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Starting with his competences given by god man is able to use his possibilities freely building up ownership at the one side which he might however perform or renounce at his own free will or forming social life by setting up a government. Both remain subject to revision. As church and state are structures in a similar manner, Ockham's commentary on the "gospel as a lex perfectae libertatis" gives us some general hints on his ideas of liberty.

Looking for the genealogy of liberty means having to tell a long and complicated story. The Middle Ages of course, are not normally conceded a special place of honour in this respect. It is true, the term and the notion of liberty - and of liberties - are to be found in thousands and thousands of charters in which certain demands were fixed or reduced, or in which guarantees of free ownership or a certain social status were granted to somebody.

Treatises explicitly on "liberty" occurred rather late, however, i. That is to say, in the Renaissance - as late as that - Rinuccini's De liberiate is the first text of this subject to appear on stage1, and it is by no means a central text in the history of political thought. Political theories in the Middle Ages were different in subject and themes.

There were libraries of books De regimine principis, on the ethics and practice of ruling, which was to be somewhat tamed by praticai philosophy and to remind the ruler of his ethical obligations2.

The specula principum with their wide range of varieties were followed by important treatises dealing with the limitation and definition of the. What is a ruler allowed to order, which kind of obedience must be payed to him by the subjects, what is the relationship between the emperor or king and the pope, the bishops and the clergy like? One of the most important writings of this genre in the 14th century wants to defend peace and shows this intention in the title : Defen- sor pads.

Marsilius of Padua mentions "liberty" sometimes, but it is not really his central subject. Accordingly there are only two unspe- cific entries in the index of the edition by R. The same holds true with regards to curial authors. There is no mention of libertas at all in the index of Aegidius Romanus's De potestate ecclesiastica for good reasons. In his voluminous compilation De statu et planctu ecclesie the Spanish author Alvarus Pelagius also avoids to deal with our subject in detail, although he lively presents all his subjects one after the other.

And Michael J. Wilks in his extensive monograph on Augustinus Triumphus and his contemporaries as well mentions liberty in very rare places only and rather incidentally, too 5. There is only one exception among the political theories of the 14th century : It is William of Ockham, who indefatigably insists on, calls for and demands liberty. The pathos of liberty, typical of his political writings, is deeply rooted in the literary heritage of this author; unusually enough, it is a permanent subject not only of the treatises resulting from and composed for his university activities at Oxford and London?

How Occam's Razor Works

In one respect Ockham is not really an exception to the general rule, for he, too, did not deal with the problem of liberty systemati-. Yet the experience of freedom underlies all of his ideas. His idea of God is simply unintelligible without his view of the sovereign freedom of God. God, absolutely free and omnipotent, is placed side by side with man as his creature; there is an infinite distance between both of them, but still man is conceived of as the being next to God and intended to be free. It is this basic experience which gave the initial impulse to Ockham's way of thinking.

When Ockham described the moments of this relationship more precisely, he achieved the most important positions of his philosophy. In analyzing God's possibilities Ockham developped the dialectic of divine potentia ahsoluta and potentia ordinata0, which was handed down to him by tradition.

But he did so not only by way of a subtle description of God's free possibilities; he also used his newly created instrument as a method of radical criticism and objected to a certain kind of metaphysics and ontology that might restrict God's absolute freedom, that might be put above the contingency of creation or, even more, abolish it. The radical phrasings of theologians of the time are well known : God could establish a different order of salvation de potentia absoluta in which hatred for him would be considered a merit7.

The paradoxical position was set up in the Ockhamist school that God would have been able to redeem the world in a way different from the one he took : Non incluait contradictionem deum assumere naturam asini- nam. It is not our business here to point out the borderlines between this view and an image of God that describes him as a God of mere despotism and fickleness. Freedom of the Creator, however, was that important to Ockham that to him reliability on divine acting in salvation was by no means a limitation to God's possibilities.

And yet the free Creator corresponded to the free creature. Man, as dependent on God as he is in being and acting, is yet a free individual, and so he was meant to be and created. Even the original sin could not change this relationship. In Ockham's view freedom is not a special quality which man may have or may not have; to him freedom is identical with man's will itself. As he put it in his theological main work, the "Ordinatio" on the Sentences, Book I, with technical exactitude : "The word 'liberty' is a connotative term meaning the will itself, i.

That is to say liberty is a " certain power potestas by which I can bring about an effect equally and contingently in such a way that I can or cannot accomplish this very effect without changing any part of the conditional frame outside my will" Voluntas respectu cuiuscumque objecti libere et contingenter agit, igitur simpliciter de potentia sua absoluta potest cessare ab actu suo In this respects Ockham is able to identify this spontaneous freedom of choice with freedom as such : libertas et spontaneitas videntur non posse distingui Unfolding a long sequence of definistions by identifications Ockham only occasionally refers to authorities.

And he has no evidence by reason either, for he said any evidence would have to put forward arguments for what is to be proved, which are equally unknown or even more obscure. Nevertheless the sentence is evident to all of us and intelligible by self -experience : potest tarnen evidenter cognosci ex experientia, for every human being learns that whatever he is told by reason it is still up to him if he does or does not want to do it This spontaneous freedom of choice is described in Ockham's studies on ethics14 and on the doctrine of grace It determines man's responsibility for his deeds.

Ockham does not hesitate to make that quite clear, even with extreme references : A suicide who plunges into an abyss by his own free will and repents while falling without being able to prevent the fatal consequences has to be judged differently in terms of morals and theology from somebody who persists in his intention. The mere course of events does not allow a moral judgement; it is the intention of one's will that matters Spontaneous self-determination, as based on evident self-experience, may never be outdone by God's omnipotent rule.

Ockham cares a great deal not to define the relationsship between Creator and creature by the moments of contingency and omnipotence on God's side but to make clear that this relationsship is considered free and that the freedom of man remains perceptible. It was in his first theologian work from about when Ockham describing the relationship between Creator and creature introduced an idea that was later to become extraordinarly important in his political philosophy.

God gave man all the natural endowments that are necessary for certain activities, tools for walking to enable him to move, the intellect for reasoning, the will for acts of volition; but he did not at the same time inspire him with the habitual power to perform such acts. It was enough, however, to endow man with the possibility to acquire such habitual power : sufficit quod det sibi potestatem adqui- rendi sibi tedia Man's talents are thus conceived of as "potestas adqutrendi", a given chance, a power be realised but also to be missed.

The individual is free and responsible for his individual practice; he does not just carry out what he has been endowed with, but fills a free space at his own risk. I am not going to prove this by Ockham's ethic of obedience which implies obedience to God's commandments by moral understanding. Instead I would like to deal with Ockham's political philosophy in which this approach, too, was fully developped. As we all know, Ockham's political ideas were not derived from an academic programme, like from commenting on Aristotle's political writings.

Ockham became a political author because he took side in a violent conflict between his Franciscan order and the pope, and because he felt obliged to explain his position to the public of his time. As a pamphleteer and a publicist, he argued unceasingly and with great energy and intelligence. And he managed to develop a political philosophy through polemics, which shows the high degree of his political writing.

I am not able now to enlarge on the controversies between the pope and the Franciscans, and between, the pope and the emperor. On the whole the basic question of the Franciscan poverty controversy was if the monastic form of religious life in poverty adopted by the Franciscan Order was by right possible and reasonable, if the Franciscans and the Franciscan Order were really able to live in utmost poverty altissima paupertas , and if they were allowed and able to renounce any legal security of possession with respect to individual members and to the group as a whole.

Ockham's political thought did not start from the analysis of human relations, but from the relation between man and things. Dominium or ownership, usus iuris or right of use and simplex usus facti or actual use : these are the problems Ockham was about to deal with now, referring to a large tradition of his order and to the polemic literature of many years Ockham had to defend voluntary renouncement of ownership in its strictest sense against the view that man could not exist without certain rights of ownership; this conflict was in itself very close to Ockham's own philosophical background.

He referred to original history. His result is that man, by his creation, has a potestas utendi with respect to things created. Ownership, i. After the original sin God did not immeadiately grant ownership but only that potestas acquirendi dominium, leaving the performance of this right and also the renouncement of ownership to man's liberty You can also put it the other way round : The principle of ownership was given by God as a free possibility, the performance of ownership however, was left open; it implies that ownership, as useful as it may be to human society, is never allowed to interfere with the fundamental right of living.

If man can preserve his living only by use of other people's property, the barriers of positive right become permeable. The starveling is allowed to take the bread somebody else has in abundance, he is allowed to save himself from freezing to death by taking the coat which somebody else does not need, even without the explicit consent of the owner.

Thus ownership is a reasonable agreement indeed, a useful institution in human society under the conditions of sin; but it is by no means unabolishable, and not indispensible either. This institution is not immediately essential to living, although it makes living more comfortable. The individuals have the freedom to decide how to perform their ownership in particular that it serves its social purpose well. This is the theoretical basis that underlies development in history, and all change in general. Is it surprising that this theory once found was later applied by Ockham to the institution of government iurisdictio?

In his opinion, governement was not immediately installed by God. On the contrary, man was granted the potestas rectores eligendi iurisdictionem habentes by God again after the Fall This means that there is a principal right of government, but its actual forms including the functionaries of government are again put under the responsibility of man and depend on his decision.

This was despite the success the molecular theory had in explaining chemical reactions and thermodynamics. It is ironic that while applying the principle of economy to throw out the concept of the ether and an absolute rest frame, Einstein published almost simultaneously a paper on brownian motion which confirmed the reality of molecules and thus dealt a blow against the use of positivism. The moral of this story is that Occam's razor should not be wielded blindly. As Einstein put it in his Autobiographical notes : " This is an interesting example of the fact that even scholars of audacious spirit and fine instinct can be obstructed in the interpretation of facts by philosophical prejudices.

Occam's razor is often cited in stronger forms than Occam intended, as in the following statements. Notice how the principle has strengthened in these forms which should be more correctly called the law of parsimony , or the rule of simplicity. To begin with, we used Occam's razor to separate theories that would predict the same result for all experiments. Now we are trying to choose between theories that make different predictions.

This is not what Occam intended. Should we not test those predictions instead? Obviously we should eventually, but suppose we are at an early stage and are not yet ready to do the experiments. We are just looking for guidance in developing a theory. This principle goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who wrote " Nature operates in the shortest way possible. The principle of simplicity works as a heuristic rule of thumb, but some people quote it as if it were an axiom of physics, which it is not.

It can work well in philosophy or particle physics, but less often so in cosmology or psychology, where things usually turn out to be more complicated than you ever expected.

William Of Occam |

Perhaps a quote from Shakespeare would be more appropriate than Occam's razor: " There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Simplicity is subjective and the universe does not always have the same ideas about simplicity as we do.

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Successful theorists often speak of symmetry and beauty as well as simplicity. In Paul Dirac wrote " The research worker, in his effort to express the fundamental laws of Nature in mathematical form, should strive mainly for mathematical beauty. It often happens that the requirements of simplicity and beauty are the same, but where they clash the latter must take precedence.

The law of parsimony is no substitute for insight, logic and the scientific method.

Early life

It should never be relied upon to make or defend a conclusion. As arbiters of correctness, only logical consistency and empirical evidence are absolute.


Dirac was very successful with his method. He constructed the relativistic field equation for the electron and used it to predict the positron. But he was not suggesting that physics should be based on mathematical beauty alone. He fully appreciated the need for experimental verification.