Don’t Like Global Warming? Blame William of Ockham!

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.

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19 Responses to Don’t Like Global Warming? Blame William of Ockham!

  1. First, the reference to Occam was facetious, but the underlying notion that liberalism and Protestantism can be traced to the nominalist revolution is not – see here: http://www.amazon.com/Theological-Origins-Modernity-Michael-Gillespie/dp/0226293467/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1280327938&sr=8-1

    And since when did a call to reduce energy consumption become an effort to “control the planet’s temperature”???

  2. Blackadder says:

    since when did a call to reduce energy consumption become an effort to “control the planet’s temperature”???

    Since the purpose of reducing energy consumption became controlling the planet’s temperature.

  3. Blackadder says:

    First, the reference to Occam was facetious, but the underlying notion that liberalism and Protestantism can be traced to the nominalist revolution is not

    I know. That was Weaver’s theory too.

  4. Phillip says:

    Though we can always say that Ockham did away with the concept of fixed natures giving rise to the modern perception that things can be controlled and perfected. Of course giving rise to the thought that we can control weather or even, with just the right social program, perfect society.

  5. John Henry says:

    Ha. I was going to post on this, but it’s just as well I didn’t since BA’s is more amusing. Substituting name calling for argument is an old trick, but MM does it with flare in the linked post. I was relieved to find out that Calivinist dualism has at last been displaced in his vocabulary by a more elaborate (if equally silly) list of intellectual boogymen that purport to account for the astonishing phenomenon of prudential disagreement about matters of public policy.

    My point is not, of course, that different philosophies don’t affect people’s opinions about public policy, just that drawing up a syllabus of intellectual errors and then declaring ‘anyone who disagrees with me must be committing one of these’ is a manifestly silly way to go about discussing public policy.

  6. No, the purpose of reducing energy consumption is to stop the man-made destruction of creation.

  7. If you seek “manifest silliness”, John, look no further than to the American debate about climate change, especially on the right.

  8. j. christian says:

    You don’t understand. There cannot be prudential disagreement about public policy; I’m right, and you’re wrong (and a stupid Calvinist to boot) The data say so, and numbers don’t lie.

    Now please excuse me while I sop up the positivist scientism I just spilled everywhere…

  9. John Henry says:

    If you seek “manifest silliness”, John, look no further than to the American debate about climate change, especially on the right.

    I’m equal-opportunity for noting manifest silliness, MM. I agree with you that there’s plenty of it on the right over climate change; and I think the right broadly-speaking could use a lot more Jim Manzi and a lot less Mark Levin. But the left has been playing its part as well, whether it be through extravagant claims about glaciers disappearing in IPCC reports, willful tree-ring data manipulation, Al Gore’s factually inaccurate claims, or in a small way, posts like yours which try to characterize disagreements about facts and policy as sweeping philosophical disagreements. For instance, your characterization of Douthat’s argument as endorsing ‘Modernism’ suggests you either did not read or misunderstood completely the referenced article.

  10. Blackadder says:

    No, the purpose of reducing energy consumption is to stop the man-made destruction of creation.

    By controlling the planet’s temperature.

  11. Phillip says:

    “No, the purpose of reducing energy consumption is to stop the man-made destruction of creation.”

    That of course assumes that the data is correct. There is as yet no clear correlation between the human activity and global warming. It may cause some or all. But natural conditions may be a greater and even almost total component of global warming.

    As pointed out above there are significant concerns about the data on global warming. In fact, it appears the level of scientific malpractice in much of the climate data is even greater than that in The Lancet’s surveys of Iraq war casualties. A study which you also used to quote quite liberally.

    To then oppose public policies based upon such suspect data is not to disregard creation. Especially given that such policies may significantly harm the economy and thus real, living people.

  12. S.B. says:

    Great post.

    MM forgot to include this factor: a proper sense of humility. E.g., this Nobel prize winner’s essay: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/what-the-earth-knows/#hide

  13. From the article SB links to:

    “Common sense tells us that damaging a thing this old is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish—like invading Russia.”

    Love it…

  14. Eric Brown says:

    Manicaeism is a form of gnosticism. Yes — of all things, I simply had to point that out.

  15. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “After all, William of Ockham did teach Nominalism, and then Byzantium fell to the Turks.”

    Priceless.

  16. restrainedradical says:

    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?)

    Nominated for Catholic blog squib of the year.

  17. Elaine Krewer says:

    “William of Ockham did teach Nominalism, and then Byzantium fell to the Turks.”

    Another significant event that happened after William of Ockham taught Nominalism was… wait for it… a prolonged period of global COOLING known as the Little Ice Age that lasted into the 18th century!

  18. Phillip says:

    The all we need to do is teach Nominalism and we will end global warming.

  19. […] I Favor Cap and Trade Lest anyone draw the wrong conclusion from my last post, I should add that I actually favor cap and trade, for the reasons laid out here by Tyler Cowen: […]

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