Andrew Crumey is a novelist and lecturer in the Humanities at Northumberland University. His column in the Wall Street Journal was a review of the book Life is Simple, How Occam's Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe, by Johnjoe McFadden [Basic Books, 2021].
McFadden is a professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey. His thesis, which we gather from the subtitle, is nonsense. William of Ockham [sic, which I prefer] had no discernable effect on the development of science, and lived well before its first modern development. I would doubt that McFadden has a sufficient background in philosophy of science to understand this. My doubts extend to Mr. Crumey also, who does actually have an advanced degree in physics. But from his column, I would wonder about his background in philosophy.
My letter was trying to sound out Crumey's background and understanding of the issues.
Dear Professor Crumey,
Thank you for your review in the Wall Street Journal of Johnjoe McFadden's book about William of Occam/Ockham.
Your introduction of the principle of Nominalism interests me:
As Mr. McFadden explains, "Cherries were cherries because they shared in the universal of ‘cherryness.’" Occam instead proposed what became known as nominalism. "[He] argued that universals are merely the terms that we use to refer to groups of objects." Occam shaved universals out of existence, saying, "It is vain to do with more what can be done with less."
The problem there has always been how to identify "groups of objects," or how to recognize that a new object does or does not belong to that group. Since Nominalism makes no provision for either of these, it is very far indeed from seeming "like plain common sense." Nominalists wanted to think that "cherries" are identified as cherries just because we apply that name (nomina) to them. How and why the name, which is just a "puff of air," can be applied to any particular objects is overlooked.
When Socrates asks Euthyphro what piety (τὸ ὅσιον, "the pious") is, Euthyphro answers that it is what he is in the act of doing, prosecuting his father for murder. Socrates says that doesn't answer his question.
Tell me then what this form [ἰδέα] itself is, so that I may look upon it, and using it as a model [παράδειγμα], say that any action of yours or another's that is of that kind is pious, and if it is not that it is not. [G.M.A. Grubbe, 1981, Greek inserted]
Thus, a "group of objects" is no help, unless we study them and generalize, which gives us a universal concept. This part of ordinary learning and understanding (and logic) is left out of Nominalism. In turn, our concept is meaningless unless it actually refers to the attributes and intrinsic natures of the objects in question. That is the ontological "Realism," of people like St. Thomas Aquinas, that you and Mr. McFadden seem to dismiss.
Given our understanding, a novel object can be "compared" to the ἰδέα that Socrates will have, and he can judge whether it is, or is not, of that kind of thing, whether cherries or piety. I just saw a kangaroo rat on a cable documentary. But it's not a rat, or a kangaroo, or even closely related to either of them.
While you describe Mr. McFadden as attributing to Ockham and Nominalism some kind of role in the origin of modern science, you might consider that early modern mathematicians, like Galileo and Kepler, tended to be Platonists, who took the universals of the invisible mathematical world quite seriously. Kurt Gödel was still no different. Even Einstein said that he wanted to understand the mind of God -- even if it was an indifferent Spinozist God, and not the God of Abraham and Isaac. No such mathematicians spent any time studying "groups of objects" in experience, unless it was to generalize into abstractions, as Galileo did with falling weights. Einstein, in turn, did his physics on a blackboard, not in a lab.
Thus, you might reconsider some of what you expressed in your review. Nominalists contributed nothing to science. Modern Nominalists, like Berkeley and Hume, rejected "abstract ideas," and so denied that there are geometrical points or one-dimensional lines in geometry, dismissing them as "metaphysics." Fortunately, mathematicians, diving at the time into Newton's infinitesimals, just ignored them.
Kelley L. Ross
Professor Crumey answered, 12/1/2021:
Dear Professor Ross,
Thank you for your interesting comments.
We don't know from this how well Crumey understands the issues or the history of philosophy and science.
History of Philosophy, Realism and Nominalism
History of Philosophy