In a recent post, my former co-blogger Morning’s Minion lays out an all-too-familiar list of what he views as the real culprits behind inaction on the issue of climate change:
(1) Gnosticism: Creation is evil, so why save it?
(2) Calvinism: Material success of a sign of virtue and divine favor, America is an exceptional country, and its citizens have the right to use natural resources as they see fit.
(3) Liberalism: The free market embodies efficiency and virtue – any interference diminishes freedom.
(4) Anti-intellectualism: Climate change – a “lib-uh-ral” conspiracy!
(5) Modernism: Man must become the master of nature and always better himself (for the latest version of this, see Ross Douthat: “a warmer world will also be a richer world”).
(6) Individualism: I have the right to my SUV, regardless of what is going on in Africa, and regardless of future generations.
(7) Nationalism: Why should America pay?
Of course, these ideologies are not necessarily consistent with each other, but they do spring from the same root – the nominalist revolution. Thanks a lot, William of Occam!
I know what you’re thinking. How is it that Manichaeism was left off the list? Is MM feeling under the weather or something? But that’s not important right now. My real question is: William of Occam? (or Ockham, or Hockham, or however you spell it) How did he become the climate criminal of the century? (was George Bush unavailable?)
I don’t know if MM is aware of this, but in blaming Ockham for all the world’s ills, he is following in a tradition dating from conservative philosopher Richard Weaver’s 1948 work Ideas Have Consequences, which blames Ockham’s Nominalism for the downfall of Western Civilization (Weaver’s solution, ironically enough, is that we need to resist Nominalism by treating private property as a metaphysical right, i.e. by adopting what MM calls liberalism). Even Weaver, though, didn’t go so far as to blame Ockham for Gnosticism (for which he presumably would have needed a time machine). And anti-intellectualism? Have you read Ockham?
For those not in the know, Nominalism is a philosophical doctrine having to do with the problem of universals. Plato believed that for an object to be red, it had to instantiate an abstract object (Redness) which was separate and distinct from any and all red objects. Nominalists like Ockham, on the other hand, denied the existence of these Platonic Forms or any similar entities, and claimed that such categories where linguistic rather than metaphysical. Other philosophers have tried to stake out some kind of middle position between these two extremes.
The connection between the existence of the Platonic Forms and belief in climate change (or, for Weaver, conservative values) is not readily apparent. That’s because there isn’t one. But it’s easy enough to insinuate a connection, at least if you don’t know much about the subject. After all, William of Ockham did teach Nominalism, and then Byzantium fell to the Turks.
The advantage of denouncing one’s political opponents as adherents of an esoteric 14th century philosophical doctrine is that it sounds impressive. It may be literally name calling, but when the name in question has a philosophical or theological cast, it carries a weight that is lacking if you just call people idiots (though you might want to sprinkle that sort of insult throughout your denunciation as well).
The other advantage of this tactic is that the doctrines in question are fairly malleable, and can be made to fit almost any occasion. For example, MM says that opposition to cap and trade is an example of Modernism, that is, the idea that “[m]an must become the master of nature and always better himself.” You would think that proposing to control the planet’s temperature in order to improve the material conditions of mankind (which is what advocates of climate change legislation propose) would count as Modernism under this definition. But no! It’s actually those who are against climate control legislation who are the real Modernists.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of refutation by labeling. The people who engage in it tend to be Monophysites.