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Tag Archives: Ockham

The Myth of Matter, p. 3

Hylomorphism [1]

William of Ockham, from stained glass window a...

Atoms violated "Occam's Razor." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The winners of the argument thought matter was continuously variable. They argued convincingly that pure matter came in simple shapes, such as lines, planes, circles, spheres, pyramids and so on, and that matter became objects in a way similar to how we use primitive shapes to create a computer drawing. Let’s call them ‘morphists’ for short.

Morphists had iron-clad mathematical reasons to support their point of view. The reasoning went like something like this:

  1. Let us pick two numbers, say 1 and 11/3.
  2. Isn’t it true that there is number between those two numbers, like 11/6?
  3. Isn’t it true that there is a number between 11/6 and 11/3?
  4. Can’t we go on finding in-between numbers forever? (And isn’t it also true that they don’t have to be made with fractions?)
  5. Then why shouldn’t we consider the rest of reality to operate the same way?
Table I: Fourteenth Century Atomists and their Critics[2]

Atomists

‘Morphists’

Henry of Harclay William of Alnwick
Walter Chatton Adam Wodeham
William Crathorn Thomas Bradwardine
John Wycliffe William of Ockham
Gerard of Odo Roger Rosetus
Nicholas Bonetus Walter Burley
John Gedo John the Canon
Marcus Trevisano
Nicholas Autrecourt

The Middle Ages’ strongest mathematical reasoning was augmented with really powerful theological ideas that everyone –even the atomists– believed by faith. The combination of (inadequate) mathematical reasoning and (inflexible) religious orthodoxy is illustrated in the story of John Wycliffe.


[1] ‘Hylo’: matter, ‘morph’: form; Greek

[2] Christophe Grellard and Aurélien Robert, eds., Atomism in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology, Brill,Leiden, 2009.

Crying in the Wilderness

So they said to him, “Who are you? We need an answer! What do you have to say for yourself?”

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