01 March 2017

Ockham's Razor, Scepticism and Biblicism Part 1

This is a re-working of a post from 2010 on Nominalism and Thomism. I have updated, clarified and expanded the original article.
 I apologise in advance as there is a degree of redundancy and overlap with the 'Riddles of Fundamentalism' piece. That said, this essay ventures into other realms not covered in that series.
Part 1: History and Inference
Nominalism is often blamed for the philosophical scepticism that arose in the 14th century leading to a climate that allowed The Great Schism to happen, a breakdown in the authority and prestige of the Papacy and ultimately the basis for the social consensus. It had sowed the seeds which led to the breakdown of the Scholastic justification of the Papal System and even Christendom itself.

I find it somewhat ironic that it is often interpreted this way. Ockham, though certainly more of a Conceptualist than a strict Nominalist was only following through on the logical conclusions of Aristotelian thought. Christian Theology built on Aristotelianism could not and cannot stand the assault of the Razor Ockham wielded. Regress and Validity based arguments destroy the structures and foundations of theology dependent on two-dimensional logic. Collapsing concepts to buttress coherence, the reductionism Science depends on, is Ockham's contribution, useful perhaps when classifying insects, but potentially destructive when it comes to constructing metaphysics or understanding the different loci of Theology.
Since metaphysics are fallen man's attempts to discover truth utilising reason and the categories of experience is flawed from the start, this destructive negating tendency is not all bad. Theology can be thought of as a form of metaphysics as well, but at that point the Razor and the method which birthed it must be cast aside. A failure to do so will result in theology's deformation and dissent into philosophy.
The Razor is usually understood as a principle described as... given all the options, the simplest explanation is usually the best. However this only hints at the principle which undergirds it. That simple argument is based on Ockham's attack on the very nature of universality and man's ability through reason to create categories of thought, integrate and build a system. Ockham is attacking the idea of coherence, a thought-project later taken up by figures like David Hume and even to some degree someone like Blaise Pascal. Ockham and Hume represent a philosophy that is ultimately anti-philosophy and leaving man with a choice between reliance upon dogma or scepticism.
Ockham's method all but destroys Natural Law, confidence in man's reason and thus ultimately the project of the Thomistic Synthesis. This is why the Nominalist via moderna presented such a danger to the Medieval System and for many Christians still presents a vibrant danger.

While I would agree there is a certain peril in the attack on coherence, I would argue that Ockham and the figures which follow him force philosophy to its consequence and ultimately its destruction. Nihilism or the embrace of Divine Revelation are (in the final analysis) the only honest options. Others have realised this, but then subject revelation to the same criteria and ultimately destroy its standing as well. This is because they bring the same principles with them into the realm of theology. This represents an epistemic fallacy and aberration and such 'theology' is really little more than philosophy in another guise.

As I will continue to argue, the Razor, the attack on coherence, is a powerful tool but one that can only destroy. It cannot build. Many Aristotelian and Empiricist minded theologians in embracing reason, common sense and system as necessary theological criteria have unwittingly taken it up and sought to construct and strengthen theology. Instead they have sowed the seeds for its collapse and the downfall of their larger project. Inevitably this also includes a social and cultural element and the consequences for the Church and the confusion this has sowed have been nothing less than catastrophic.

There's also a danger in the Augustinian-Anselmian Credo ut Intelligam, believing in order to understand. While this view is equated by some with Fideism, it's not. That unfortunate label in reality belongs to the previously mentioned category which understands faith and philosophy to be in a state of tension and opposition, the old view that once cried 'what has Athens to do with Jerusalem'?

When compared to the Aristotelian approach of Thomism, the Augustinian view may indeed seem like a variety of Fideism. Actually a more helpful parallel would be to look at the difference in epistemological methodology between Plato and Aristotle. In many ways this is an argument over method with the end results not being all that different.

I would argue the Augustinian-Anselmian model represents a synthesis similar to Thomas but from a different approach. Rather than inductively reasoning to the universal categories of faith, the Anselmian approach seems to argue for a reasonable faith as a foundation or more properly an axiom which allows for a subsequent (largely deductive) synthesis. Faith enlightens nature (as it were) and provides a basis for coherence and synthesis. Today this is more or less in keeping with the whole 'Worldview' approach that dominates much of conservative Christendom.

Ockham's method destroys these systemic certainties and the methodology itself. In terms of doctrine, Ockham's method is reliant on authority in the form of dogma. Protestantism might appropriate the concept and argue for sola scriptura. Ockham's method contains within it the potential to destroy man's ability to formulate systems of thought as well as the ability to infer. The latter is in all actuality the basis of both the inductive and deductive approaches to reason. Both involve a certain degree of circularity and are more properly understood within a framework of inference. This is why in terms of Christian theology both the Thomistic and Anselmian approaches are (in the end) not that different. Both rely on the rather shaky foundation of human reason which can only produce a limited and reductionist probability. Their claims of certainty are exactly what Ockham's Razor ends up dismantling.

Ockham's approach contains a real danger, especially for those who have not grasped the assumptions regarding the nature of theology. If the method is employed to dissect and parse doctrinal claims, it begins to deconstruct and disintegrate doctrinal foundations. The Razor is a weapon that can be used to cast down man's attempts to form contrived coherences. This is true both in the secular and ecclesiastical realms.

The Razor turns the weapons of Empirical and Rationalistic approaches to epistemology against themselves by exposing (in a sense) that both are based on inference. We might expand that at another time and argue that inference is rooted in transcendental argument. This is true of both the dogmatician and the adherent to Scientism. All postulations ultimately rest on unverifiable faith-like assumptions. Some have argued that verification can be found in coherence. Ockham's Razor belies those claims.

By destroying all competing claims the Razor has the potential to strengthen the absolute authoritative claims of Scripture, or if used differently... destroy them. Ockham never meant to destroy the Papacy as an institution though those within its hierarchy understood that his approach was incompatible with their claims to authority. Ockham is in one sense the culmination of Scholasticism and yet on the other hand he represents its death blow.

I would argue both Catholicism and Magisterial Protestantism turned against Ockham and what he represents. And yet in retaining the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach... it came back to the fore in the Enlightenment and eventually both the Roman and Protestant forms of Scholasticism degenerated into Theological Liberalism in order to survive. The tether for conservative Protestants has largely been Confessionalism, a 'stopping point' in the current of theological development, a means to discontinue and shut down the Scholastic methodological mechanism. Once the safeguard of the Confession is removed, the great machine of process is re-engaged and begins to immediately forge new paths.

I would argue Ockham was more or less correct in terms of the broad epistemological spectrum but it must be vigorously argued that his method has to be understood with regard to what it can and cannot do. It's a mighty weapon in the hands of the apologist and Biblicist and yet it's also wields the power to destroy and bring devastation. It must be understood and employed with caution.

Continue reading Part 2