Dean Bruce Wins AY19–20 Best Thesis Award

Congratulations to graduate student Dean Bruce, who won the award for Best Master’s Thesis in AY19–20 in the College of Liberal Arts. Dean produced an exemplary piece of historical scholarship, and one of the most erudite theses to come out of the MA program in decades.

In SP11, Dean earned a Bachelor’s degree from Cal State Long Beach in Cell and Molecular Biology. A couple of years later, he enrolled in philosophy of science with Prof. Cory Wright, and—after taking a few other courses over the years to catch up—Dean matriculated into the graduate program in Philosophy. Initially, Dean was focused on constructivist epistemology and scientific anti-realism; he also has an abiding interest in the David Hume’s moral and scientific philosophies, and was influenced by Prof. Jason Raibley’s moral psychology class. However, after seminars in philosophy of religion with Prof. Marcy Lascano, supplemented with courses in Plato and Aristotle with Dr. Max Rosenkrantz and continental rationalism with Dr. Larry Nolan, Dean became intrigued by medieval philosophy and read extensively throughout the primary, secondary, and tertiary literature on this period.

While he certainly has an affinity for early modern philosophy, and Hume in particular, Dean judged that this field had been extensively covered. And so he chose a thesis on Islamic philosophy owing to his desire to work on a novel and historically exotic philosophy topic. The result was a close study of the medieval Islamic thinker Abû Hâmid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ġhazâlî (fl. 1056–1111 CE) on the topic of occasionalism. al-Ġhazâlî was a highly influential philosopher, theologian, jurist, and mystic, and influenced numerous Muslim and Christian philosophers, like Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas. Traditionally, he is taken to have endorsed occasionalism, which is the metaphysical doctrine that God is the only genuine cause, and that any secondary causes merely provide the ‘occasion’ upon which God exercises causal power in the world. Contrary to the standard interpretation, however, Dean argues in his thesis that al-Ghazâlî’s commitment to occasionalism is complicated and often indeterminate, and raises questions about natural science and divine omnipotence. Here is the abstract to Dean’s thesis:

This thesis is a study of al-Ġhazâlî’s views on occasionalism. Although al-Ġhazâlî’s views on occasionalism are indeterminate, it is evident that his theological work aimed to affirm the omnipotence and liberty of God in exerting influence upon created order. One polemical challenge against divine omnipotence and the integrity of religious revelation from the Islamic tradition comes from the Aristotelian-inspired philosophers who argue that the order operates through natures that are intrinsic to certain objects. This view on natural philosophy undermines the orthodox commitment to miracles as depicted in the Qur’an and hadith literature. al-Ġhazâlî used a variety of arguments to affirm miracles and God’s agency in the created order, not only assailing the natural philosophy that the world operates according to the natures intrinsic to created objects, but also arguing that God can operate through mysterious and previously unknown phenomena in the natural order. Thus, according to al-Ġhazâlî, since God can manifest his power through mysterious, unknown phenomenon, there is no epistemological means to distinguish between natural and supernatural events. That is unproblematic for al-Ġhazâlî if God’s power is so pervasive that it encompasses everything. However, it undermines miracles as being a theological proof of the validity of revelation and prophecy.

Dean successfully defended his thesis on March 4th to great fanfare, just before the University began closing down due to the covid-19 pandemic of 2020, and is graduating in SP20 from Cal State Long Beach, again—this time with a Master’s degree in Philosophy. His accomplishment represents the best of the Liberal Arts: original research that seamlessly integrates scientific understanding of the cosmos with historical exegesis and the analysis of important ideas during the Islamic Golden Age. Again, congratulations, Dean, on your accomplishment. You’ve made us all very proud!

In the near future, Dean plans to attend a doctoral program to work on early modern moral sentimentalist metaethics, particularly as it concerns the work of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. He also plans to return to campus to engage in discussions with his professors and fellow philosophy students He may continue to work in this area, and pursue publication of his research and to work further in the philosophy of religion.