John Leslie’s Axiarchism
January 14, 2014 — 14:17

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 6

Why is there something rather than nothing? According to John Leslie, because it is better that there be something. Leslie holds that ethical requirements themselves are ‘creatively effective’ and give rise to “an ocean of infinitely many infinite minds” which Leslie calls ‘God’ (p. 143). Leslie is a pantheist, holding that the world (including us) is in fact constituted by the thinking of these minds. His essay is devoted to arguing both that this is the best explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing, and that this view deserves to be regarded as a kind of (non-religious) theism.

I have to begin by, for just a moment, putting on my nitpicky historian’s hat. Leslie’s paper is full of both oblique references to and explicit mentions of a variety of historical and contemporary philosophers, theologians, and physicists, and it even contains a number of quotations, but what it does not contain is one single citation, except for a footnote at the very end of the article with a long list of works of Leslie and other recent thinkers holding similar views. Maybe Leslie thinks that every one of his readers will just know, off the top of her head, where (pseudo-)Dionysius said “Goodness is that whereby all things are” (and what translation that quotation came from) and where A. N. Whitehead said “Existence is the upholding of value-intensity” (p. 135), but if he thinks that he is badly mistaken. Routledge’s editors should not have let this essay appear without the correction of this violation of scholarly standards.

Ok, I’m done nitpicking and ready to discuss the actual content of the paper now.

Leslie begins by reciting some standard problems for better known atheistic and theistic solutions to the ‘puzzle of existence,’ but the discussion doesn’t go very deep. Precisely because these are standard objections, there are standard replies to them, and Leslie does not discuss these at all. Having recited some reasons for thinking that more standard views fail, Leslie begins (from p. 133) describing his own ‘Platonic’ view. A lot of this has to do with motivating the idea that there might be such a thing as agent-independent ‘ethical requiredness.’ He then (sect. 4) recites some bits of evidence that are typically taken to support theism (e.g., the orderliness of the universe, fine-tuning) and argues that these in fact support axiarchism. Finally, he argues that with respect to the problem of evil, the axiarchist is no worse off than the conventional theist.

One gets the impression (especially from the laundry list footnote at the end) that this essay is a summary of Leslie’s previous work on this topic. The essay has trouble standing alone. It lays out some basic motivations for axiarchism and gives one a general idea of how the axiarchist might go about responding to certain obvious objections, but it doesn’t go much beyond that (perhaps due to limitations of space). Furthermore, Leslie’s pantheism of infinitely many infinite minds, which is the most bizarre part of his view, is motivated only in the most cursory way.

I’m a Berkeley scholar. I’m used to working with bizarre-sounding metaphysical theories, and I’m sympathetic to views that make the mental more fundamental than the physical. But even I had the feeling that “We are got into fairly land, long ere we have reached the last steps of” Leslie’s essay (Hume, EHU 7, part 1, para 24). I think it would have been better, for a short piece like this, if Leslie had decided either to focus on the defense of axiarchism, or else to take axiarchism as an undefended assumption and defend his pantheism of infinitely many infinite minds as a consequence of it. The attempt to do both in this small space leaves readers with the feeling that Leslie wants them to accept bizarre views without adequate motivation.

(Cross-posted at

  • I’d like to defend John Leslie here. Of course, Pearce is right to be nit-picky about the lack of citations, although referring to this as a “violation of scholarly standards” is far too harsh. Pearce correctly infers that Leslie’s article is a summary, a summary, indeed, of over forty years of careful scholarly work. Leslie is presently retired. Anyone looking for the footnotes can easily read his many articles and books.

    Pearce also correctly points to the idiosyncrasies of Leslian axiarchism. But those are merely details. Axiarchism, like Christianity, has many flavors. Leslie makes abstract points, which he then concretizes according to his preferences. Those abstract points can be concretized in other ways.

    Leslie comes out of the tradition of British idealism, a tradition which seems silly when its old concepts are interpreted as if they were contemporary. But much of that idealism can be rationally recovered using more modern concepts like information and computation, concepts which the old idealists didn’t have. It doesn’t take too much effort to replace the psychological version of axiarchism with a computational version.

    At the end of his career, Leslie certainly grew long on speculation and short on argumentation. But you can find lots of arguments in Value and Existence and Universes, as well as in many articles. And you can find more support for Leslian axiarchism in Rescher’s early work, such as The Riddle of Existence, not to mention the work of Leibniz, especially his doctrine of the striving possibles. Indeed, many old theistic arguments, which all too easily conclude with “and this all men call God”, are far more naturally interpreted as inferences to axiarchic principles. Leslie can be faulted for not being clearer about this. But he does point to these old arguments in many places in his earlier work.

    Axiarchism deserves a better hearing among philosophers generally. And Leslie deserves a more sympathetic treatment than the one he gets here. Jaakko Hintikka, another older philosopher, used to tell a story about a fictional cannibal tribe: you only get to be king by eating the previous king. He complained, justly, that philosophers are far too much like that.

    January 15, 2014 — 11:23
    • Eric – I don’t think I disagree with anything you say here, except for your claim that my “violation of scholarly standards” remark was “far too harsh” – if unsourced quotations is not a violation of scholarly standards, what is?

      My remarks in this post are confined to Leslie’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, and the key point of my criticism (apart from the admittedly nitpicky part) was that that essay has trouble standing alone. I don’t think you are contesting that in your comment; you are suggesting, rather, that the totality of Leslie’s work has a lot more value than what can be seen from this particular essay, taken alone. I haven’t read Leslie’s other work, but I strongly suspect that this is true. You also mention that I emphasize the idiosyncracies of Leslie’s particular version of axiarchism, but part of what I was doing was criticizing Leslie’s essay for putting too much emphasis on those idiosyncracies; I suggested quite explicitly that it would have been better, in an essay this short, if Leslie had just focused on the defense of axiarchism and left the idiosyncratic parts of his view out.

      January 15, 2014 — 12:05
  • Kenny:

    “if unsourced quotations is not a violation of scholarly standards, what is?”

    Plagiarism, faking data, misquoting, quoting out of context, presenting uncontroversially invalid arguments as valid, etc. Quotations with insufficient bibliographic detail but at least with the name of the quoted author are very low in my list of violations of scholarly standards.

    p.s. It’s easy to source the Whitehead quote via Google. The Pseudo-Dionysius one is harder–there are only two hits, one being your post and the other on Google Books to page vi of a 1979 book by Leslie where he has a list of quotes in “Quote” – Name format.

    January 21, 2014 — 11:16
    • Alex – Yes, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that failing properly to source one’s quotations was the worst sort of violation of scholarly standards, but simply that it was a paradigmatic case. By way of comparison: failing to stop at a stop sign is a paradigmatic case of law-breaking, but it is far from being the very worst sort of law-breaking. I take this to be the same sort of case. It seems to me just transparently obvious that this practice (unsourced quotations) is in violation of scholarly standards (standards that are in place for good reason), but the violation is not of a sort that detracts from the philosophical merit/originality of the piece, and that’s what’s nitpicky about my complaint. All of your examples of more severe violations of scholarly standards are examples of cases in which the violation would immediately detract from the philosophical or scientific merit/originality of the work, so alleging one of those violations would certainly not be nitpicky.

      January 21, 2014 — 11:44
      • The stop sign case is convincing. That’s a very nice point: you’re right that you can have paradigm cases that are very mild cases. It’s easy I guess to conflate being a paradigm case of F with being a case of a high degree of F–thinking about cases like baldness leads to that mistake. (And even for baldness this is not the case. Imagine an alien species where normally they have hair all over, but it is vague whether they have a head. Then an individual that has no hair at all will be vaguely bald, since it will be vague whether he has a head without hair, even though it will be definite that if he is bald, he is bald to a maximal degree.)

        January 22, 2014 — 11:13
    • Note also that I carefully used the term ‘violation of scholarly standards’ rather than the stronger term ‘academic dishonesty.’ Perhaps people are reading ‘violation of scholarly standards’ in a stronger way than I intended. I simply meant that there are certain well-known and understood conventions for how academic papers are written, and one of those is that quotations are to be fully sourced, and this paper doesn’t do that. In saying “if unsourced quotations is not a violation of scholarly standards, what is?” I just meant that this is not a borderline case; I don’t see room here for disagreement about exactly what the convention requires.

      January 21, 2014 — 11:50
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