William of Ockham

Letha Musgrave introduces William of Ockham  a native of Surrey, the Franciscan scientist and philosopher who was deeply involved during his own lifetime in the politics of medieval Church and State.

Often men who help lay the groundwork for great changes in events or in thought never receive just recognition in later centuries. William of Ockham is an example. Usually he is mentioned only in connexion with ‘Ockham’s razor’, the principle that ‘entities are not to be multiplied without necessity’. Although William applied this dictum to the religious issues of his day, it later became a foundation stone of the scientific method.

Also known as the law of parsimony, it requires the scientist to keep hypotheses to a minimum. That is, the simpler a theory or explanation is, the less is the chance for error. Certainly this has been a basic principle of experimentation to the present day. But, important though the ‘razor’ is to science, it is by no means Ockham’s only contribution.

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