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.
No, no, not a piece on how the right’s current tendency towards consipracy theories or misplaced explanations. The Right (or at least the tiny section of the right who knows who he was) don’t like the actual William of Ockham 1285-1347. William, an English Fransciscan monk is an important figure in the philosophy of epistmology and reasoning. Also, there’s a weird coda at the end…
So why don’t the right like him? In the review I did of conservative philosopher Edward Feser’s book on how Thomas Aquinas somehow disproved atheism (spoiler: he didn’t) I pointed out how William of Ockham and Duns Scotus are seen as the villains of the middle-ages by the new advocates of Thomism. Feser’s main beef with William O was his fideism – the notion that faith is the only or primary route to theological truth. While that principle sounds very devout, it eliminates the possibility of their being logical or rational ways of learning theological truths i.e. if you adopt fideism you give up trying to prove the existence of god. So while William of Ockham is devout he is seen as creating a kind of back door in Western thought for atheism.
I cam across another piece on William of Ockham at that weird conservative site Intellectual Takeout – the place that had that odd piece on Hannah Arendt. This time the piece is called William of Ockham: The Man Who Started the Decline of the West. The title shouldn’t be surprising by now – we’ve seen enough figures on the right and the alt-right hankering for a return to the middle-ages to no this isn’t a parody of modern conservatism.
The writer, Danile Lattiter, points on Ockham’s nominalism as the issue:
“Prior to Ockham, the dominant Western understanding held that individual things (“particulars”) have common natures (“universals”) which dictate the purpose of each thing, and which can be known by man. Thus, for instance, if an individual was referred to as “human,” it was because he really possessed a human nature that was ordered toward flourishing through a life of virtue (as Aristotle says) or participation in the divine life (as Christian revelation says).
However, Ockham denied the real existence of universal natures. In Ockham’s view, the universe is inhabited by a number of individual things that have no necessary connection with each other. We can call human beings “human” based on their sharing a certain resemblance with each other, but we can’t infer anything about them based on their common name. We can know that one thing can cause another thing to happen only based on repeated experience, not on some abstract knowledge of a thing’s nature (thus laying the groundwork for modern science). Anything theological—such as the existence of God or his attributes—can be known by faith alone (thus, apparently, laying the groundwork for the Reformation).”
Lattiter cast the article as him reporting the views of others rather than his own views but he doesn’t put much of a counter case. Personally I doubt William of Ockham personaly set this train of ideas in motion – the flaws in reasoning he was exposing become manifest the more people engage with the world as it is. The Platonic/Aristotlean-Thomistic approach was not going to last and if it had we wouldn’t have just had philosophical stagnation but technological and social stagnation in Europe as well. There isn’t a plausible alternate universe in which Western thought stuck with Aquinas AND developed the technology it did.
Anyway, not the worst article I’ve seen there but not great.
Looking at the articles the author wrote though, I found this piece of nonsense: http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/way-too-many-books-are-being-published
It’s pretty much a classic conservative lament: things are all different and changing and wasn’t it great when things were how they used to be. It isn’t good and the ideas are confused.
The weird coda is finding Sarah Hoyt laying into the same article at Mad Genius Club: https://madgeniusclub.com/2018/01/10/we-dont-need-no-education-we-dont-need-no-thought-control/
Hoyt’s attempted fisking of the piece isn’t great either but what’s funny is somewhere along the way Hoyt and the commenters assume the piece is by a leftist. So they set up various strawmen positions that the writer didn’t espouse and knock those down.
Here’s our old pal Phantom commenting on an article he presumably didn’t read:
“One more Leftist screaming SHUT UP!!!11! in a futile attempt to shove the Internet genie back in the bottle.
This is my favorite part: “We need to identify the key texts that should act as the foundation of our shared cultural and interpersonal knowledge.”
This guy wants to make -me- stop writing. By which I mean, me personally. Because I assure you, my work does not support his notion of “shared cultural knowledge.” Quite the reverse, I hope.
Come and get me, hipster twinkies. Molon labe.”
Nope – it is a rightist implying people should shut up in a futile attempt to shove the societal change genie back in the bottle. I doubt they want Phantom to stop writing as such but then hey probably haven’t read what he writes…
In the US a Christian college is sanctioning a member of its staff who asserted that Islam worships the same god as Christianity. Apparently this is a controversial notion and at odds with the college’s official doctrine. Now for an atheist the argument is a bit like asking whether Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny lee-Miller both play the character called Sherlock Holmes on television. Now that is a really fun argument to have but not one likely to get you sacked from your job if you take the wrong position. However, for people who are followers of the so-called Abrahamic religions this can be an important question.
Interestingly, it is a debate that is burning away over at Vox Day’s blog
In various previous posts I’ve looked at aspects of Feser’s book in some detail. In this last post I want to give a more general review.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser claims to be an attempt to show that atheism is essentially irrational and that belief in god can be defended on rational grounds. Overall this is not what the book actually is.
The book is best understand as consisting of three components:
- polemic and sarcasm aimed at prominent ‘new’ atheists writers – in particular Richard Dawkins, Daniel C Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris
- an overview and defense of the metaphysical tradition of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas – and in particular a defense of Aquinas’s views on the existence of god
- an account of how Feser applies Aquinas’s metaphysics to his own modern politics, in particular on the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
The polemic sections aimed at the atheist writers is the weakest part of his writing. Good snark can be amusing and given Richard Dawkins’s natural pomposity he should be an easy target and yet Feser continually misses. He repeatedly pretends to have no idea why Dawkins spends the effort he does challenging notions like ‘Intelligent Design’ and this makes Feser’s writing seem a bit shallow rather than disingenuous. Failing to achieve ‘disingenuous’ as a target is a substantial failing and demonstrates how far Feser’s writing falls from ‘good’.
The sections where Feser advances his own political views are weak logically and serve largely to demonstrate the flaw in the metaphysical system he advocates. His very selective and self-serving choices of natural categories or final causes, shows how easily his system, can be used primarily not as a rational system but rather as a system for rationalizations. Parts of it are just simply embarrassing and presumably require a strong devotion to the outcomes of the arguments to be palatable.
The historical account and defense of Feser’s preferred metaphysics is easily the strongest aspect of the book. It is deeply partisan and one-sided but it is also passionate and demonstrates his deep understanding as a philosopher. It is substantially weaker whenever Feser attempts to describe the critics of Aquinas and this is unfortunate. The motives and indeed systems of thought of some of Western philosophy’s most notable figures are rendered mysterious and are portrayed as odd and arbitrary to an extent that it should make any critical mind severely doubt Feser’s account.
Overall this is a very lazy book. The most well written parts are the potted history of the Aristotelian tradition in Western philosophy. Yet these really don’t amount to much more than overly partisan notes for the first term of a undergrad philosophy course. Around this framework Feser adds more original writing and yet this writing is largely weakly written and displays poor reasoning.
The book never lives up to its title. It is a sermon to the choir and even then more of a sketch that suggest maybe their prejudices could be defended with an intellectually respectable scheme. He doesn’t actually deliver such a scheme – more points in the vague direction of Aristotle and Aquinas and hopes for the best.
Should you read it? Maybe. It is short. If you are curious as to why certain people on the US right are now talking about Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas then Feser’s book might give you some insights. You might encounter somebody online who claims that Feser has demonstrated something rather than just asserted it and reading Feser’s book will help you see that no, he didn’t demonstrate anything in particular. Having said that much of the book is dull and the political parts tend towards awful even when Feser isn’t intentionally trying to cause offense.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: The New Scholasticism in Action
Feser’s book is relatively thin on original ideas as it is intended to be primarily advocacy for Aquinas’s approach to philosophy. Fewer does attempt though to apply his position to modern issues and in doing so he provides a neat illustration of the New Scholasticism works. He describes the approach to ethics as follows:
That is, as we shall see, exactly what morality is from the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas: the habitual choice of actions that further the hierarchically ordered natural ends entailed by human nature.
Feser goes onto the describe the nature of the human soul which is, it seems, the abstract form of a given human. In other words in the same that triangularity is the abstract form of a given triangle, Edward Feser’s soul is the abstract EdwardFeseriality of the material Edward Feser. The soul is abstract form and is abstract will and, for humans, can exist indefinitely because it is form and hence can’t lose its form.
Guess when the soul joins a human body? Go on, guess. Did you guess ‘when a person becomes a rational being who exerts their will in a purposeful man different from say, animals which Feser says do not have souls’? If you did you get 10 points for rational consistency and zero points for realising that it the soul joins a human body when it is politically convenient for Feser. So, surprise, surprise, it is at conception because that is when a human first forms. Do a sperm and a soul have half a soul each – as they together dictate the form of a human (ignoring epigenetic issues)? Feser doesn’t say but it would be reasonable to guess that his answer would be ‘no’.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: The Scholastic Dead End.
In Part 7 I discussed how mathematics broke from Platonism and from a pre-dominant metaphysics. As I noted there, the various foundational crises in mathematics did not disprove or even really discredit Platonism, instead they made it viable to be agnostic on those issues. In addition the metaphysics no longer directly informed the epistemology. Indeed a philosophical rival to Platonism, mathematical formalism (in which axioms are like the arbitrary rules of a game) while flawed in a number of ways could still be a productive stance. The old question of whether mathematics was discovered or invented is not one that can be settled but in an age of invention and in an age of computer model ‘invented’ made a lot of sense as a way of working. While computer programming had old roots in the age of the Industrial Revolution, in the second half of the Twentieth Century it became a major part of humanities culture both intellectually and economically. Inventing formal languages, developing data structures and discovering surprising features of invented logical structures became something familiar and which we had a shared cultural experience of.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Mathematics and Geometry
Part Seven? Seriously? Do not be misled – that I am over seven thousand words into a review of a relatively short book does not indicate that this is a good book. I’ll do a more summative review when I’m done.
In the meantime I am onto another section that is reviewing what isn’t in the book – in this case any critical comparison with Feser’s views on the inescapable logic of his position and mathematics.
Why is mathematics important? Fewer tells us early on:
But it is important to understand that, certain details and rhetorical flourishes aside, the core of Plato’s theory is admitted even by many who are unsympathetic to his overall worldview to be highly plausible and defensible, and has always had powerful advocates down to the present day. The reason is that at least something like Plato’s theory is notoriously very hard to avoid if we are to make sense of mathematics, language, science, and the very structure of the world of our experience.