Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Ax Grinder’s Cave

What can be explained on fewer principles is explained needlessly by more. —William of Ockham, Sum of All Logic

I’m on a mission—not from God, like in the Blues Brothers movie—but an investigative mission to discover the real purpose of this text. A Socratic mission, if you will.

I mentioned last week that the last few chapters seemed like a sprint rather than a stroll. Now, I’m thinking it’s more like a Gish Gallop.  Something was bothering me while I read Chapters 13 and 14. I don’t know enough about history off the top of my head to spot inconsistencies, but a pattern started to emerge. Then I got to Chapter 15: The Razor’s Edge. In Herman’s conversational style, he provides an interesting analogy to demonstrate Ockham’s Razor.

Ockham’s Razor, as it was later coined, has many more implications than Herman indicates. 

Ockham’s Razor cuts through the area of epistemology, ontology, theology, and metaphysics. Herman later notes this on page 246, but something wasn’t ringing true. Herman’s two-glasses analogy struck me as strange. As I thought about it more, it struck me a suspicious.

Why demonstrate Ockham’s Razor with two things that actually exist? The analogy is too simplistic.

I have to admit I was looking forward to a gallop through the Crusades. But when Herman focused on the “success” of the Crusades, I began to understand he was making an argument.  

The first thing I realized is that I failed to apply the principles I learned in How to Read a Book, written by Mortimer Adler and Charles Doren. For works of philosophy, one has to look for “what question or questions it tries to answer.” This is a great place to start. I think I started off on the wrong foot: I was reading Herman’s book like it was an academic history book. Now I realize that Herman is making an argument. I should know this because the last chapter comes to a “Conclusion.” It’s right there in black and white. For me, this is a different level of reading. So I decided to do what I always try to do when analyzing an argument, which happens to be Number Two on Dr. Bombardi’s “Seven Steps of Analysis”—determine the conclusion.

The shorter version of his conclusion is that without the Christian God (Plato), science (Aristotle) is doomed to be “riddled with false façades and shoddy superficialities, and it is populated by institutions that have become obsessed with process for its own sake, rather than keeping Western civilization “on message” regarding the larger meaning of freedom and liberty, community and spiritual truth” (p. 569).

The idea that science is incomplete without spirituality is debatable, but I get the feeling that Herman is up to something else.

Herman brings Plato and Aristotle into the 21st century. He uses three events to make his case: the September 11th attacks, the human genome, and 2008 housing market crash.

To continue his “footnote” theme, Herman concludes that the September 11th attacks were because the Islamic world “contemplated the mystic and divine and little else (Plato).” He says the human genome “isn’t a seed or a substance but a sequential unfolding inside the DNA molecule.” I’m not sure what he means by “unfolding,” but I have a hunch. Further (and this is the biggest stretch so far) he somehow draws an analogical line from Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty to the 2008 financial crash.  Essentially, he asserts that the 2008 crash was caused by “the inability of governments and large, centralizing institutions to keep up with the information needed to make the right economic decisions.” Amazingly, no mention whatsoever of the corrupt derivative market and mortgage-backed securities.

To that effect, Herman's Ockham's Razor analogy supports his argument, but to what end? 

I think it’s important to note that Arthur Herman is a fellow at the Hudson Institute, which is a conservative think-tank funded, among others, by the Koch brothers. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “it has substantially boosted its focus on international issues such as the Middle East, Latin America and Islam”.

I invite everyone to read the “Conclusion” chapter and tell me if you get the same feeling. This by itself doesn’t discredit the text. I really enjoy the “stroll,” and I really like his writing style, but I can’t help but think there’s an ax grinding in the background of his breezy prose.  

I think we just have to keep in mind that Herman is making an argument.

This is my take on the text so far. I could be wrong, and I’m open to further evidence to the contrary.

DQ: Religious and political worldviews often change the meaning of events, but do you think they change the facts?


  1. Thanks for this important context, Dean. You're right of course, he's making an argument for the mutual indispensability of Plato and Aristotle and their heirs, in our tradition. If one or the other didn't exist, we or they would have to invent it. I'm holding open the question, though, of whether the argument (whatever Herman's intentions) supports the claim that "science is incomplete without [Christian] spirituality" or whether it can and does supply its own version of naturalistic/humanistic spirituality and can do without mystical Platonism and supernaturalism. Carl Sagan in "Varieties of Scientific Experience," for one, says it does. Andre Comte-Sponville says something similar in "Atheist Spirituality."

    But the Hudson Institute is a red flag, for sure. That doesn't necessarily make him an untrustworthy hired gun - I'll take the Koch Brothers' money too, if they'll offer it... but it should put us on our guard.

    We also need to be on guard against an ad hominem pre-emptive strike. Maybe it'd be best to postpone jumping to conclusions, and to The Conclusion. Let's continue to stroll at a steady pace.

  2. I'm with you and look forward to the stroll. My concern is how the spirituality is employed in the ontological and epistemological sense. I'm switching from Gilette Mach 3 to Ockham. :)

  3. Dean,
    I appreciate your insightful essay. I ran across this statement in Roger Bacon by Stewart Easton and I found myself guilty of doing this. "As far as we can, we should cease to examine the past in light of current assumptions; in particular we should cease to judge past thought by the criterion of a present-day scheme of values. We must rather regard it in the light of its own system and its own assumptions; or we shall be guilty of the sin of present-mindedness." I have been researching woman's suffrage and I have to constantly remind myself that men and some women a hundred years ago didn't think as I do, they saw the woman's role as the domestic sphere. I wonder how many philosophers through the ages tried to apply Plato and Aristotle to their times without considering that the times were different and that Plato and Aristotle might have a completely different outlook on the meaning of life if they writing in a different time. As Ockham says, "reason derives from our senses" and that won't change and "religion is a matter of belief" and they are separate.

  4. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  5. Religion is one of those topics that leaves the presentation of facts open to interpretation. Hence, the Calvinist and Armenian split. My reality and results of contemplation is that no one knows the past or the future, all we are given is today. Perhaps the two beers are the past and the future, and our rational thought process of deciding between the two is our present moment. The bartender is like a outside source of persuasion, be s/he a leader, politician, family member, friend or in this present day and time Facebook. The only people that truly know the facts are the people that were there during the present moment and even their testimony can be faulty.
    I really appreciated your perspective on these chapters, this class is extremely edifying in it's way for each of us to contribute our thoughts and analysis of the chapters. You mentioned Science being incomplete without spirituality so I had to chime in, since this a topic that I have been struggling with throughout my readings of the book. The two go hand-in-hand, facts and meanings are synonymous with science and religion. Both can integrate with one another to contribute to each other to provide a more in-depth understanding of either. For instance, religion is such an important social construct that science can be explained with it's influence. To delve away from an ethnocentric viewpoint, a doctor traveling to another country to help a tribe or village, oftentimes need to have an understanding of the spiritual customs of the area to be able to properly treat and save the lives or the people living in those places.
    Additionally, if you find a place that sells Ockham's razors let me know. As a fellow philosopher I would be highly interested in purchasing some. Maybe, dollarshaveclub carries them.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.