Created and Uncreated Things: A Neo-Augustinian Solution to the Bootstrapping Problem

International Philosophical Quarterly, 56 (2016): 99-112.

Theistic activism and theistic conceptual realism attempt to relieve the tension between transcendent realism about universals and a strong aseity-sovereignty doctrine. Para- doxically, both theories seem to imply that God is metaphysically prior and metaphysically posterior to his own nature. In this paper I critique one attempt to respond to this worry and offer a neo-Augustinian solution in its place. I demonstrate that Augustine’s argument for forms as ideas in the mind of God strongly suggests that only created beings need universals to ground their character. For them, divine concepts can do all of the work that universals are typically invoked to do in the contemporary literature. An uncreated being’s character needs no such grounding and can be accounted for in terms of his own concepts. If this is correct, theists may be realists about universals while maintaining the traditional read of God’s aseity and sovereignty.

Pre-Print available here.


The Simplicity of Divine Ideas (Draft)

According to Theistic Conceptual Realism (TCR), divine concepts, conceived of as eternal aspects of the divine mind, do the metaphysical lifting for which abstract universals are posited on platonic realist accounts of abstract objects.  This involves (partially) grounding the phenomena associated with the “problem of universals,” such as property exemplification, attribute agreement, subject-predicate discourse, and abstract reference.  Along with its cousin, Theistic Activism, this view of universals has garnered significant interest in recent years among theist metaphysicians who wish to reconcile their commitment to the existence of abstract objects with traditional theist doctrines such as aseity and sovereignty.  However, there has been little discussion of its compatibility with another traditional, albeit more controversial, doctrine: divine simplicity (DDS).  The DDS claims that God is completely free of ontological structure and complexity—in God there is no distinction between form and matter, substance and property, thinker and thought.  On one hand, if multiple universals are necessary to explain the character of particular things, there is reason to think that TCR commits one to the existence of a plurality of divine concepts.  Such a plurality would be incompatible with the DDS.  So the proponent of TCR has a prima facie reason to reject it.  On the other hand, many medieval philosophers from whom contemporary proponents of TCR draw inspiration—most notably St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—accept both the existence of divine ideas and the DDS.  This may give us reason to consider more carefully whether the two theories can be reconciled.  However, any attempt to reconcile TCR with the DDS will face two obstacles.  First the versions of TCR defended by Greg Welty and myself are committed to the Principle of Character Grounding (PCG). This principle says that properties metaphysically ground the character of particulars.  The DDS requires denying that this principle applies to God.  The successful argument for the compatibility of TCR and the DDS will require an explanation of how a simple God can, without exemplifying any properties, possess the sort of “rich” character that traditional theology attributes to God.  Second, as mentioned above, because TCR equates property-universals, which are apparently myriad, with divine concepts, there is a problem of explaining how a simple being can have a multiplicity of concepts.  I first provide a brief overview of a plausible version of TCR, then I address these two issues in turn.  In so doing, I demonstrate that it is possible for a theist with platonic leanings to reconcile her realism about universals, not only with the strong aseity-sovereignty doctrine, but also with the DDS.


Defining Religious Trauma (Draft)

When religion harms people in serious enough ways, we might call it religious trauma.  Such trauma makes particularly salient the so-called pastoral problem of evil.  In this paper I draw on draw on literature on post-traumatic distress and spiritual abuse to argue that we should understand religious trauma as a kind of transformative experience that diminishes the individual’s capacity to engage in religious life, and that this diminished capacity sometimes constitutes an all-things-considered reason for the individual to deconvert, whether or not she maintains the beliefs associated with her former religion.  In the first section I provide an introduction to trauma in a general sense.  In the second I suggest two criteria that trauma must meet to count as religious trauma and then sketch a working definition of it.  In the third section I narrow the scope of discussion to the non-cognitive effects of religious trauma and analyze two case studies relative to those effects.  In the final section I argue that the non-cognitive effects of religious trauma may place worship out of the reach of some survivors of religious trauma, and that this can give them an all-things-considered reason to deconvert.  Even if this last argument fails to persuade the reader, I believe that this paper will successfully demonstrate that religious trauma is a kind of experience that deserves serious philosophical and theological consideration.


Twisted Concepts; Obscured Experiences (Draft)

For most religious practitioners religion serves several important functions, including providing a more thorough understanding and experience of the world in general, and sacred reality in particular.  The tenants and practices of religion are supposed to help practitioners better understand or experience the divine, make sense of their place in the world, and interpret their experience of it. But religious frameworks sometimes fail with respect to these goals.  Rather than illuminating, they can distort the world, the divine, and one’s experience of them both.  When one’s experience is obscured as a result of unfair social structures, feminist philosophers have called it hermeneutical injustice.  While some work has been done within philosophy of religion to demonstrate the psychological and spiritual harm that religious frameworks can enable, less has been said about the epistemic injustices they can perpetuate.  In this paper I identify a form of hermeneutical injustice that arises when experiences are obscured from collective understanding not by a lacuna in the conceptual resources, as others have described, but by the widespread acceptance of normative concepts.  I then argue that this form of hermeneutical injustice is often at play in cases of religious trauma and spiritual violence, either by causing the trauma directly or by creating a hermetical environment in which marginalized people are especially vulnerable to it.


Russian Artist in Plato’s Republic

Гуманистическое наследие просветителей в культуре и образовании: материалы Международной научно-практической конференции (VII Акмуллинские чтения) 7 декабря 2012 года, (Ufa: BGPU, 2013), 574-585.

In Book 10 of the Republic, Plato launches an extensive critique of art, claiming that it can have no legitimate role within the well-ordered state. While his reasons are multifac- eted, Plato’s primary objection to art rests on its status as a mere shadow of a shadow. Such shadows inevitably lead the human mind away from the Good, rather than toward it. How- ever, after voicing his many objections, Plato concedes that if art “has any arguments to show it should have a place in a well-governed city, [he] would gladly welcome it back.” Over two millennia later, the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev implicitly responded to this challenge in his Lectures on Godmanhood (1881). Solov’ev cited the phenomenon of art as additional proof in favor of his model of the metaphysical foundations of reality. According to Solov’ev, art is not three steps removed from ultimate reality; rather, an artist creates true art only when he has experienced a vision of the univer- sal and substantial ideas that stand over and above particular things, and then conveys them to the viewer directly, via the artistic medium. Hence, the artist is able to sidestep the in- termediate shadow and produce something that is more than a shadow—a clear reflection of that higher reality.  If Solov’ev is correct, the artist should enjoy the elevated status of sage, per- haps even philosopher-king, rather than face exile from Plato’s republic, because the artist both knows the Good and guides the less enlightened toward it. After a brief sketch of the metaphysical grounds for Plato’s critique of art, I provide an analysis of Solov’ev’s ontology, as represented in his Lectures on Godmanhood. Next, I describe Solov’ev’s concept of the three-fold mission of art and its relationship to human nature, drawing both from the Lectures and from The Universal Meaning of Art (1890). Finally, in the last section, I demonstrate how the afore-mentioned account comprises Solov’ev’s robust and successful response to Plato’s challenge, from within a platonic framework.


Holenmeric Horcruxes: The Metaphysics of Soul-Splitting (Co-Authored with Julie Swanstrom)

In the universe of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter heptalogy, a soul can be torn into parts, which can then be hidden in objects other than the body.  The resulting thing—the unity of soul and (typically) inanimate object—is called a horcrux.  Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard of all time, creates seven of these horcruxes in pursuit immortality.  In this paper, we argue that the medieval concept of holenmeric existence offers the best metaphysical model for this phenomenon.  In particular, we argue that when it is combined with a hylomorphic account of substance, it can account for the continuity of personal identity and the non-physical nature of the soul splitting, both of which seem initially incompatible with the holenmeric model.


Suffering, Evidence, and the Pastoral Problem of Evil (Draft)

Most reflective Christians are aware of the problem of evil.  Insofar as they remain faithful despite this knowledge, we can assume that they think themselves justified in believing in God in the face of evil.  Nonetheless, it isn’t uncommon for reflective Christians to come to doubt or even reject their faith in the wake of great personal suffering.  Typically philosophers dismiss such responses as springing from emotional obstacles to believing in God and as epistemically unjustified.  In this paper I draw on work in the epistemology of trauma to demonstrate that both points are misguided.  The former conflates what trauma theorists call the shattered self with the shattered worldview and amounts to a form of testimonial injustice. The latter fails to consider that the phenomenal evidence that first-person experiences provide may be enough to tip the scales against whatever explanation of evil they formerly accepted.