William of Ockham

William of Ockham, from stained glass window a...
William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

William of Ockham (1285-1347) was an influential English Franciscan philosopher. Much to the chagrin of Pope John XXII, he vigorously defended Saint Francis’ ideal of holy poverty.

Many believe that his outspokenness contributed to his being charged with heresy and subsequent excommunication from the Church.

Ockham rejected the theory of universals in favor of nominalism and paved the way for idealist thinkers such as Berkeley, Locke and Hume.

He claimed that knowledge is obtained first by intuition, followed by intellectual conceptualization.

He is best known, however, for Ockham’s razor, a philosophical position arguing that it’s futile to explain with more elements when less will do. This principle of parsimony has become a maxim for contemporary scientific method.

But the question remains as to whether this approach is always beneficial. Critics of Ockham’s razor suggest that it can lead to reductionism, particularly in theology, the humanities and the social sciences. One example of absurd reductionism might be found in researchers who carve up and electrically shock mice,¹ and then generalize their findings to the human population.

¹ Future generations probably will be horrified by experiments like the following that pass by as “normal” in the 21st century:
New Study Uncovers Why Stress Leads To Depression In Some, But Not Others

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