March 10, 2022

Moving to James Madison University

On July 1, I’ll be starting a new job as Professor of Philosophy and Academic Unit Head for the Department of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University in Virginia. Trinity College Dublin has been a fantastic place to work, and I will miss the College, Ireland, and my wonderful colleagues. I’m looking forward to working with new colleagues at JMU to bring philosophy and religious studies to a wider range of students, and I am looking forward to leaving the big city for the beautiful Shenandoah Valley....
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Topic(s): My Life
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December 6, 2021

Zagzebski and Cuneo on Religious Communities

In her book Epistemic Authority, Linda Zagzebski defends a view on which epistemic authority (the right to be believed) is very closely analogous to practical authority (the right to be obeyed). According to Zagzebski, both are justified by my conscientious judgment that I am more likely to achieve my goals (including the goal of believing the truth) if I trust the authority than if I go off on my own. In justifying authority within small communities, Zagzebski (pp. 144-148) uses the example of a community dedicated to a particular skill or way of life. I might participate in an orchestra,...
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August 24, 2021

Apophaticism and Religious Pluralism

Many world religions include some tendency toward, or tradition of, apophaticism, the view that the divine (or ultimate, or absolute, the object of our religious devotion) defies description in human language, and we must therefore restrict ourselves to saying what the divine is not. However, most of these religions are also committed to texts or traditions which appear to describe the divine in various positive ways. Puzzles arise when we attempt to combine these traditions of negative (or apophatic) theology and positive (or kataphatic) theology. If we can speak truly of God only by negation, what are we to make...
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April 2, 2021

A Good Friday Reflection

In reading the Good Friday narrative, it is important to see ourselves in the characters, who are not monsters but people like us. I am thinking today of the way the characters are driven by fear. Pilate, Herod, and the temple elites are adversaries who have achieved a kind of uneasy peace. They all see that if that peace is broken, it will be disaster. If there is civil unrest, the army will come, they will all be removed from their positions, and many, many people will die. They see Jesus' questioning of the fragile status quo—and some more drastic...
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March 18, 2021

A Brief Reflection on the History of Apophaticism

Apophaticism is the view that affirmative statements about God cannot be both literal and univocal. 'Literal' is here opposed to 'metaphorical'. (How precisely to spell out that opposition is a rather difficult question that I won't pursue here—I will just assume we have some kind of grasp of the concept of metaphor.) 'Univocal' means that the word has the same meaning when applied to God as in its other uses. So, for instance, to say that 'wise' is used univocally in 'God is wise' would be to say that it has the same meaning in this sentence as in the...
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February 21, 2021

Reflections on the Science Fiction of Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson's science fiction is, in my opinion, not so uniformly excellent as Theodore Sturgeon or Ursula Le Guin. However, he produced some real masterpieces (the 1972 novelette "Goat Song"—a futuristic retelling of the myth of Orpheus, with a computer in the role of the god—being my favorite) and he pioneered several major tropes of the 'space opera' sub-genre, as well as the "Time Police" trope. The majority of his stories are simply fun adventures. One of the most striking and interesting things about Anderson's work for me is the way his image of the future differs from many other...
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February 18, 2021

Cavendish, Hooke, and the Fall of Man

But I perceive Man has a great spleen against self-moving corporeal Nature, although himself is part of her, and the reason is his Ambition; for he would fain be supreme, and above all other Creatures, as more towards a divine nature; he would be a God, if arguments could make him such, at least God-like, as is evident by his fall, which came merely from an ambitious mind of being like God. Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 2nd ed. (1668), ch. 2.7, p. 280 One of Cavendish's key theses is that a human being is merely an ordinary...
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February 17, 2021

Cavendish and Plato on Parts of the Mind

some rational Parts, may in one composed figure, have opposite actions; As for example, the Mind of man may be divided, so as to hate one person, and love another: nay, hate and love one and the same person, for several things, at the same time: as also, rejoice and grieve at the same time. For example; A Man has two Sons, one is kill'd in the Warrs, and the other comes home with victory and honour; the Father grieves for the slain Son, and rejoices for the victorious Son: for, the Mind being material, is dividable as well as...
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February 4, 2021

Berkeley on the Phenomenology of Mathematics

Nor do I think [abstract ideas] are a whit more needfull for enlargment of Knowlege, than for Communication. For tho' it be a point much insisted on in the Schools, that all Knowlege is about Universals, yet I can by no means See the necessity of this Doctrine. It is acknowledg'd that nothing has a fairer title to the Name of Knowlege or Science than Geometry. Now I appeal to any mans thoughts, whether upon the entrance into that Study, the first thing to be done is to try to conceive a Circle that is neither great nor small, nor...
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October 31, 2020

Hume's Polemic against Tillotson (and Friends) in "Of Miracles"

Interpreters of Hume's "Of Miracles" (section 10 of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding) have often been puzzled about the purpose of Part 2 of the essay. It appears to many interpreters that Hume's argument in Part 1, if it works at all, must establish that it is impossible in principle for any testimony to yield rational belief in miracles. (For defense of this interpretation of Part 1, see, e.g., Robert Larmer.) The announced purpose of Part 2, however, is to argue that actually existing testimony of miracles is of poor quality. If Part 1 has established that no matter how...
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July 20, 2020

Almeida on Unrestricted Actualization

Molinism is the view that God has comprehensive knowledge of what free creatures would freely choose in any possible circumstance in which they might exist and be free. These kinds of propositions are called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs). According to the Molinist, God knows these propositions, but cannot choose them. Although they are contingent, they do not depend on God's will. Instead, God exercises providential control by deciding which creatures to create and in which circumstances to place them while knowing what they will freely choose in those circumstances. Theological determinism is the view that every contingent state of...
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April 28, 2020

"The Sacred Law of Fashion": Masham on Religious (Non-)Conformity

The 'occasion' for Damaris Cudworth Masham's 1705 Occasional Thoughts was, she tell us, a discussion among several women about "ladies' conduct books" and, in particular, Francois Aubignac's Les Conseils d'Ariste a Celimene, sur les Moyens de Conserver sa Reputation (Occasional Thoughts, p. 9).* These conduct books were intended to teach young ladies how to behave properly in the society circles in which they would move. This particular book was likely chosen because its very title illustrates the point Masham wants to make about this genre. The book purports to be advice from a man to a young woman on how...
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April 27, 2020

Space Aliens and Skeptical Theism

Early modern philosophers, like 21st century theistic philosophers, often employ a strategy known as 'skeptical theism'. The basic idea is that we can't make empirical arguments against the existence of God because we don't know enough to make any judgment about whether our observations are consistent with the kind of universe God would or would not create. Here's one kind of consideration a skeptical theist can appeal to: there's probably intelligent life on other planets (otherwise, as Carl Sagan famously observed, it'd be an awful lot of wasted space). We have no idea what conditions are like for these beings,...
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March 16, 2020

An Argument that Divine Knowledge Must be Active

Among the basic assumptions of classical philosophical theology are God's aseity and impassibility. The former is God's attribute of being a se (literally, from Godself) in such a way that God is in no way derived from or dependent on anything else. The latter is God's attribute of being incapable of being acted upon (nothing can do anything to God). In humans, when we know something we believe it because its true, and in the typical case this 'because' is at least partly causal. (This raises notorious problems for, e.g., mathematical knowledge, but never mind that.) If, however, God is...
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February 24, 2020

Making (Non)Sense of Apophatic Theology

Recently, I've been trying to sort out the historical context of Berkeley's remarks on the divine attributes—and particularly the doctrine of analogy—in Alciphron 4. As this text shows, early modern philosophers were much more knowledgeable about, and influenced by, medieval philosophy than is often assumed. So I've been reading up on medieval understandings of analogy and apophaticism. Unrelatedly, I've also been reading through Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief. This is a hugely influential book, and I'd read—and even taught—the crucial central portion of the book but (I must admit) this is my first time reading it cover to cover. In part...
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