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Ockham the Nihilist

Nihilism is nothing new. It’s been around since the serpent tempted Eve.

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:4-5

Since that time, the same temptation has plagued mankind. As time passed, more and more people took the bait. Today, self-love has become the catcall of therapists, life coaches, public schoolteachers, politicians, and everywhere in between. In the West, we live in the Age of Self-Love.

Taken to the extreme, self-love becomes nihilism. If all a person can love is themselves, the concept of love becomes meaningless.

Too many people have forgotten that the Devil is the Prince of Lies. Humans are not gods. But more and more think they are. In doing so, they have lost the ability to differentiate between good and evil. Instead of adhering to the parameters set forth in Holy Scripture, the revealed word of God, they make up the rules as they go along—as if they were gods themselves. No good can come from it.

There isn’t space here to trace the continual line of descent into hubris from the Garden of Eden to the present. Suffice it to say that St. Augustine’s (354-430) interiority has now gone completely off track. "Do not look outside,” Augustine wrote, “return to yourself. In our interior, the truth resides," (The True Religion 39,72).

Today, many have taken God out of the equation but held on to Augustine’s idea. As a culture, it is now common to claim that each person has their own truth; they create it. Truth resides inside of the individual, not without.

The necessary logical conclusion to this line of thinking is nihilism. If my truth cancels out yours, and yours cancels out the next person’s ad nauseam, it eventually goes full circle. As a result, my truth is canceled out along with all the rest, including yours.

This trend isn’t merely a cultural phenomenon of the last couple of centuries either. It has philosophical underpinnings that stretch back at least to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) who, along with Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, was one of the most important people in the history of philosophy during the High Middle Ages.

Ockham was an English Franciscan friar probably best known today for Ockham’s Razor, which spells out that the simpler explanation to a problem is to be preferred. Ockham was also known for his metaphysical nominalism, which, simply put, states that universal essences such as “blueness” or “humanity” are concepts of the mind.

Think of it like this: when a child meets different people over time, the concept of humanity is formed in his or her mind. A metaphysical realist would say that the kid has detected an invisible common structure, common to human beings. In contrast, Ockham would insist that the kid has just perceived similarities that fit naturally under one concept.

Ockham produced a thought experiment to prove his point. If there were universal essences,

…it would follow that God would not be able to annihilate one individual substance without destroying the other individuals of the same kind. For, if he were to annihilate one individual, he would destroy the whole that is essentially that individual and, consequently, he would destroy the universal that is in it and others of the same essence. Other things of the same essence would not remain, for they could not continue to exist without the universal that constitutes a part of them (Opera Philosophica I, p. 51).

In other words, by destroying the individual, God would end up destroying the universal. And if He destroyed a universal such as humanity, He would end up destroying all the individual humans as well. It’s quite a dilemma.

It’s also hubris. Under Ockham’s view, God, too, would end up being a human concept. Theoretically, each individual person or culture would find similarities pertaining to a creator of the universe and fit them naturally under one concept, in this case, the concept of God. This, then, could be used as an explanation for the myriad of conceptions of God that have sprung up across all human cultures. It would also account for the “I’m spiritual but not religious” pandemic we have today.

In one fell swoop, Ockham inadvertently reduced God to a human concept, and man, for all intents and purposes, now creates God. Ockham took God out of context and placed It into his own. He seems to have forgotten that God is both similar and radically different from His creation and would be in no way impacted or decreased if creation did not exist.

Simply put, God does not need Ockham or any other created thing in order to exist, but Ockham and all creation need God to exist. One way of putting it is that God is Being, and the rest is creation.

William of Ockham was a very intelligent man, but not intelligent enough to realize his intelligence was a gift from God. He didn’t create himself. Much like those who subtract God from Augustine’s interiority and destroy the context in which it was conceived, Ockham opened the door to nihilism.

And, boy, did a mob rush through.

To be continued.

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Apr 26, 2023

You've only touched the surface of many social ills today, Jack, but the effort is appreciated. I just had a jarring conversation with my pastor in a parish in Los Angeles--and man, is he confused! I was chided for suggesting the Baltimore Catechism's reasons for why we exist: to know, love and serve God. That was roundly scoffed at. "Maybe God made you because he has a sense of humor." Uh, really? That's the reason? I was subject, in this "conversation," to quips like "don't judge," "so you know people are going to hell?" and "spirituality is good, bu religion is hypocritical." I'm really amazed at the off the cuff remarks that made little, if any, sense philosophically or theolog…

John Gist
John Gist
Apr 28, 2023
Replying to

Hi Father Atchley,

I understand burn out. I was a professor in a humanities department at a state university for well nigh fifteen years. As the one of the few conservatives, the attacks from the rabid progressives were often and many. I finally burned out with the fight and bid them farewell.

I'm glad I did. It took about a year or more to come back to my senses. Lots of prayer as well. When I felt myself again, I picked up the pen and started writing about faith, truth, and the good. Now I look back on the strife of living among infidels and I find they gave me a great gift: I have almost unlimited fodder and inspiration!

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