Ockham, the neo-Thomist right and transgender rights

Micael Gustavsson asked a good question in the previous post and my reply got so long that I thought it should be a post instead. [A caveat – I’m not an expert on Medieval philosophy or Ockham but I have been to Surrey. Any philosophy professors or expert on the theology of the middle ages feel free to correct my errors – or anybody really 🙂 ]

//Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?//

Mainly because it doesn’t work – so assuming technological and scientific thought proceeded anyway then over time then Thomism would increasingly be in conflict with advances in knowledge. It’s not so much that William O had to invent nominalism for science to happen, just that the kind of reasoning & conceptual framework that will come about in response to engaging scientifically with the world won’t match Thomism.

In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.

I don’t think Ockham set these changes in Western thought in motion – I think he was an astute thinker who spotted a whole set of flaws in the Thomist consensus. The only way for these flaws to STAY overlooked would have been for the Catholic Church to somehow prevent intellectual development in Western Europe at both a philosophical and practical level.

Put a different way: the neo-Thomist right really want things (i.e. everything) to exist to serve an underlying purpose and for categories of things to reflect that purpose and deviations of things FROM those categories & purposes are therefore immoral.

A current example is the right and its reaction to transgender people. Now let me be clear the basic issue of the right is simply bigotry and ignorant prejudice but the styles of rationalisations that the right applies neatly illustrates how the view on categories works as an epistemology and a view on ethics.

So an anti-transgender rights conservative (which isn’t all of them) might claim that:

  • there are only two sexes/gender
  • that God created those two sexes for distinct purposes
  • that when a person acts in a way contrary to the purposes of their sex that is sinful (because it is ‘unnatural’/against God’s purpose)
  • that therefore they should not be encouraged or enabled to do so

These ideas are really just bigotry but if you were casting around for a reputable philosophical scheme to rationalise them then a set of ideas that join Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas look attractive. This is the idea that the reason things are similar (and hence can be lumped together in categories) even though they are different (so we can tell them apart) is because the truer, deeper, more essential reality IS the category. All women are alike (in this idea) because womaness is the underlying truth. As a way of thinking it makes sense if you are classifying quadrilaterals (all square-like things are instances of the underlying deeper truth of the Platonic ideal of a square).

Now there is a whole bunch of stuff there: a metaphysics, a theory of science, a view of God and theological truth (i.e. we can reason about categories and discover ethical truths). Why do John C Wright and Vox Day like syllogisms? Because they were a medieval/classic way of reasoning about CATEGORIES.

Now Ockham called bullshit on aspects of this. Specifically he moved (reluctantly at times) towards a position called nominalism – essentially that categories are primarily convenient ways of thinking about stuff. Things are essentially different but humans can identify similarities and lump similar things together. But that lumping together isn’t the truer deeper reality. Nominalism has its problems also obviously. However, when we look at things scientifically what do we see:

  • There are not only two human biological sexes. It is not a biological fact that humans divide neatly into two simple groupings by sex. It’s not true physically and it isn’t true genetically.

Now, the existance of inter-sex people is NOT the cornerstone of transgender rights – those rights exist regardless but I’ll get back to that. I’m highlighting it because it illustrates how the neo-Thomist scheme falls apart on a contemporary issue once we engage with the actual facts of the world. Even quite strong natural/empirical categories that we encounter empirically (such as biological genetic sex in humans) that has fairly well-understood causal (in the modern sense) basis does not form categories with zero fuzziness in the boundary. If God set up this scheme then God set up a scheme in which categorical boundaries have a tendency to get fractal.

And that’s JUST sex! Gender brings in questions or societal roles, behaviour, attitudes, dress, personality etc shows no respect for neat natural categories. Of course, the empirical evidence for this is in the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology and hence easier for the right to dismiss but essentially we have a similar issue. The neo-Thomist is claiming that the categories are a TRUTH about the universe i.e. A QUESTION OF FACT and that from those facts THEOLOGICAL truths can be established (God’s intent) and from that an ETHICAL truth can be inferred (being transgender is supposedly against God’s purpose) – and they are plain wrong.

I doubt William of Ockham had and views or perspective on the issue of transgender rights and there isn’t a coherent way of saying what he would think if he was alive today because he’d be a different person BUT! Bill-O (as I feel I should call him now) was already pulling apart most of the pieces of that argument.

  • His nominalism points to categories as being empirical observational things that will have exceptions, complications, and non-neat boundaries. We live in a world in which there is a platypus and birds are tiny singing dinosaurs.
  • His fiedism separated theological truths from logical and empirical ones. I.e. if God exists then God transcends logic (God is more powerful than logic and isn’t constrained by it) but therefore you can’t logic God.

Now, as I said I don’t want to overstate the fact that biological sex is not a neat category as a reason for transgender rights being important. That isn’t the actual positive reasoning. Rather, it is the fact that biological sex is not a neat category that demonstrates that the neo-Thomist argument CANNOT be correct. It is a metaphysical scheme that falls apart when brought into contact with OBSERVATION – which is what happened repeatedly since Plato first came up with the idea. Ironically it was Aristotle (who Thomas Aquinas venerated) who began chipping away at the scheme. It wasn’t a bad idea as such and Platonism had a good run in mathematics until at least the 19th century.

To move away from biology and sociology, you can see how this divergence works in chemistry. Neat categories of four elements gives way to a plethora of elements. The periodic table itself isn’t a fatal wound because there are lots of natural groupings but the inherent fuzziness (e.g. elements that are nearly but not quite metals) pushes against it. Atomic theory kills it dead – the commonalities between elements arise not from them all being in the same category but rather similarities at an atomic level lead to common properties. Having the quality of a metal becomes something that can be described without recourse to the quality of being a metal.

Anyway, this article on William of Ockham is a good read: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ockham/

Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is a great read regardless is very much tied up in the times and ideas of William of Ockham as prototype for modern rationalism. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, shares the same first name with the addition of the allusion to Sherlock Holmes but is also an English Fransciscan and contemporary of William of Ockham. The background to the story involves a political dispute between the Pope and the real life Michael of Cesena head of the Franciscans in which William of Ockham was involved.


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14 responses to “Ockham, the neo-Thomist right and transgender rights”

  1. In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.

    My understanding is that the ‘make their stand’ decision was almost entirely political anyway. Giordano Bruno is often held up as having a lot of the blame for that, but a lot of it probably boiled down to the Catholic church trying to avoid an internal civil war by handing folks like Galileo over to pacify their own hard-liners, which had been getting louder and louder since the publication of Copernicus’ work less than a century earlier.

    Which actually makes the tie-in to a lot of modern politics even closer: scientific advance threatens what some people consider ‘the natural order of things’, and over the next few generations the voices of those who feel threatened by change get louder and louder until they’re taking over the organizations they’re a part of from the inside because they’ve polarized everything and the less political members have mostly died off.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So this is a fancy way of saying that conservatives are afraid of things that don’t fit in nice neat categories. That thinking outside the box is literally an existential threat to their mentality. Their inflexibility on everything even extends to medieval philosophers.

    And without BillyO, you don’t get science; therefore BillyO is wrong b/c science like evolution and climate change is wrong.

    The conservative need for hardline categories also leads to things like the one-drop rule.

    Makes sense. Probably to do with their inadequate amygdalae, if I can be excused for going biologically-determinative like them for a minute.

    But thanks, the non-binary people and fuzziness of the periodic table ‘splained it to me real good. Also Sean Connery movies are a bonus.

    Liked by 1 person

          • You categorize conservatives and pre-judge them as bigots. That is the irony here. Discussion is good but rhetoric and ideology shut down debate. The ancient meme of science v. faith finds comfort in the the fake news of the Galileo Galilei saga. Ignore the truth. Reach for the myth. Attack faith. Belittle those who support virtue. Start over. Is that your modus? I hope not.
            Science and faith join together to understand and know and learn the truth in this world and in the next.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I don’t think I’ve ever PRE-judged conservatives or conservatism and I’m not doing so here. I’m looking at explanations and rationalisation. You clearly haven’t read the post above – if you had you would have spotted that THE SUBJECT OF THE POST was a person OF FAITH and also of reason. The Galileo reference was not ‘science v faith’ but competing PHILOSOPHICAL approaches to truth that are lot more subtle than ‘science v faith’. No myth of Galileo was involved.

              The enormous irony here is that Ockham’s theological stance was far MORE based on the importance of faith than Aquinas’s.

              You need to read first and then engage.


  3. Some time ago, there was a rightwing university professor quoted on German TV who railed against the so-called “gender craze” and declared that he was a professor of biology and therefore he knew for a fact that humans have only two sexes. Whereupon I yelled at the screen, “If you’re really a professor of biology, you should damned well know that human sexes are not so neatly delineated and that intersex people exist.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe he’s a professor of microbiology and the whole sex determination thing is beyond him. By golly, there aren’t any trans ameobae and bacteria!


  4. I’ve been wondering whether to post this, but I guess this minor point is worth emphasizing.

    At least one theistic philosopher, Ed Feser, actually acknowledges that the physics of Galileo (and other natural philosophers/early scientists) basically ignored Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. The quote I have is from “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways”, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, v 85, n 2, pp. 263-264.

    There can be no question that the prevailing attitude among modern philosophers has been that the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics and philosophy of nature is in error. Indeed, this attitude can plausibly be seen as definitive of modern philosophy. When Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Locke, and the other early moderns replaced the Scholastic’s conception of nature with a “mechanistic” one, what this entailed, essentially, was a rejection of substantial forms and final causes.

    So if johnkeenan thinks that your reference to Galileo is wrong, he’s going to have to take it up with someone putatively on his own side.

    More paragraphs from the paper here:

    freethoughtblogs DOT com/singham/2017/11/20/does-melvin-the-god-want-us-to-know-if-he-exists-or-not/#comment-4398735

    Feser references Ockham a couple of times, but not as the main reason to reject all of A-T metaphysics. But reading between the lines, I think he realizes that the only reason to accept the premises of A-T metaphysics in the first place is intuition or personal fiat. Maybe. Feser isn’t the the clearest of writers.


    • Apologies – I don’t know why but this comment got stuck in the spam filter and I just released it back into the wild.

      And yes, Feser views are partly what I’m refering to


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