Happy Feast Day, William of Ockham!

by joegio

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Today has a couple of Feast Days (there are so so so so many), but probably the best one is for William of Ockham.

A few things: first of all, this guy is not a saint. Actually, he was a heretic. He was also Catholic, a Franciscan to be precise. He is also more or less one of the Western fathers of the scientific method. WHICH IS INCREDIBLE, RIGHT?

Without William, we might still be arguing like this:

A: I believe that the sky is the same color as a tangerine.

B: You are wrong!

A: I am right!

B: You are wrong, a space alien told me!

A: No, I am right, I dreamt it!

B: No, you are wrong!

A: No I am not wrong, you are an asshole!

B: You hardly know me, how do you know if I’m an asshole?

A: It is self-evident!

B: No it’s not!

…etc.

Without deductive reasoning of the kind that Ockham wrote about, we would have taken a lot longer to get to scientists and engineers (instead of alchemists and sorcerers) which very well could mean that today, there would be no CSIs nor any Laws and Orders. Do you really want to live in that world?

You probably know him for Occam’s Razor (I do not know why we spell them differently, except this all happened during the Middle Ages and Ockham invented logic, not spelling) which is generally bastardized as “The simplest solution is usually the best.”

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Now, Ockham would probably take some issue with this. Maybe not the idea of living simply, because despite his extremely unsimple titles of “Doctor Invincibilis” and “Venerabilis Inceptor,” he was just a teacher (not even a full professor, poor guy), not a superhero. He also argued that Christ meant for Fransiscans and Christians in general to live in poverty. Which was kind of an issue at the time, given all that money the Pope was sitting on. In fact, Ockham was brought to trial before the Pope (for three years!) and though Ockham was condemned as a heretic, nobody could actually point specifically to any of his teachings as “heretical.” But so it goes.

Anyways, back to Occam’s Razor. So, you have maybe had a conversation like this, maybe at work:

BOSS: (shouting) HOW ARE WE GOING TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?

YOU: Well, there are a couple options…

BOSS: THE SIMPLEST SOLUTION IS USUALLY THE BEST! THAT IS CALLED OCCAM’S OR OCKHAM’S RAZOR. HOLD ON, LET ME GOOGLE IT.

It is a very useful rule for scientists and for your office’s workflow for keeping the group inbox clean, but it really only refers to the second half of what Ockham actually wrote in his bedside table classic, Summa totius Logicae: “What can be explained by the assumption of fewer things is vainly explained by the assumption of more things.”

Or, in other words, “When you are explaining yourself, do not use 30 facts when 10 will do.” It is not quite the same as “Keep It Simple Stupid” but it pretty much is. BUT WAIT. What kind of facts, Ahckhum?

“Nothing must be affirmed without a reason being assigned for it, except it be something known by itself, known by experience, or it be something proved by the authority of Holy Scripture.”

OH. MAYBE I GET IT, BUT I PROBABLY DON’T. IT IS STILL EARLY.

So let’s say CSI’s Dr. Gil Grissom was interrogating a perp about a murder. The perp says “I didn’t kill that guy, it was a space alien.”

Now, Dr. Grissom was not there and can not PROVE that an alien did not do the murder. After all, aliens probably murder people all the time. In an Awkum-less world, we would be at an impasse. But thanks to Doctor Invinciblis, Gil can now say: “Well, that is possible. But we found a gun right next to the body and your fingerprints are on that gun.”

Okay, so was it aliens or was it the perp? Probably, the perp, right? That explanation is simpler (involves no warp-speed) and is also based on observable evidence. Also, the ever-terse Gil kept it pretty clean. He could also have mentioned that the perp hated the deceased and that he was named in the deceased’s life insurance policy, but let’s just save that for the trial. Right now, we’re just looking for a confession. Thanks to William of Ockham, Dr. Grissom wins. Again!

Or something like that. I’m not an “expert” on “logic,” but I am the inventor of “Ockham Sock ‘Em Robots!” the fun new deductive reasoning game for children. Look out for the Kickstarter.

Question of the Day: How do YOU spell Hahchumm? With a silent “H”like me?

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