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Principles of William of Ockham (Occam)

Posted by allzermalmer on November 18, 2012

These are the basic principles of William of Ockham or William of Occam. This comes from

1. All things are possible for God, save such as involve a contradiction.

In other words, God can do (or make or create) everything which does not involve a contradiction; that which includes a contradiction is absolute non-entity. Ockham expressly bases this principle on an article of faith: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’. From this Ockham immediately infers a second principle which is encountered everywhere in his writings:

2. Whatever God produces by means of secondary (i.e. created) causes, God can produce and conserve immediately and without their aid.

Hence any positive reality which is naturally produced by another created being (not of course without the aid of God who is the first cause) can be produced by God alone without the causality of the secondary cause. In other words, God is not dependent on the causality of created causes, but they are absolutely dependent on His causality. This is stated in a more general manner:

3. God can cause, produce and conserve every reality, be it a substance or an accident, apart from any other reality.

Hence God can create or produce or conserve an accident without its substance, matter without form, and vice versa. In order to bring anything under the operation of this principle, it is sufficient to prove that it is reality or entity. These rules or guiding principles are theological in nature, as Ockham does not fail to emphasise. The following is, however, a scientific principle of general application:

4. We are not allowed to affirm a statement to be true or to maintain that a certain thing exists, unless we are forced to do so either by its self-evidence or by revelation or by experience or by a logical deduction from either a revealed truth or a proposition verified by observation. 

That is the real meaning of ‘Ockham’s Razor’ can be gathered from various texts in Ockham’s writings. [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 authority of holy scripture.’ and ‘We must not affirm that something is necessarily required for the explanation of an effect, if we are not led to this by a reason proceeding either from a truth by itself or from an experience that is certain.’]

It is quite often stated by Ockham in the form: ‘Plurality is not to be posited without necessity’ (Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate), and also, though seldom:  ‘What can be explained by the assumption of fewer things is vainly explained by the assumpition of more things’ (Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora). The form usually given, ‘Entities must not be multiplied without necessity’ (Entia non sunt muliplicanda sine necessitate), does not seem to have been used by Ockham. What Ockham demands in his maxim is that everyone who makes a statement must have a sufficient reason for its truth, ‘sufficient reason’ being defined as either th eobservation of a fact, or an immediate logical insight, or divine revelation, or a deduction from these. This principle of ‘sufficient reason’ is epistemological or methodological, certainly not an ontological axiom.

The scholastics distinguished clearly between a sufficient reason or cause (usually expressed by the verb sufficit) and a necessary reason or cause (usually expressed by requiritur). As a Christian theologian Ockham could not forget that contingent facts do not ultimately have a sufficient reason or cause of their being, inasmuch as God does not act of necessity but freely; but our theological and philosophical, and in general ll our scientific, assertions ought to have a sufficient reason, that is a reason from the affirmation of which the given assertion follows. All created things can be explained ultimately only by a necessary reason, i.e. a cause which is required to account for their existence. For every creature is contingent. The guiding idea of Duns Scotus, to safeguard contingency (servare contingentiam), is present everywhere in the work of Ockham. We can formulate it as follows:

5. Everything that is real, and different from God, is contingent to the core of its being.

If we bear in mind these guiding principles of Ockham, then his philosophical work becomes intelligible as the effort of a theologian who is looking for absolute truth in this contingent world, viz. for truth independent of any of those thoroughly contingent worlds which are equally possible. He is a theologian who views the world from the standpoint of the absolute. Consequently he sees many truths which were called ‘eternal’ dwindling away in the light of eternity, which is God himself. The actual order of creatures remains contingents; the possible order of creatures is above contingency. Hence the tendency of Ockham to go beyond the investigation of the actual order, by asking what is possible regardless of the state of the present universe. What is absolutely possible can never be impossible; and in that sense statements about absolute possibility are always true and free from contradiction, and for that reasons are necessary. Thus the work of Ockham also becomes intelligible- and this is only the converse of the former viewpoint- as the effort of a philosopher who constantly remanded by the theologian in himself that he must not all any truth necessary unless it can be shown that its denial implies a contradiction.




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