Timothy O’Connor’s brief Theism and Ultimate Explanation has already garnered much discussion since its publication in 2008. Notably, the most recent edition of Philosophia Christi features a book symposium on the work. What is all the fuss about?
Theism and Ultimate Explanation is broken into two parts. Part I addresses “The Explanatory Role of Necessity” while Part II addresses “The Necessary Shape of Contingency.”
Part I contains some fantastic arguments. O’Connor outlines various views on modality and seeks to defend modal realism, which takes modal truths to be actual truths about our world (and other worlds). Further, he defends the possibility of a priori truths against attacks from those who argue that all such truths need to be established empirically.
There are some who argue that empirical evidence (such as quantum mechanics) helps to undermine belief in some methods of reasoning, such as the law of non-contradiction, but O’Connor counters this by pointing out that those who make the argument that the “odd” data which may seem to contradict the method of reasoning against which their argument is directed are using the very methods of reasoning which they are trying to undermine. Another possibility is that the empiricist making this claim has switched to a different method of reasoning in order to critique that which holds to things like the law of non-contradiction, but O’Connor points out that a critique from such a method is “underwhelming” at best (46).
In Part II, O’Connor argues that it is coherent to ask the question, “Why is there anything (contingent) at all?” (65). He further argues that the only possible answer to this question is a termination in a necessary being. “If the universe truly is contingent, the obtaining of certain fundamental facts or other will be unexplained within empirical theory, whatever the topological structure of contingent reality… it will have to ground in some way… in a necessary being, something which has the reason for its existence within its own nature” (76).
He then turns to the question of what the nature of that necessary being may be, by examining two possibilities: “chaos” and “logos“. Logos is the view which calls the necessary being God, whilst chaos argues that it is a random being or a brute fact. O’Connor argues that logos is the most rational view to hold.
Finally, in chapter 6, O’Connor turns to theological reflections on the argument thus far. He argues that the concept of an immutable, timeless being seems contradictory to things like the trinity, but maintains that a less restricted of both of these views is plausible. He argues against molinism briefly, by stating that the counterfactuals involved would have no truthmakers.
O’Connor’s book weighs in at about 144 pages of text, but he makes use of every word. My biggest complaint about the book is how short it is. Often, it seems as though O’Connor simply doesn’t take the time to address the issues he is discussing in enough detail. Part I and the argument for the necessary being do seem to be adequately established, but chapter 6 in particular doesn’t do justice to opposing views. For example, the molinist could respond to O’Connor’s argument by saying that the “truthmaker” of such counterfactuals is simply existence in the mind of God. This could lead to an argument for determinism on molinism, but then the molinist could point to the distinction between de re and de dicto necessity. The arguments leveled against a timeless deity or an immutable one suffer similarly from limitations of space. I think O’Connor should have used the space of this chapter to expand the other ideas already present in his work.
As it stands, Theism and Ultimate Explanation is a fantastic work which is great reading for the philosopher of religion. It can be finished in one sitting, but the ideas therein will keep readers contemplating the work for quite a while afterwards. It comes recommended, but with the stipulation that readers may be left wanting more.
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