that the eyewitness who just gained a million dollars from a death might have lied about what he or she saw, and maybe even planted a few “clues” to frame the butler he or she hopes to pin the murder on. 

In this murder case, we shouldn't pounce on the easy answer as necessarily correct, but we also shouldn't insist that the most likely person is somehow, perversely, the least likely (even if it seems that way in murder mysteries). Instead, we should dig deeper, find more evidence, follow the money, question the eyewitness several more times, interview everybody else...Work, work, work—and see if more evidence points the finger more conclusively at the butler, or elsewhere.

How Stuff Works offers a longer exploration of Occam's Razor.

Plan Ahead...

Check out my Pinterest boards of June holidayshistorical anniversaries in June, and June birthdays.

Also on this date:

Astronaut Sally Ride's birthday – Note: I wrote this profile of Ride before she died in July, 2012. The nation lost a hero and the world lost a vibrant contributor to science education.

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