Steely Dan, “Razor Boy”
If Descartes was the father of modern philosophy, the medieval philosopher William of Ockham was the great grandfather. Superficial histories of thought would attribute this meta-paternity to the so-called “Ockham’s razor” principle. But there was nothing distinctively Ockhamite about that, and nothing terribly revolutionary in it either. On the one hand, the basic idea is as old as Aristotle and can be found in various medieval authors. On the other hand, the specific formulation usually associated with Ockham – “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity” – first appears centuries after Ockham’s time, and the label “Ockham’s Razor” appears only in the nineteenth century. (See William Thorburn’s article “The Myth of Ockham’s Razor”) And while the old Razor Boy did cut away the foundations of medieval thought, it was not (contrary to what Christopher Hitchens thinks) on the basis of some kind of proto-scientific rationalism, but rather in the name of an anti-rationalist authoritarian theology.
The Condemnations of 1277 had been directed primarily at the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle. One worry was that Averroes’ determinism threatened God’s freedom to act within the created order. Some at the time feared that even Aquinas’s theology locked God within a rationalist box, limiting Him to acting only in accordance with the essences of things. If it is of the essence of fire to generate heat, even God could not make it do otherwise; if it is of the essence of human beings that adultery and hatred of God are bad for us, even God couldn’t make them good for us. For the Thomist, this does not put any real limits on God’s power, since omnipotence does not include the ability to make contradictions true. Nor does it rule out the possibility of miracles. All the same, Ockham would have none of it.
Aquinas took the view that “will follows upon intellect” (ST I.19.1), that reason is more fundamental than volition. Ockham reverses this “intellectualist” position in favor of voluntarism, which regards will as prior to intellect. Hence while Aquinas took God to will only in a manner consistent with the necessary truths entailed by the essences of the things His intellect apprehends, Ockham makes the divine will primary and rejects essentialism as incompatible with its supreme freedom. To be sure, he does not go so far as to hold that God’s actions can violate the law of non-contradiction. But by denying that things have essences, Ockham was able radically to shrink the domain of actions that would be ruled out by that law.
Ockham is typically regarded as a nominalist, though some would argue (rightly in my view) that he is better regarded as a conceptualist. Either way, his anti-essentialism entailed a rejection of realism about universals, and this position was ultimately rooted, not in the “razor” principle, but in his theological voluntarism. For God’s will to be supremely free and omnipotent, there must in Ockham’s view be nothing in the nature of things that could limit what he might command. Hence Ockham held that God could in principle command us to commit adultery or even to hate Him, and if He did so these things really would be good for us. He could also break the causal connections that ordinarily hold between things:
Whatever God produces by the mediation of secondary causes, he can immediately produce and conserve in the absence of such causes… Every effect that God is able to produce by the mediation of a secondary cause he is able to produce immediately by himself. (Quodlibet 6, q. 6, in Quodlibetal Questions, at p. 506)
It follows from this that it cannot be demonstrated that any effect is produced by a secondary cause. For even though when fire is close to combustible material, combustion always follows, this fact is, nevertheless, consistent with fire’s not being the cause of it. For God could have ordained that whenever fire is present to a close-by patient, the sun would cause combustion [in the patient]… Thus, there is no effect through which it can be proved that anyone is a human being – especially through no effect that is clear to us. For an angel can produce in a body everything that we see in a human being – e.g. eating, drinking, and the like… Therefore, it is not surprising if it is impossible to demonstrate that anything is a cause… (Opera Theologica V, 72-93, quoted in Marilyn McCord Adams, William Ockham, Volume II, p. 750)
Now this would seem to entail that causes and effects are inherently “loose and separate,” as Hume would later put it. So too does this passage:
Between a cause and its effect there is an eminently essential order and dependence, and yet the simple knowledge of one of them does not entail the simple knowledge of the other. And this also is something which everybody experiences within himself: that however perfectly he may know a certain thing, he will never be able to excogitate the simple and proper notion of another thing, which he has never before perceived either by sense or by intellect. (In I Sent., q. 3, fol. D2, recto. F, quoted in Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, pp. 70-71)
Indeed, Ockham also says things that seem to imply a “regularity” theory of causation, as when he writes that:
That is the cause of something which, not being posited, the thing does not exist, and being posited, the thing exists. (Expositio in Libros Physicorum, fol. 123c, 203a, quoted in Julius Weinberg, A Short History of Medieval Philosophy, p. 260)
Accordingly, some have attributed to Ockham a proto-Humean conception of causation; for instance, Etienne Gilson makes this suggestion in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, and Harry Klocker develops the theme in chapter 1 of God and the Empiricists. Now, as Marilyn McCord Adams has argued, when all the textual evidence is considered it is clear that things are more complicated than this, and it would certainly be a mistake to characterize Ockham’s position as “Humean” full stop. (See chapter 18 of Volume II of her book William Ockham.) Still, there are in Ockham’s voluntarism and anti-essentialism the seeds of doubt about our ability to know objective causal connections; and a proto-Humean conception of causality is fairly explicit in later Ockhamite thinkers like Nicholas of Autrecourt.
Also relevant is Ockham’s view that the reality of final causes cannot be proved philosophically, apart from revelation:
If I accepted no authority [i.e. the truths of faith], I would claim that it cannot be proved either from propositions known per se or from experience that every effect has a final cause that is either distinct or not distinct from its efficient cause. For it cannot be sufficiently proved that every effect has a final cause. (Quodlibet 4, q. 1, in Quodlibetal Questions, at p. 246)
And even then Ockham tends to reduce final causality to a kind of efficient causality. (See Klocker, pp. 24-27 for a useful discussion.) For Aquinas, it is final causality that is “the cause of causes,” and, in particular, a precondition of the intelligibility of efficient causality. For unless an efficient cause inherently “points to” or is “directed at” the generation of a certain particular effect or range of effects as its final cause, there would be no reason why it in fact generates that particular effect or range of effects rather than some other, or rather than no effect at all. Hence if we cannot know final causes through reason, or if there really is no such thing as final causality distinct from efficient causality, then neither have we any way of making efficient causes intelligible. Again, the Humean puzzles about causation loom.
Naturally, all of this tends to undermine causal arguments for the existence of God. To be sure, Ockham himself didn’t go so far as to deny that one could argue for some sort of first cause, but he didn’t think we could get, through philosophical arguments alone, to the conclusion that there is only one such cause, or that it is free, infinite, or even the cause of all things. For those conclusions we need to rely on faith. Nor, in his view, can we prove the immateriality and immortality of the human soul – unsurprisingly, given that the traditional Platonic and Thomistic arguments for the soul’s immateriality and immortality depend crucially on realism about universals, which Ockham rejects. Here too he thinks faith must suffice. If traditional natural theology goes by the board in Ockham’s philosophy, so too does natural law. Given Ockham’s voluntarism, morality can only rest on arbitrary divine commands rather than human nature, and these commands can in turn be known only via divine revelation. Once again, only faith can in Ockham’s view do the job Aquinas thought reason capable of.
Nor, where ethics is concerned, is fideism the only consequence of Ockham’s voluntarism. Reversing Aquinas’s subordination of will to intellect made of the human will too something radically autonomous, rather than being of its nature oriented to what is objectively good. And this entailed a new conception of the freedom of the will. As Servais Pinckaers has put it, in place of the “freedom for excellence” emphasized by Aquinas – that is, freedom for the pursuit of the ends set for us by nature – Ockham put a “freedom of indifference” – indifference to the good or indeed to any particular ends at all:
With Ockham, freedom, by means of the claim to radical autonomy that defined it, was separated from all that was foreign to it: reason, sensibility, natural inclinations, and all external factors. Further separation followed: freedom was separated from nature, law, and grace; moral doctrine from mysticism; reason from faith; the individual from society. (Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, p. 242)
Of course, Ockham did not intend thereby to advocate libertinism. But having made arbitrary divine commands the only possible source of morality, Ockhamism was bound to lead to libertinism once belief in God lost its hold on Western civilization – as such belief was bound to do given the fideism Ockham had put in place of natural theology.
Moreover, even such morality as Ockham leaves us with is radically transformed. As Pinckaers argues, in the absence of any conception of an end toward which the will is naturally directed, the focus of moral reflection tends to turn toward the individual act, isolated from considerations about the overall character of the moral agent or the way the action might promote or impede the agent’s flourishing or happiness. When coupled with Ockham’s grounding of morality in arbitrary divine commands, moral theory was thus bound to come to emphasize law as such rather than the realization of a good defined in terms of our natural end, and obligation as such rather than the virtues which facilitate our realization of that good. In short, just as Ockhamism, when shorn of its theological commitments, prefigures Hume in metaphysics, so too does it prefigure Kant – that “catastrophic spider” – in ethics.
And that is only the beginning. As Michael Allen Gillespie argues in his recent book The Theological Origins of Modernity, the Renaissance humanists’ revolution in culture, Luther’s revolution in theology, Descartes’ revolution in philosophy, and Hobbes’s revolution in politics also have their roots in Ockhamism. With the humanists this was manifested in their emphasis on man as an individual, willing being rather than as a rational animal. In Luther’s case, the prospect of judgment by the terrifying God of nominalism and voluntarism – an omnipotent and capricious will, ungoverned by any rational principle – was cause for despair. Since reason is incapable of fathoming this God and good works incapable of appeasing Him, faith alone could be Luther’s refuge. With Descartes, the God of nominalism and voluntarism opened the door to a radical doubt in which even the propositions of mathematics – the truth of which was in Descartes’ view subject to God’s will no less than the contingent truths of experience – were in principle uncertain. And we see the moral and political implications of nominalism in the amoral, self-interested individuals of Hobbes’s so-called “state of nature,” and in the fearsome absolutist monarch of his Leviathan, whose relationship to his subjects parallels that of the nominalist God to the universe.
In other ways too the Ockhamist God and human monarchs are comparable. As Paul Tillich notes in his A History of Christian Thought, Ockham’s pulverization of all reality into a collection of unrelated individuals also had a tendency to turn God into merely one individual among others, albeit a grand and remote one. God is, on this conception, no longer Pure Being, pervading and sustaining the world at every moment, but merely a superhuman external spectator, arranging things from outside. In short, the classical theism of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas is replaced with a forerunner of “theistic personalism” or neo-theism. And when this is combined with the nominalist and voluntarist conception of God as an unfathomable will given to issuing arbitrary commands, one can see why the atheist might think of God as a kind of cosmic Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il – an accusation that is unintelligible when made against the God of classical theism.
But then, even Ockham’s God has lost His throne in our democratic age, when every man is a “sovereign individual,” his own king, his own priest, and indeed his own deity. For the modern liberal autonomous self is something like Ockham’s God writ small – a little bundle of sheer willfulness, unrestricted by the demands of reason or of an objective moral order, and forever asserting his “rights” to the objects of his appetites, as if the mere assertion sufficed all by itself to generate said rights.
As Richard Weaver said, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Indeed, the consequences of Ockham’s ideas, specifically, were the focus of Weaver’s famous book. They were all bad. As you ponder the Razor Boy’s monument – needless to say, it’s all around us – knock back a consoling Scotch whiskey to the melancholy strains of the second track from Countdown to Ecstasy. No one really knows for sure what the song is about anyway, so – in good voluntarist and nominalist fashion – we might as well just stipulate that it is about Ockham: