I am sick of hearing about Ockham’s Razor. Not because I think it’s an unimportant thing to understand, mind you, but rather because it has been almost universally misunderstood and so is almost always misapplied. One example is the contemporary trend of reducing moral values to the inclinations present in individual experience—a modern lex parsimoniae with severe, rationalistic consequences.
First, a short word on what Ockham’s Razor is not. It is not, as most tend to think, the mere axiomatic belief that “the simplest explanation is usually the right one.” Anyone who’s read Ockham—any portion of the thousands and thousands of pages he wrote—knows that as one of the most prolific authors of the Late Middle Ages, simple explanations weren’t his game. On the other hand, defending a simple world—i.e., a world with very few real objects—was precisely his goal. But getting there wasn’t easy; it meant systematically denying about ninety-percent of what came before him, stacking up reality upon reality inside the mind, and making a regular practice of biting philosophical bullets the size of cannonballs.
In a word, Ockham’s Razor is the idea that the world is eminently simple, but that our experience of it is not.
Fast-forward seven-hundred years. Quarks, leptons, and bosons (and maybe their interactions) are the totality of “what’s out there.” According to science, we live in a pretty parsimonious world. But anyone who knows particle physics also realizes that accounting for these basic realities is no cakewalk. Pitch the “simplest explanation” theory to the guys at Gran Sasso lab working to figure out if neutrinos travel faster than light and see how it goes over.
As one might expect, the same attitudes that ground modern physics also ground our approach to other sciences—most notably, the science of conscious human action, or ethics. By a worst-case scenario, all action is reducible to the interaction of atomic parts, rendering any discussion of real ethical values fruitless. More common, though, is the view that “what’s out there” has little if any real value in itself; instead, it’s how we interact with and treat things in the world that determines their value. In short, good and bad actions are reduced to intentional qualities of the mind. Thinking of certain things together—i.e., intending that they go together in some such way—ends up justifying a huge portion of what we do.
As with Ockham, contemporary secular ethics realizes that some of what came before it is indeed worth keeping. The basic grammar of rights, justice, and law remain intact. However, their usage is wholly transposed, and the ideas that underlie such terms have been shifted dramatically away from having a basis in the outside world, and totally into the realm of the conceptual (cf. Ockham’s assessment of universals, categories of being, and natures).
To accomplish his grand reduction, Ockham employed an arsenal of semantic machinery, designed to eliminate historical problems at their very root. For example, by following Scotus in advocating a univocally predicable concept of “being,” and by reworking the types of logical supposition—i.e., determining what ‘thing’ a word stands for in a sentence—Ockham was able simply to do away with four-fifths of Aristotle’s ontological schema. Indeed, those of us who spend time advocating basic human rights find ourselves facing an equally shrewd foe, namely an academic culture unafraid of mechanistically swapping out one meaning of a term for another. (Take, for example, the notoriously hijacked word “pregnancy,” which many use in order to utterly exclude any notion of pre-implanted life.)
At bottom, Ockham’s Razor—in its truest form—is used as more of an Axe. While it’s not right, in my accounting, to place the “blame” of the modern turn squarely on his shoulders, there’s no doubting that Ockham’s voice was a distinctive undertone in the chorus (or cacophony, depending on how you look at it) of early modern attacks on the basic intelligibility of the outside world.
Psychologizing away the bases of ethical normativity has rendered objective ethical language incomprehensible. We are left with far less complicated ethical questions (like deciding if we can afford to feed a parking meter). The counterpart, though, is an utterly impoverished sense of happiness, fulfillment, and value.
If Ockham’s Razor is, in fact, worth the hubbub it garners in popular culture, then it is so by virtue of the radical historical and cultural displacement it signifies. There is no doubt that the same pseudo-intelligentsia that embraces the “simplest is best” reading of Ockham is also hard at work legislating by the lex parsimoniae to reduce—if not entirely eradicate—the actual impact of natural values on moral decision making. Fortunately, by accurately understanding the methodology in question, we stand a much better chance of dulling the Razor’s blade.
Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life, and a PhD student in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
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