cat heading jaded light awards

occam william

Fourteenth century English philosopher and theologian William of Occam (a.k.a., Ockham) was one of the major players in medieval intellectual discourse and is often characterized as Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical nemesis, a reputation that is perhaps deserved, but only in part.

Credited for pioneering the heuristic of nominalism, many regard Occam as the father of modern epistemology, but it’s his problem-solving principle of parsimony for which he is most popularly known and which is most referenced by skeptical investigators of the paranormal.

The principle of parsimony maintains that less is more: when having to choose from two or more hypotheses, it’s best to go with the one least complicated by variables and suppositions. This “edgy” idea came to be known as Occam’s Razor. However, it was always intended by Occam to be a guiding principle rather than a rule. In other words, by using Occam’s Razor, one doesn’t achieve a result truer than others; instead, one settles on an hypothesis more likely than others to be correct.

Occam’s Razor has become a household term, thanks to astronomer and skeptical inquirer Carl Sagan, who featured William of Occam in his late 1970s television series, Cosmos, and again in his book, Contact, which was adapted into a hit motion picture in 1997. For skeptical investigators of the paranormal, though, Occam’s Razor is a sacred maxim whose author is a kind of celebrity icon. In fact, some erroneously apply the principle of parsimony to dismiss a paranormal phenomenon as impossible because it is improbable. This is an oversimplification. When correctly applied, Occam’s principle of parsimony asserts that a physical and natural cause is more probable than a metaphysical or supernatural one, because it requires less reliance on supposition and belief; after all, we’ve observed and verified quite a lot about the physical and natural sciences, whereas we don’t know anything certain about the metaphysical and preternatural realms except for what we believe. A natural explanation is always going to be a safer bet. Conscientious skeptical thinkers are careful to use Occam’s Razor as the heuristic device it was intended to be, rather than a cynical dismissal of any extraordinary and inexplicable claim (whether or not such a claim actually defies reasonable explanation).

William of Occam’s enlightened and game-changing principle of parsimony has helped skeptical paranormal investigators understand why feeling something to be true is different from intuiting it to be reasonable. For this, Willy Occam is posthumously (very, very posthumously) owed PPI’s “Jaded Light” Award.

You can learn all about William of Occam on-line at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: