Some Early Morning Metaphysics

There is a sense in which each thing has an ontological first-person perspective.

It is perspectival in a first-person way because it is the vantage point from her corner of the universe, but it is ontological because it is a matter of her presence, rather than any awareness.

It is a matter of being a center, not of being a center of consciousness. It’s a sort of occupation of logical space or territory, on the one hand, a location as it were, but more so of constituting or forging that space. It is an assertion of oneself, an act.

It is by each thing being itself first and foremost that commonality then emerges for the first time in logical space, and each thing goes on to, or becomes a plurality of all things.

That is, it is by each thing demanding a space for itself; in comprising a point, that the very dimensions by which the dots all connect are then defined.

It is only once each one has taken its position that they can then go on to relate to one another.

The distance and direction of the “lines,” as it were, are defined by the points.

The shape and structure of all things, as a whole, is thus a resounding consensus; the chorus arising from each note, the result of them having each already taken their seat.

That level of each-prior-to-all is thus the first and primary level of each thing’s configuration; the deepest sense of its being anything at all.

The principle of this layer in each thing is thus not yet present to them all as a plurality, but only immediately and irreducibly to each.

It is only by having an established integrity of being oneself that things can go on, logically speaking, to be similar or dissimilar, compared or contrasted.

What enables each thing to be; what thus totalizes them into ‘all’, then, is operative at the level of each, prior to all.

It is the principle of individuation, of metaphysical uniqueness, of ontological first-person perspective.

It is the heart of each-ness and so of the whole of all things.


On Gods and Men

Asclepius, son of Apollo, help me understand. Guide my thoughts, call me to those things you wish for me to see. I acknowledge my biases and ulterior motives, my ignorance, my stupidity. I move my will to counter these dispositions, these structures, as best I can. I look with fresh eyes, cleared from the fog by your gentle light. Give me the words to paint what you show me.

Asklipiós Dóreios, you know that I will follow you anywhere, as I always have, if but only you lead me.

What is it I see?

A distinction; one you often bring to my mind, though as yet without the words I need.

It occurs to me in contexts which concern the difference of scale and focus between Pagan and Monotheist orientation.

I am told true religion ought to be universal, unbroken, and stamped for all to see with divine approval. But, Paganism, I am told, is nothing like this. Its traditions are cultural, not global; extinct, not continuous, and primitive, not reasonable.

So I am told.

I am told that you are not real, Divine Physician. They say you came and went with the people who first spoke your name; like a character whose stories stopped being told. And it is only stories you left behind, Paián. No footprints in the sand, no signatures in the sky.

I am told your stories make of you a man. Mortal in every way, and subordinate to better candidates of divinity.

So I am told.

You should have entered time and space, some will say, and allowed us to see what we long to know: that you are real, that you are here, that we can turn to you.

But in these conditions placed on things for them to be considered real, or concrete, I see what it is they are looking for and calling ‘divine’. An idealized version of ourselves; an ultimate moral agent, whose silhouette is traced by the longings of our deepest desires.

They search the heavens for signs of life; and strain to hear if anything answers to the name they call, blinding themselves to anything outside the tunnel of their vision.

But what order of things do they see us within, Healer? Does the world stop turning whenever we suffer tragedy? Are our lives marked with regular interventions from on high; shielding us from every wickedness and disaster, especially those that would otherwise make it seem our lives are no longer worth living?

Or are we rather left, in some sense, to our own devices; permitted, as it were, to face reality ourselves?

I say to them that we come and go, and the world keeps turning. Nothing spares us from the overwhelming, terrifying, horrors some of us actually face.

I say to them that we are obviously not central figures here, whatever one thinks of Gods. We are but one of innumerable others, scattered across Being and time, hierarchically ordered on a grand, cosmic-scaled ecosystem.

These expectations of you are too small, Kyros; you are so much greater. Whether or not there is an ideal, anthropomorphized version of ourselves out there; all things will still have at least this much in common: that they are each one thing, so that there is something it is to be one thing. They search the heavens for anything to answer the name they call; meanwhile, the One-ness common to all things continues to make each thing count as one.

You are that in each and every single thing which makes it to be one; that in them which is real. You are the whole of all things. All encompassing, ever present.

A God should not be that big, they must say. Such a thing would be too impersonal, and unrelatable…less a God than a mindless force.

But I look not for an idealized version of ourselves, I look for what is. And You are.

You reside in all things by being the one-ness in them whereby they are one thing. All things thus have their unity by being made of you. We are only ‘selves’ because you are our form of Self.

All things subsist in you. You give to each thing its unity: existence to the existing, necessity to the necessary, time to the temporal. And so I touch you everywhere I go, and see you wherever I look. Everything is made of your divine character.

There is nothing more personal.

The distinction returns to my mind: Paganism is about the big picture from a cosmic perspective, and our corresponding position therein. It is grand in each of its foci. But Monotheism is not. It is about us, and about things from our perspective. And so, true religion is defined by it in relation to us.

I say that what it is looking for is not what is true religion, or divine, but what is human.

Does God Exist? Some Post-Debate Thoughts

This Saturday I really stepped out of my shell and went to Houston to see a debate: Justin Shieber vs. Eric Hernandez, on whether God exists (link here).

There were a number of people I told myself I was going to meet, and many to whom I should have at least introduced myself, but, you know, introvert. Still, I ended up having such a fun time, especially getting to hang out with John Buck and Emerson Green!

Moreover, the experience confirmed in my mind that this is the sort of thing I want to do. Like, really. I’m sure of it! And Capturing Christianity did so well at organizing and facilitating the exchange…I can’t even imagine that level of coordination and planning.

The debate itself was something of a statement from Real Atheology: the level of discourse is higher than it has ever been, no doubt in some way because these exchanges keep happening, and it is time get on that level. Older styles and content will no longer do.

We need philosophers rather than apologists (if you know what I mean). We need people who have thought long and hard about these issues; who’ve suffered these questions and longed for their answers. Someone who will reason with us, rather than to us. Someone who is peering out there just as hard as we are, and who will keep us accountable rather than comfortable.

It’s high time for new era of debate; we already know all the plays!

And this brings me to what I saw in Justin: someone who’s cutting through all the bullshit, and just trying to really get at the truth of things. Real recognize real Justin!

In that spirit, I’d like to share some reactions I had, you know, from a polytheist’s perspective. And actually, let’s just stick to one point in particular to maybe illustrate how interesting a dialogue between Naturalism and Polytheism could be.

Justin started his presentation for Naturalism by arguing that Naturalism is simpler than Theism. What does he mean by that? And why does it matter?

Well, it comes down to why we posit things in order to explain stuff. Like, if you and I are trying to understand why something happened, like a car accident, we shouldn’t just…posit all kinds of contributing factors for no reason. I mean, you could speculate that the driver at fault was intoxicated. You could posit that they were texting and driving. You could imagine that they received a deeply distressing message that caused them to drive recklessly to get home faster, and go on to derive a whole elaborate plot. You could hypothesize…anything. But…like…why? Why say any of that happened? Shouldn’t we just stick to what the data shows?

In this vein, Justin suggests that when we try to understand why the universe is the way that it is — and I’m totally summarizing what I think his point is, rather what he actually said — that we shouldn’t just…posit all kinds of stuff for no reason. Sure, we could speculate that the reason the universe is so hostile to life is because there is a creator who wishes to be more of an artist than a…gardener, and we could speculate that the reason the horrifying facts of predation seem written into the nature of life is that there’s this cosmic designer who needed things to be like that in order to create a moral arena for people to develop within…or something like that…we could come up with all kinds of stuff. But…like…why say any of that?

The idea is that we can explain all this stuff without having to posit divine characters, or speculating about divine motivations, or imagining special divine causal abilities, or…you name it. We could just try explaining the world by appealing to…natural stuff…and if we do end up needing to posit something non-natural, then we can. Why not just let the data tell us what to posit?

Naturalism only posits one fundamental type or category of concrete thing: the natural sort. By contrast, Theism says there is also a non-natural way of being concrete. So, the idea goes, Naturalism is the simpler explanation, all things considered. (Obviously, this doesn’t mean it explains things better, just that it appeals to less things in order to do the explaining, which is a plus).

But, is Naturalism simpler?

By ‘Gods’ I mean individuals beyond ontological categories or determination; those who are utterly or maximally unique. Each is like the subject of a proposition qua subject: abstracted from any predicates by which to be described. They are literally indescribable, or ineffable, on account of their pure or sheer individuality. The only terms in which to ‘understand’ them are themselves. So, they would not involve positing a ‘kind’ of thing beyond Nature. Indeed, they’d be Gods precisely because they don’t have any ‘kinds’!

But, more to the point, they wouldn’t involve positing any weird or additional sort of concrete stuff. All ‘things’, insofar as they are ‘things’ are of the metaphysical individuality that Gods would be characterized by the maximal possession or expression of. Concrete and abstract alike, everything has the integrity of being itself, an identity, a unity. Each thing is countable, metaphysically one.

So, on the one hand, I want to say that the difference here between Naturalism and Polytheism is not over how many types of concrete things are being posited. Rather, the difference comes down to the extension of the type of concrete thing that we both agree on: do all concrete things fall into a natural category, as Naturalism asserts, or are there some things that don’t, as Polytheism asserts? I don’t think either view is more complicated than the other for saying yes or no to this: they’re both equal modifications of the pre-philosophical view that Nature exists!

Everybody agrees that natural things are concrete. It’s just, one of us goes on to say only natural things are concrete, while the one of us who is right says that some things aren’t.

On the other hand, this makes me realize that I don’t think Naturalism and Polytheism are trying to explain the same data. Polytheism is looking to explain metaphysical individuality as such, whether in concrete or abstract form. It wants to account for all things. It’s a Theory of Everything were there ever one. But, Naturalism is concerned only to account for concrete metaphysical individuals (by one way of putting it).

If Polytheism and Naturalism are not even trying to explain the same phenomena, then I don’t suppose it matters which is simpler: they’re not even competing, so what does it matter?

So where to go from here?

Well, I’ll leave that up to others!

Obviously, there’s so much more to be said! And this doesn’t even touch on Justin’s other points, especially about suffering, to each of which Polytheism has fascinating implications.

But, you gotta leave something to imagination, right?

Looking forward to attending the next debate!

Return of the Gods: a revamped response to Palmqvist

Carl-Johan Palmqvist’s 2022 ‘The old gods as a live possibility: on the rational feasibility of non-doxastic paganism’ has opened the doors for today’s philosophers of religion to research and consider polytheism—the belief in many Gods or Goddesses. But the start of any conversation will be marked by distinctions, caution and refinement. In that vein, I aim to interact with Palmqvist’s proposal and evaluation of polytheism as well as to submit and consider an alternative theory of polytheism provided by the ancient Platonists. It will be found that the ground is ripe for philosophical work on Palmqvist’s proposal, and that there is an entire polytheist system of thought is available to philosophers of religion.

Every now and then, philosophers will publish the odd argument on polytheism. For example, Harwood explored ‘Polytheism, Pantheism, and the Ontological Argument’ in 1999. Eric Steinhart proposed ordinal polytheism twice between 2012 and 2013, insisting that it merits serious study. 2017 saw Raphael Lataster and Herman Philipse publish ‘The problem of polytheisms: a serious challenge to theism’. And of course, there are the occasional references to polytheism as a position, but which do not have it as their focus – e.g., Swinburne, 145-47; Oppy, 2-4 – or the indirect or implicit treatments of polytheism, such as in arguments for monotheism – e.g., Gel 2021, 2022. Finally, there are perhaps surprising examples of polytheists, such as David Lewis or William James.

But the times may be changing, if Carl-Johan Palmqvist’s 2022 ‘The old gods as a live possibility: on the rational feasibility of non-doxastic paganism’ can be taken as a step in a new direction. He seems to have become one of the first contemporary analytic thinkers to explicitly inquire after the rationality of polytheism in a systematic way. He does so by seeking to approximate an overall evaluation of polytheism as an explanatory competitor with the likes of Perfect Being Theism.

I say that Palmqvist may have taken a step in the direction of treating polytheism like a reasonable worldview option because his evaluations are of the right sort to determine this but come with reservations and assumptions about polytheism that end up threatening to ground the project. In the first section of this paper I hope to call these reservations and assumptions into question and, in so doing, to challenge standard impressions of polytheism, thereby inviting philosophers to join this conversation and reconsider polytheism with the same charity and ingenuity they afford respectable positions.

We will begin by looking at an apparent asymmetry between polytheism and theism that perhaps explains why today’s philosophers tend to be dismissive of polytheism. This asymmetry is one of the major assumptions taken for granted in Palmqvist (2022), and it is hoped that by bringing it under scrutiny, any other proposed inequalities between polytheism and theism will not go unchallenged and thinkers will be encouraged to treat polytheism more creatively and critically. We will then move on in the second section to consider Palmqvist’s appraisal of polytheism and find that polytheism has been underestimated in relation to three data points: propositional simplicity, cosmic teleology and evil.

As we interact with Palmqvist’s formulation of polytheism, we will compare and contrast it with an alternative theory of polytheism; one proposed by the polytheism of the ancient Platonists. This system comprises a radical and sophisticated articulation of polytheism that could be of great interest not only to philosophers of religion in general but the participants of this discussion in particular. It is hoped that by raising awareness of such informed polytheist worldviews that philosophers will be intrigued to engage polytheism once again. It is, after all, one of the most ancient and widespread religious orientations on the planet.


Palmqvist prefaces his appraisal of what he calls pagan polytheism by saying that “the rationality of all religion is standardly questioned in the contemporary West,” (1) and this is certainly true. It is also true of a deference to reason that it permits and indeed encourages all positions on religious propositions to be subjected to reason. In this spirit, let us consider Palmqvist’s arguments carefully and perhaps advance this discussion by questioning various assumptions they take for granted.

The most important of these assumptions for our purposes is that pagan polytheism does not appear rational. This impression might change if the position is modified to conform to some Western model or standard, but without any modifications, it just does not look reasonable. As Palmqvist (ibid.) puts it, “being a pagan seems more questionable than being, for example, a Christian or a Muslim.” Pagans reading a statement like that may want to know why. But he does not say. Instead, he identifies some of the beliefs that strike him as incredulous: “outright belief that the Aesir gods literally exist, that there are extra-mundane realms like Valhalla, that one can work magic with runes, etc.” Polytheism, for Palmqvist, seems hard to believe; so much so, apparently, that this impression is taken as normative. Indeed, were polytheism not of such an appearance, there would be little reason to ask whether it is “possible” for it to stay “true to the demands of epistemic rationality.” Consider asking this question of any other view whose rationality is unquestioned.

But should the prima facie rationality of polytheism seem unclear or even lacking? Palmqvist tells us that paganism “has received little attention from philosophers,” and that “there is considerable disagreement over the term ‘paganism’,” (2). However, if ‘paganism’ is so ill-defined, and has not yet been considered carefully by the philosophical community, then is it not hasty to take a dismissive attitude toward it as having been established, or at least as being secure enough to require no motivation? Alternatively, it may be thought the reason why it has received so little attention is because it has rightfully been dismissed. However, if there was never substantive engagement, one may wonder in what sense its dismissal can be ‘rightful’.

To illustrate why it is problematic to propose such an attitude without argument, consider first the examples of pagan beliefs that Palmqvist identified above as incredulous. Now imagine that he had instead listed either of the following beliefs as prima facie dubious:

  • “outright belief that the Judeo-Christian god literally exists, that there are extra-mundane realms like Heaven, that one can facilitate the transubstantiation of bread into Jesus’ body by reciting a formula, etc.”
  • “outright belief that Nature is the sort of thing that could be explanatorily ultimate, that personal being could arise out of pure, mindless matter, that life has meaning in a meaningless universe, etc.”

For some unobvious reason, these latter lists of beliefs (or any preferred version which meets the intent) are presumably more palatable than the polytheist list. But why is this not a clear instance of special pleading or a double standard? It is as if monotheism and atheism suddenly become absolved of having mysterious or problematic implications, or as if their difficulties are reflexively thought to pale in comparison to those of polytheism’s. Perhaps it is thought that there are sophisticated explanations available to established forms of Western non-theism and theism, but that none are known to be available to polytheism. Palmqvist’s above usage of phrases like ‘literally exist’ seems to support this interpretation. It indicates that there is something unbelievable on the surface about such things as Aesir Gods: surely, they could not really be as they are literally depicted.

But is it part of pagan polytheism to take depictions of pagan deities and afterlives as normatively literal? Palmqvist assumes that outright belief in paganism involves something like mythic literalism: things are or would be as a literal interpretation of their mythic depictions portray them to be. Whatever a deity or an after-life are mythically depicted like, that is how they are or would literally be, if they were at all. But where does this restriction come from, and why is it not applied to, say, Christianity, Judaism or Islam? Indeed, is it not strange to read mythic literature like it is historiography? Moreover, if monotheists are permitted to interpret their respective sacred texts in non-literal ways, especially when the literary genre is explicitly mythical or otherwise non-literal, why would polytheists be forbidden from doing so? This problem only intensifies when it is realized that pagan thinkers have long discussed the hermeneutics of myth. (See Sallustius (2013), Olympiodorus (1998), and Butler (2005)b). Finally, it may be wondered whether and if so why it is assumed that texts carry as much weight for pagans as they do for, say, Christians.

Unfortunately, glaring examples of special pleading continue. For example, Palmqvist goes on to ask, “If Zeus literally exists, how come only the ancient Greeks knew about him, and what has Zeus been doing since the Greeks converted to Christianity?” (6). But by this logic we can equally well ask what was YHWH doing before the Hebraic peoples, or before the Greeks converted to Christianity? What about Allah? And what have either been doing since the rise of secularism? That such readily available parodies do not even occur is perhaps an indication of how uncritically today’s evaluation of polytheism has been accepted.

As another illustration of why it is problematic to dismiss paganism, consider beliefs proposed by different religions. Is a plurality of divine persons somehow more palatable than a plurality of Gods? Are Trinitarian analyses more sophisticated than Polycentric analyses? Is it that reincarnation is bizarre, but resurrection is not? Is it that religious rituals are only respectable when conducted in a monotheist framework, no matter what miraculous or extraordinary events they purport to involve, so long as they are not called “magic?” Whatever the specifics turn out to be, it is imperative that no bias goes unquestioned, especially if that bias embodies any form of imperialism. For example, suppose, as it may have struck the reader, that the idea is something like that religious traditions and practices which do not conform to Western norms are primitive, unsophisticated or in need of refinement. Given how the implementation of this idea could involve such things as erasure, appropriation and confirmation bias, it is important to hold its acceptance to a very high standard.

The history of philosophy has taught us that getting to the bottom of things and coming to understand how they truly work is as difficult as it is complex, and that such a task is informed at the deepest level by philosophical assumptions whose rationality is only ever just an unforeseen insight away. In other words, the cautionary tale here is that the capacity of a set of philosophical assumptions to cohere on their own or fairly appear realistic to sophisticated minds is something that is best evaluated after careful study. Has polytheism not been afforded this opportunity?

Without a presumption against paganism around to contextualize the discussion, the issue is no longer whether one of the oldest and most widespread religious positions in the world awaits the verdict of some of today’s Western thinkers – a role I doubt many would even presume to have. Instead, Western thinkers are free to treat pagan positions with the same care and depth that they treat non-pagan religious positions, which treatments have and continue to yield flourishing discussions. In fact, given how far paganism sometimes lies outside the reigning paradigms of today’s philosophy of religion, it can be of great interest to Western philosophers to study, as it can be a source of novelty, creativity, and renewal on otherwise well-trodden paths.

To take stock so far, we have highlighted some of the assumptions that may influence thinkers to be more dismissive of paganism than they would otherwise be. Chief among these assumptions is that paganism is to be understood in such a way that it is prima facie unreasonable, such as by committing it to mythic literalism. By questioning why this assumption is held, why it is advanced without reason, and why it cannot be overcome by the same well-known mechanisms that monotheists use to address similar accusations, I hope it is at least no longer obvious to the reader that paganism is unreasonable in some prima facie way that monotheist faiths are not. Palmqvist himself advocates for abandoning mythic literalism: “I suggest that rather than taking these pantheons literally, we should understand them as culturally specific ways to apprehend and relate to the same gods,” (6).

But practicing polytheists may be confused why this is being suggested, since it implies that mythic literalism is a problem of enough significance to need solving. To illustrate this by analogy, imagine that a pagan author published a paper in which it was discussed how irrational Judaism seems because its mythic depictions of YWHW seem literal; but, she goes on to suggest, there is a solution: we simply need not take Jewish myths so literally.

As a final note before moving on, while I have thus far responded to unfavorable biases against polytheism by drawing parity between polytheism and monotheism, I should clarify that polytheists are not limited to the explanatory mechanisms available to monotheists—such as allegorizing stories. There are unique theoretical ideas, such as from the Platonic proposal I will outline in short, that available to the polytheist and which preclude such issues from ever arising. That is, as I shall allude in the next section, polytheism does not end up in the same places that monotheism does, and when it does, it has unique solutions. If it is the reader’s impression that polytheism is just another variety of theism like monotheism, I hope to challenge that that by the end of this paper. The truth-value of polytheism is not a matter of niche interest, overshadowed by the importance of theism as such, so that while it may get acknowledged as a live alternative to monotheism, the difference between the two is thought to be little more than a technical disagreement about math: it is a disagreement about so much more than just how many Gods there are. Or so I hope to suggest as we move along.

The presumption against paganism seems advanced without argument and upon blatantly fallacious pretenses. Unless there is some forthcoming reason to think there is an asymmetry in rational appearance between polytheism and theism, or indeed monotheism, it should not be assumed that there is one. Or, at least, that assumption on one’s part should not be taken as normative for others. After questioning the integrity of this presumption here in light of what else is accepted in today’s religious landscape and finding no initial or obvious reason to endorse it, we shall set it aside and consider the merits of the rest of Palmqvist’s paper without its support. Keeping these things in mind, let us consider Palmqvist’s evaluation of polytheism as a live possibility for explaining things.

We shall engage with two types of arguments in Palmqvist’s paper. The first type concerns the internal integrity of polytheism itself. For this type, we need to get clear on what Palmqvist means by polytheism. It is in that section that we shall consider the Platonic alternative. The second type of argument will concern Palmqvist’s evidential evaluation of polytheism. For this type, we need to first think carefully about polytheism’s capacity to account for the relevant data, and second, what notion of divinity paganism is beholden to.


Palmqvist describes a god as “a powerful non-human agent with the ability to influence our world in significant ways,” (4). He then suggests that polytheism affirms a plurality of gods, which he calls a ‘pantheon’. A pantheon, he says, is “an organized collective of gods in control of our world, where individual gods are associated with and in some sense control specific aspects of it,” (5). Finally, he distinguishes between general and specific polytheism. The former asserts merely that a pantheon exists, the latter which specific pantheon exists. His goal in the paper is to raise the question of whether it can be rational to give some weaker epistemic attitude to general polytheism than belief.

For clarity, then, Palmqvist proposes the following as the polytheist hypothesis:

POLYTHEISM: There is an organized collective of gods, or powerful non-human agent with the ability to influence our world in significant ways, who are in control of our world, where individual gods are associated with and in some sense control specific aspects of it.

Some interesting features of this proposal include the notion of ‘organization’ and ‘control’. We might wonder why it is important to there being many Gods that they should be organized, and in what sense they should be so. Moreover, what is it for them to “control our world?” Is this control a general sort of governance of major events, or is it a more radical one-to-one causal relation of every event? How important is it to there being many Gods that they should be in control of our world?

So stated the polytheist hypothesis can be interpreted in different ways enabling it to capture strains of polytheist thought. However, inasmuch as it limits or reduces Gods in such ways as having only local domains or influence, it could oppose the conception of polytheism developed by the ancient Platonists, maturing in late antiquity through thinkers such as Syrianus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius and Olympiodorus. It is far outside the scope of this paper to develop this view, especially since it has received extensive treatments elsewhere, and so the interested reader is referred to Butler (2003, 2005a, 2008, 2016, etc.), as well as a more analytic adaptation by Dillon (2022).

However, given the understudied nature of polytheism, and so the likely unfamiliarity with this view, it is wise to outline in briefest form some of the important assumptions behind this view. For all that, much will need to be taken for granted, and so we shall attempt to be as prudent in our selectivity as we can. Following Butler (2003, 53-60), we may call this view polycentric polytheism.

Premised on the idea that each God is an ultimate individual, or the first principle of all things—what Platonists called ‘the One’, or ‘One-ness’, “each of the Gods is nothing other than the One as participated,” (Proclus, in Parm. 6.1069. 5-6)—the Platonists did not think of a God’s localization as being due to any limitation or finitude on her part; but, if anything, as a testament to the depth and extension of her causality or presence. Theirs is a constitutive model of the first principle, on which each God is able to principiate all things, not by contradictorily standing outside this exhaustive set as its cause, by being it. As Proclus said, “each of the gods is the universe in his own different way,” (in Tim. 2.38.4-5). That is, a God is able to individuate all things by being that by participation in which each thing has its identity, or is the one, countable, individuated thing that it is. A God’s character functions as a sort of ‘form’ of Self for each self.

Polycentricity describes how a plurality of Gods would need to be structured. Unlike the monocentric plurality of non-divine or natural things, wherein the unity of a group is mediated through or based on some property or feature the members all have in common, a plurality of Gods could not be unified by or grounded in anything outside of it. Otherwise, something would be more fundamental than the Gods, thus individuating them and it would be divine rather than they. As such, Gods require a different structure and logic, one in which each God has equal claim to being what unifies the members into a plurality. In other words, each God must be a unique way of being all the others. The center of this plurality, then, will not be one (mono) thing, but any or each of them (poly).

This alternate view of the Gods may be captured as follows:

POLYTHEISM*: There are many Gods, or ultimate individuals, each of whom functions as a unique way for all things to be one.

To keep these views distinct, we shall call Palmqvist’s proposal ‘P1’ and the Platonic conception ‘P2’.

The internal integrity of polytheism

With this extremely abbreviated outline, let us consider a problem Palmqvist raises for the internal integrity of polytheism: the intra-polytheist problem of religious diversity. Palmqvist asserts that polytheists need to “handle” the existence of other pantheons in other cultures. “If the gods are real,” he asks, “how come other cultures worship other gods?” (5). Immediately, one might wonder by the same logic how come cultures worship different Gods if there is really only one? Indeed, if there are exactly three persons in one God, it should be equally puzzling why cultures do not reflect an awareness of this at all. But despite this apparent symmetry, the problem is described as a ‘polytheist’ problem. Palmqvist reasons that there are two ways to handle this problem: either say there is only one pantheon or say there are many. This latter view is called the ‘ecumenical solution’, and in response, he asks us first to account for why the worship of a pantheon rises and falls with culture, and second, how Gods can personify the same forces of nature and still be distinct. Let us consider each in turn.

The tides of worship

It is initially unclear how we have arrived at this question from P1. Indeed, if Gods are by definition “associated with and in some sense control specific aspects” of the world, it seems we should expect localization. So, to be clear, Palmqvist is no longer thinking of polytheism in the general terms of P1 but wants to consider whether specific pantheons can exist simultaneously. The concern is thus how multiple specific pantheons can exist if the worship of specific gods comes and goes with cultures. P1 thus seems to have no explanatory relevance over this datum. The specific sort of localization involved here would not be predicted through philosophy for the Platonists but would be a revelation or manifestation of God. Still, P2 predicts general localization of which this is an instance in that all things on every level of specificity are participations of Gods.

Suppose a more appropriately specified version of P1 though. It seems that, for Palmqvist, a correlation between the rise and fall of worship with the rise and fall of a culture is relevant to whether multiple pantheons exist. But a more obvious question is whether such a correlation indicates anything about a God’s presence or character. Consider by analogy that it is not the existence of people that becomes unclear when their relationships come and go, but other things such as their presence or character. Nevertheless, let us consider the question of existence.

As a soft ball, suppose the idea is that if specific Gods exist, then they will be worshipped at all times by someone or other. This is of course bad news for monotheism. But why is it the mere existence of a god that should lead us to expect her to manifest or be worshipped, let alone for a specific amount of time, rather than, say, her character? Moreover, if her mere existence should do so, then for what amount of time? And is the amount of time she has manifested so far, a representative sample of the amount of time she will be manifested in total? It does not seem such information will be forthcoming from the mere fact of existence.

 More seriously, perhaps the idea is instead that if our awareness of a specific God comes through a culture, then we need to evaluate the reliability of that source: did the culture invent the deity, or discover her? Furthermore, if the deity were invented, we would expect that no one else be aware of her except through her originating culture. So, it might be thought that if awareness and worship of a deity correlate with a culture, then she is likely invented. But without any consideration of alternative explanations, this would be to commit the prosecutor’s fallacy: if some hypothesis h is unlikely given evidence e, then e is unlikely given h. In this case, if cultural correlation is unlikely given a deity, then that deity is unlikely given cultural correlation. The fallacy assumes a sort of biconditionality between P(h|e) and P(e|h). What is missing is a consideration of ~h, its relation to e and a comparison of the two hypotheses’ performances.

Alternatives for P1 can begin to appear by asking how do we know that a deity disappears, so to speak, once its worship in a culture ceases? Could it not change name, face, or cosmic significance? Do later religious experiences of that deity counterbalance dissolution of its culture? Indeed, if later religious experiences occur or are possible, then could not that deity’s worship return? Perhaps the originating culture was appropriately disposed to catch sight of that deity, like how certain advances in technology have given us windows into aspects of nature that have always been there? And aside from these and many other such questions, there is the problem of analogy: we think that people cease to be loved when their loving relationships end, not that they cease to exist.

As may be gathered from this section, there is much room for speculation, and the ground is ripe for work. What P1 needs is theory of polytheism. By contrast, P2 makes sense of the ‘ecumenical solution’ and leads us to expect general localization.

Causal overdetermination

In the next concern for the internal integrity of polytheism, Palmqvist asserts that Gods personify natural forces, and wonders whether multiple personifications overdetermine natural forces. But this thesis conceals at least two unmotivated assumptions: first, that Gods personify natural forces, and second that for a God to personify a natural force is for her to be responsible for every instance or occurrence of that force. As to the first assumption, the personification thesis does not seem to follow from P1, and Palmqvist does not explain why he asserts it. However, suppose for the moment that Gods do so personify. Then, as to the second assumption, we may ask why think of each God as personifying each instance or occurrence of the relevant natural phenomena rather than just the phenomena in general? Would this generality not be more amenable to a generalized polytheism? Moreover, doing so allows that there are ‘types’ of Gods. Membership in such a set as ‘Gods of thunder’ could then be indicative of a common species or subspecies. It need not in this case be that each God has sole and complete control over a single force of nature, such that the effect becomes causally overdetermined.

By contrast, P2 reverses this picture: Gods do not personify natural forces, natural forces symbolize Gods. Moreover, because it is presumed that there are irreducibly distinct ways for ones to be ‘one’, each God is able to have equal claim to causing or individuating all things without risk of causal overdetermination: there is, say, the Poseidonic way of being one, the Odinic way, and so on and so forth. It seems, then, not only that P2 coheres with the data of different Gods being associated with the same natural phenomena but leads us to expect overlap.

Having clarified Palmqvist’s understanding of polytheism, as well as having considered various concerns about the internal integrity of polytheism and ways for there to be many Gods over the same natural force, we can now move on to look at his second type of argument: an overall evidential evaluation of polytheism.

An Evidential Evaluation of Polytheism

Palmqvist acknowledges that it is “a huge endeavour” to assess the probability of polytheism since this assessment will be “in relation to all available evidence,” (4). So, to emphasize, he is offering us an initial approximation by briefly comparing polytheism’s explanatory performance to that of Perfect Being Theism. As such, we should think collaboratively about the project, and seek solutions to whatever problems that may be discovered. Palmqvist considers polytheism in relation to three data points: theoretical simplicity, teleology and evil. He ends with a discussion about an immanent view of divinity advocated for by pagans.


Palmqvist seems to reason rather summarily that cosmic teleology supports polytheism just as much as Perfect Being Theism. I suspect many will at least seek verification of this. The issue, it seems, is that how well polytheism predicts the data is a matter of how it is articulated. P1 does not provide any information about the relevant God’s characters or motivations. It may turn out that the relevant data is compatible with P1, but to rival Perfect Being Theism (from now on ‘PBT’) in predicting the data, P1 would need reformulation or auxiliary hypotheses. Interestingly, it seems taken for granted that polytheism is not a mere difference in quantity from monotheism, but in quality. Otherwise, P1 would be compatible, at least in principle, with PBT—differing not in the perfection of beings posited, but the number of perfect beings.

However, grant that P1 is at least uncommitted to the quality of beings it posits. Would it be more predictive with an evenly distributed moral quality, such as if each God in the pantheon is attributed ‘benevolence’, or instead mixed moral distribution, where some deities are benevolent, and others are not? Articulating a general polytheism which rivals PBT in likelihood and or in prior probability is a monumental task. However, I mention it by way of inviting thinkers to contribute to this discussion.

Propositional content aside, Palmqvist (8) informs us in line with Swinburne’s remarks that polytheism is structurally more complex than PBT, but that there are other theoretical virtues to consider when appraising explanatory competitors. But is polytheism more structurally complex than PBT? Superficially, one entity is numerically less than many entities. But, for starters, ‘one’ is also oddly specific. It seems simpler to posit an indefinite amount, unencumbered by risks of specificity.

Swinburne (55) shares some relevant thoughts on this matter. He says that while “hypotheses attributing infinite values of properties to objects are simpler than ones attributing large finite values” … “the preference for the infinite over the large finite applies only to degrees of properties and not to numbers of independent entities.” Granted, he is speaking here of ‘large finite’ amounts rather than small finite amounts such as ‘one’, but his logic seems to apply in both cases: “A finite limitation cries out for an explanation of why there is just that particular limit, in a way that limitlessness does not,” (97).

If there is a reason to posit a specific number of something, then that stipulation will have a justification. The reason offered here is that ‘one’ is the least amount needed to explain our data. But the assumption behind this is that there must be some definite number posited. In that case, we may as well posit only the amount required. Anything more is superfluous, and risky – each new positum is another way we could be wrong. But what if Gods were the sort of things that did not have a determinate upper limit?

For example, in outlining P2, Dillon (38) offers something like the following modus ponens:

  1. If Deity precedes Number, then the amount of Gods is indefinite.
  2. Deity precedes Number.
  3. Therefore, the amount of Gods is indefinite.

Recall that on P2, each God is a unique way of being that in virtue of which any given thing whatsoever is individuated as the one numerically distinct thing that it is. On this view, each God logically precedes everything else, even number which too must derive its identity as ‘number’ from the One. But, if each God precedes number, then it is not any specific number that determines how many Gods there are. As such, on accounts like P2, there is no definite upper limit of Gods, (cf. Syrianus, in Metaph. 914b3-6). But then, in regard to our earlier simplicity considerations, it follows that there is no minimal number of Gods for us to posit. P1 faces simplicity considerations that P2 does not.


On the supposition that Gods have limited powers and different moral dispositions, Palmqvist reasons that polytheism explains the data of evil fairly well. Unlike PBT, polytheism does not leave us with as much puzzlement about why the Gods do not intervene to prevent evil: some cannot, others will not; and those who wish to may be prevented from doing so. It is not clearon P1 that we should expect Gods to be preventing the evil we see, at least, not as clear as it is on PBT. This may be an avenue worth pursuing for the problem of evil experts. The ambiguity such a polytheist model as P1 introduces actually serves to alleviate puzzlement. And this is an important consideration when comparing the explanatory performance of polytheism to other models such as PBT. By contrast, P2 affords something of a paradigm shift in the discussion.

The problems of evil have long centered around why a deity would allow evil, as if (i) Gods are morally responsible entities, and (ii) evil is contingent. But, according to ancient Platonism, contrary to (i) reality is not created by the Gods, it emanates from them (cf. Proclus, in Parm. 1167, 16-18; 1168, 1-5), (ii) evil is an inevitable consequence of materiality, (e.g., Theaet. 176A5-8). The details of these positions and reasons behind them need not delay the discussion. What is important to know is that there is a polytheist model on which not only Gods are too ultimate to be faced with ‘decisions’, but on which evil arises as an inevitable feature of the material world. The phenomenon of evil will then post questions for P1 that simply will not arise for P2.


Palmqvist argues that polytheism has traditionally been beholden to an immanent view of divinity. The problem with this view, Palmqvist reasons, is that it made the Gods too present in nature. But we have in modern times discovered that the world is instead disenchanting. The world is not full of Gods, it is full of matter in motion, and we see this now. This perspective will require P1 to clarify the nature of the Gods so as to give an account of the sense in which they are visible—whether bodily, or by inference from effect, etc. But the immanent view of divinity that comes with polytheism need not be understood in such simple materialist terms. As the Platonist view sketched above may indicate, for example, the Gods are radically immanent precisely because they are utterly transcendent. That is to say, it is by principiating all things that each God is most intrinsically to be thought of as constitutive rather than as causal, as so as being even more radically present to all things than causal models of the first principle are able to allow for.


Palmqvist argues that P1 is a live possibility for rational non-doxastic attitudes in light of a first glance at its explanatory performance in comparison to PBT. I hope other thinkers continue that discussion and delve not only deeper into the specific subjects he raises, but into other areas that can illuminate the discussion as well. I hope also that other models of polytheism are considered, especially those which have already received such sustained criticism as a centuries old school of thought like Platonism. As my scattered remarks may indicate, the Platonist model has novel responses to issues raised in the philosophy of religion and for polytheism. From this brief consideration, it may be inferred that if P1 is a live possibility, then so is P2.

In conclusion, I hope that if nothing else I have made the point that there is an unwarranted bias against polytheism which hampers the philosophy of religion. The bias is that polytheism is to be articulated in uncharitable and implausible ways. This is unwarranted because there is no obvious reason to do this. In fact, treating polytheism in this way involves committing elementary errors in reasoning, such as addressing strawmen and dismissing propositions through double standards. This bias hampers the philosophy of religion first by preventing philosophers from investigating reality with the full force of critical and creative thought they would otherwise exert, as an entire worldview in all its implications is merely dismissed; and second, because of this, by conditioning nearly all their projects and investigations on the unjustified assumption that it was right to dismiss polytheism in the first place. Thus, for example, we see arguments from religious experience being rejected because of religious diversity, when polytheist accounts of religious experience predict religious diversity. Time will tell what the philosophers of religion do, but the door is officially opened.



  • (2003). The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus. New School for Social Research, New York City.
  • (2005)a. Polytheism and Individuality in the Henadic Manifold. Dionysius, 23.83-104.
  • (2005)b. ‘The theological interpretation of myth’. The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, 27-41.
  • (2008). The Gods and Being in Proclus. Dionysius, 26.93-114.
  • (2016). Plotinian Henadology. Kronos Philosophical Journal. V.143-159

DILLON, STEVEN. Polytheism: A Platonic Approach. Moon Books, 2022.

GEL, E. (2022). ‘There can be only one’: A response to Joseph C. Schmid. Religious Studies, 1-16. doi:10.1017/S0034412522000713

HARWOOD, R. (1999). Polytheism, pantheism, and the ontological argument. Religious Studies, 35 (4):477-491.

LATASTER, RAPHAEL & PHILIPSE, HERMAN (2017). The problem of polytheisms: a serious challenge to theism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 81 (3):233-246.

NOCK, ARTHUR D. Sallustius: Concerning the Gods and the Universe (English and Ancient Greek Edition). Cambridge University Press, 2013.

OPPY, GRAHAM ROBERT. Describing Gods: An Investigation of Divine Attributes. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

PALMQVIST, C. (2022). The old gods as a live possibility: On the rational feasibility of non-doxastic paganism. Religious Studies, 1-14

PLATO, and ROWE, CHRISTOPHER. Theaetetus and Sophist. Cambridge University Press. 2016.


  • Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. Princeton University Press, 2017.
  • Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. II. Cambridge University Press, 2008.


  • (2012). On the number of gods. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 72 (2):75-83.
  • (2013). On the plurality of gods. Religious Studies 49 (3):289-312.

SWINBURNE, RICHARD. The Existence of God. Clarendon Press, 2014.

SYRIANUS. Syriani in Metaphysica Commentaria. Edited by Guilelmus Kroll. G. Reimer, 1902.

Existential Paganism

I recently experienced what philosopher and author Brendan Myers might call an Immensity; a shocking, overwhelming encounter with an event that’s completely beyond my ability to control or understand, with all the resulting sensations of despair, powerlessness, helplessness, humility and silence. I feel as if I’ve been shaken from an unreflective life, and my attention commanded and directed toward the profound metaphysical and moral properties of the human experience. For now, I feel the rich, harrowing textures of mortality, meaning and purpose brushing against me.

It makes me realize in a deeply existential way that I am on a journey, the same as you. And that we’ve been on it for…a very long time. You don’t remember it; and you won’t remember even having this conversation the next time around. But the journey is the whole point, and so it’s okay, this is how things are supposed to be.

I’ve seen some amazing things this time around, philosophically, and I’d like to share some of those with you. I hope you can take them in some way with you for your journey too.

Like you, I’m sure, some features of the world have stood out to me as more interesting or important than others in my reflections on the big questions of life. They strike me as uniquely captivating and informative, and so disproportionately shape my impression of what exists and how things work.

I’m not sure if you’ve seen this one yet, but have you considered the fact that we are even in the situation of having to figure things out in the first place? How strange that there should be facts of the matter about the big questions of life, but that they should not be apparent or even imagined.. Why should there be such profoundly relevant and personal facts at all unless they are meant to be known, or, at least, sought after? It’d be like moral duties really existing, but us having no way to even know that there is any such thing. What an absurd reality it would be if ontology were so aloof from epistemology.

This data point tells me that either we are meant to look, or we aren’t meant to be.

Since it seems there are facts of the matter about the big questions of life, I believe we are meant to look.

But that leads me in the next place to be gripped by the actual details of the world we are in: while we can scarcely comprehend it, ours is a world of immeasurable pain and suffering. Not only is it Nature’s design that some animals should survive only by feasting on the bodies of others, for example, but the eras of our species have been plagued by famine, disease, war, starvation, hatred, loss and grief. Our happiness is so delicate. Even the most meaningful, important people in our lives can be taken in a moment’s notice, and for no reason whatsoever, say, if a sheer, mindless accident occurs. Ours is a realm of incalculable horrors, rippling trauma across entire generations.

This data point tells me that things in this realm of being are, in some incredible way, left to their own devices.

I don’t mean that Gods or higher beings are absent from us (quite the opposite), but rather that part of what it is to be here is to be the principle actors of embodied life. We are the stars of the show, so to speak. How sobering.

My paganism continues to become more and more existential. It’s got soul, you might say.

I wonder what it will look like in 10 years?

A Polytheist Response to Gel

I originally composed a longer paper version of this post and intended to submit it for publication, but I do not think that is a fruitful use of my time any longer—I honestly don’t think it will be until I get letters next to my name. And I will! Eventually. Until then, I’ll fight the good fight through the means I have, such as this site. Enjoy this condensed version, then, of my response to Eric Gel’s argument for monotheism:


The notion of someone believing there are many things which are pure esse is surely unheard of, but not difficult to imagine. It is unheard of because the philosophical tradition which developed and utilizes concepts like ‘pure esse’ is historically and overwhelmingly committed to monotheism—the view, here, that there is exactly one thing which is pure esse. But imagine someone who takes himself to have had veridical religious experiences of different deities. Or suppose he accepts the testimony of others who have reported having had such encounters—and there is surely no shortage of such reports. However, in trying to understand the metaphysical nature of these deities or the role they play in the world, this individual becomes convinced of a more classical metaphysics. In fact, he becomes a classical theist. As such, he describes each God as being pure esse.

Call this person ‘Thomas’—clearly of no relation to Aquinas. What happens when Thomas is confronted with the arguments for monotheism in the tradition of metaphysics he has come to believe in? Consider one such recent articulation organized by Joseph Schmid (68), but originally given by Eric Gel (2021):

  1. For there to be more than one thing that is pure esse, there would have to be some feature(s) that differentiate(s) each from the other(s).
  2. But nothing that is pure esse could have such differentiating features.
  3. So, there cannot be more than one thing that is pure esse. (1, 2)
  4. But whatever is purely actual is pure esse.
  5. So, there cannot be more than one purely actual thing. (3, 4)

The argument seems straightforwardly valid, and we can suppose for argument’s sake that all its premises are true. The question I want to ask is whether Thomas is or ought to be committed to all of the premises. That is, I want to know whether this is a dialectically successful argument, or one that should persuade someone who does not already endorse the conclusion to do so. Before considering each premise in turn, some criteria for dialectical success.

Dialectical success for a deductive argument, to put it bluntly, is a matter of reasoning validly from an interlocutor’s beliefs or commitments. The use of arguments here is thus not merely a tool for justifying one’s belief in the conclusion, but for persuading someone to change their mind about the conclusion. In order to do that, we present propositions for which they have some positive epistemic attitude toward (credence, certitude, belief, acceptance, commitment, etc.) and show that the conclusion follows from them. Logic, then, compels them to either change their mind about the conclusion, or about one or more of the premises. But if the interlocutor does not have any epistemic regard for one of the premises, then it is not her commitments the argument reasons from, but someone else’s, and the argument provides her with no reason to change her mind.

Minimally, then, we might say that a deductive argument is dialectically successful if (i) it is valid and (ii) its premises do not beg the question. There may be other conditions a deductive argument must meet to be “good” or “sound.” For example, the premises should also be true, and the argument should not be subject to parody. But our discussion need not consider these and will focus primarily on conditions (i) and (ii). With the relevant criteria in mind, then, let us consider each premise in turn.

  1. For there to be more than one thing that is pure esse, there would have to be some feature(s) that differentiate(s) each from the other(s).

We can imagine without much difficulty that Thomas believes that in order for there to be two or more things, they must in some way differ from one another. In fact, this is borderline if not outright tautologous: if x and y are not identical then x and y are different. So let this concession be a matter of basic charity. But notice that this conceded proposition is not the same as premise (1), and that it is not so in very important respects. Premise (1) does not say merely that two or more things which are pure esse would have to differ from one another, but that they would have to differ from one another by ‘features’.

This addition might strike one as an odd one to make to Thomas, committed to a more classical approach to metaphysics and divinity as he is. For, as Gel says (2021, 3) “there is nothing outside pure being that could act, with respect to it, as a differentiating factor…” Why then should Thomas turn around and believe now that there would need to be such a factor for something that is pure being? If such a thing does not need external differentiating factors in order to be individuated in the first place when there is only one, why does it need such factors for it to be individuated when there are many?

But perhaps Thomas is not being asked to believe in a differentiating factor that is “outside” the pure esse. After all, premise (1) merely says that multiple pure esses would need some differentiating feature or other. In fact, in light of Gel’s remark that external differentiating features are off the table, it seems we must interpret premise (1) to mean that their non-identicality would have to involve internal differentiating features. The question then becomes what could this mean? If such features acted on the pure esse as if they were “outside” of it; or indeed distinct from it, they would not have distinguished themselves from the external features we have just ruled out. So, it seems, these internal features must just be the pure esse itself. This is in keeping with doctrines of divine simplicity so well known to be part of the classical theist project as well.

But then the proposal in premise (1) becomes that if there are multiple pure esses, they would have to be non-identical. That is to say, if x and y are not identical then x and y are different. So perhaps Thomas is or should be committed to premise (1) after all—so long as it is interpreted in light of other classical commitments, such as divine simplicity. Premise (1) then becomes something like this:

(1)*: For there to be more than one thing that is pure esse, they would have to have their own identities.

The idea of ‘identity’ here need not involve anything especially controversial. We simply need our terms and concepts to be able to pick out a pure esse in some way. So long as there is something answering to our references, even if only by analogy, there is something with the relevant sense of identity. It needs only some measure of unity, indivision, lest it be nothing at all. Indeed, without even this level of identity, there would be no God of monotheism.

2. But nothing that is pure esse could have such differentiating features.

In light of our analysis of premise (1), premise (2) now becomes deeply problematic: it equivocates with premise (1) over the term “differentiating features.” In (1), this term refers to internal features or to the pure esse itself; so that its identity or individuation is immediate rather than mediated; it is a se, as the classical metaphysicians might say, not ab alio. But (2) uses this term instead to refer to external differentiating features of the sort that Gel ruled out in his comment above; features outside what is pure being and which act on it. If premises (1) and (2) equivocate, the argument is formally invalid and offers Thomas no reason to change his mind. What are our options? The equivocation can be removed if the terms mean the same thing, and they can do so in only two ways given classical theism: either “differentiating features” refers to ‘internal’ features in both premises, or it refers to ‘external’ features in both premises.

Suppose we take the first option; the ‘internal feature’ option. In this case, we at least get premise (1) and so can fairly expect that Thomas is committed to it. But then what premise (2) says is that nothing that is pure esse could have identity. That is to say, there could not be anything that is pure esse. To the classical theist, and so someone like Thomas, this is materially equivalent to atheism. In this case, the argument immediately ceases to be a reasoning from propositions that Thomas accepts to a conclusion that he does not accept. That is, the argument immediately becomes dialectically unsuccessful. And of all things to reason with Thomas from, atheism would be a peculiarly strange one. Perhaps even stranger, however, would be for atheism to be asserted by someone of a similar metaphysical persuasion, such as a classical monotheist.

Suppose we take the second option instead then; the ‘external feature’ option. In this case, we no longer get premise (1). That is, we no longer reason from the belief of Thomas’ that two Gods would need to differ, but from the belief of someone else that Gods would need to differ by features. As such, the argument becomes dialectically unsuccessful right out of the gate. Recall that if Gods need to differ by features, then it is because they are not already individuated by the very fact of their being at all. Theirs would be a mediated identity, not one that is a se, but ab alio. In light of this result, it may be that on this option we at least get premise (2) for Thomas, since he thinks Gods could not have external features, but now, when combined with (1), it means there are no Gods. For, if a pure being’s identity is not a se, intrinsic, internal or some other relevant inherence, then it is of the sort that (2) tells us is impossible. As such, nothing is pure being.

Our analysis has uncovered a curious detail in classical monotheist thought, at least as represented by Gel’s argument—which even those moderately interested in the literature will know is a standard form of argument: God must be individuated or apprised of identity in some sense, and yet could not be so through the having of any features. That is, God must be individuated simply by the fact that he is at all: divine identity is not based on anything, but is intrinsically necessary, or a se. But, then, by parity of reason, should there be more than one God, they too, simply by virtue of being pure esse, would be inherently individuated and so consequently in no need of further means of differentiation. They would each have their own irreducible, divinely simple identities, and this would literally constitute their differentiation.

In light of these criticisms, Thomas can only accept (1) at the expense of (2), and (2) and the expense of (1): they are mutually exclusive, and so the argument is dead in the water, offering Thomas zero reason to change his mind about how many things are pure esse. Notice that this result did not follow from any argument for polytheism. Neither did it follow from any skepticism of the principle of indiscernibility, as Gel addresses in in his 2022. So it would not do to demand that the polytheist such as Thomas explain how there can be non-identical things with nothing more to themselves than the same essence ‘to be’ (2022, 6): their divine simplicity would never permit such an un-individualized, general thing in the first place, and so this demand would not only beg the question, but commit a category error.

Thomas’ rejection of this argument follows from little more than the internal tension of the monotheist argument itself. He did not have to provide any account of divine plurality to reject this argument, that is, it collapsed under its own weight. As for premise (4), it is incidental to the amount of beings that are pure esse, and so can be conceded for the sake of argument.


In conclusion, then, we found that the argument for monotheism satisfies the dialectical success criterion of logical validity only if it uses “differentiating features” in the same sense across premises (1) and (2). But in either sense available to it, this means asserting atheism, and so asks Thomas to endorse contradictory propositions. Maybe these propositions are not contradictory given someone else’s beliefs or commitments, but they are contradictory given Thomas’—the sort of person to whom this argument is relevant. As such, the argument reasons from someone else’s beliefs rather than from Thomas’ and we may conclude that as it is stated, it is not a dialectically successful argument and so provides polytheists such as Thomas with no reason to change their mind. It simply organizes and reports the beliefs of monotheists.

One final remark. The conversation between Oppy, Schmid, Gel and others, concerning how many beings are pure esse is a philosophical inquiry into the integrity of monotheism and so by direct extension of polytheism.

Curious, then, that no polytheist is involved.


Gel, 2021 –

Scmid, 2022 –

Gel, 2022 –

I’m not Weird, You’re Weird

Consider the position that two things cannot be the same because they are two. If they were the same, then they would be one. Thus, sameness is identity, and identity is indiscernibility. Call this position ‘nominalism’.

To the nominalist, many things are never one; not really, anyway. For example, we talk as if there are people, planets, and protons, but this is only a way of talking. In reality, no two individuals are the same, whether in respect of being ‘human’ or any other. We say the apple and the ball are both red, but that does not mean the apple and ball are really the same.

We just mean they are similar or dissimilar to one another. The apple and the ball are not the identical shade of red. And even if they somehow were, they are not the same occurrence of that shade — differing in some way or other, whether by location or time, etc.

Indeed, what is even one case where two things are the same? Any suggestion will inevitably involve different (i.e. not the same) things, precisely because they are two.

Maybe there is such an example in the back, by the square-circles, in the corner over there.

But what’s wrong? We aren’t saying that square-circles are contradictory, are we? Because there can’t be any contradictions given nominalism. After all, in order for two statements to contradict one another other, they must both have claim to being the same proposition.

Contradictions take the form (p & ~p). The idea is that same proposition ‘p’ is being said to be two different things, true and false.

But, if nominalism is true, then there is no one ‘p’ in the proposition ‘(p & ~p)’. The first one, ‘p’, is talking about one proposition and the second one, ‘~p’, is talking about different one: they are not the same. That is, they are not attributing different truth-values to the same proposition!

This isn’t even good news for the dialetheists, since they at least believe there are contradictions.

But it isn’t just contradictions that nominalism evaporates. It’s the laws of logic. It’s tautologies. It’s identity. It’s any symmetric relation. It’s logical validity. It’s reoccurrence as such, of anything whatsoever (I can’t even be the same person I was a second ago). It means no quantification, no sets, no categories, no…plurality.

You might think Platonism is all kinds of weird and complicated. And it takes phenomena like the one above aaall the way to their logical conclusion. But, I’m telling you. Look at nominalism. The same reduction to absurdity happens with all the positions that oppose Platonism–relativism, skepticism, materialism, mechanism, etc.

Trust me, Platonism is not weird. You’re weird.

It all starts with the super obvious.

And we need to get back to that.

Gerson’s Monotheism

As a student of Plato, I’m a fan of Lloyd P. Gerson. His knowledge of the ancient Platonists is encyclopedic and his ability to relate their ideas to contemporary discussions is brilliant. His translation of the Enneads will become standard, and his work on “ur-Platonism” will be instrumental in reinvigorating Platonic interest for generations to come.

But he is not for the light reader. His style of thinking is a process of deeply interactive reflection. He’ll take you through a dozen Platonic texts, immersed in the most fascinating details, to a destination that is, by that point, only rivaled in import by the journey! Sincerity and devotion course through his pages, it seems to me.

In that capacity I could only aspire to be capable of critiquing him, though I should hardly have need nor want to.

But as a philosopher; as someone also practicing dying (Phaedo 67e) by striving to be more like the ideal, disembodied version of myself, I do find one line of his thought to be vexing.

He seems in various places to argue for a sort of monotheism. I encountered this most recently in his paper Platonic Hylomorphism, but it is also present in earlier works such as in his book From Plato to Platonism. I’d like to take a look at his presentation of this idea and offer some reasons why I find this vexing.

In Platonic Hylomorphism, he states

“The fundamental principle on the basis of which the hypothesis of hylomorphism arises is that absolute simplicity is uniquely instantiable in the world. That is, there can at most be one absolutely simple being. The reasoning is quite straightforward. Let there be two absolutely simple beings, ex hypothesi. Then whatever property each possesses in order to make it different from the other will negate its absolute simplicity. It and whatever property we assign to it will be distinct. Thus, everything but one being (at most) is composite,” (33)

He says in the footnote to this that

“It must be added that if there is in fact one absolutely simple being, it cannot be really different from all composite beings, although they can be really different from it. The term “real difference” applies only to substances or composites. The sort of difference that an absolutely simple being has from substances is variously explained in the tradition.”

But how could absolute simplicity be “instantiable,” let alone uniquely so? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? That is to say, is absolute simplicity not opposed to instantiating properties altogether, and so even the property of absolute simplicity? Moreover, if the absolutely simple would not be in relation to other things, then why would two absolutely simple things be in the relation of difference to each other?

Indeed, he seems to be saying that two things which have no properties and stand in no relations would stand in the relation of difference and possess properties.

It doesn’t help that he goes on to say

“One additional point should be added. It is that absolute simplicity entails absolute self-identity. That is, there are no differences even within that which is absolutely simple such that we could say that it has the identity of a composite or that its identity is just the “sum” of its parts. From this it follows that “identity” is equivocal and proximity to absolute simplicity is gradable,” (34)

But if each one has absolute self-identity by virtue of being absolutely simple, why would they still need to be differentiated by properties they possess? That is, if they already have absolute self-identities, why do they not already differ? Why do they not differ by their identities? He seems to assume that they would have to differ by their composition and which assumes they are not absolutely simple after all.

He phrases this differently elsewhere by saying

“If there were more than one absolutely simple entity, each would be one, yet different from the other. That wherein they would supposedly differ would, therefore, be distinct from each entity itself,” (From Plato to Platonism, 231)

But if each entity really were absolutely simple, then they would not differ by virtue of anything they possess which is distinct from themselves. The assumption otherwise is egregiously question begging, and is made by monotheist thinkers down through the ages.

I have harped on the scholastics and classical theists in particular not only for committing this fallacy, but for doing so with such flippancy or ease; an indictment against their times rather than their caliber as thinkers.

The problem, I submit, is the assumption that all plurality is structured in such a way as to involve composition. That is, it is assumed without argument that in every plurality, individuals have something in common, which makes them complex, however minimally. But, as I and others have argued, this structure of plurality, though pervasive throughout Nature, cannot model a plurality of what transcends Nature, and so wholly inadequate to understand such a plurality as of Gods or absolutely simple entities. It’s holding what transcends Nature to a standard that only applies to Nature. Why would you do this?

While I do not expect Gerson to read this, I resubmit the argument below as an invitation to reconsider the position that he argues for and which is prominent throughout monotheistic literature:

D. Let a plurality =df. what forms when individuals have something in common.

A. Assume Divine Simplicity; that God is a way of being whatever it has.

  1. If there is a plurality of Gods, they have something in common. (From D)
  2. If they have something in common, they are each a way of being it. (From A)
  3. If they are each a way of being it, then they are each a way of being one another. (Ex hypothesi)
  4. Therefore, if there is a plurality of Gods, they are each a way of being one another. (1-3, H.S.)

Steinhart and the Platonic Cowbell

Last August, I published “Polytheism: A Platonic Approach.” Last December, Eric Steinhart published “Atheistic Platonism: A Manifesto.” At first pass, it might seem that Eric and I are doing the same thing: constructing a Platonic worldview with an eye toward its implications for the philosophy of religion. This in turn might give the impression that ‘Platonism’ is a sort of religiously neutral, philosophical base on which one may add her religious beliefs — whether polytheist or atheist, in this case.

Indeed, you might even think this is typical of philosophical “schools.” Thomism, for example, is known to have Reformed and Roman Catholic champions. Why couldn’t there also be Muslim, Jewish or even Pagan adaptations of the Thomistic system (there are)? After all, Aquinas himself forged his worldview out of pagan systems (Plato and Aristotle’s). And taking this line of thought to its logical conclusions, why couldn’t an atheist be convinced of, say, Aquinas’ metaphysics and epistemology? Why should these purely philosophical descriptions of the world be persuasive only to theists? That is, why couldn’t there be Atheistic Thomism (or any other school)? Thomas Nagel is an example of an atheist who believes there are final causes immanent to Nature.

What do I think of this as a Platonist?

Well, I am trying to construct a Platonic worldview with an eye toward its implications for the philosophy of religion. In particular, I want to bring the radical polytheism of the ancient Platonists to the table of today’s philosophy of religion. But I am not reinventing any wheels here. I am consciously placing myself within the historic Platonic tradition, and trying to modernize and popularize some of its most recondite elements.

By contrast, Eric looks to this ancient school for inspiration, but is constructing his own worldview out of abstract objects with an eye toward replacing God(s) as an explanation. That is, he is deducing a formal description of reality from a first principle without ever appealing to a God.

Certainly, in the modern sense of ‘Platonic Realism’, Steinhart’s proposal is ‘Platonic’, because he affirms the reality of abstract objects such as numbers, sets and propositions. And this title is bolstered by his use of ancient Platonic thought; such as the top-down method of deriving a formal description of reality from a first principle by letting that first principle proceed according to its own inner logic.

But, his system is not Platonic in the more historic or normative sense.

In this sense of the term, to be a Platonist was to have a shared vision of reality through the lens of the One, or Unity. The implications of this vision for every area of life were considered and gathered century after century into a systematic view of the world. This Platonic school of thought included a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, an..everything. They had things like a normative practice of interpreting Plato, a corresponding curriculum for studying his dialogues, and an extremely sophisticated jargon to accommodate the nuances their centuries long investigations discovered.

In short, they had an identity; their social group had a unity with an integrity significant enough to last over a thousand years!

Of course, individuals within this school disagreed with one another not only over how to systematize the implications of the Platonic vision, but over what those implications even were. Nevertheless, it was clear to them who belonged to the Academy and who did not.

Atheism was an absolute no go for them.

And even if it wasn’t, adhering to a different First Principle than the One was.

For them, it was not enough to agree with them on some point or other, such as that there are abstract objects: many ancient schools of thought had significant overlap on these and many other areas. Nor was it enough to run with Platonic ideas and develop them in one’s own creative way (and, aren’t all our schools of thought just a series of footnotes to Plato anyway?).

Otherwise, the Platonists would actually be Pythagoreans, and the Peripatetics would be Platonists. By extension, so would the Stoics and Epicureans. In fact, much later views satisfying these criteria would be Platonic as well, such as the Augustinians and even Thomists.

By taking “the Zero,” or absolute non-being, as his first principle, Steinhart’s system is not a form of Platonism, though it may be Platonic or Platonically inspired in other senses.

I hope this does not seem like pedantic gate-keeping: this is one of the most ancient and influential schools of thought in history; it has more than earned the right to its identity, and it’s important not to blur the image of reality that it declares.

Now, that said, I am actually all about what Steinhart is doing! And I want to close this post by explaining two ways in which I am, and two ways I think those can be improved.

First, I want to encourage others to philosophize more Platonically. Identify your First Principle! Let it unravel its formal description of reality by the logical trajectory it sets. Let’s move passed the nonsense of nominalism, and consciously share a domain of discourse that respects the objects that make it intelligible in the first place. This is the sort of convergence by which progress is made.

On this point, I learned a number of things from Steinhart’s presentation, and was inspired to think of my own project in more mathematical terms.

Second, I want us all to move beyond the reductive theories of divinity that have plagued the philosophy of religion. So, on this front as well, I want to encourage others to move passed thinking of Gods as just superhuman creatures, running around the universe, leaving cosmic footprints behind. We need to move beyond cryptozoology folks! We need to get back to thinking in terms of First Principles.

How do I think these can be improved?

Well, as far as others thinking more Platonically, I think we should come to a point where we share the same First Principle. So, for example, while Steinhart teaches us all how atheists can think systematically in Platonic ways, he begins with the Zero instead of the One. In fact, he mischaracterizes the One of Platonism as Being Itself.

But, as Plato himself said, “the One neither is, nor is one,” (Parm. 141e). And this is reiterated in resounding chorus through the tradition. So, you’ll find Plotinus going to great lengths, for example, trying to show that the One precedes Being, and that even Number is subsequent to the One, and later Platonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus were even more explicit about this.

For the Platonist, the One is what makes things to be ‘countable’, or ‘unique’; to be individuated as one thing, and so the One is not itself a one, countable or unique thing. In and of itself, it is not anything. It is purely negative. It’s like a façon de parler, or an arbitrary object, in logical terms.

Insofar as the Zero is anything whatsoever, in literally any sense at all, it will like everything else derive from the One. Insofar as the Zero is not, it is not a principle in any sense. I take his argument from non-being to being to show the necessity of Being, via the contradiction of non-being, rather than that there is some principle prior to the One. “Preceding” the One is like “happening” before time.

Because Eric does not start with the One, it seems to me that his system is like non-Platonic systems in general in that it does not theorize about the stratification of the totality of all things, but its causal order. In this respect, I take the Platonist to be doing something much deeper and indeed different.

As far as moving beyond anthropomorphic theism goes, I think he is absolutely right to call us all out for being chained to it as normative and so formative of our concepts and philosophical directions. However, it seems to me that Steinhart does not go far enough, and ends up operating under the shadow of the concept of theism he seeks freedom from. That is, he makes it out to be normative, granting it the claim it makes.

But, on a constitutive model of the First Principle, a God can constitute the more personal presence encountered in religious experience without being reducible to that limited moment. The problem, I submit, is not in conceiving of deity in personal, limited terms, but in reducing it to them.

It is because of this that we find the Platonists talking about the Gods in abstract and concrete terms. So, it is not, as Steinhart suggests, that Plato thought of Gods merely as celestial bodies, but that Plato thought of the Gods as, Aristotle’s terms, ‘encompassing the whole of Nature’ (Metaphysics 1074b). I cannot recommend Gerd van Riel’s work on Plato’s Polytheism enough.

In the end, I encourage people to think more in these Platonic terms, and make these attempts to derive everything in formal terms from a First Principle. But I also caution against blurring lines and forging associations where there are none.

My project is to popularize, modernize and advance the ancient Platonic school of thought. Eric’s is to create a new school of thought inspired by this one, but for atheists, by transforming Platonic Realism about abstract objects into a formal account of reality as derived from a First Principle.

I hope this post served to clarify some things, and in the constructive, collaborative way that I try more everyday to embody!

On Dialectical Success

In “An Ontological Argument for Polytheism”, Walking the Worlds 2.2 (Summer 2016), I said that an “[a]rgument will be called dialectically successful if (i) its conclusion follows from its premises, (ii) its premises do not beg the question and (iii) it is not subject to parody,” (44).

I stand by this. But, what does it mean to ‘beg the question’? I’d like to spend some time thinking about condition (ii), especially as it will clear the runway for posts lined up next.

To begin, then, consider that an argument is a set of statements of which one (the conclusion) is thought to follow from the others (the premises).

Arguments are inherently conditional: they do not even attempt to show that their premises are true, they merely assert that they are and identify what follows given this assumption.

To show that the premises of one argument are true, you could appeal to another argument. But this second argument will do the same thing as the first and merely assert a collection of premises, thereby replacing or compiling one set of assumptions with another. And if you were to think that the third time is the charm and appeal to yet another argument, you will only add a third layer of assumptions to the pile of merely asserted statements. So long as you continue this process of appealing to arguments so as to show that premises are true, it will go on ad infinitum.

Or so it might seem. But this will depend on what is meant by “showing” that something is true. In the above sense, it is not a matter of revealing to one what she is unwittingly committed to, given things that she already believes. Nor is it, in a similar vein, a matter of getting one to realize that she actually believes something already – such as if she didn’t want to admit it. This is because if it were a matter of either of these sorts of things, then the process would not have to go on ad infinitum: a set of premises could eventually be reached which are discovered to already be believed or committed to.

By contrast, the above sense is about changing someone’s mind; altering their perspective, or otherwise causing them to see something new. A sort of unveiling, not of what is already in another (such as a belief, disposition, or commitment), but of what has hitherto been (information, initial contact). It’s a difference between discovering and implanting; between showing someone what they already see and showing them what you see. How deep this division cuts is another question – perhaps they are really just the same thing at the end of the day.

But, for our purposes, the apparent distinction is instructive, for the rules of propriety change depending on what the argument is intended to accomplish.

If the argument is being used to show someone what they see (whether occurrent, or subconsciously), one must appeal to premises that are already believed (in whichever respective sense). This is the whole point of the argument in this case, so to speak: to find premises that are already believed. Were one to instead assert premises to another whether or not she believes them, the exercise would become deeply confused and practically irrational.

By contrast, if the argument is being used to show someone what they do not yet see (even indirectly or by extension), you cannot appeal (exclusively) to premises that are already believed. You must appeal to at least on premise which the person does not yet believe in.

How you can get someone to believe something just by asserting it is one question; how you can get them to believe something rationally just by asserting it is another. Perhaps there is an element of self-evidence required, but whatever the case, if someone does not believe the asserted premise, she cannot be compelled to its conclusion: arguments are only ever conditional.

From all this I want to risk platitude and draw a lesson on the propriety of dialogue and debate: each of us is only ever beholden to what we believe. I am not accountable for what you believe, or what you are committed to based on what you believe, and vice versa. So, if you present an argument, be sure that your interlocutor believes the premises! Otherwise, all you’re doing is sharing with them what you believe; reporting your psychology, rather than giving them any reason to agree with you. That is, all you’re doing is begging the question. Likewise, if an argument is presented to you, ask only what is being claimed and whether you believe it. If the argument is premised on things you do not already believe, it begs the question and is of little relevance to you.

This will all become concrete in upcoming posts where I dissect various objections to polytheism and find that they are not dialectically successful because they baldly assert things to polytheists which they have no reason to agree with. In essence, they beg the question: they object to polytheism by reasoning from, say, monotheism, which of course gives polytheists no reason at all to change their mind.

Let this serve then as a prolegomena of sorts to future posts (perhaps even as their lemma), as well as an exhortation to all those involved in these types of discussions (polytheists and non-polytheists alike) to strive for dialectical success and raise the quality of discourse.

As we await submissions for the new series, the first up will be an application of all this, where I take the classical monotheists to task. Buckle up Thomists, and get ready for the other side of the story.

Stay tuned!