Airaksinen on Berkeley’s Theological Ethics
April 22, 2017 — 11:04

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Command Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The 11th and final chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Ethics and Berkeley’s Good God” by Timo Airaksinen. This is a rich, complex, and careful treatment of Berkeley’s ethical thought. It is the only essay in the volume that pays careful attention to Berkeley’s own theological commitments. Further, by specific attention to the theological context of Berkeley’s ethical thought Airaksinen is able to show that Berkeley’s thought in this area is richer and more complex than philosophers have often supposed.

The discussion is focused around Berkeley’s Alciphron. Surprisingly little attention is paid to Passive Obedience, though good use is also made of Berkeley’s sermons (which scholars have often ignored). Further, the article concludes with some interesting discussion of the development of Berkeley’s thought about evil in the world over the course of his career.

It is widely recognized that Berkeley’s ethical thought contains both divine command elements and rule utilitarian elements. A disputed question is how these elements fit together. On this subject, Airaksinen makes the provocative statement, “Berkeley is no utilitarian, rather God is” (221). What Airaksinen means by this is that, on Berkeley’s view, morality for us is fundamentally a matter of obedience to God. Yet we should not conceive God as a tyrant issuing arbitrary commands which we follow solely out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.* Rather, such obedience should be based on our attitude of love and trust toward God, which are in turn based on our faith in the goodness of God. Now this requires that we be able to make sense of God’s being good in some way that is not wholly arbitrary or trivial. On Airaksinen’s reading, Berkeley appeals here to the fundamental or intrinsic goodness of happiness, which is closely related to but perhaps not identified with pleasure. God’s goodness means that God seeks to promote these ends in God’s design of the natural and moral order of the world. Insofar as this is a genuine order it must be based on rules. It is in this sense that God is a rule utilitarian: God has instituted a moral system which is optimal with respect to the promotion of the happiness of creatures. Proper religious attitudes should include not mere acquiescence in this moral system, but active endorsement of it. That is, the genuinely moral/virtuous person buys into God’s plan for the natural and moral order of the universe. It is in this sense and for this reason that, according to Airaksinen’s reading of Berkeley, religious faith is required for genuine virtue.

What does all of this have to do with idealism? According to Airaksinen, Berkeley’s ethical thought is idealistic in two senses. First, Berkeley holds that “one cannot define moral notions and conscience without a reference to the mind and its functions or, in this case, God’s will” (217). This is idealism in the sense in which that term is used in contemporary metaphysics, that is, the claim that things we might not ordinarily think of as mental are grounded in or reducible to mental phenomena. Second, Berkeley’s view (according to Airaksinen) is idealistic in the Platonic sense that it appeals to a transcendent moral ideal, namely, God (217). Now, Airaksinen says that “His [Berkeley’s] ethics rests on idealistic metaphysics—it is metaphysically informed as it tracks God” (217). However, I don’t see any particular connection here to idealism in the sense of immaterialism, and in fact immaterialism makes no (explicit) appearance in either Passive Obedience or Alciphron. In fact, most of Christian ethics has been idealistic in the two senses Airaksinen defines. So I was left puzzled about the connection to idealism in the sense in which that term is understood in the rest of this volume. Nevertheless, this is an excellent essay which handles Berkeley’s text carefully and advances our understanding of his ethical thought.

(Cross-posted at

* I note that Airaksinen seems to me to underemphasize the extent to which Berkeley does want to defend reward and punishment as sources of moral motivation in Alciphron. However, Berkeley certainly does not think that this is the best sort of moral motivation.

CFP: The Marc Sanders Prize in Metaphysics
January 23, 2017 — 8:16

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: News  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 0

In keeping with its mission of encouraging and recognizing excellence in philosophy, The Marc Sanders Foundation seeks to highlight the importance of support for the work of younger scholars. As part of this commitment, the Foundation has dedicated resources to an ongoing essay competition, designed to promote excellent research and writing in metaphysics on the part of younger scholars.

Sponsored by The Marc Sanders Foundation and administered by the editorial board of Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, this essay competition is open to scholars who are within fifteen (15) years of receiving a Ph.D. and to students who are currently enrolled in a graduate program. Independent scholars may also be eligible, and should contact Dean Zimmerman at The annual prize amount is $10,000. Winning essays will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaphysics.

Competition Details

Submitted essays must present original research in Metaphysics. Essays should be between 7,500 and 15,000 words. Since winning essays will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, submissions must not be under review elsewhere. To be eligible for this year’s prize, submissions must be received, electronically, by January 31st 2017. Refereeing will be blind; authors should omit remarks and references that might disclose their identities. Receipt of submissions will be acknowledged by e-mail. The winner will be determined by a committee of members of the Editorial Board of Oxford Studies in Metaphysics and will be announced by late-March.

Inquiries and submissions should be directed to Dean Zimmerman, co-editor (with Karen Bennett) of Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, at

Full details here.

How can we make the subject matter of philosophy of religion more diverse?
October 20, 2014 — 16:23

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 40

In a forthcoming paper, John Schellenberg forwards the following argument: anatomically humans have been around 200,000 years. That’s a very short span of time for any species, and only in the past few thousand years ago have we been reflecting on the world around us. If we our species survives even as long as Homo erectus did, we’ve only completed a very small part of a potentially long future of thinking about religion, metaphysics and other matters.

At present, philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition is quite narrowly focused:

“in the west – and I expect I am writing mainly for western readers – philosophy of religion has been largely preoccupied with one religious idea, that of theism, and it looks to be moving into a narrower and deeper version of this preoccupation, one focused on specifically Christian ideas, rather than broadening out and coming to grips with its full task.”(p. 3).

Theism, in a generic, omni-property sort of way, is one position that philosophers of religion commonly defend. The other is scientific naturalism. These seem to be the only games in town:

“most naturalists too assume that theistic God-centered religion must succeed if any does. Naturalism or theism. These seem to be the only options that many see. The harshest critics of religion, including philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, seem to think their job is done when they have, to their own satisfaction, criticized personalistic, agential conceptions of a divine reality.” (pp. 3-4).

At the end of 2013, I conducted a qualitative survey (summary here, but I am writing up the paper presently) among philosophers of religion. Next to a series of open questions, there was a question for open feedback. I was quite surprised to see so many philosophers of religion openly lament the lack of subject diversity in their discipline. Just a few choice examples written by anonymous respondents:


Theisms, Metaphysical and Religious
October 1, 2014 — 12:03

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 4

Both in the classical tradition and in recent analytic philosophy, much of philosophical theology is concerned with what we might call metaphysical theism, that is, with the notion of God as a metaphysical theory which explains certain facts about the world. This is most visible in the cosmological argument for contingency, where the ability of the theistic hypothesis to explain something that (allegedly) cannot be explained (or explained equally well) without God is given as a reason for belief in God. A lot of our theorizing about God (in this metaphysical mode) then has to do with the question of what is the simplest and most intellectually satisfying variant of the theistic hypothesis for our metaphysical purposes.

If this kind of theorizing succeeds – that is, if the theistic hypothesis really produces a better theory than its competitors – then this is of course extremely important to metaphysicians, but its religious significance is in dispute. Certainly intellectual assent to a metaphysical theory is not what the Christian means by ‘faith’. (Well, maybe, depending on who ‘the Christian’ is, that’s not quite certain. What’s certain is that it’s not what Christians should mean by ‘faith’.) Furthermore, various difficulties and contradictions have been alleged between prominent versions of metaphysical theism and the needs of religion. Thus many recent philosophers and theologians have alleged that some of the classical divine attributes (e.g., atemporality, impassibility, foreknowledge) interfere with God’s ability to enter into the kind of personal relationship essential to Christianity. Others (e.g., Geach) have held that omnipotence implies that God is able to break promises and that this belief tends to undermine religious faith. So metaphysical theism is not the kind of theistic belief relevant to religion, and may even be in some tension with religion.

Religious theism, that is, the sort of doxastic state regarding God that is appropriate for Abrahamic religion, must then be a different sort of thing. Indeed, Plantinga has famously argued (1986, 132-133; 1996, 249) that religious theism is generally not anything like an explanatory theory, and we should not expect it to be justified in anything like the same way. This is precisely correct. Whatever exactly religious theism turns out to be, natural inclination to believe (Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis), religious experience, experience of miracles, and testimony about such things will all be relevant to its formation, but explicit theorizing will not.

Does this make metaphysical theism irrelevant to religious theism? I think not. Plantinga and Alston both argue that theistic belief (and they seem to mean religious theism here) is basic in something like the way beliefs arising directly from sense experience are basic. (Alston, of course, emphasizes the sensory analogue a lot more than Plantinga.) But consider how we actually respond to the deliverances of our senses. We do (and should) distrust our senses if what we seem to sense cannot be made to fit into a coherent picture of the world. Further, although we do not have non-circular justification for our general attitude of trust in the senses, we do have scientific theories about the functioning of our senses and these inform the degree of trust we place in our senses in specific circumstances. Trust in the senses notwithstanding, if I seem to see a pink elephant in my living room, I will conclude that I am hallucinating because I know of no intellectually satisfying background theory on which the presence of a pink elephant in my living room is more likely than my being the victim of a hallucination.

The background theories whereby we determine when and how far to trust our senses become all the more important in cases of contradictory testimony. It is by consideration of the circumstances in which the senses tend to be reliable, and the likelihood of the events in question, that we decide which witnesses to trust, and sometimes even end up giving preference to the testimony of others over our own senses. (For instance, if someone else was in a better position to observe the action.)

Rarely, if ever, are witnesses to events that can be detected in ordinary sense perception as conflicted in their testimony as human beings are about religion. As a result, we stand in dire need of a theory that will tell us both (a) how generally reliable are the processes by which religious theism comes about, and (b) how likely to be true are the particular claims which purport to be justified by this process. Metaphysical theism has an important role to play as such a background theory. An intellectually satisfying theory of the world which allows for the truth of religious theism will render religious theism better justified, just as an intellectually satisfying background theory according to which vision is more reliable in my circumstances than in yours increases my justification for trusting my visual experience over your testimony. If the atheist’s background theory is far more compelling than mine, and can explain the origin of my religious theism as a cognitive malfunction, I may eventually have to concede that I am the victim of such a malfunction, just as there are circumstances in which I may be brought to concede that I am hallucinating.

The undermining of the justification here depends on two factors: conflicting religious testimony, and the relative merits of different explanatory theories. It thus will not tend to undermine the (internalistic) justification of relatively uninformed or unsophisticated religious theists who are either unaware of the conflicting testimony or are not in a position to evaluate the relative merits of the theories in question. However, if the religious theist wants to retain her justification after becoming a sophisticated philosopher, she is going to need metaphysical theism or something very much like it.

(Cross-posted at

Why Do We Ask Why?
February 3, 2014 — 20:59

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 8

Several of the essays in The Puzzle of Existence argue, in one way or another, that no non-trivial answer can be given to those who ask why there is something rather than nothing. This may be because the question is somehow confused or mistaken, as in the case of Ross who argues that there is no such entity as everything (the totality of contingent concrete things, the Cosmos, etc.), and hence there can be no explaining the existence of everything. Or it may be because the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false, and so not every legitimate why question has an answer. This line is taken by Kleinschmidt. John Heil aims to go further: to show that the question arises only within a certain sort of philosophical paradigm. Heil aims, further, to call this paradigm into question and show that an alternative paradigm is possible.

Heil’s essay opens with a fascinating historical narrative. On Heil’s telling, Aristotle held that “what a thing does or would do is determined by the thing’s nature” (168). However, late Medieval thinkers thought that this way of seeing things did not allow for a sufficiently robust conception of divine omnipotence. We need to allow that God could have made the very same sorts of things behave differently than those things in fact do, and so we need to regard “what a thing does or would do” as external to that thing and imposed on it by God. This leads to a conception of God as a legislator imposing laws on the world. Subsequent philosophers have tried to delete God from this picture, but the deletion leaves a void to be filled, and philosophers have attempted to fill it in a variety of ways. (One is reminded here of the similar point about moral philosophy famously made by Elizabeth Anscombe.)

Heil’s narrative provides a new and interesting take on the argument from contingency for the existence of God. On this view, the point being made by the argument from contingency is that the ‘modern’ way of looking at things is in fact (despite what some people will tell you) a fundamentally theistic point of view, from which God has never been fully excised. (Perhaps it would be better to say it is a fundamentally deistic point of view; the idea that fits in most neatly with the views of modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton is the notion of an absent watchmaker.) Heil, however, wants to deny that this is a good reason for believing in God. Instead, he thinks, once belief in God has (for whatever reason) been rejected, a new paradigm is needed. That ‘new’ paradigm turns out to be an old one: Aristotle’s. This, Heil argues, is not actually inconsistent with modern science, for one can still think of science as an effort to discover laws (179); one merely takes the laws to be grounded in the powers, rather than vice versa. On this kind of view, Heil thinks, the universe starts to look more, as it were, self-contained, and we are less tempted to go looking for something outside it to explain it.

One of the reasons I find Heil’s suggestion is interesting is that, as a sociological matter, I suspect that (due in part to the influence of Roman Catholic theology) neo-Aristotelian views are presently correlated with theism. Heil thinks, though, that Aristotelianism is what the atheist needs to break out of the theistic paradigm.

Heil is fairly compelling in his discussion of this paradigm and its influence. This, by itself, is enough to make this a very valuable essay. There are (at least) three issues on which, I think, further discussion and debate is called for: (1) Do attempts to de-theologize this paradigm really fail, as Heil thinks? (2) What viable alternative paradigms can be constructed? (3) Do these alternative paradigms really sit more comfortably with atheism than the standard (‘modern’) paradigm?

The third question is, I take it, most crucial. After all, Aristotle himself believed in a God (who probably deserves a big ‘G’), and, on Heil’s own telling, it was not until long after Christianity became the dominant intellectual force that the now-standard paradigm arose. Hence many people have thought (and still think) that a God is needed within an Aristotelian paradigm as well.

Heil’s thesis in this paper is, I take it, a relatively modest one: the assumptions that lead to the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ are optional. However, Heil relies on a strong conception of ‘nothing,’ excluding even God, and so holds that “If there is something there could not have been nothing” (180). This clearly follows on an Aristotelian notion of possibility as potentiality. If, however, our question is not ‘why is there anything at all?’ but rather, ‘why is there anything physical?’ or ‘why is there anything concrete and contingent?’ then perhaps we will be led once again to posit a necessarily existent God. So it is not clear that Heil’s Aristotelianism is a better fit with atheism after all.

(Cross-posted at

O’Connor on Explaining Everything
December 6, 2013 — 17:31

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Goldschmidt’s volume opens with an essay by Timothy O’Connor who defends the traditional answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing: God. More specifically, the traditional answer O’Connor defends holds that a necessarily existent immaterial agent chose that contingent beings should exist.

There are several well-known difficulties for this kind of view. The first difficulty is, if there must be an explanation of why there are contingent beings, then mustn’t there be an explanation of why there is a God? This is, of course, a version of the much-ridiculed ‘what caused God?’ retort, and O’Connor’s (implicit) answer to it is that God exists necessarily. (O’Connor implies this response by restricting his ‘principles of explanation’ to contingent beings/events/truths; pp. 35-37.) Now this (standard) answer can be understood in one of two ways: either necessary truths don’t need explanations, or else we claim that any necessary truth p is explained by the fact that necessarily p. That is, on the second option, you explain a necessary truth by asserting that it is necessary. However, the second option by itself doesn’t solve the problem, because we can always ask why it is that God necessarily exists. Based on O’Connor’s discussion of ‘opaque necessities’ I suspect that he endorses the first option, denying that necessary truths need explanations. (To me, brute necessities seem intuitively worse than brute contingencies, but I won’t pursue that point here.) So God’s existence, being necessary, doesn’t need an explanation, but the existence of contingent things does.

However, the opponent of the traditional (theistic) view has an easy retort: “Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that God exists necessarily. Surely God’s decision to create this world must be contingent, since the world could have been otherwise. So there must be an explanation of why God chose this world.” We actually still haven’t got much deeper than the ‘what caused God?’ question at this point, for there is quite an obvious answer to this challenge. According to the traditional view, the universe’s existence depends on a free choice, and we know how to explain free choices: we cite the agent’s reasons, desires, character, etc.

In traditional treatments of this issue (e.g., Aquinas, Leibniz), the theist would now go on to give some account of the reason why God created this world. O’Connor makes a different move: he argues that the theist need not do this. According to O’Connor, the superiority of theism over its competitors is shown by the fact that it provides an intelligible explanation schema: that is, we can see how an explanation could go, and what sorts of questions would have to be answered in order to complete the explanation.

O’Connor seems to me to be correct that a hypothesis which implies that something is in principle explicable, and specifies a particular sort of explanation it must have, is ceteris paribus to be preferred over a hypothesis which renders that thing in principle inexplicable. This is so even if the hypothesis doesn’t actually explain the phenomenon in question. Now, it is widely held that the existence of contingent beings is in principle inexplicable unless there is a necessary being. Further, since we have some kind of conception of how agential explanations go, the hypothesis that contingent existence is caused by a necessarily existent agent is ceteris paribus to be preferred to the hypothesis that no necessary beings enter into causal relations.

Two important limitations must be observed here. First, no argument has been presented for the claim that the conception of the necessary being as an agent is superior to alternative necessary being theories. Second, the result is merely a ceteris paribus claim. O’Connor accepts both of these limitations, though he does give some consideration to the question of how an all-things-considered comparison of the two views might go. On this latter point, he is criticized by Oppy in the following chapter, so I will leave off discussion of that until my next post.

I should also briefly mention O’Connor’s response to the modal collapse objection. This objection holds that whatever has a necessary explanation is itself necessary, and so the traditional view, far from explaining contingency, denies the existence of contingency. O’Connor’s response is simple: to cite a cause of something is to give one kind of explanation of it, and that’s the kind of explanation he thinks contingent existence needs. Not all causation involves ‘necessary connection.’ Hence, a necessary thing might contingently cause contingent things, and this would not take away their contingency. (O’Connor does not here discuss the regress worry: not only is the proposition this world exists contingent, so is the proposition God causes this world. What’s the explanation of the second proposition? Since O’Connor has written a lot about agent causation, I’m sure he’s discussed this somewhere.) O’Connor thinks that if you are unsatisfied with this it must be because you are looking, as Leibniz was, for a contrastive explanation, an explanation of why things are so rather than otherwise. O’Connor is happy to deny that such explanations exist.

I’m a little concerned about this response; I tend to think that if one has explicability intuitions strong enough to support the argument from contingency, one is unlikely to be satisfied by weak explanations of this sort.

On the whole, O’Connor’s essay is a competent presentation of the traditional view in the context of contemporary analytic philosophy. He departs from the traditional view mostly in his exhortations to epistemic humility. In a way, this essay was a good choice to begin the volume: it lays out the view that most of the other papers will be, in one way or another, attacking. On the other hand, I found each of the three following essays (by Oppy, Kleinschmidt, and Ross – that’s as far as I’ve read) far more interesting. For the specialist, O’Connor’s essay is rather a slow start to the volume.

(Cross-posted at

2nd Midwest Annual Workshop in Metaphysics
March 16, 2013 — 16:30

Author: Matthew Mullins  Category: News  Tags:   Comments: 0

The University of Notre Dame will host the second Midwest Annual Workshop in Metaphysics (MAWM), September 14-15, 2013. We invite and encourage all interested parties to attend! MAWMs are targeted workshops for Midwestern faculty and graduate students working in metaphysics. Each MAWM features 5-7 invited speakers, the majority of whom come from Midwestern institutions. They provide a venue for sharing new research and building community among metaphysicians in the region. For more information and to register for the workshop, visit the website:

Is there any point to attending an atheist church?
February 6, 2013 — 12:58

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 29

[X-posted at NewApps] These reflections are inspired by my reading of Howard Wettstein’s book “The significance of religious experience” (OUP), Gutting’s piece in the Stone on agnosticism, and a recent BBC report on an atheist church in London.
I am deeply intrigued by atheist religious practice. An atheist church in North London has opened last month. It proves to be very popular; as a matter of fact, vastly outstripping the neighboring Anglican evangelical church in congregation size. The ca. 300 members of this church congregate to sing secular songs, celebrate life and the natural world, have readings from secular texts, like Alice in Wonderland, and have secular sermons, on topics like “life is all too brief and nothing comes after it.” The atheist church fits in a broader tendency of atheists to incorporate aspects of religious practice, including Alain de Botton’s temples for atheists. Is there any point for an atheist who is attracted to religious practice to attend atheist ceremonies, structured in ways similar to traditional religions?


A Theistic Argument for Compatibilism
January 29, 2013 — 17:29

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God Divine Providence Free Will  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 42

One often hears it asserted that most theists are metaphysical libertarians. This seems to be supported, at least in the case of theistic philosophers, by the PhilPapers survey where target faculty specializing in philosophy of religion, who were overwhelmingly more likely to be theists than their peers in other specializations (72.3% for religion specialists vs. 14.6% overall), were also overwhelmingly more likely to be libertarians (57.4% vs. 13.7%). (Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to compare theists to non-theists across the board, so we just have this correlation among religion specialists.)
Now, I suppose there are some reasons for this. One is that the free-will defense is widely thought to be the best response to the problem of evil, and is widely thought to require libertarianism. Another is that theists are often committed to some notion of punitive justice which is also widely thought to require free will. A third reason is that if God is a necessary being, and libertarianism is not true at least about divine freedom, then we inherit all of Leibniz’s difficulties in trying to carve out any contingency in the world at all. Now, it is perfectly possible to be a libertarian about God’s freedom and a compatibilist about human freedom. According to some (most?) interpreters, Aquinas adopts this view. On the kind of view in question, libertarian freedom would be the most perfect sort of freedom, and perhaps one might even concede that it’s a sort of freedom that we (prideful) human beings often think we have, but one would say that compatibilist freedom is sufficient for moral responsibility and is all that we actually have. Nevertheless, if the theist is committed to saying that God has libertarian freedom, then the theist is committed to saying that libertarian freedom is at least a coherent notion, and it’s easy to see why that would be at least correlated with claiming that we actually have libertarian freedom.
On the other hand, I think there are special philosophical reasons for theists to accept compatibilism. Reasons, that is, which are specially philosophical (as opposed to theological or scientific) and also specially applicable to theists. Consider the following argument:


LOGOS 2013: Theorizing about God – Realism in Theology
September 17, 2012 — 21:20

Author: Matthew Mullins  Category: News  Tags: , ,   Comments: 0

May 9-11, 2013 at the University of Notre Dame
Theological realism is a hot topic nowadays, and is interestingly related to issues about religious pluralism. These debates bear obvious connections to debates about realism and anti-realism in science, as well as to issues in metaphysics and the philosophy of language about ontological commitment and related topics, and with the theological literature on the nature of doctrine. These are the sorts of issues that will be in focus at this workshop.
To have your paper considered for presentation at Logos 2013, please submit an abstract of the paper or the paper itself no later than October 15, 2012. Other things being equal, preference will be given to those who submit full papers by the deadline. We will let you know by December 1, 2012 whether your paper has been provisionally accepted. Full acceptance will be conditional on submission of the full reading version of the paper by March 15, 2013.
Send Abstracts or Full Papers to: