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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Against Nominalism

One of the issues that was raised in the talk on Christian anthropology was that of nominalism. Nominalism says that universals don't exist outside the mind, and that things with similar names but which are different objects have no connection to each other. For the nominalist, physical particulars are what exist, and that universals and concepts are mental constructs. This has resulted in the postmodern ideas that we only name things, and that things have no real outside reality, and that there is no such thing as natural inclinations in humans. A consequence has been the gradual abandonment of reason and the elevation of the will -- meaning that nominalist freedom is freedom to choose absent reason. Freedom is freedom of the will to do what it pleases. The idea of nominalism was first suggested by William of Ockham, and has gradually evolved to the philosophy of Nietzsche (where the speaker stopped) and, more so, to postmodernist theory.

For the nominalist, freedom is the power to affect things. Will is determined by nothing (it is neither external nor internal) -- as it is neither connected to PLatonic universals nor to human nature. The result is that autonomy is freedom -- autonomy from nature, law, God, etc. One does not gain truth through rational discourse or reason-driven investigation, but by will, resulting in a clashing of wills as the driving force of history.

Now, it's not that nominalism rejects reason outright, but that it sees reason as being slave to the will. Of course, nominalists do use rational arguments to forward their nominalist philosophy, so one could easily argue that nominalism is self-refuting. The rejection of reason would be reason enough for Catholic theologians to reject nominalism, but the fact that nominalism also holds that divine revelation is not rational (meaning God is therefore not rational) should make Christians concerned with the dominance of this philosophy. Yet, I have had discussions with professed Christians who believe that nobody receives divine revelation (at least, not anymore -- they solve the problem of what the NT says by saying that divine revelation and miracles had its time and place, but that we're no longer in a time where those things happen). A Christian who denies divine revelation is in fact a nominalist. This is perhaps why we see more and more people seeing God as arbitrary and willful rather than as being a loving God.

Nominalism leads to a deterministic world view (which includes historical determinism, like Marxism). Since we are determined, we are not responsible for our actions. Since we are water atoms in the river of history, we are being moved rather than moving anything -- so how could we be responsible for our actions? This being the case, nominalism leads to a lack of virtue (or vice) in action. It further leads to a view of the world as being only empirical -- that the senses provide the only evidence for reality.

The speaker talked about how nominalism leads us to the philosophy of Nietzsche, a claim I could spend a lot of time discussing. On one hand, it most certainly does. It certainly leads to the postmodernist conception of Nietzsche's philosophy, at least. In fact, what we see in Nietzsche is an attempt to first take nominalism to its logical conclusion -- nihilism. Nietzsche then tries to develop a philosophy on the other side of this critique. Unfortunately, Nietzsche uses some of the same language as nominalism -- things like will, like in his Will to Power -- and this can cause a great deal of confusion. Nietzsche sought to resolve many of the problems of nominalism, while retaining the critique of universals. It seems clear that while we do indeed look at many different things and subtract the differences to get the concept, at the same time, it seems that there is in fact a similarity there to notice. This seems to be resolved with the idea of strange attractors, which brings back the idea of there being universals "out there" -- outside the human mind -- without them being quite Platonic Forms. I'm of the opinion that Nietzsche was in fact groping toward this idea with his ideas of the Will to Power and the Eternal Return. The real result of nominalism, thus, is not Nietzsche per se, but the postmodernists.

In the end, nominalism is wrong. Strange attractors theory shows how there can be universals in a physical sense. Further, determinism has been greatly problemitized by quantum physics, systems, complexity, and emergence. Emotions or will may in fact precede reason evolutionarily, but that does not mean it rules reason. What comes later often rules what came before. Reason is one of those things. Further, a great deal of biological research has shown that there is in fact a human nature and, more, that we have a set of natural ethical drives. So science -- biological science especially -- has proven the intractability of nominalism. It may not return us entirely to ancient Greek and Medieval Christian ideas, but it is remarkable how far toward those positions things like emergence, systems, and strange attractors have pushed us. We do not have to accept nominalism's end result of nihilism. The world is in fact meaningful and full of value. Meaning, value, and virtue are what make us free, not nihilism and anarchy.

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