Unlike many of his contemporaries, Occam was not very optimistic about the possibility of knowing God. Occam goes as far as to reject the idea that Christian philosophy aspires to the same intellectual standards as pagan philosophy, going as far to argue that the best we can hope for is a peaceful separation.
When to comes to matters in which Occam is in agreement with Aquinas and Scotus, however, Occam is in agreement with three points; (1) all three reject theithism, or, “Faithism”, that exclusive reliance on faith and distrust of Reason. The mainstream of Christian thought has always rejected Faithism and Rationalism (defined as a reliance purely on Reason). All three believe that there is room for both Reason and Faith in Christian intellectual life; (2) All three believe that it is legitimate to use the achievements of non-Christian philosophy in Christian thought; (3) all three affirm that the powers of human Reason are not only limiting in themselves but damaged by the Fall. Because of its limitations, Reason needs to be supplemented by Faith which repairs and then guides Reason. In these three general points, Aquinas, Scotus, and Occam are united.
Now, for the differences.
The first concerns the status of theology as a science. As previously explained, medieval thinkers were very impressed with Aristotle’s understanding of the universe which he divided into an elaborate hierarchy. At the top of this hierarchy was theology, the first science. So, the question became, is Christian theology that science? Pressure existed in both directions; obviously, no self-respecting Aristotelian wanted to say that Christian theology wasn’t a science. On the other hand, however, Aristotle has set down requirements for science which Christian theology had trouble meeting; for Aristotle, the first principle of a science must be self-evident. The first principles of Christian theology are far from self-evident.
Aquinas and Scotus had argued that is still made sense to call Christian theology a science. It was a “subordinate science”, one that borrowed its principles from a “higher” science which is God’s own knowledge of himself, that which the blessed in Heaven possess. Because they are self-evident to God and the blessed, they can serve as a basis for a science. Occam thinks this all is nonsense.
To Occam, you can organize hearsay however way you want it to make it look like a science, but it won’t be a science. Why is because at the top of the pyramid reside principles only evident by the light of faith. Though at first, it simply appears that Occam is more of a hardcore Aristotelian than either of his predecessors, he is actually saying that Christian philosophy is fundamentally different from the sort of enterprise that Greek philosophy had been.
Both Aquinas and Scotus had argued that many of the truths offered by Christian philosophy were shown to be true by pagan philosophy’s own methodology (what Aquinas had called the ‘Preamble to Faith’). Occam thoroughly rejects any such methodology (‘Natural Philosophy’, in other words, where people attempt to prove God’s existence by natural reasoning). Occam, additionally, is also dubious about showing how the mysteries of faith is a constant with Reasoning.
Looking first at Occam’s skepticism of natural theology, part of his disdain was rooted in him simply not finding the previous arguments very persuasive or impressive. Why these previous theories failed was because the relied on an infinite regress (or, ‘something causes something which causes something, etc.’). Though Occam did, in fact, believe that there was a point in this infinite chain that set off the chain, he maintains that by way of Reason, we cannot prove this point, this “First Cause”.
We can, however, prove at least one point about God. To Occam, we can explain this: that for any being, there is no being more perfect than it.
Williams explains it this way: think of beings as arranged in an ascending order of perfection. At the bottom, you have the least perfect with everything gradually pushing to the top. Does this ascending order keep on going up without an end? One may believe that it does, but it does not. Occam says that that level tops out with a being whose perfection no other being can proceed. Why? Because there cannot be an infinite number of things existing at the same time. But, maybe this topmost being is God. Even then, not necessarily. Occam says that the beings at the top of the ladder may be finite and therefore unimpressive, maybe an angel. All that the argument shows is that there is some perfect being that actually exists (and that being may not actually be a single entity, maybe there is a tie for first place). If this is the best that natural theology can do, then it is lacking.
To Occam, this is the best that natural theology can do. Reason itself cannot get us very far. One thing that readers will notice about Occam’s arguments is that Occam is not interested in rehabilitating his predecessors’ arguments. He deconstructs but doesn’t construct. This pessimism to construction carries over into his skepticism about why the ‘mysteries of the faith’ are incompatible with Reason.
As seen in the previous lecture note, Occam didn’t much favor relational categories. Though he grudgingly re-admitted aspects of relational theory to talk about the Trinity, he did not do as those before him and try and argue that such imperfections in theology were a result of a primal mistake in the theory itself. The exception, then, simply exists for theological purposes and is an exception that a pagan philosopher would have no reason to take seriously. The two are simply headed for two different end-points.
What Occam says by this is that Reason operating on its own can come to believe on the best possible evidence that something is true, even though Christian theology shows definitively that it is false. Only someone whose natural powers have been elevated can see that it is false. Thus, a divide is born. A divide that Occam’s predecessors did not share with their belief that aspects of non-Christian thought could be used to prove Christian ends.
Since Occam held such radical views, it is not surprising that his beliefs got him into trouble. While he was, probably, in London—waiting for an academic appointment which never came—his views came into sharp criticism from his fellow Franciscans. In 1323, when Occam was 25, he was called before a meeting of the Franciscan order to explain his views on relational entities among other suspect views. No records of that meeting survive, though it seems likely that somebody at that meeting did not take too kindly to what Occam had to say in his defense; that same year, someone left England and brought charges of heresy against Occam at the papal court.
Occam went to the papal court, which was at the time in Avignon France, where he would spend four years. It appears that much of that time he was able to spend writing. But, he was also free to become embroiled in a career-changing controversy. You see, the Franciscans had an idea of radical poverty where neither the order nor the person could own anything, they could merely use things on the part of its owner.
Well, near the time of Occam’s internment, the papal authority took steps to dismantle Franciscan theology; obviously, this struck deep into the heart of what it meant to be a Franciscan. Occam, meanwhile, looked into the matter at the request of a visiting dignitary, and he concluded that the teachings of the pope were heretical. Obviously, it is not easy to be around the papal court when one says such things. In 1328, Occam along with a few others fled Avignon under the cover of darkness where they ended up in Munich in Ludwig of Bavaria’s court. Occam would spend the rest of his life writing on political matters. He was ex-communicated in 1328 and the ex-communication was never lifted.