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 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/religious-studies/article/how-many-and-why-a-question-for-graham-oppy-that-classical-theism-can-answer/6A02C937BB5E7CF12C70B5DC3D532CA9

Scmid, 2022 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/religious-studies/article/naturalism-classical-theism-and-first-causes/C8B373E5EA8C6AC0D386DD247AB92803

Gel, 2022 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/religious-studies/article/there-can-be-only-one-a-response-to-joseph-c-schmid/F05CFC25EB594A750B15C61BF6DE3281


An Open Letter to the Midwesterner on “Gender”

I grew up in a small town in South Dakota. Yes, people live there. My entire county had 1,500 people in it. My high school graduating class size? 50 something. I’ve lived in small towns most of my life. Not all of it. I got to see the world as an Army brat. But most of it.

If you’re anything like me, you probably first heard the word ‘transgender’ around 2013. And your first encounter with it probably wasn’t very positive. A video of some blue-haired college kid foaming at the mouth, calling someone every name under the sun because they dared to believe that boys are boys and girls are girls. That impression may not have changed much over the years. Especially if the extent of your exposure to transgendered people was just that same character, played by different personalities, blasted on social media for doing the same thing. Reinforcing the image, reinforcing the narrative.

And maybe you were like me and went on to find yourself in a social or religious community that was, to your surprise, loudly supportive of this new view about “gender.” Again, you may have found people being called a bigot, a fascist, a …God knows what, simply because they believed now what everyone believed not even 10 years ago. And maybe experiences like this pressured you into looking into the matter. But what you ran into was a mess of conflicting information, contradictory or circular definitions, and it all just made you think…let them figure their lives out while you get on with yours.

Now, with discussions about gender affirming care for adolescents all over the news, the topic has become even more divisive than ever before.

When I look out at the population right now, what I’m seeing is people digging trenches. I’m seeing division manifesting in tangible ways. More than I ever have. And that worries me. I have a family to take care of. Children to raise. I don’t want to see families torn apart or communities split down the middle. I’m also a curious person. I like to know things. And I want to know, maybe even once and for all, what is the truth about all of this.

Y’all are my people, you’re like me. And I’ve spent enough time with you to know what you think about this, and how you feel about it. I see what you’re going through. I’m going through it too. So, I wanna do this for you.

I’m deep diving into gender studies and searching for the truth. I want the facts to speak for themselves, I want the chips to fall where they may. And when the dust settles, you’ll be the first to see my findings.

But before all that, I wanted to lay some things on the table. How things seem to stand as of now. It’s not exhaustive, but I already know you’re unlikely to read all this. So, I picked some big ones. Maybe it’ll still be there by the end. Maybe it won’t.

In some ways, I want to defend you. And I’m going to call them out for how you’ve been treated. In other ways, I need to call you out too. Don’t act surprised. Not all of this will apply to you, but some of it needs saying anyway.

So, there’s gonna be some hard truths here and some tough love. But that’s the sort of guy I am, and I know you’re like that too. We need to have more real talks.

I’ve got a lot to learn about this area. But the logic isn’t anything new. And that’s what I’m really, really good at. Logic (formal and informal). That’s what I can bring to the table. My mind cuts through the bullshit all the time (especially my own). I just need to start saying these things out loud more often.

We’re in this one together. So, let’s finally get to the bottom of all this.

As of now, here’s where I think you’re right:

  1. I think you were right to not drop everything you’ve ever believed and were taught when you heard a whole new way of looking at gender for the first time. You’d be crazy if you did. It’s entirely reasonable to be skeptical of new concepts that don’t mesh at all with everything else you believe. Everyone knows that, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And while the information on this has exploded over the last few decades, I wouldn’t fault you for looking into it and seeing nothing but a mess. A jumble of conflicting and circular definitions, and rapidly evolving terminology. You might be thinking, just let them figure all this out, and I’ll just get along with my life. I get it.
  2. You are not a bigot or a “fascist” simply because you didn’t jump on a bandwagon. And that’s all it would have been to you at the time. It’s not like the scales fell from your eyes the moment you heard it because it’s just so self-evident and obvious it evaded us until now. Look, it’s gonna take some re-wiring. But that’s an epistemic right of yours, not a moral failure. What happens is you have epistemic standards, which are healthy and good to have, and the idea simply did not meet those when you heard it. Moreover, it never developed a sense of plausibility that would have merited reconsideration or further research into: if something sounds super far-fetched, you don’t have to immerse yourself in trying to figure out whether it’s true, especially just because it’s important or obvious to other people. They don’t act like that for all sorts of things, and it’s not fair to demand it of you. Again, everyone knows that, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But keep in mind that the reason this concept of gender may have struck you as so far-fetched is because of how it’s been consistently presented to you.
  3. I think you’re right that there are only two sexes. By that I mean there are quite literally only two types of gametes for humans: eggs and sperm. Moreover, our bodies develop and organize in those corresponding directions: sperm producers, or egg producers. While there may be only two overarching directions, because we “travel” to get to them in our bodily ‘blueprint’ and construction, this means that we don’t always reach those destinations: sometimes at all, but not ever in exactly the same ways. That means there is tons of biological diversity in our bodily composition, structure, and function. And I’m talking about everything from a bigger sized level of organs to the microscopic level of cells. But outliers accounted for, the norm for our species is males and females.

Here’s where I think you need a little talking to:

  1. Gender identity is real. It may very well be that a man is an adult human male, and a woman is an adult human female. But you know damn well there is more to being, say, a ‘man’ than there is to being an adult human male. You raise your boys to be men, don’t you? What do you teach them? How to be masculine? So, look, societies do associate rules with perceived sex. What was permissible for men to do in 15th century China may not be the same as what is permissible for men to do in 21st century America. Societies have a vision, made up of associations, of what men and women are supposed to be like. We each take ourselves to either conform or not conform to this vision. Guys, if you’d be uncomfortable wearing a mini skirt and high heels in public, it might be because you don’t identify with the sex that those behaviors are normal or socially permissible for. That means you have a gender identity. It’s not a choice for you, it’s what you look like to yourself; what it feels like in your own skin.
  2. While you’re worried about something called ‘transgenderism’ and getting triggered by random, crazy personalities on social media, there are actual trans people out there just trying to find happiness and to make a living in this life, just like you. They didn’t choose to have their gender identity any more than you did. And they have to face realities that I hope you never have to know; like social exclusion, depression, bullying and even disgust. Some of these people are children, kids who may not have the words yet for what they see when they look in a mirror, but nevertheless have a correspondingly developed gender identity for their age, as do we all. Think about that. We’re talking about their whole way of seeing themselves; the only ways in which they feel comfortable to live. You’re talking about turning their whole world upside down. You have no right to take that lightly, or to even do so at all without overwhelming, significant reason–as we in fact do with other forms of self-identities that we agree are mistaken. Transgendered people have been dehumanized by a political narrative, and the damage this has wrought is…hard to even comprehend, but heartbreaking. We are talking about people, human beings. They deserve every ounce of dignity, respect, compassion, empathy and protection. They are not an idea awaiting your verdict. If it turns out our original understanding of trans self-identification was correct, you should think of them no differently or less. And it’s hard to believe that needs saying, but just in case.
  3. Finally, and maybe even most importantly, search your soul for why you react to the “new” idea of gender the way you do. Because I know you do. Why is it so upsetting? Almost, personally offensive? Why does your mind go straight to dismissing their claims about science as politically charged or manipulated? Why jump straight for conspiracy? You know what all these symptoms are. You’d call it a spade if it were in anyone else. So, why is it happening to you? Be honest, it’s okay.

Like I said, there’s more. But I hope this is enough to get the cogs turning. If you take nothing else away from this, let it be that each of us is afflicted with knee-jerk reactions and judgements that breed division and conflict for no good reason. See them for what they are. They do you no favors, and you’ll be lighter without them.

In my studies so far, I have realized the science and philosophy of gender studies is riddled with cross purposes, confusing jargon, and conflicting claims. To my mind, this is a sign of decentralization, competing usages, and so, in a way, of life. It means things are happening, people are forging their way.

In any highly contested area, your first course of action should be to abstract the realities away from the labels to see what is truly being disagreed about. A problem well stated is a problem half solved. So, I recommend first dropping the labels, especially ‘gender’, and instead talking about the phenomena themselves. The question should be what is real, not, e.g., what thing do we call ‘sex’? I think you’ll find that a depressing amount of fighting and disagreement is purely semantic, and that we all agree on much, much more than anyone is comfortable admitting.

I am not even far into my studies yet, and I can already feel it changing me. I want to humanize what has been made to be about ideology. I want to empathize in places I once only analyzed. I hope you similarly experience some transformation. The actual treatment of transgendered people is more important than forming a view on ‘gender’.

I hope good comes of this. Until next time.

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!

Classical Theism: The Other Side of the Story

I. Introduction

Feel free to skip to Sections II-III if you’re just here for the arguments. This section introduces the topic and some key terms, especially for those who may be new to this.

If you’re still here, welcome to the debut of this series!

I often hear in law enforcement that every story has three sides to it: what he said, what she said, and what really happened. By this logic, you’d think there’d be a fourth side as well – what it sounds like happened to the officer. Whatever lesson there is in that, one thing is for sure, there’s at least two sides to every story!

In this installment we will be looking at a story that classical theists tell about polytheism. Specifically, the story they tell about its philosophical integrity.

One could undoubtedly devote entire pieces to other such stories, such as those about the history of polytheism, its ethical impact on society or even its soteriological value. And work like that is needed, for how often is polytheism represented as a primitive or regressive stage in the evolution of religion; or as permissive and even encouraging of the most appalling forms of hedonism, or as being so concerned with this life that it utterly fails to prepare anyone for the next?

But defining a position should come before defending it, and so, should one focus on constructing a positive account of polytheism, as opposed to merely denying such allegations as these, then alternate stories to those mentioned above eagerly present themselves. For another time, perhaps. These and other such topics will not be our focus here.

To begin, then, let’s get a handle on what classical theism is.

By classical theism, I shall mean that allegedly historical form of monotheism according to which God is understood in terms of being metaphysically ultimate reality. I say allegedly historical because sometimes thinkers are listed as belonging to this tradition who were not, even remotely, monotheists. 1  Be that as it may, the point, I suppose, is that ‘classically’ minded thinkers of every religious background tended to look for and understand the divine in terms of metaphysical ultimacy rather than in terms of a more contemporary conception, like a hypothesized explanation of more localized phenomena.

Accordingly, this whole way of looking at God involves its own way of conducting philosophy of religion and natural theology. One does not posit metaphysically ultimate reality as a hypothesis, nor amass evidence on its behalf. It matters not how propositionally simple its description can be articulated, let alone how it fares in explanatory competition with alternatives: there are no alternatives; no more, at least, than non-being is an alternative to being. Instead, classical theism boasts of having captured in theory, and with the full force of necessity and certainty that comes through metaphysical demonstrations, what must be true of the world, no matter what else we go on to discover about it.

Classical theism contrasts sharply with approaches that do not view God as ultimate, but as more of a (privileged) constituent of reality.

I have variously and semi-humorously characterized this latter approach as having become a kind of cryptozoology wherein a God is like a supernatural creature roaming the universe, whom the philosopher tracks by finding her cosmological footprints. At some point, I shall have need to address this newer paradigm in relation to polytheism.

But, unlike these latter thinkers, classical theists had far more to say about polytheism, and so we shall begin with them.

My purpose here is to let the classical theist tell her side of the story about the philosophical integrity of polytheism, and then, perhaps for the first time for many, tell another side.

II. One Side of the Story

To the classical theist, a polytheism posited at the level of metaphysically ultimate reality is absurd. It’s not that it’s unnecessarily complicated, or that the evidence just isn’t strong enough for it, or even that it is simply hard to believe in today’s day and age. It’s that polytheism involves a contradiction.

They take themselves to have reasoned to a metaphysically reality that is ‘ultimate’ in the sense that everything else is premised upon it. That there is an ‘it’ here, or something that answers to these descriptions, in whatever appropriately analogous sense, will turn out to be one of the most important things to remember for our purposes. They take themselves to have discovered ‘someone’ specific, so to speak, though they may not be able to say much at all about ‘him’ without special revelation—or indeed, be able to know his essence at all. They only know of him, as one knows a cause from its effects.

It is not that he is a constituent of reality, or one being among others, any more than any principle can be one of the things it is a principle of. It’s just that there is something to which these attributes are made, something these descriptions refer to. There is an ‘it’, in some perhaps analogous or exemplary sense, which has the integrity of being that upon which all things depend; it’s a real ‘thing’, with its own unity or identity. They take themselves to be affirming something which atheists deny.

Having arrived at this singular unity, they go on to deduce the absurdity of trying to multiply it.

By introducing plurality into this ultimate reality, it is thought, polytheism makes it so that there no longer is an ‘it’ around for all things to be premised upon, but rather several or more ‘its’ which reality will variously depend upon in different ways, so that no single principle of being remains. Any attempt to plurify ultimate reality, or to divvy its unity out to a multitude will contradictorily involve saying of one that it is not-one, but many.

Classical theists find a number of contradictory implications in positing a polytheism at the level of ultimate reality. One popular thread of reasoning finds it impossible to distinguish one God from another:

“Should we say, then, that there are many Gods, we must recognize difference among the many. For if there is no difference among them, they are one rather than many. But if there is difference among them, what becomes of the perfectness?,” (John Damascus, 1.5)

“If then many gods existed, they would necessarily differ from each other. Something therefore would belong (conveniret) to one that did not belong to another. And if this were a privation, one of them would not be absolutely perfect; but if a perfection, one of them would be without it. So it is impossible for many gods to exist,” (ST. I.11.3)

Another widespread line of thought finds it impossible for two Gods to both be Supreme:

“Suppose that two Supreme Beings exist. If one depends on the other he who depends cannot be supreme. If both are independent neither is the Supreme Being, for each has no power over the other,” (Ward, 109) 2

But whether we limit ourselves to the popular forms or not, it is surprising just how many numbers of ways classical theists (particularly in the Scholastic tradition) deduce a contradiction in polytheism at the level of ultimate reality. So many, in fact, that it would be impossible to address all of them in any respectful way short of a tome, and certainly not in a blog post. 3

To take only two better known scholastics as an example, I count no less than 20 arguments that John Duns Scotus has with polytheism in his Ordinatio, Second Distinction, First Part, Question 3., and nearly the same amount that Thomas Aquinas has with polytheism in just his Summa Contra Gentiles, I.42. That isn’t to count those given in the latter’s Summa Theologiae, De Ente et Essentia, or any given others of his many works. The sheer number of independent arguments against polytheism given by classical theists from all religious stripes and generations will understandably strike polytheists as daunting and intimidating.

Indeed, the impression is that if classical theists made anything abundantly clear it is that polytheism at the level of ultimate reality is absurd.

But appearances can be deceiving.

III. Another Side to the Story

It’s absurd, classical theists will argue, to plurify what is singular. This singular thing could be Being, Infinite Power, Goodness, Necessary Existence, Divinity, etc. etc. Whatever they have reasoned their way to and found to be ‘there’, or true of what is ‘there’.

But…who told them this is what polytheism does? Who said that it would plurify one thing, as if its members would be unified by some singular external principle?

Indeed, given what they tell us about the divine, such as that it is utterly simple, we should not be plurifying something that isn’t itself a God, lest we instead speak of composite beings and so not about ‘Gods’ after all, or even in the first place!

The assumption behind all these classical theist objections to polytheism is that polytheism would plurify the unity of some one thing. But not only is this assumption gratuitous (and bizarrely so!) but it’s mistaken on even their own grounds!

We should not think of Gods as instantiating some property, feature or ‘thing’. That’s not what they have in common. Otherwise, they aren’t Gods after all.

For all this, we have classical theists regularly talking like this:

“for there to be more than one thing of a kind requires that that thing have metaphysical parts like genus and specific difference, or matter together with the species essence that the matter instantiates, and that in turn entails having potentiality. But God, being purely actual, is devoid of potentiality. Hence, he cannot have parts of the sort in question, and therefore, he does not belong to a kind of which there could be more than one instance. He is, accordingly, unique, so that the theism to which the arguments defended in chapters 1 through 5 lead us is a monotheism,” (Feser, 187)

“A being, however, is said to be unique, when there cannot be or at least are not other beings of the same species or genus,” (Garrigou-Lagrange, 300-01)

And so they get things exactly backwards! You can’t start by assuming there would a ‘kind’ to which many Gods belong, and then deduce the absurdity of transcendent reality belonging to a kind! That’s a manufactured problem. They’re deducing that polytheism is absurd by assuming that monotheism is true! We never say the transcendent is categorizable. They did!

But only when they have polytheism in mind. Otherwise, they say God cannot belong to any category, genus or species.

Even in that case, though, as I have argued, it follows a fortiori that he cannot belong to any category, genus or species as its only member! So, he cannot be ‘the only’ God.

In either case, then, monotheism is in dire straits.

The classical theist’s failure to really consider a plurality of what is divine here is symptomatic of a wider tendency to do the same across the board. For example, objections that two Gods could not differ lest one lack some perfection the other has; or that two Gods cannot both be infinite, lest one lack what the other has; or that…etc. All such pieces of reasoning say they are talking about Gods, but then go on to talk about things that are subject to deriving their identities from their properties, or which are composite, or in any number of ways not divine after all.

They will devote trees worth of pages pouring over complicated philosophical matters, but not one moment on what if each God were First. What if each God preceded all relation. What if each God were differentiated by her identity. What if…etc.

I recall asking Feser this:

“Monotheism asserts the proposition that “Only one God exists.” In quantifying the amount of Gods that exist, this proposition treats of a plurality of “Gods.” In denying existence of all but one in this plurality, monotheism separates Gods from “existence”, and thus treats of a plurality of abstractions, or “essences” as Thomists may say. It would seem, therefore, that monotheism is committed to a view on which a God’s essence is separable from his “existence.” But, for Aquinas, the essence of God just is his existence. Was Aquinas thus not a monotheist? If not, what was he?”

He took this to be me confusing grammar with reality. But it’s the monotheist proposition that is quantifying the number of Gods that exist. So, if he was right about confusing grammar with reality, so much the worse for monotheism!

In any case, he says in response that “[s]ince these notions don’t apply to God, it follows that there is no way for him to be merely one instance of a kind of thing. There is no genus or general class to which he belongs. He is of his nature unique.”

So, as I said, because there cannot be anything for God to be the only one of, he cannot be the only one of anything.

Monotheism is bunk, people.

Indeed, Aquinas recognized that we cannot say the number of Gods is one: “’One’ which is the principle of number is not predicated of God, but only of material things,” (ST I.11.3) All he can say is that God is/has unified or undivided being. That is, that he is metaphysically one.

But, of course, just because, say, YHWH is one does not mean that Poseidon isn’t. So, they can either try to oppose polytheism and invoke numerical unity, thus sacrificing divine transcendence, or they can be in harmony with polytheism and merely say of their God that he is undivided.

That is, monotheism can either be materially equivalent to atheism or trivially compatible with polytheism.

Now, the classical theists might ask at this point what the principle of plurality is supposed to be then? If it’s not some singular thing which unifies the Gods as a group, such as a divine nature or property they all have in common, then what is it?

But what a striking admission this would be. To acknowledge that the prolific literature they produced on polytheism never once entertained this question. That they never held the idea of different Gods to the standards of divinity they proposed, and so never actually considered the philosophical integrity of polytheism. Instead, they spent this entire time burning straw men and asking everyone to go along with it.

As my readers will know, I have a whole account of polytheism waiting to step into this conversation. But let this suffice for now.

I will leave you with one argument in closing, hopefully to peak your curiosity. Consider this as a way of modelling divine plurality which, unlike the classical theist’s model, isn’t intrinsically at odds with the very notion of divinity:

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

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

  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.)

IV. Conclusion

We have covered a lot of ground in a little amount of space. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the beast with posts such as these. However, I hope to have accomplished at least two things. First, I hope that I represented classical theism as accurately as possible. There will always be summarizations, and unmentioned subtleties. Moreover, ‘classical theism’ is an academic category; a recognition of a broad pattern across diverse thinkers. It’s not really a demographic. Descriptions of classical theists as a group, then, come with the appropriate grains of salt. However, I was a classical theist for years myself, a Thomist in fact, and I know the pains of being misunderstood. Second, I hope that I have helped the reader to see that there is another side to this story. It’s not the only other side, nor even the whole of the side I have brought up. I’ve only but cracked the door ajar, and positive accounts of polytheism will fill in all the blanks you may be wondering about.

For those of you who are wondering what I think that positive account looks like, I’d recommend checking my book out, as well as this summary post. Perhaps even more so, I recommend the works on polytheism of Dr. Edward Butler.

But whether one pursues this any further or not, I believe it is sufficiently clear by any fair standards that the objections of classical theists to polytheism are not anywhere near as obvious as they may otherwise have seemed. Not one of them, I contend, is dialectically successful.

I once again would like to extend an invitation for thinkers to reconsider polytheism, as well as to bring their insights and creativity to the table.

Thank you for reading!


[1]: For whatever reason, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus are regularly identified as ‘classical theists’ and even as ‘proto-monotheists’. On Plato’s polytheism, see Gerd Van Riel’s 2013 ‘Plato’s Gods‘. For Aristotle’s polytheism, check out Richard Bodeus’ 2000 ‘Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals‘. On Plotinus’ polytheism, see Edward Butler’s 2016 ‘Plotinian Henadology‘.

[2]: Call incoherent or logically impossible actions ‘asdlkfjasd;’. Ward humorously assumes that if a supreme being cannot asdlkfjasd;, such as having power over one who is supreme, then she is not herself supreme. I wonder if he endorsed the ‘rock-too-heavy-to-life’ objection to omnipotence as well.

[3]: In addition to these, there are related sorts of arguments which are less metaphysical, but still go for absurdity. Augustine, for example, argues that the tendency in polytheism to increasingly posit more Gods over time is an indictment against their status as truly divine, (City of God, I.2)

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!

Polytheism vs. Classical Theism

On Jan 8th, I had the pleasure of speaking with John Buck on Dry Apologist’s YouTube channel about polytheism and Platonism. Dry Apologist was a gracious host, and John is bright, charitable and an excellent active listener, which made for an enjoyable, meaningful and engaging discussion. You can check the discussion out at the following link: https://youtu.be/ZeHCgQiwhNc

There were many things I intended to say going into the stream, and just as many things I wish I had said afterward. Hindsight is 20/20! And this is especially true for those of us who are better at writing than at speaking. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of those thoughts, especially about ‘The One’.

Going into the stream, I wanted to present Platonism as the major game in town for polytheists, just as Naturalism might be thought of to be for atheists. But I would be doing this for an audience who probably had no familiarity with actual Platonism – that is, the school as it was and is understood by its practitioner’s vs how it is characterized by its detractors, or what goes by the name nowadays, however fractional the two actually resemble each other.    

Since the title was Polytheism vs Classical Theism, my idea was to get all this info across by contrasting Platonism with Scholasticism in a fair, clear, and memorable way. I chose to do this with labels. The Scholastics, for example, think of the First Principle in causal terms whereas the Platonists think of it in constitutive terms. Consequently, the Scholastics reason to and about the First Principle with causal (cosmological) arguments whereas the Platonists reason to and about the First Principle with constitutive (mereological) arguments. And the contrastive labels could just continue from there. For example, due to its whole way of looking at the First Principle in causal terms, the Scholastic will explain reality in terms of creation, whereas the Platonist, for respective reasons, will explain reality in terms of emanation, or stratification.

These labels hopefully would not only give people a sense of things, but also impress on them that when Platonists talk about the Gods philosophically, they are talking about the First Principle, and not the anthropomorphic caricatures commonly associated with polytheism or “pagan” Gods. It would also, I hoped, convey to the audience that there was a whole polytheist system of thought out there.

With regard to this latter point, I had also wanted to get into the history of Scholasticism. This, I think, is important because after the Platonic Academies were shut down under the Christian emperors, the Platonic worldview was eventually transmitted only in piecemeal and through the texts which happened to be preserved. But so little of this made it to the Scholastics. The result was a deeply misinformed characterization of “Platonism” as well as a historical narrative that has since been all but completely overturned. For example, the deeply metaphysical and systematic way of thinking about the world and the Gods is actually Platonic in origin, not Scholastic. And many of the so-called classical theists of antiquity were blatantly polytheist – such as Aristotle and Plato. This latter uncontroversial point was made controversial, among other reasons, by an ignorance among medieval thinkers that the term ‘God’ was used by the Greeks in a generic or collective sense of all that is God/divine, not as sort of name designating a numerically singular object. And this ignorance, however useful in the strengthening of a monotheist narrative, was grandfathered from one generation of scholars to the next, until we have at long last saw it for what it was. However, I digress.

With these well intended goals in mind, I attempted to summarize a Platonic take on reality. I wanted to illustrate the holistic, constitutive, mereological, stratifying vision of things that Platonists saw. I did this by speaking of reality as being layered, implying a gradation of increasingly generalized ways of being. Each layer corresponds to a sort of ‘formal’ description of things, so that at every layer what we have is a plurality of objects which have some feature or property in common, and it is in terms of this common denominator that they can all be understood. For example, physics describes objects in quantitative terms. That is, it looks at things qua quantitative, or, in other words, in this formal respect. This isn’t to say that these objects aren’t also qualitative in any respect, just that whatever other such respects there may be, those are not the ones considered by physics.

So, there is this structure of plurality we assume and utilize all throughout the layers of reality, wherein many objects are considered under one heading – the formal trait or respect in which they are one. This type of plurality is called ‘monocentric’ because it involves one (mono), exclusive center of the plurality.

But the process of formalizing things in increasingly general terms eventually runs into a problem: when we get to the most general layer of all things; that most inclusive, fundamental way of being anything whatsoever, we want to continue speaking in a monocentric, formal way, but we can’t!

There no longer is a form available for all things to be described in terms of. Otherwise, there would be something outside the totality of all things (which is strongly logically impossible); namely, the form in terms of which all things can be conceived. So, we reach a point where the monocentric structure of plurality breaks down, and reality must necessarily be arranged differently.

I claimed, with the Platonists, that this layer of reality is, for lack of a better term, at the level of numerical identity. The Platonists called it unity or ‘henos’ in Greek. This is the respect in which something is one, individuated, thing. Here is where something has the integrity of being itself, a sort of substantiveness whereby it is holds together as an individual.

This is the most fundamental way of being in any sense anything whatsoever: absolutely anything and everything is ‘one’ in this sense. All things have ‘identity’ as themselves; they are individuated as whoever or whatever they are. Even Being Itself is one in this ‘metaphysical’ sense (Cf. ST I.11.3.r-obj3).

We try to pick out the formal feature of things at this level of reality and call it ‘one-ness’ (or what the Platonists call ‘The One’). This is supposedly ‘the’ respect in which everything is conceivable.

But this quasi “form” of Self for all selves is paradoxical; because, as Plato said, the One “neither is nor is one,” (Parm, 141e). That is, one-ness cannot itself be a one! Otherwise, it would not be the principle of individuation or uniqueness, but only an example of it. Think about it. The principle of ones cannot itself be another one, anymore than any principle can be an example of that of which it is supposed to be the principle. So, the One itself is nothing at all.

As the Platonists realized, formal descriptions of monocentric structures broke down at this deepest level: the totality of all things could not have in common something outside itself, since nothing is outside of it. Rather, the commonality of all things must be internal to this totality. Only, it cannot be anything in particular that is internal to the whole, lest the One itself be a one.

So, if it must be something – since there are ones – but it cannot be anything in particular, then it must be something imparticular. That is, it must be the arbitrary One. It is itself nothing, anymore than the arbitrary dog is itself a particular dog. Rather, it just stands for the arbitrary One, each of whose identity is such as to function like the form of Self for all selves.

The breakdown of monocentric plurality at this level makes sense then, not only because it is strict logically impossible for the center of unity for all things to be outside of all things, but because the center unity for all things cannot be any one thing in particular. As such, the Platonists reasoned to a sort of plurality that was appropriate for this level of reality, one we can call ‘polycentric plurality’.

The ‘Ones’ in whom all things subsist are identified by the Platonists as the Gods, and worshiped as such.

As the reader can imagine, the Platonists think of Gods in even grander terms than the Scholastics think of God. Indeed, to the Platonist, the Scholastic deity is no deity at all. Pure Act, or Ipsum Esse Subsistens is a creature in the monocentric structure of Nature; a postulate of a philosophical field wholly other than what we might think of as ‘Natural Theology’.

Polytheism is far stronger than a superfluous multiplication of deities: it describes the very structure of reality in a fundamentally different way than it would be on monotheism or atheism.

In fact, according to the Platonic vision, monotheism and atheism don’t make sense in a deeply troubling way because they purport to speak of highest reality but do so in terms of monocentric pluralities.

Theism just is polytheism.

This is the profound polytheism of the Platonists, which resembles almost nothing of the caricatures of Gods flouted by culture and academia. This is the theoretical framework which secures polytheism of any sort, so that traditions and experiences can flourish without ever fearing the possibility of being re-interpreted in monotheizing or atheizing terms.

I could continue forever on this, but I think this may suffice for now. I hope to attend other channels, and perhaps someday to even debate this matter in person. But if all I’ve done is peak your interest and given you a reason to maybe reconsider the merits of polytheism, then I will be deeply content.

If you’d like to see more of this in the meantime, consider checking out my book Polytheism: A Platonic Approach, as well as the posts on this website.

Supernaturalism & Theism: Chicken or the Egg?

In analytic philosophy of religion, it is not uncommon to think of Theism as being a sub-type of Supernaturalism.

The idea is that whereas Supernaturalism is merely the thesis that, say, something is supernatural; Theism specifies what this supernatural thing is as a God.

According to this taxonomy, Supernaturalism logically precedes Theism because while Theism entails Supernaturalism, Supernaturalism does not entail Theism. That is, if something supernatural like a God exists, then Supernaturalism must be true, but just because something is supernatural does not mean that it has to be a God. What if instead it was just an angel, or a demon, or some other type of spirit?

This way of classifying things assumes a view of divinity on which a God is a type of thing; namely, a supernatural type of thing.

But this assumption is either deeply controversial or misguiding, depending on how seriously we take it.

If we take it seriously that a God is a type of thing, then we have a view on which a God is not ultimate. There is something deeper or more fundamental than a God on account of which she is of the sort of thing that she is. In this case, supernatural — whether supernaturality is like a genus, species, or kind to which she belongs; or an essence, nature or property which she exemplifies, etc.

But this view has been rejected by a historical majority of thinkers who have held Theism (a move, for the record, derived from Platonism). So, it is deeply controversial to represent Theism as saying that a God is a type of thing.

However, if we do not take this way of speaking very seriously, then it is misguiding, because it implies a structuring of logical space (and so the apportioning of evidence) which is not true.

In either case, it is very problematic to put forth this way of describing Theism, at least when put forth among theists of a more classical bent, or as if their disagreements were negligible.

You might think that the alternative to having Theism depend on Supernaturalism is to having Supernaturalism depend on Theism. And, indeed, where the concept of supernaturality is imported from pre-philosophical reference to otherworldiness, perhaps such a move is wise. But, from a more Platonic perspective, there is another alternative, one which uses supernaturality in a more philosophical sense. On this alternative, Supernaturalism is Theism, and so neither derives from the other.

I argue in my book Polytheism: A Platonic Approach, that to be divine is to transcend Nature, and that to transcend Nature is just for one to be wholly ineffable. This latter claim is made because Nature is the whole of sensible, intelligible reality. One cannot transcend intelligible reality and yet still be intelligible as any sort of thing: she must be ineffable. As such, to be supernatural is just to be ineffable, and so, divine.

Needless to say, this view carries with it a very different way of organizing logical space!

Natural Law Ethics: A Platonist Searches for Answers

I’ve been doing some thinking on moral ontology and epistemology lately — what are moral values and duties, and how do we find out what those are? I’ve come to some new insights that I’d like to share with you. Before doing so, allow me to express a deep sense of humility here. I am attempting to clarify what seems true to me, and doing so within the Platonic worldview as I understand it. Nothing more, nothing less. I feel it necessary to say this because I don’t know of a “Platonic” moral theory, and there may be a reason for that. For all that, the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say.

For some time now, it has seemed to me that the moral ontology and epistemology which will seem correct to me will heavily rely on my broader metaphysical commitments to the polycentric manifold of henads — like everything else does. However, this intuition has seemed to conflict with the realization that religion and morality were separate for the Platonists, who were masters of this philosophical tradition. This apparent tension — between what seems true to me and what seemed true to my superiors — has left me in a state of cognitive dissonance that I resolved largely by ignoring it: it just hasn’t been clear what I should do here.

But it has recently occurred to me that there should not be this perceived tension. My intuition is that morality will derive from the henads because all things do; a conclusion I reach philosophically. It’s not that the henads should be absent from moral explanation, but that moral explanation does not involve the henads in their religious expressions.

This realization has encouraged me to return to my original search for answers.

I had left off with the Natural Law theory of morality. This theory has been championed by thinkers in more classical monotheist traditions — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholasticism — because they share in common a broad metaphysical view on which there are such things as ‘natures’.

Given that there is some fact of the matter about what it is to be a such-and-such (say, a horse, a cat, or a human being); that is, given that things have natures, there will be facts about what they are supposed to be like.

When it comes to human beings, the Natural Law theorists insist, this natural normativity — present in all things throughout Nature — becomes moral. That is, the facts about what we are supposed to be like, given the type of thing we are, concern the values and duties we associate with morality. For example, given that, say, it is our nature to be rational animals, it follows a fortiori that we are supposed to be rational. That is, we are not supposed to do irrational things: that’d be contrary to our natural normativity, contrary to what we are.

Something about this view gives off an uncanny scent of verisimilitude to me. After all, the background metaphysics of the Natural Law theorists came from the Platonists, and so I’m completely at home with things like natures, natural teleology and natural normativity.

But where my Platonic commitments conflict with Natural Law theory is in the idea of goodness. For the Platonist, Goodness is Metaphysical Uniqueness. For the Natural Law theorists, Goodness is Being. The difference may not be immediately apparent, but the two result in fundamentally different theories of morality — a difference I hope to expound upon at length eventually. For now, I want to sketch some of these differences, and then illustrate them with a prime example.

To begin, consider that the Platonist and the Natural Law theorist can both recognize natural normativity: there are facts about what things are supposed to be like, given the type of thing they in fact are. But is this normativity moral? That is, are things right or wrong, or good or bad because they are in line with or opposed to our nature? Or are they right or wrong etc. because of some other factor?

The Natural Law theorist sticks to natural normativity. Here we have naturally occurring values and duties; why be unsatisfied? To be morally good is just to be good at being human; it is to exemplify to a high extent the nature of humanity, to be an exemplar of our species.

Sameness is the ruling factor here: morality is not just objective — comprising actual facts about our nature — but also universally applicable: we are all subject to the same values and duties because we are all the same type of thing.

As the reader can gather, this moral ontology provides a very straightforward, intersubjective, verifiable moral epistemology: we can come to find out what our moral values and duties are by simply coming to know or better understanding what it is we are — and thus, what it is to be good at being what we are.

The Platonist can accept this entire story of natures, natural teleology, natural normativity and its attending epistemology, and still question whether any of it is moral. It could, for all she knows, amount to nothing more than a kingdom of practical reasons and ends, but not moral ones. This is because, for the Platonist, it’s not sameness that makes things good, but uniqueness. Thus, it would not be a respect in which we are the same that makes our values and duties moral, but a respect in which we are unique.

In other words, it would not be humanity that makes my natural normativity moral, but humanity as it is mine that does for me; humanity as I individuate it, or as it is individuated for me. What this means in concrete terms is something I’ve yet to satisfactorily articulate, though I hope to do just that eventually. But in more broad terms, the distinction between natural and moral normativity appears quite evident.

Consider vasectomies as a type of action that egregiously contravene our natural normativity:

Vasectomies directly prevent certain members of our species from being as they are supposed to, given what they are. It actually aims, explicitly, at disrupting one’s normative functionality; deliberately terminating the reproductive purpose of the male’s sexual organ.

Yet, despite the easily recognizable natural (vs moral) graveness of this procedure, when is the last time you saw protests against vasectomies? Where is the sharp moral disagreements over this procedure, productive of massive literature, heated discussions and public debate? How come less ‘naturally’ grave actions evoke more moral outrage? It is, to me at least, a crystalline example of a natural normativity issue that does not seem moral.

Examples of this sort corroborate the Platonic view I’ve been outlining; that there are natural norms, but that they aren’t necessarily moral.

I will continue to peer out into intellectual space, so to speak, for what seems true about all this and try to describe in progressively satisfying terms what it looks like I’m looking at. Until then, thank you for reading! And please feel free to share your thoughts!