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Ockham's Razor underpins science, and has remained sharp all these years.

William of Ockham

A philosopher and a theologian who lived in the 14th century, William of Ockham made a dramatic contribution to science - a theory that is behind all the major inventions.

To those who claimed that all knowledge must be based on Scripture, William pointed to God's world, and asserted that God was not arbitrary, and the laws of nature were reliable. To understand that world William proposed the law still known as Ockham's Razor. (Sometimes spelled Occam's Razor.)

This is the idea that the simplest explanation with the least assumptions is probably the right one. It's a breathtakingly productive idea.

A Franciscan friar, William travelled from England to Avignon to defend his ideas to the Pope who was sitting there. He bluntly advocated simplicity of life for the followers of Christ. This Christian notion irritated the schismatic Pope, and William fled to Munich.

Stained glass window showing William

A stained glass window in a church in Surrey
with a depiction of William

Image: Moscarlop / WIKI

For the next two decades William advocated a political and social settlement that has been adopted in much of the West. Like a razor, the settlement has two sides -

Political power is vested in a secular state, and spiritual power is vested in the church. Spiritual power does not try to control the state. Political power does not try to control the church.

It is not a perfect settlement. It does not always work. But it has allowed for a considerable degree of spiritual and political freedom.

The positive power of this principle would be realized centuries later in the American Constitution. The horror of ignoring it can be seen all over the world.

In the Anglican Communion, William of Ockham's feast day is celebrated on April 10th.


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