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 blog.kennypearce.net.)