William of Ockham
‘The first Protestant’
Posted on homepage: 26 December 2018 (GMT+10)
William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), a.k.a. simply Ockham (sometimes spelled ‘Occam’), was a Bible-believing 14th-century English philosopher. He opposed the church leadership of his day because they had abandoned clear Bible teaching and instead sought power, influence, and wealth. However, he is better known today for the problem-solving logical principle known as ‘Ockham’s razor’. Even though he did not invent this idea, he used it so effectively that it came to bear his name.
Ockham’s razor is a phrase that in Latin is usually rendered Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate, which translates as: ‘Entities [of explanation] should not be multiplied beyond necessity’. This concept has been inappropriately restated as ‘All things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.’1 However, Ockham was not claiming that nature always follows the simplest course, nor that a simple explanation trumps a better, more complex one; nor yet that simplicity should overrule the need to explain all the data. Rather, he was advocating that one should not propose any more causes than are necessary to account for any phenomenon.
The term ‘Ockham’s razor’ first occurred long after Ockham’s time, in 1852 in the work of British mathematician William Hamilton.1 Some claim that it is called a ‘razor’ because it refers to the ‘shaving away’ of unnecessary explanations. But that may be a modern-day explanation after the fact. Others point out that before erasers were in use, writing was corrected by scraping ink away with a razor. It could thus well be that this principle became associated with ‘razor’ not because of its subject matter but because it was a corrective to thought—‘Ockham’s eraser’ as it were.
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; iep.utm.edu/ockham
He wrote (translated):
“Nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture.”2
Skeptics and atheists using Ockham’s razor today inevitably leave out the last bit, and in doing so they misuse the concept. For example, atheists like to claim their disbelief in God is superior to theism because it involves one less entity and so is simpler. But Ockham was not giving the world a 14th-century equivalent of ‘Keep it simple, stupid’. Rather, he was stating his belief in the overriding authority of the Word of God, while advocating the use of reason and perception in evaluating the cause of anything.
It is believed that Ockham was born in the English village of Ockham in Surrey, and that as a youngster he entered and received his early schooling at the Order of St Francis in London (the Franciscans), followed by theological studies at the University of Oxford. His education included the study of logic, which he regarded as indispensable for evaluating all assertions. Indeed, in all the disputes he came to be involved in, “logic was destined to serve as his chief weapon against adversaries.”3
Ockham on trial
At Oxford, students were required to write a commentary on the official textbook of theology, the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Ockham’s opinions on this subject (known as the Ordinatio) were deemed to be insufficiently orthodox by the university theological faculty, so that he left the university without obtaining his master’s degree in theology. Church authorities also disapproved of his views, and in 1324 Pope John XXII summonsed Ockham to the papal court at Avignon in France to appear before a commission of six theologians there. However, his Ordinatio was never officially declared to be heretical.3
Ockham vs Pope John XXII
While in Avignon, Ockham resided at the local Franciscan priory. Here, in 1327, he met the chief administrative officer of the Franciscans, Michael of Cesena, who was in dispute with Pope John over the issue of property. Believing that they were following the example of Christ and the Apostles, the Franciscans lived in absolute poverty, which was the antithesis of the opulence of the papal palace at Avignon. Pope John sought great wealth for the Church, and the lifestyle of the Franciscans was an implicit rebuke rather than a help in achieving this.
Michael asked Ockham to study three papal bulls4 showing what Pope John XXII had previously written on the use of property. From these, Ockham concluded that Pope John was not just mistakenly wrong, but was stubbornly and heretically wrong, and so had forfeited his mandate. In short, Ockham protested that John was a pseudo-pope. Indeed, Ockham has the distinction of being designated ‘the first Protestant’—by no less an authority on this subject than the Catholic Encyclopedia.5
Ockham, a Bible-believing Christian, asserted that God was the one and only first cause and authority—facts which God had revealed to mankind in His Word, the Bible. This appeal to Scripture as authority was taken up and restated by Martin Luther in the Protestant Reformation a little less than two centuries later as the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). That is to say, the Bible is the supreme authority in all it teaches. All else, and particularly human conjecture, is subordinate to and corrected by the written Word of God.
Relationships between the parties deteriorated and in May 1328 Michael, Ockham, and some Franciscan sympathizers fled Avignon to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV (Ludwig) of Bavaria, who became Ockham’s patron. Pope John promptly excommunicated Ockham and his companions, not for heresy but for defiance of his authority (i.e. leaving Avignon without his permission). He had previously excommunicated Louis in 1324 and denied him all rights of Empire, so Louis welcomed the moral and literary support of Ockham. Ockham spent the rest of his life in Munich writing on various issues, one of which was that the papacy did not have right of control over imperial authorities. Ockham was thus an early advocate of the separation of church and state.
Applying Ockham’s razor to creation/evolution
Today, the preeminent version of the ‘big bang’ hypothesis for the origin of the universe is that the singularity which allegedly then ‘banged’ came into existence from nothing6 by means of a ‘quantum fluctuation’. This then supposedly expanded rapidly, and ultimately produced everything that exists. But this theory must presuppose that there is something to fluctuate.7 Where and when could any such alleged quantum fluctuation occur before there was any space or time for it to take place in?
Applying Ockham’s assessment to the ‘big bang’ scenario, we see that multiple causes are proposed (e.g. quantum fluctuation from nothing, sudden expansion, reduction of the expansion, most of the universe made up of ‘dark’ matter and ‘dark’ energy that cannot be detected, etc.). None of these are self-evident, known by experience, or proven by the authority of Sacred Scripture. Recall that self-evidence was an essential part of Ockham’s logical evaluation of all assertions. The ‘big bang’ fails Ockham’s razor totally.
Furthermore, the universe exhibits intelligent design, especially in the biological world but it is also true among the heavenly bodies.8 Big-bang proponents deny this, thereby avoiding the need to explain it. However, an explanation for all the data, including the design and intelligence clearly seen in the universe, is that the universe was created by an intelligent Designer who had the power, the ability, and the penchant to do so.
Opponents of this ‘creation’ concept claim that invoking ‘God’ was merely primitive man’s attempt to explain things before science. However, a corollary to the idea of an intelligent Designer is that such a Being should also have the necessary intelligence to be able to communicate to us what He has done. And this is in fact what we find in the Bible, in the account of origins in Genesis, which Ockham believed.
Although he was certainly not the first person persecuted for biblically orthodox beliefs, Ockham thoroughly deserves his accolade as ‘the first Protestant’. What he wrote in the 14th century not only rebuked the religious corruption of his day, but his philosophical razor can be used today as a condemnation of the atheists’ refusal to acknowledge God in every aspect of life. For God is not only our Creator, He is also our Lawgiver, our Judge, and for those who wish to be forgiven of their sins, our Saviour.
References and notes
- E.g. by Carl Sagan’s fictitious SETI scientist Ellie Arroway in his sci-fi film Contact. Return to text
- William of Ockham, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; see plato.stanford.edu/entries/ockham, p. 9. The reference given therein is “Sent. I, dist. 30, q.1.” Return to text
- William of Ockham, Encyclopaedia Britannica; britannica.com/biography/William-of-Ockham. Return to text
- A papal bull is a legal publication issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It is named after the lead seal (bulla) that was appended to the end in order to authenticate it. Return to text
- Catholic Encyclopedia: William of Ockham. Return to text
- E.g. as claimed by Krauss, L.M. in A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, Free Press 2012. See review: Reynolds, D.W. Godless universe untenable, J. Creation 27(1):30–35; creation.com/krauss-review. Return to text
- Sometimes said to be a quantum vacuum, which is equally not ‘nothing’; see Sarfati, J., In the beginning God created—or was it a quantum fluctuation?; creation.com/krauss. Return to text
- Sarfati, J., By Design, Creation Book Publishers, Georgia, USA, 2008; creation.com/s/10-2-524. Return to text