Ockham and Modern Errors

Before I begin this post I’m doing this through Dragon naturally speaking software.

If you have looked at some of the other philosophy posts you will notice that I certainly favor metaphysical realism. Occam, however, who is basically said to be the founder of what is known as nominalism, would bring a revelation to the contrary, affecting everything from science to morals. He is actually William of Okham, or Occam, depending on who you ask for spelling. Basically, nominalism means that there are only individuals and are not universals. Therefore, for example, there are different men but there is not really such a thing as man.

Occam’s answer to the problem of universals has been already indicated in effect: universals are terms which signify individual things which stand for them and propositions. Only individual things exist; and by the very fact that a thing exists it is individual there are not and cannot be existing universals he would say. To assert the excremental existence of universals is to commit the folly of asserting a contradiction; for if the universal exists, it must be individual.

Now this naturally leads to there not being a link between one individual and another necessarily. Instead each thing that happens even though it always follows another thing that happens, what we would see as cause and effect, is merely showing the will of God. This is called occasionalism.

What Occam has to say on the matter admirably illustrates his tendency as a thinker with marked theological preoccupations to break through as it were the purely philosophic and natural order into subordinated to the divine liberty and omnipotence. It illustrates, also, one of his main principles that when two things are distinct there is no absolutely necessary connection between. Occam’s tendency was always to break through supposedly necessary connections which might seem to limit in some way the divine omnipotence provided it could not be shown to his satisfaction that denial the proposition affirming such a necessary connection involve the denial of the principle of contradiction. (We get the “tool” called “Occam’s razor” from this thinking, which is certainly useful in many ways: why explain something with many principles when it can be as easily explained with less? However, the usefulness of the “tool” does not make it, irony intended, universally valuable)

Ettiene Gilson said in his book the Unity of Philosophical Experience, and I can’t quote it exactly, that “pious theologians to better extol the glory of God proceeded joyfully to annihilate his very creation.”¬† I think we can see in Occam’s nominalism this tendency at its strongest.

However, I can quote, exactly, the Catholic position, rightly taken from the encyclical Faith and Reason (yes, it is in Catholicism that the truth and not faulty extremes are professed):

The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. (notice the reappearance of the all important foundation of non-contradiction) Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (34)

Of course, in all medieval systems of thought the uniformity and regularity of natural processes were regarded as contingent in as much as the possibility of God’s miraculous intervention was admitted by all Christian thinkers. But the metaphysics of essence had conferred on nature the comparative stability to which Occam deprived it. With him relations and connections in nature were really reduced to the coexistence or successive existence of absolutes. And in the light of the divine omnipotence, believed on faith, the contingency of relations and of order in nature was seen as the expression of the all-powerful will of God.

This is obviously an marked contrast to metaphysical realism otherwise known as moderate realism where we see that universals truly exist but only in particular things. I would remind you that for Plato universals exist as actually existing things and the particulars that we see merely participate in those things. For him there was largeness itself, beauty itself, treeness itself etc.

Early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine-who were highly influenced by Plato and Neoplatonism put these ideas or forms in the mind of God as exemplar cause. This idea was for the most part held onto by later thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas.

In later posts I will explore some of the results of the nominalist thinking of Occam and those that follow his teachings. This will include a look at how the Protestant theology and philosophy, although claiming to reject modern and secular thought, is actually highly influenced by Occam’s nominalism which leads to what we would call occasionalism, which I briefly alluded to above.


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