Why is the Nazi analogy so overused that it loses its force?
To understand the reason, consider first that almost all of the overuse is on the Left. Opposing critical race theory is like Naziism. Believing that there are two sexes is like Naziism. Disapproving riots is like Naziism. Supporting anyone who isn’t Woke is like Naziism. Practicing faith in God is like Naziism.
The fact that the analogy loses its force by being used for so many things that are not in the least like Naziism doesn’t matter to the Left. For in the long run, the analogy cannot be allowed to retain force.
For if it were used only for things that really were like Naziism, then it would certainly be used most of all for our own equivalent of the Nazi genocide, the genocide of babies, the Left’s most sacred cause.
In the meantime, using the analogy for everything but what is really like Naziism is a pretty good distraction.
Ockham’s Razor is the rule that we shouldn’t assume more kinds of things than we need to. Roughly, if a simpler explanation can do the job, then simpler is better. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb if it is used correctly, but it usually isn’t.
I came across the following bad example in a review of a book written to celebrate the Razor:
If a friend tells you “I’ve seen a UFO!” what would you think? It might have been an alien spacecraft -- or perhaps the friend was mistaken. The first possibility requires numerous unproven assumptions about extraterrestrial life; the second is consistent with what we know about human fallibility. The 14th-century Franciscan friar William of Ockham was never troubled by flying saucers, but he did see the importance of eliminating unnecessary assumptions -- the principle known as Occam’s Razor.
Now it’s true that a friend who says he saw a UFO – which means an unidentified flying object, mind you – may think that what he saw was an alien spacecraft, and yes, that would assume the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. But which hypothesis assumes less – the one that assumes that there might be extraterrestrial intelligence and that this experience counts as evidence, or the one that assumes that there couldn’t be extraterrestrial intelligence so that nothing at all could count as evidence?
Assuming a negative isn’t the same as not assuming. And it isn’t assuming less to assume a universal negative. Besides, the idea isn't to posit the fewest suppositions, but the fewest suppositions to account for the facts; a simpler hypothesis is better only if it explains just as much or more.
Before speculating about a friend’s sighting, I would want to know exactly how what he thought he saw looked, why he thought it odd, whether anyone else saw it, whether there is any corroborating evidence, whether he is truthful, whether his observations are generally reliable, the state of his sobriety when he made the sighting, and a lot of other things – including what other hypotheses might be offered to explain it. Note well, the reviewer has no other hypothesis. He only assumes, Well, it couldn’t be that.
Turning from UFOs to metaphysics, the reviewer thinks Ockham’s Razor proves that things don’t have essences. For it is much simpler not to assume essences than to assume them; the only reason we call cats “cats” is that we have placed them in the set of things we do call cats. We don’t need to assume some mysterious thing called cat nature, or catness. But wait a moment. Why do we place certain things in the set of cats, and not place others there? We don’t call them cats because we have placed them in the set; we place them in the set because they are cats. They all do have catness. Dogs don’t.
Pushing essences out the door turns out to be harder than it looks. In fact, it’s something like pushing – well, cats.
Leaving the book reviewer to his devices, let’s consider another common abuse of Ockham’s Razor. A certain attempt to refute one of the current arguments for the existence of God runs something like this:
a. On a certain hypothesis – call it fine-tuning -- the physical constants of the universe have the precise values they would need to have to permit the existence of life like us, so there must be a First Cause to give them those values. Call it a Creator.
b. On another hypothesis – call it the multiverse -- the appearance of fine-tuning is an illusion, because there is actually an infinite number of universes, each one with different physical constants. We just happen to be in one in which the values of the constants permit us to exist. Lucky us.
c. But the multiverse hypothesis is simpler, because it doesn’t need to assume a Creator.
d. Therefore, we should prefer the multiverse hypothesis.
The problem with this reasoning is that the multiverse hypothesis is not simpler than the hypothesis that the universe was created. In fact, it is both more complex, and explains less. For in the first place, it assumes an infinity of universes which are all, in principle, unobservable, just to avoid assuming a single Creator.
And in the second place, it doesn’t avoid the Creator after all, for it still doesn’t answer the question, “Why is there something and not rather nothing?” It merely replaces the question of why (instead of nothing) there is one universe, ordered in a particular way, with the question of why (instead of nothing) there is an infinite array of universes, each ordered to all the others in a particular way.
All other things being equal, simpler explanations are better. But be careful about what you call simpler and what you call equal.
It’s fascinating what one can pick up purely by accident from internet search results on unrelated topics. Recently, while looking up how certain consonants are formed in the mouth, I learned something about a genre of popular music.
The item on my search results list was a snippet from a music review: “The only qualm encountered with the vocals is the lack of high screams to match the gutturals.” So I’ve learned something new.
There was no need to open the item to read further. That was quite enough.
I don’t think we get it about liberal guilt -- and by the way, it isn’t just a liberal phenomenon, though liberals display it more conspicuously than most. As a society, we love to be condemned, so long as everyone knows that we join in the condemnation, everyone sees us beating our chests, and everyone knows that we want someone to do penance for us. We convince ourselves of complicity even in things we haven’t done.
Many say the guilt arises from a sense of undeserved affluence and good fortune. After all, isn’t the accusation “privilege”? Affluence may be a contributing factor, but I don’t think it explains liberal guilt all by itself. Perhaps such guilt has something to do with failure to use affluence for the good of others. On the other hand, those who are most afflicted by it do claim to use their affluence for the good of others. Don’t they support all the right causes? And don’t they let everyone know it?
It seems to me that we are most likely to feel guilty about affluence if we are already disposed to feel guilty for other reasons. What other reasons?
Clue: The people we are talking about don’t usually accept every accusation; they don’t feel guilty about everything whatsoever. They convict themselves of all charges except the ones that are most obviously true. Why? Because they deny the ones that are most obviously true.
The nail driven into conscience seeks relief. We are a people who slaughter our babies and the babies of the poor, so we accuse ourselves of white supremacy instead.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Once upon a time, years ago, a churchgoing man in his thirties who had attended a discussion of a fairly straightforward passage in the Gospels told me afterward that he couldn’t understand it. I thought he meant that he was puzzled about some specific point. No, that wasn’t it. Though intelligent, educated, and generally able to understand and communicate in speech and written text, he could make no sense of the passage whatsoever -- not a paragraph, not a sentence, not a phrase. He told me afterward that he understood the words that it contained, but that they didn’t add up to any meaning. It wasn’t that he disagreed with the passage, but that he couldn’t grasp it. Not even the simplest explanation could reach him. It was as though the words were on one side of a grating, and he were trapped on the other.
His inability to understand distressed him, though not so much as one might have expected. Thinking that another approach might be helpful, I tried several other ways to convey the passage’s meaning. No dice. The English of the translation remained Greek to him. He went on to tell me that he had the same problem whenever he tried reading the bible. Not when he read other books, mind you. Just this one.
I learned months later – you may call this unrelated, but I am not so sure – that certain aspects of his life were coming apart at the seams.
In retrospect, the only thing unusual about the man’s highly selective confusion concerning the things of God was that it was so extreme. Milder cases are as common as fleas. Perhaps a physician would suspect a brain lesion or other neurological problem. That sort of thing is far beyond my competence to identify, but in the years since talking with the man I’ve discovered that there can be other causes.
Here’s one. It is most unlikely for our lives to fall into disorder because we can’t understand the simplest guidance. But no matter how intelligent we are, we often find the simplest guidance baffling because our lives are disordered, and this applies to divine guidance above all.
For my senior seminar this week I assigned Thomas Aquinas. One student, who apparently did not actually do the reading but read some hostile secondary sources, claimed that Aquinas -- a "raging sexist" -- questioned whether women should have been even created. He said it is a shame we are even reading his work.
Though what my student seems to have read is a distortion of what St. Thomas actually said, this alarming attitude itself seems to be spreading. I think it is an outgrowth of identity politics.
Still, it seems that a fair critique could be leveled about St. Thomas’s language about the woman as a “misbegotten male.” Have you had to deal with this sort of objection? How would you handle it?
When students complain about the views supposedly expressed in texts they haven’t read, I give no quarter:
I can understand why you might think the author believes that, if you haven’t done the reading and have read only belligerent secondary sources. However, that’s not a good approach to learning. It’s also unhelpful to read the classical writers only for confirmation of your own ethnocentric opinions, as though you had nothing to learn from anyone outside your own time and place. And it’s even worse not to read them because you’ve been told that they disagree with you.
I then go on to explain what the author really did say. So what did St. Thomas say?
As to the notion that he thinks women are misbegotten males: Although the English word “misbegotten” does appear in the most widely used translation, it is incorrect and misleading. The Latin word is occasionatus, which means merely that the female course of development is a deflection from a path of development that would have been taken had another cause not intervened. Sometimes the phrase used is deficiens et occasionatus, but deficiens in this context doesn’t mean “deficient,” but merely incomplete.
Now St. Thomas’s embryology does turn out to be mistaken. But the kind of argument he makes is precisely the kind today’s biologists make – in reverse -- when they tell us that the Y chromosome, which only males have, may be viewed as an incomplete or even “shriveled” X chromosome, so that male development is a deflection from what would otherwise have been a female developmental path!
Some radical feminists draw from contemporary embryology the conclusion that males are misbegotten females. But contemporary embryology doesn’t imply that there is something wrong with men -- any more than the Angelic Doctor’s embryology implies that there is something wrong with women.
St. Thomas always speaks of women with respect. When he is discussing biology, he emphasizes that nature intends that women be born. It merely produces one sex as a variation on how it produces the other. And it does – just not in the way that he thought.
The old system was that one could challenge criticize and punish the king's subordinate officials for their wrongdoing, even if they were following orders of the king, but that the person of the king was sacred. One got at a bad king through his helpers -- not lying, but allowing the appearance to persist that he did not really originate the wrongdoing but was surrounded by bad advisors. In the case of a king of weak judgment, or one surrounded by flatterers, it might even be true.
This system had its points. It put pressure on the king to change his ways without destroying the regime. It also allows for the fact that in any political order – even a very good one -- the respect of the citizens for the law will be founded mostly on habit rather than reflection, something not to be carelessly imperiled. And a bad king is not just by that fact not the king.
One might even argue that the system is still applicable. Even in a day of republics and pretended republics, there are domains of life – not all of them political -- in which authority either is, or should be, monarchical, and in which the king either cannot be, or should not be, removed. But perhaps I have said enough.