WilliamOfOckham window crop2

william of occam meets the reverend nemu

THE TERM ‘OCCAM’S RAZOR’ is bandied about in our cul­ture on a reg­ular basis in a va­riety of cir­cum­stances. The av­erage joe gen­er­ally uses it to mean some­thing along the lines of “The sim­plest so­lu­tion to a problem is the cor­rect so­lu­tion.” Say it ain’t so, joe: the de­f­i­n­i­tion is not en­tirely ac­cu­rate. And so here are William of Ockham and Rev­erend Nemu to dis­cuss these things.

Oc­cam’s Razor is a prin­ciple of par­si­mony [greed­i­ness] used in problem-solving. It states that among com­peting hy­potheses, the one with the fewest as­sump­tions should be se­lected.

Other, more com­pli­cated so­lu­tions may ul­ti­mately prove cor­rect, but—in the ab­sence of cer­tainty—the fewer as­sump­tions that are made, the better.

This maxim seems to rep­re­sent the gen­eral ten­dency of William of Ockham’s phi­los­ophy, but it has not been found in any of his writ­ings. His nearest pro­nounce­ment seems to be ‘Plu­rality must never be posited without ne­ces­sity.’

The ra­zor’s state­ment—that sim­pler ex­pla­na­tions are, other things being equal, gen­er­ally better than more com­plex ones—is amenable to em­pir­ical testing. 1

Oc­cam’s Razor has been for­mal­ized in on­tology, which is a branch of meta­physics con­cerned with the na­ture and re­la­tions of being. On­to­log­ical par­si­mony can be de­fined as a “rule of thumb which obliges us to favor the­o­ries or hy­potheses that make the fewest un­war­ranted as­sump­tions about the data from which they are de­rived.”

The con­cepts be­hind Oc­cam’s Razor have been erroneously—and simplistically—assimilated into our cul­ture as the sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion is usu­ally the cor­rect one. And this gets people into trouble!

If you have a com­plex problem with many is­sues and you are pre­sented with sev­eral pos­sible hy­potheses to that problem, choose the an­swer that re­solves all or most of the is­sues in the problem in the sim­plest manner!

I rarely refer to Oc­cam’s Razor in my own de­bates, I am much more likely to rely on the words Arthur Conan Doyle: When you have ex­cluded the im­pos­sible, what­ever re­mains, how­ever im­prob­able, must be the truth. 2

 

Nemu: front cover of William Turner's book WILLIAM OF OCKHAM – A SHORT BIOGRAPHY.

What is knowledge anyway?

The in­for­ma­tion to Oc­cam’s Razor above is in­tended as an in­tro­duc­tion to what fol­lows below: pas­sages taken from an ar­ticle ti­tled “The Blunt Edge of Ock­ham’s Razor,” which was ex­cerpted from the book Sci­ence Re­vealed by the Rev­erend Nemu. 3

Here the good rev­erend uses the razor as a spring­board to ad­dress both sci­ence and the act of knowing some­thing. I want to share a few of his ob­ser­va­tions be­cause all of the above was an ex­cuse to in­tro­duce you to Ne­mu’s view of both re­ality and Re­ality: 

What is knowl­edge anyway? It is not a phys­ical thing; but nei­ther is it a meta­phys­ical ideal, like a per­fect circle that can never be drawn, a math­e­mat­ical con­stant with an in­fi­nite dec­imal tail, or a god­dess of sub­lime beauty who never ages. Knowl­edge, even­tu­ally, re­lates to nothing but it­self, and leads nowhere but back to it­self.

What is sugar?

What does white look like?

What does sweet taste like?

 

God and the devil have been used as um­brella terms to ex­plain things be­yond our ken, as shields against un­cer­tainty.

 

We are none the wiser until we know sugar in­ti­mately, until our tongues taste it and our teeth fall out, after which wordy de­scrip­tions are re­dun­dant. The same is true for any propo­si­tion one can make. In the final analysis, it refers to an ex­pe­ri­ence that re­veals the ‘such­ness’ of a thing.

The rev­e­la­tion might be our own, or it might be someone else’s, in which case we place our faith in their judge­ment. Oth­er­wise, we must admit our ig­no­rance.

Knowl­edge is a bub­bling caul­dron of meaning, sus­pended over the abyss on in­vis­ible strands of noth­ing­ness. Knowl­edge al­ways boils down to nothing—which is not a problem in it­self, but we in­vari­ably con­fuse sub­jec­tive knowl­edge for ob­jec­tive re­ality.

We think we have worked some­thing out, so we stop thinking about it, and forget that the map is not the ter­ri­tory, and the ter­ri­tory is not terra firma.

Sci­ence grows along the wound made by Ockham’s Razor, but truly rev­o­lu­tionary ideas rarely re­sult from beavering away in labs, tap­ping at com­puters and tot­ting up ta­bles.

Rev­e­la­tion comes when the ra­tional mind is by­passed in dreams, trances and sudden in­sights, as we will see in the fol­lowing chapter.

The ra­tional mind wields the razor to choose be­tween models, but this is sec­ondary to the cre­ative, non-rational processes of the un­con­scious, which gen­erate the models in the first place.

 

Many be­moan the loss of faith and morality, but in some ways we are closer to God today than ever be­fore.

 

Ig­no­rance is a good start, but if knowl­edge is empty and nothing we can say about the world is true, what are we to be­lieve in? Ockham be­lieved in God, and con­sid­ered any other rigidly held be­lief to be an ob­stacle to His grace.

Today’s seekers are more skep­tical, and with good reason. God and the devil have been used as um­brella terms to ex­plain things be­yond our ken, as shields against un­cer­tainty.

For Gnos­tics, there was and is more to God than the un­known: the di­vine can be known di­rectly through a process of gnosis, through dreams, in­sights, trance and sudden rev­e­la­tion.

Church fa­thers have mil­i­tated against such ideas since the third cen­tury, and con­tinue to in­sist that God still moves in zones be­yond our un­der­standing.

Many be­moan the loss of faith and morality, but in some ways we are closer to God today than ever be­fore.

A mind full of cob­webs and mumbo-jumbo is no good to anyone; but with razor in hand, the seeker is free to follow ideas wher­ever they wander, be­yond the puke and the pret­zels, be­yond the bagels, and even­tu­ally be­yond the con­fines of the beer tent.”

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Nemu: photo of a stained glass window depiction of William of Ockham in a church in Surrey, England.

FEATURED IMAGE: A de­pic­tion of William of Ockham found on a stained glass window in a church in Surrey, Eng­land.

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   These para­graphs were lifted from the Wikipedia entry for Oc­cam’s razor. Ed­i­to­ri­ally, em­phasis was added throughout and cer­tain para­graphs were abridged. The orig­inal ar­ticle is more than 7,000 words in length, so there is much more left to be read.

2   This was, of course, at­trib­uted to Sher­lock Holmes in The Ad­ven­tures Of The Beryl Coronet (1892). And there are vari­a­tions on this state­ment in other Holmes sto­ries.

3   The orig­inal ar­ticle is more than 4,600 words in length; my ex­cerpts below are just over 500 words. Ed­i­to­ri­ally, em­phasis was added and words were Amer­i­can­ized. So should these ex­cerpts in­terest you, then please click on over to the Rev­erend’s ar­ticle and read it in its en­tirety!

 

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