Commenter Catherine recently commented on a post from 2013 in which I offered an ontological argument for the existence of God, asking for help with the covalent ontological arguments of St. Anselm of Canterbury and of Alvin Plantinga. She wrote:
I’m currently suffering through a Philosophy of Religion course (the democratic nature of these courses is sickening), and we have just gone over the cosmological arguments, arguments from design, the ontological arguments, and their respective criticisms. I’m writing an essay about which I prefer and discussing its strengths and weaknesses. I immediately go toward the ontological argument per St. Anselm, which I have loved for years now. The problem is that each time I study it I find myself peering at it through seemingly various aspects that become obscure to me as the next one approaches (this also could be linked to sleep issues, but anyway). I would love to get your perspective on it. What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it? Can a Thomist use the ontological argument? Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm? How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being? Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously). Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga? I’m very unfamiliar with analytic philosophy, so I hardly even tried to tackle his writing on it. I wrote on a paper for a concise summary of his argument, “If it is possible for God to exist, then it is impossible for God not to exist,” and yesterday morning it CLICKED, wonderfully (but at the same time I feel as though there’s a strange gap between the two statements that I need to work out). Is it possible to reconcile this with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)? What about Aquinas? Please, Kristor, don’t be vague (not to say that you tend to be); I really could use your help even from a personal position. Thank you.
The rest of this post is my response.
I’ll do what I can to help, but I must say that an adequate answer to any one of those questions would have to go on for many pages. I’ll see if I can give them each at least short shrift, and then you can respond back to me with any follow up questions. I should also warn you that I am probably not the best person to ask about these things. I’m just an amateur.
What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it?
I don’t think Thomas could quite bring himself to grapple with the argument. His objection is identical with my own first reaction to Anselm: “Shoot, just because you can think of a thing doesn’t mean that it actually exists.” It’s a little more complicated than that, but I think that’s what his objection boils down to.
I think this objection does not answer Anselm’s argument. The argument goes as follows (cribbing here from Wikipedia):
- It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
- God exists as an idea in the mind.
- A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
- Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
- But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
- Therefore, God exists.
The key step is 5. The thrust of 5 is that the thought that God might not exist is not coherently conceivable at all, once we understand what the term “God” must mean. As logically incoherent, it is a proposition that cannot be entertained, even by God (no matter how easy it seems at first to entertain it). And an incoherent proposition can’t be true; it can’t even make sense, so as to be either true or false.
Not only that, but an incoherent proposition cannot be carried into practice – cannot become true in act. It is impossible to implement “5 ≠ 5” in reality. So likewise the incoherent notion that there might be something conceivable that is greater than the greatest thing that can be conceived can’t be implemented in reality. To think, “I am thinking of that thing than which no greater can be conceived, and it doesn’t actually exist, even though it might,” is like thinking, “I am thinking of 100, and 100 is the greatest thing I can think of, even though I can think of 200.”
It’s not that step 5 forces God’s existence, but rather that it makes God’s nonexistence logically inconceivable, given the proper meaning of “God.”
Put another way, if you understand what “God” must mean, then you can’t conceive that what it refers to does not exist; this would be like thinking that 5 ≠ 5.
Put yet another way: if we think “God” refers to something that exists only in our minds, we aren’t thinking of the proper reference of “God” in the first place.
Put yet again another way, if “God” is not an incoherent notion (and we have no reason to think that it is), then God must exist.
Can a Thomist use the ontological argument?
Sure, why not? There’s nothing I can see in Thomism that would rule out the use of the argument. Some Thomists will find it compelling, and some won’t, is all.
Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm?
Well, no; but there are two versions of the argument. Anselm’s restatement of the argument in response to Gaunilo’s objections clarifies what he was getting at in his first statement. It does not differ in substance, so far as I can see, from the first. Rather, it differs only in scope: in the restatement, Anselm makes clear that his argument pertains only to necessary beings, not to contingencies like islands.
How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being?
Kant’s most telling critique is that on its own terms the ontological argument is tautological, just as “2 + 3 = 5” is tautological. If you understand the terms and operators properly, the statement “2 + 3 = 5” doesn’t tell you anything. It says only that there are at least two ways of indicating the quantity indicated by “5.”
Kant insists that tautologies tell us nothing about reality. I have never been able to understand this notion of his, except under the terms of his purblind epistemology, in which we cannot ever think about anything other than our own thoughts. I exaggerate, but he exasperates me. If Kant is right, then Kant’s thoughts are all about Kant’s thoughts, and are not about reality (including, let it be said, the reality of what Kant’s thoughts are about – he’s only thinking about what he *thinks* he’s thinking about, and not what he’s *really* thinking about (what he’s *really* thinking about is a ding an sich, which he cannot anywise get at)). Let him speak for himself and his thoughts, stuck there in his icy crabbed little involute prison, and I shall speak for myself and mine as I rove freely over the vast and pellucid plain suffused with immensities of light from the black omnipotence of the sky. I’d rather be Nietzsche than Kant, by God; but then I’d rather be Augustine or Eckhart, than either.
But I digress.
That the truths of mathematics are all tautological tells us that there can be no possible state of affairs in which their contradictions are manifest. Not only do tautologies tell us about the relations of terms, then, but, as necessary truths, which cannot be contradicted in act in any possible world, they tell us about the necessary conditions of beings in all possible worlds. They constrain what can actually happen. In no possible world can you add two pebbles to three others and end up with any number of pebbles other than five. That this is obvious when you think about it for a moment does not mean it is not important. The most obvious things of all are the most important things of all. They are the basis of existence.
Kant insists also that being is not a real predicate, so that even if the ontological argument tells us that God exists, knowing that he exists tells us nothing about him that we did not already know from the definition of “God.” This too makes no sense to me. I get what he means: to the definition of a thing’s essential properties we add nothing when we mention that it happens to exist, or not. But while this is true for contingent beings, it is not true for necessary beings. Necessary beings exist by definition; their existence then is one of their *essential* characteristics, and is indeed therefore a real predicate.
Take an example: the actual existence of Catherine is not one of Catherine’s essential properties. Catherine might never have existed actually, even though the idea of Catherine had existed from all eternity as a possibility for actualization.
But Catherine is contingent. If she were necessary, then her actual existence would be an aspect of her essence: the definition of her essence would include her actual existence, and we could not refer to her using that definition without inferring her actual existence. We could not, that is, coherently say something like, “Catherine that necessarily exists and that doesn’t actually exist.”
So I think Kant misses the mark rather badly on this one.
Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously).
I’m guessing that what you are asking here is whether it is orthodox to think that there might be many possible worlds, or even many actual worlds. Yes. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” It might seem that if there are many worlds, then it doesn’t matter too much what happens in this one, really. But not so. “Not a sparrow falls.” Omniscience knows every hair of your head, no matter how many infinities of worlds there may be, worlds within worlds, wheels within wheels. Omnipotence cherishes each atom of each hair; for, omnipotence furnishes their existence in the first place, no?
Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga?
I love Plantinga’s ontological argument, although it is not as beautiful to me as Anselm’s, mostly because it is less elegant. But it seems much more compelling, as easy to grasp. It’s a bludgeon of an argument, a blunt force weapon. If, as not logically incoherent, “God necessarily exists” might be true in at least one possible world, then in that world it is in fact true, so that it is then necessarily true, and is therefore true in all possible worlds; for a necessary truth anywhere is necessarily true everywhere.
Is it possible to reconcile [Plantinga’s argument] with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)?
Plantinga’s argument connects with the whole notion in Anselm’s argument that if the concept of God as necessarily existent is coherent, then God must necessarily exist. If, i.e., it can possibly be true in any state of affairs that God exists necessarily – this being what we mean when we say that “God exists necessarily” is a coherent statement – then in some state of affairs God does indeed exist necessarily. But then he exists in every state of affairs; for what we mean in saying that a statement is true necessarily in any one state of affairs is that it is true in every possible state of affairs.
Analogously, “2 + 3 = 5” is true in at least one state of affairs, and necessarily so; so it is true in every possible state of affairs. But “2 + 3 = 6” is incoherent: it cannot be true in any possible state of affairs. Plantinga’s argument is that “God necessarily exists” is coherent, so that it is true in at least one possible state of affairs, and thus in all possible states of affairs.
The connection between the arguments of Plantinga and Anselm, then, is that they both turn on the question of whether the concept of God is coherent. The really serious challenges to both of them attack the coherence of the classical notion of God, arguing that maximality is not possible along all dimensions. I have not of course examined all these arguments in detail, but what I usually find when I do is that they err in treating God as if he were a creature. They reiterate Gaunilo’s misprision of the subject of the discourse.
What about Aquinas?
Hard to know what you are asking about here, but it sounds like you are just *really worried* about the fact that Aquinas disagrees with Anselm. Well, don’t be. Aquinas wasn’t right about everything, and I think he’d be the first to agree with that. Aquinas had a lot on his plate, and I get the strong impression that he skimmed Anselm’s argument, found it immediately wanting, dismissed it out of hand, and never had time to reconsider it.
The power of Anselm’s argument lies in his discovery that the necessary existence of God is implicit in the very structure of thought – not just our thought, but thought as such – and, *therefore,* of being as such. The key insight is this: you can express an incoherent proposition in words, but if you get clear on the terms and operators in the proposition, you absolutely cannot believe it, and you absolutely cannot find it implemented in any possible world. If a proposition is incoherent, properly speaking, it is meaningless, and can’t possibly be true, ever. If on the other hand it is coherent, and it is about necessary truths, then it cannot possibly be untrue.
To sum up: a proposition about necessities that is coherent is necessarily true. That’s the kernel of it.*
* This seems like a controvertible assertion. But it isn’t. All it says, really, is that tautologies are necessarily true.