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The Pan(en)theisms of Leslie and Sprigge

The Pan(en)theisms of Leslie and Sprigge


By Scott Ryan

John A. Leslie (born 2 August 1940) and Timothy L.S. Sprigge (14 January 1932—11 July 2007) have enjoyed an unusually high degree of intellectual kinship. Most notably, each has defended a version of pantheism (or panentheism), and each has described himself as essentially a Spinozist. In this essay I want to compare their versions of pan(en)theism and see whether and how they might complement one another. (Henceforth I shall employ the term pantheism for both, as that is the term each of them employs most often in characterizing his views.)

I have already summarized Sprigge’s views in “Timothy Sprigge and the Importance of Subjectivity”, so in the first part of this essay I briefly summarize Leslie’s. In the second part I consider how well the two pantheisms fit together.

Leslie is probably best known as a defender of the view that the world exists because there is an ethical need for it to do so—a view usually called axiarchism and deriving ultimately from a Platonic account of the “Form of the Good” (and indeed Leslie characterizes his view as Neoplatonic). Moreover, he gives a rather Spinozistic account of this world as consisting of a mind worthy of being called divine, together with its thoughts, which literally constitute the physical universe in which we live, including ourselves. (It is important to understand here that by “ethical,” Leslie means “axiological” rather than “moral.” He is not claiming that the world exists because of a moral obligation for someone or something to behave in a certain way; he is arguing for the necessary realization of certain values.)

Combining these two views, Leslie contends that our world exists because there is a creatively effective ethical requirement that there be a divine mind that knows everything worth knowing. He sees no reason why there might not be infinitely many such minds, each with its own universe; after all, if it’s good that one such mind exist, perhaps it’s even better if more do. There also appears to be no reason why one such mind could not contemplate infinitely many universes.

Leslie does not claim to be able to offer a knockdown proof of this claim (and in fact holds generally that not very many interesting propositions of philosophy can be firmly established in such a way). Instead he offers reasons why his view makes better sense than it might appear at first look and why it might serve as a better explanation than its alternatives for the world in which we find ourselves. The reader interested in Leslie’s arguments will find them most fully developed in Value and Existence, with follow-up discussion and elaboration in Universes (particularly chapter 8) and Infinite Minds, and presented in an easily accessible form in Immortality Defended (particularly chapters 2 and 3).

Leslie intends his proposal as an answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, but it is important to bring out a step in his argument that, over the years, he has grown increasingly more careful to make explicit. That step is the initial observation that there can’t be just a mere void, for even in the absence of anything existent at all, there would still be a Platonic realm of logical possibilities, mathematical truths, and so forth: even if there aren’t cows (or unicorns), there could be cows (or unicorns). In other words his “something” springs, not from a mere “nothing,” a total blank or absence of everything whatsoever, but from a realm the total absence of which is simply inconceivable. At this point his proposal steps in to say that some of these possibilities must actually be realized, again because it is in some sense good or ethically required that they be so. In particular, he says, there could be a creative ethical requirement that there exist a divine mind (or many such minds) that know(s) everything worth knowing.

Is Leslie therefore saying that God is brought into being by something else, namely an ontologically prior ethical requiredness? No. First of all, for Leslie, “God” is a name for the creative ethical requiredness itself, the Platonic “Form of the Good” which is necessarily self-existent (or perhaps beyond and prior to “existence”) and from which all else in some way derives its being.

However, as he is particularly at pains to emphasize in Infinite Minds, each of the perhaps infinitely many universe-contemplating minds themselves could plausibly be called divine (and presumably therefore also “God”) as well. But then are these Gods not beholden to something external for their being? Again, no. Each of them exists because of its own ethical requiredness, its own goodness, and therefore does not owe its existence to any power external to it: it exists by virtue of the fact that it in itself is so good, so to speak, that it can’t not exist.

Leslie’s proposal that there might be such a creatively effective form of ethical requiredness at the very heart of reality probably strikes many modern ears as odd. It should be noted, though, that in The Miracle of Theism no less a skeptic than J.L. Mackie presented it as a genuinely plausible alternative to theism, rejecting it primarily because he (who famously propounded the “argument from queerness”) did not believe ethical values had the requisite objective existence. (Leslie has always, by the way, credited Mackie for helping his views to receive a broader hearing, and Derek Parfit for bringing those views to Mackie’s attention in the first place.)

Nor, as Leslie makes clearer in his later works, should his axiarchism be regarded merely as an alternative to theism rather than as one possible understanding of it. A brief detour may help here. Leslie characterizes his outlook as Neoplatonic but does not, so far as I know, intend this term to refer specifically to the philosophical outlook of Plotinus and his successors to the exclusion of modern Neoplatonism. (These philosophers have been called “Neoplatonic” by modern historians of philosophy, but of course they never called themselves any such thing; they regarded themselves simply as followers of Plato.)  However, it will be instructive to consider briefly how Leslie’s scheme compares to Plotinus’s.

The First Principle of Plotinus’s ontology is the One, a perfect, self-existent, simple unity that admits of no division into parts and cannot be properly said to have attributes. Like Plato’s Form of the Good, it is in some sense beyond, and ontologically prior to, all being. Its eternal self-contemplation gives rise to the Intellect, the realm in which the Platonic Forms dwell. (Here Plotinus departs from at least the usual interpretation of Plato, who apparently regarded the Forms as uncreated and existing in a realm independent of God; Plotinus, taking what seems to be a more Aristotelian approach, regards them as inhabiting the Divine Intellect that itself emanates from the One.) The Intellect gives rise to the World-Soul, which, in contemplating the Forms, gives rise in turn to the world we know, in which our individual souls are objects of the World-Soul’s knowledge or contemplation.

In Leslie’s account, the role of the One is fulfilled by creative ethical requiredness, which gives rise, if not precisely to the Intellect and in turn the World-Soul, at least to a divine mind that in some manner “knows” our world into existence. The two accounts are more than superficially similar, and indeed they are strikingly so in regarding our own individual selves or souls as the objects of contemplation/knowledge of an all-inclusive intelligence.

In at least this respect, then, Leslie’s account of God gives one possible understanding or development of the Neoplatonic strand of classical theism—and indeed is much closer to classical theism than are the more modern theologies of, say, Swinburne, Plantinga, and Craig, though a discussion of this point is outside the scope of this essay. In general, as Leslie himself is well aware, Neoplatonism has been the basis of theistic belief for many Christians over many centuries and has fallen out of favor and fashion only in the modern era; nor, as Leslie is also aware, need one be Christian in order to adopt it as a philosophical outlook. Even among religious believers, neither Neoplatonism specifically nor classical theism generally is an exclusively Christian affair. Moreover there is a clear sense in which his God, like Plotinus’s One (and like the God of classical theism generally), is both necessarily existent and the uncaused cause of everything else that exists—everything, that is, except perhaps the Platonic realm of possibilities itself, which, so far as I can tell, Leslie takes the principle of creative ethical requiredness to inhabit in some way.

But we need not pursue the matter here, as our main concern in what follows is not with how well Leslie’s theology exemplifies classical theism but how it compares, contrasts, and comports with Sprigge’s version of pantheism. The purpose of this detour has been to get clear what Leslie’s account says, and take the edge off its apparent strangeness for the modern reader by providing a cursory understanding of how it is related to classical theism. (Of course classical theism is itself probably quite strange to the modern reader, indeed even to the modern theist, but unfortunately we cannot turn aside here to remedy that problem.)

One obvious point of possible contention between Leslie and Sprigge is a question they themselves have addressed (in Consciousness, Reality and Value, edited by Pierfrancesco Basile and Leemon McHenry): how many divine minds are there? Although Sprigge does make several arguments on this point, he acknowledges several times in his writings that he has no strong intellectual reasons for supposing that there simply cannot be more than one divine mind (each with its own universe), but he thinks that if there were, the unity of his Absolute would suffer for it—whereas Leslie thinks that having more than one divine mind, each perhaps knowing that the others must exist, would add value to the totality of existence. Here we have perhaps more a difference in emphasis than an actual conflict, but there is undoubtedly some tension between their views.

Another difference is that Sprigge’s pantheism doesn’t include a creation story and indeed he seems not to think his own God is any sort of creator at all. (He expressly denies that the God of his version of pantheism is the creator of a universe other than God—presumably because he doesn’t think there is any universe “other than” God.) He has also, according to Leslie, expressed misgivings about the idea that ethical requiredness is what ultimately determines which of the numerous possible essences are selected for existence.

However, we can still ask whether Sprigge’s pantheism is at least compatible with a creation story. And it’s hard to see why it would not be. At the very least, Sprigge seems to give no reason why we could not regard his innumerable finite centers of experience as having themselves been brought into being by the Absolute itself. Sprigge does not seem to believe this is the case, but I am not aware of anything in his writings that specifically argues against it.

Indeed, in the final chapter of The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, he mentions the “ethically inspiring idea” that “what looks forth from another’s eyes, what perhaps throbs with felt if dim emotion within an electron, is really the very thing which, when speaking with my lips, calls itself ‘I’” [p. 274]. This surely suggests that this unitary “I” is, or at least might be, the fundamental metaphysical reality behind even the most primitive centers of experience.

But is it specifically compatible with Leslie’s creation story? I think that it is. Again, Sprigge has expressed some discomfort with this story on other grounds, but although it might not be compatible with his views on ethics and goodness, it does not seem to conflict in principle with his pantheism.

A perhaps less importance difference might seem to be as follows. For Leslie, the physical/material world just is a certain sort of structure. For Sprigge, the structure of the physical world is phenomenal only, noumenally “backed” or “filled out” by innumerable finite centers of experience.

However, this difference may be only apparent. Both Sprigge and Leslie believe that, in the end, nothing exists apart from consciousness. Sprigge believes this because he finds it impossible to “imagine” (in a specific relevant sense) any noumenal reality other than experience. Leslie’s reason is different: he holds that his principle of creative ethical requiredness simply wouldn’t create anything else. But although their reasons are different, their conclusions are not at odds. In either case, the noumenal “backing” of the structure of the physical world is consciousness of some kind. If Sprigge turns out to be right that the “physical” universe itself truly consists of innumerable finite centers of experience, Leslie’s pantheism is not thereby shown to be in any way incorrect.

Our conclusion, then, is that, based at least on a superficial look at their two versions of pantheism, Leslie and Sprigge could both be right, and their pantheisms might be combined into a coherent account that includes both a creation story and the argument that experience is the basic “stuff” of reality (or at least of created reality; it might seem odd to characterize Leslie’s creative ethical requirement as “experience”). A closer analysis might reveal discrepancies in detail, but at a broad level their accounts appear to be compatible.



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