Published Work


Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World, Oxford University Press (2017)

Berkeley's philosophy is meant to be a defense of commonsense. However, Berkeley's claim that the ultimate constituents of physical reality are fleeting, causally passive ideas appears to be radically at odds with commonsense. In particular, such a theory seems unable to account for the robust structure which commonsense (and Newtonian physics) takes the world to exhibit. The problem of structure, as I understand it, includes the problem of how qualities can be grouped by their co-occurrence in a single enduring object and how these enduring objects can bear spatiotemporal, causal, and other relations to one another. I argue that Berkeley's solution to these problems lies in his views about language. At one level, human language allows us to exploit patterns in our perceptions to construct a highly structured representation of the physical world which allows us to make accurate predictions at minimal cognitive expense. At a deeper level, these patterns occur in perception because our perceptions themselves form a language in which God speaks to us.

Journal Articles

"Ideas and Explanation in Early Modern Philosophy," Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, forthcoming.

Malebranche argues that ideas are representative beings existing in God. He defends this thesis by an inference to the best explanation of human perception. It is well-known that Malebranche's theory of vision in God was forcefully rejected by philosophers such as Arnauld, Locke, and Berkeley. However, the notion that ideas exist in God was not the only controversial aspect of Malebranche's approach. Another controversy centered around Malebranche's view that ideas are to be understood as posits in an explanatory theory. Opponents of this approach, including Arnauld and Locke, held that our talk about ideas was not explanatory but instead merely descriptive: we use the word 'idea' to describe phenomena that we observe by reflecting on our own minds. This controversy has not received much attention from scholars, but in the present paper I will show that it was an explicit and important subject of concern for Malebranche, Arnuald, Locke, and Berkeley and that attention to this controversy can illuminate several aspects of these philosophers' work.

"Intentionality, Belief, and the Logical Problem of Evil," Religious Studies, forthcoming, DOI: 10.1017/S0034412519000088.

This paper provides a new defence against the logical problem of evil, based on the naturalistic functional/teleological theory of mind (NFT). I argue that if the NFT is self-consistent then it is consistent with theism. Further, the NFT entails that it is not possible for created minds to exist in the absence of evil. It follows that if the NFT is self-consistent then the existence of God is consistent with the existence of evil.

"William King on Free Will," Philosophers' Imprint, forthcoming.

William King's De Origine Mali (1702) contains an interesting, sophisticated, and original account of free will. King finds 'necessitarian' theories of freedom, such as those advocated by Hobbes and Locke, inadequate, but argues that standard versions of libertarianism commit one to the claim that free will is a faculty for going wrong. On such views, free will is something we would be better off without. King argues that both problems can be avoided by holding that we confer value on objects by valuing them. Such a view secures sourcehood and alternate possibilities while denying that free will is simply a capacity to choose contrary to our best judgment. This theory escapes all of the objections levelled against it by Leibniz and also has interesting consequences for ethics: although constructed within a eudaimonist framework, King's theory gives rise to a very strong moral requirement of respect for individual self-determination.

"What Descartes Doubted, Berkeley Denied, and Kant Endorsed," Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, forthcoming, DOI: 10.1017/S0012217317000981

According to Kant, there is some doctrine, which he sometimes calls 'empirical realism,' such that it was doubted by Descartes, denied by Berkeley, and endorsed by Kant himself. It may be doubted whether there really is such a doctrine or, if there is, whether it takes the form Kant seems to say it does. For instance, if empirical realism is taken as the assertion that familiar objects like tables and chairs exist, then this doctrine was neither seriously doubted by Descartes, nor denied by Berkeley. If empirical realism is the view that such objects are mind-independent, then it was clearly denied by Berkeley, but was neither seriously doubted by Descartes, nor straightforwardly endorsed by Kant. Kant's assertion thus presents us with a puzzle: what might empirical realism be? The primary aim of this paper will be to reconstruct Kant's own narrative of the historical relationship between Descartes, Berkeley, and himself, in order to identify the doctrine Kant calls 'empirical realism.' I argue that the empirical realism which Descartes doubted, Berkeley denied, and Kant endorsed is the doctrine that the concept of extended substance has legitimate application.

"Locke, Arnauld, and Abstract Ideas," British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27 (2019): 75-94

A great deal of the criticism directed at Locke's theory of abstract ideas, assumes that a Lockean abstract idea is a special kind of idea which by its very nature either represents many diverse particulars or represents separately things that cannot exist in separation. This interpretation of Locke has been challenged by scholars such as Kenneth Winkler and Michael Ayers who regard it as uncharitable in light of the obvious problems faced by this theory of abstraction. Winkler and Ayers argue that Locke instead held that to have an abstract idea is to attend selectively to some portion of the content of a particular idea. On this view, to have an abstract idea is not to have a special kind of idea but to have an ordinary idea in a special way. Ayers argues that Locke inherited this theory from Arnauld. I argue that the case made by Ayers for the attribution of the extrinsic theory to Locke rests on a misinterpretation of Arnauld. In fact, both Locke and Arnauld regard selective attention as part of a process whereby a new kind of idea is constructed.

"How Berkeley's Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 98 (2017): 553-576

The defense of common sense in Berkeley's Three Dialogues is, first and foremost, a defense of the gardener's claim to know this cherry tree, a claim threatened by both Cartesian and Lockean philosophy. Berkeley's defense of the gardener's knowledge depends on his claim that the being of a cherry tree consists in its being perceived. This is not something the gardener believes; rather, it is a philosophical analysis of the rules unreflectively followed by the gardener in his use of the word 'exists'. It is by following these rules that the gardener gains knowledge of the cherry tree. Uncovering these deep connections between Berkeley's epistemology and his philosophy of language and placing them in the context of his critique of both Cartesian and Lockean philosophy will clarify Berkeley's strategy for bringing his reader back to common sense and practical engagement in the ordinary affairs of life.

"Berkeley on Unperceived Objects and the Publicity of Language," History of Philosophy Quarterly 34 (2017): 231-250

Berkeley's immaterialism aims to undermine Descartes's skeptical arguments by denying that the connection between sensory perception and reality is contingent. However, this seems to undermine Berkeley's (alleged) defense of commonsense by failing to recognize the existence of objects not presently perceived by humans. I argue that this problem can be solved by means of two neglected Berkeleian doctrines: the status of the world as "a most coherent, instructive, and entertaining Discourse" which is 'spoken' by God (Siris, sect. 254) and the nature of language as a public social practice. Together these doctrines entail that ordinary physical objects, including those that are not presently perceived, are a joint product of divine discursive activity and human interpretive activity.

"Foundational Grounding and the Argument from Contingency," Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion 8 (2017): 245-268. Winner of the 2016 Sanders Prize in Philosophy of Religion.

The argument from contingency for the existence of God is best understood as a request for an explanation of the total sequence of causes and effects in the universe ('History' for short). Many puzzles about how there could be such an explanation arise from the assumption that God is being introduced as one more cause prepended to the sequence of causes that (allegedly) needed explaining. In response to this difficulty, this chapter defends three theses. First, it argues that, if the argument from contingency is to succeed, the explanation of History in terms of God must not be a causal explanation; second, that a particular hypothesis about God’s relation to History—that God is what I call the foundational ground of History—is intelligible and explanatory; third and finally, that the explanatory advantages of this hypothesis cannot be had within the confines of naturalism.

"Counterpossible Dependence and the Efficacy of the Divine Will," Faith and Philosophy, 34 (2017): 3-16

The will of an omnipotent being would be perfectly efficacious. Alexander Pruss and I have provided an analysis of perfect efficacy that relies on non-trivial counterpossible conditionals. Scott Hill has objected that not all of the required counterpossibles are true of God. Sarah Adams has objected that perfect efficacy of will (on any analysis) would be an extrinsic property and so is not suitable as a divine attribute. I argue that both of these objections can be answered if the divine will is taken to be the ground, rather than the cause, of its fulfillment.

"Arnauld's Verbal Distinction Between Ideas and Perceptions," History and Philosophy of Logic 37 (2016): 375-390

In his dispute with Malebranche about the nature of ideas, Arnauld endorses a form of direct realism. This appears to conflict with views put forward by Arnauld and his collaborators in the Port-Royal Grammar and Logic where ideas are treated as objects in the mind. This tension can be resolved by a careful examination of Arnauld's remarks on the semantics of 'perception' and 'idea' in light of the Port-Royal theory of language. This examination leads to the conclusion that Arnauld's ideas really are objects in the mind, and not perceptual acts as many commentators hold. What Arnauld denies is that these mental objects are really distinct from the external objects they represent. Instead, Arnauld holds that, by the act of conception, the external objects themselves - not copies - come to be present in the mind and are therefore called 'ideas'.

"Leibniz and the Veridicality of Body Perceptions," Philosophers' Imprint 16 (2016)

According to Leibniz's late metaphysics, sensory perception represents to us as extended, colored, textured, etc., a world which fundamentally consists only of non-spatial, colorless entities, the monads. It is a short step from here to the conclusion that sensory perception radically misleads us about the true nature of reality. In this paper, I argue that this oft-repeated claim is false. Leibniz holds that in typical cases of body perception the bodies perceived really exist and have the qualities, both primary and secondary, they are perceived to have. At the same time, Leibniz holds that our perceptions of these bodies are accurate representations of the monads from which the bodies result. The contrary thesis - that our body perceptions are misrepresentations of the monads - stems from a misunderstanding of Leibniz's theory of confused concepts and his phenomenalist account of the nature of body. Clarifying these issues will have important consequences for our understanding of Leibniz's idealistic metaphysics and the manner in which that metaphysical theory is meant to support mechanistic science.

"Counteressential Conditionals," Thought: A Journal of Philosophy 5 (2016): 73-81

Making sense of our reasoning in disputes about necessary truths requires admitting non-vacuous counterpossibles. One class of these is the counteressentials, which ask us to make contrary to fact (and therefore contrary to possibility) suppositions about essences. A popular strategy in accounting for non-vacuous counterpossibles is to extend the standard possible worlds semantics for subjunctive conditionals by the addition of impossible worlds. A conditional A ☐→ C is then taken to be true if all of the nearest A worlds (whether possible or impossible) are C worlds. I argue that this approach fails as applied to counteressentials due to the obscurity of the nearness relation and due to its failure to take seriously the relationship between counteressentials and grounding. I then propose an alternative covering law semantics for counteressentials which makes central use of the notion of grounding.

"Berkeley's Lockean Religious Epistemology," Journal of the History of Ideas 75 (2014): 417-438

Berkeley's main aim in his well-known early works was to identify and refute "the grounds of Scepticism, Atheism, and irreligion." This appears to place Berkeley within a well-established tradition of religious critics of Locke's epistemology, including, most famously, Stillingfleet. I argue that these appearances are deceiving. Berkeley is, in fact, in important respects an opponent of this tradition. According to Berkeley, Locke's earlier critics, including Stillingfleet, had misidentified the grounds of irreligion in Locke's philosophy while all the while endorsing the true grounds of irreligion themselves. Locke's epistemology is innocent; matter and abstraction are to blame.

"Understanding Omnipotence" (with Alexander R. Pruss), Religious Studies 48 (2012): 403-414

An omnipotent being would be a being whose power was unlimited. The power of human beings is limited in two distinct ways: we are limited with respect to our freedom of will, and we are limited in our ability to execute what we have willed. These two distinct sources of limitation suggest a simple definition of omnipotence: an omnipotent being is one that has both perfect freedom of will and perfect efficacy of will. In this paper we further explicate this definition and show that it escapes the standard objections to divine omnipotence.

"Thomas Reid on Character and Freedom," History of Philosophy Quarterly 29 (2012): 159-176

According to Thomas Reid, an agent cannot be free unless she has the power to do otherwise. This claim is usually interpreted as a version of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. Against this interpretation, I argue that Reid is committed to the seemingly paradoxical position that an agent may have the power to do otherwise despite the fact that it is impossible that she do otherwise. Reid's claim about the power to do otherwise does not, therefore, entail the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. When it is an agent's character that deprives her of alternate possibilities, she is not thereby deprived of either power or freedom, and this is true even if the agent was not free or active in the formation of her character.

"The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley," Religious Studies 44 (2008): 249-268

George Berkeley's linguistic account of sense perception is one of the most central tenets of his philosophy. It is intended as a solution to a wide range of critical issues in both metaphysics and theology. However, it is not clear from Berkeley's writings just how this "universal language of the Author of Nature" is to be interpreted. This paper discusses the nature of the theory of sense perception as language, together with its metaphysical and theological motivations, then proceeds to develop an account of the semantics of the perceptual language, using Berkeley's theory of reference for human language as a guide.

Edited Volume

Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics, with Tyron Goldschmidt, Oxford University Press (2017)

Idealism is a family of metaphysical views each of which gives priority to the mental. The best-known forms of idealism in Western philosophy are Berkeleyan idealism, which gives ontological priority to the mental (minds and ideas) over the physical (bodies), and Kantian idealism, which gives a kind of explanatory priority to the mental (the structure of the understanding) over the physical (the structure of the empirical world).

Although idealism was once a dominant view in Western philosophy, it has suffered almost total neglect over the last several decades. This book rectifies this situation by bringing together seventeen essays by leading philosophers on the topic of metaphysical idealism. The various essays explain, attack, or defend a variety of idealistic theories, including not only Berkeleyan and Kantian idealisms but also those developed in traditions less familiar to analytic philosophers, including Buddhism and Hassidic Judaism. Although a number of the articles draw on historical sources, all will be of interest to philosophers working in contemporary metaphysics. This volume aims to spark a revival of serious philosophical interest in metaphysical idealism.

Book Chapters

"Berkeley's Theory of Language" in The Oxford Handbook of Berkeley, ed. Samuel C. Rickless (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

According to the ideational theory of meaning held by most 17th and 18th century European philosophers, meaningful words signify ideas in the mind of the speaker. This view was famously rejected by George Berkeley. Some interpreters hold that, in rejecting this view Berkeley meant merely to carve out some exceptions to the general principle that meaningful words stand for ideas. Others attribute to Berkeley the view that, rather than signifying ideas, words signify speaker intentions. Finally, some interpreters attribute to Berkeley a use theory of language similar to the later Wittgenstein. This article provides an overview of this interpretive debate and a defence of the use theory interpretation.

"Infinite Power and Finite Powers" in The Infinity of God: New Perspectives in Theology and Philosophy, ed. Benedikt Paul Göcke and Christian Tapp (Notre Dame University Press, 2018)

Alexander Pruss and I have proposed an analysis of omnipotence which makes no use of the problematic terms 'power' and 'ability'. However, this raises an obvious worry: if our analysis is not related to the notion of power, then how can it count as an analysis of omnipotence, the property of being all-powerful, at all? In this paper, I show how omnipotence can be understood as the possession of infinite power (general, universal, or unlimited power) rather than the possession of particular powers. I then argue that the ordinary notions of particular powers or abilities can be understood as applying vague limitations to the notion of infinite power. The vagueness of these limitations is the source of the well-known difficulties in the analysis of ability.

"Matter, God, and Nonsense: Berkeley's Polemic against the Freethinkers in the Three Dialogues" in Berkeley's Three Dialogues: New Essays, ed. Stefan Storrie (Oxford University Press, 2018)

In the Preface to the Three Dialogues, Berkeley says that one of his main aims is to refute the free-thinkers. Puzzlingly, however, we are then treated to a dialogue between two Christians in which the free-thinkers never reappear. This is related to a second, more general puzzle about Berkeley's religious polemics: although Berkeley says he is defending orthodox conclusions, he also reminds himself in his notebooks "To use the utmost Caution not to give the least Handle of offence to the Church or Church-men." What is Berkeley worried about? Both of these puzzles are solved by the recognition that the argument against matter in the Three Dialogues is patterned after an argument for atheism that Berkeley attributed to Anthony Collins. Berkeley's aim is thus to use the free-thinkers' own premises and arguments against them. In doing this, however, he rejects doctrines many churchmen held dear -- most notably, the doctrine of divine analogy.

"Mereological Idealism" in Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics, ed. Tyron Goldschmidt and Kenneth L. Pearce (Oxford University Press, 2017)

According to commonsense, some collections of objects compose wholes, and others do not. However, philosophers have found serious difficulties with attempts to preserve this thesis, and especially with attempts to preserve the existence of just those composite objects recognized by commonsense. In this paper, I defend a classical solution to this problem: "it is the mind that maketh each thing to be one" (Berkeley, Siris, sect. 356). According to this view, which I call 'mereological idealism,' it is when a plurality is united in thought under a concept that a unified whole comes to exist. After explaining the view in more detail, I show how it escapes three standard arguments against commonsense views of composition.

Reference Articles

"Berkeley's Philosophy of Religion" in The Bloomsbury Companion to Berkeley, ed. Richard Brook and Bertil Belfrage (Bloomsbury, 2017)

"Deism" in The Special Divine Action Project, Oxford University (Bodleian Library, 2017)

"Port-Royal" in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, ed. Tim Crane (Routledge, 2015)

"Omnipotence" in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (November 8, 2011)

Book Reviews

Review of Idealism and Christian Theology, ed. Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton, Faith and Philosophy, forthcoming

Review of The Everlasting Check: Hume on Miracles by Alexander George, Journal of the History of Philosophy 54 (2016): 680-681

Review of The Puzzle of Existence: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, ed. Tyron Goldschmidt, Faith and Philosophy 31 (2014): 341-344

Work in Progress

"A Leibnizian Theory of Miracles"

Most accounts of miracles assume that a necessary condition for an event's being miraculous is that it be, as Hume put it, "a violation of the laws of nature." However, any account of this sort will be ill-suited for defending the major Western religious traditions because, as I will argue, classical theists should not believe in violations of the laws of nature. In place of the rejected Humean accounts, this paper seeks to develop and defend a Leibnizian conception of miracles on which an event is said to be miraculous just in case we can discover its final cause but not its efficient cause.


An Annotated Bibliography of Omnipotence, prepared in the course of writing my IEP article.

"Can Berkeley's God Raise the Same Body Transformed?" Presentation to the Society of Christian Philosophers, Pacific Division Conference: Mind, Body and Free Will. Riverside, CA, October 31, 2008.

Orthodox Christianity affirms a bodily resurrection of the dead. That is, Christians believe that at some point in the eschatological future, possibly after a period of (conscious or unconscious) disembodied existence, we will once again live and animate our own bodies. However, our bodies will also undergo radical qualitative transformation. This creates a serious problem: how can a body persist across both temporal discontinuity and qualitative transformation? After discussing this problem as it appears in contemporary philosophical literature on the resurrection, I will argue that George Berkeley's immaterialist metaphysics is more successful than either physicalism or dualism in escaping objectionsto resurrection based on the problem of qualitative transformation. In order to accomplish this, I will first discuss Berkeley's views on the metaphysics of so-called 'ordinary' objects, including human bodies, and then apply this view to the resurrection of the dead, ultimately showing that, for Berkeley, the radical transformation of the body in the resurrection is no more problematic than the case of a straight oar appearing bent when one end is inserted in water.