Friday, November 26, 2010

Anselm’s ontological argument

The most interesting version of Anselm’s ontological argument goes something like this:

1. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

2. What cannot be thought not to exist is greater than that which can be thought not to exist.

3. So if that than which no greater can be conceived could be thought not to exist, then there could conceivably be something greater still.

4. But it is absurd to say that that there could conceivably be something greater than that than which no greater can be conceived.

5. So that than which no greater can be conceived cannot be thought not to exist.

6. So God cannot be thought not to exist.

7. So God exists.

You cannot properly understand this argument unless you read it in the context of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition that forms its background. Knowing something about the later Scholastic tradition would be very useful too. And that is why modern readers typically do not understand the argument. For example, they often think it is an attempt to “define God into existence,” as if Anselm believed that arbitrarily attaching certain meanings to certain words could tell us something about objective reality. But this is to confuse what Scholastics call a nominal definition – an explanation of the meaning of a word – with what they call a real definition – an explanation of the nature or essence of the objective reality a word refers to. Anselm is ultimately concerned with the latter, not the former. While he no doubt thinks that any reflective language user will agree that the notion of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is implicit in his use of the word “God,” the more important point he is driving at is that being that than which nothing greater can be conceived must as a matter of objective fact be of the essence or nature of being divine, just as (to use a stock modern example) being a compound of hydrogen and oxygen is of the essence of water.

Of course, many modern philosophers deny that there are any essences or natures to be discovered, and would on that basis reject any distinction between nominal and real definitions. But to make such a denial is, by itself anyway, simply to assert that the essentialism presupposed by Anselm and other Scholastics is wrong, not to show that it is. Hence it cannot constitute a non-question-begging objection to Anselm. In any event, what is relevant here is what Anselm meant to be doing in giving a definition, not what a modern philosopher would be doing in giving one.

Modern readers also often assume that questions of better and worse, great and less great, are ultimately subjective. But this too, if left merely as an assumption, simply begs the question against Anselm. Here the Platonic-Augustinian essentialist background to the argument is crucial. To advert to some of my own stock examples, that a Euclidean triangle drawn with a straight edge is a better triangle than one drawn freehand (and therefore having only roughly straight lines) is a matter of objective fact, given what it is to be a Euclidean triangle. That a squirrel with four legs and a furry tail is a better squirrel than one which has lost its tail and a leg after a fight with a cat is also a matter of objective fact, given what it is to be a squirrel. And so forth. A better triangle is just a more triangle-like triangle, and a better squirrel is just a more squirrel-like squirrel. Better and worse, greater and less great, have to do with how perfectly or imperfectly a thing instantiates the nature that makes it the kind of thing it is. And if some form of classical essentialism is true (whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic), then since the natures in question are objective realities, so too are the standards of better and worse that they entail.

Now part of what Anselm is saying is that existence is no different in this regard from being a triangle or being a squirrel. Having straight sides makes a thing more “triangle-like,” and having four legs makes it more “squirrel-like.” Similarly, to be that which cannot possibly not exist, to exist necessarily – which is what Anselm is getting at when he speaks of what cannot be thought not to exist – is, you might say, to be more fully existent, more “existence-like,” than to be the sort of thing which can possibly not exist, something which exists only contingently. And just as to be more perfectly triangle-like makes a thing better qua triangle, and being more perfectly squirrel-like makes it better qua squirrel, so too having necessary existence makes it better qua existing thing.

Now you can’t get more existence-like than existence itself, and Aquinas would, of course, later characterize God as He whose essence just is existence, Being Itself rather than a being among other beings. But something like this doctrine existed already in the Platonic tradition that preceded and influenced Anselm, and it is surely lurking in the background of his conception of God as that which cannot even be thought not to exist. Throw in the Scholastic doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals (which entails that being, goodness, and unity are all the same thing considered from different points of view) and it is easy to see why someone would judge that that than which nothing greater can be conceived and that which cannot be thought not to exist must be one and the same thing, and something utterly unique. Throw in also a broadly Platonic metaphysics of essences, and the conclusion that God so conceived of must exist in reality seems to follow straightaway. For how could that which is Existence Itself fail to exist? And if God just is Existence Itself, how could He fail to exist?

It is also easy to see, in light of all this, why Anselm would be unmoved by Gaunilo’s objection (i.e. “Why couldn’t such reasoning be used to prove that, say, a greatest conceivable island must exist (which would be absurd)?”). Islands and other examples of the sort appealed to in Gaunilo-style “parody objections” to the ontological argument are simply not the sort of thing to which its reasoning could in principle apply, given what has been said. For not only islands and other material things, but also anything less than Being Itself, anything in which essence and existence are distinct, could in principle be thought not to exist.

To be sure, I am not claiming that Anselm reasoned in exactly the way I have suggested here, or that all of the concepts involved, much less the terminology, are explicit in his writings. I am saying instead that something like this line of thought is surely implicit in what he did say, given the intellectual milieu within which he thought. Some of themes in question already existed within the tradition in a fully articulated way, others were fully articulated only later, but all are relevant to understanding what Anselm was getting at. (Compare: If future historians of philosophy want to understand what is going on in J.J.C. Smart’s famous article “Sensations and brain processes,” they would do well to read it not only in light of the general materialist tradition that preceded it, but also in light of the specifically functionalist version of materialism that came after it, insofar as Smart’s notion of “topic-neutrality” represents an inchoate version of the basic functionalist idea. And if these future historians happened to be Aristotelians, they would be making a grave mistake if they assumed that Smart means by “matter” what they do, or that functionalists mean by “function” what they do – as mistaken as contemporary philosophers are when they unwittingly read their own assumptions back into an Aristotle, Anselm, or Aquinas. That philosophers of the past should be read in light both of the traditions that preceded them and those that succeeded them is a theme I have addressed earlier, e.g. here and here.)

Most of the standard objections to Anselm seem to me to rest on a failure to appreciate this larger philosophical context of his argument. But not all of them. As my readers know, I hate to come across like a doctrinaire Thomist. But it does seem to me that Aquinas’s objection to Anselm is the one that really gets to the nub of the matter. Aquinas agrees that to grasp God’s essence would be to see that He cannot possibly not exist. God’s existence is in that sense self-evident in itself. But it is not self-evident to us, given the way we have to come to know things (ST I.2.1). For one thing, as an Aristotelian, Aquinas is committed to the view that all our knowledge, including knowledge of God, must derive from the senses. For another, he holds that for us to grasp a thing’s essence is to grasp its genus and specific difference. But when we come to know through the senses (and in particular through the Five Ways) that there is a God, what we come to know is that there is an uncaused cause of the world who is purely actual and in whom there is no distinction between essence and existence. This entails that He is the sort of thing which could not possibly not exist, but also that He is absolutely simple and thus not composed of a genus and specific difference (or of anything else for that matter). Hence we cannot grasp His essence, and thus cannot know what we’d need to know in order for Anselm’s argument to serve as a way for us to come to know God’s existence. In effect, we come to know a posteriori that there must in fact exist exactly the sort of God Anselm tells us exists, while at the same time coming to know that Anselm’s a priori way of getting to Him cannot succeed.

The lesson is not that Anselm’s argument is unsound so much as that it presupposes knowledge (i.e. of God’s essence) that we cannot have. Moreover, the idea that reason points us to the existence of that than which there can be nothing greater is something Aquinas himself endorses as long as it is developed in an a posteriori fashion, as it is in Aquinas’s Fourth Way. (I explain how, and explain and defend the other key metaphysical ideas referred to above, in Aquinas.)

37 comments:

Bobcat said...

"To be sure, I am not claiming that Anselm reasoned in exactly the way I have suggested here, or that all of the concepts involved, much less the terminology, are explicit in his writings. I am saying instead that something like this line of thought is surely implicit in what he did say, given the intellectual milieu within which he thought."

Given the milieu in which he worked, how come Gaunilo raised the parody-argument against Anselm? Surely he was aware of the assumptions Anselm was operating with, no? Or is Gaunilo just not a very good philosopher (maybe this is the reason that his parody-objection to Anselm is the only thing most contemporary philosophers know him for).

Anonymous said...

PART ONE
In his book on the ontological argument, Charles Hartshorne praises Anselm for seeing that the matter of God's existence is in fact a logical truth rather than an empirical one. I appreciate the points Hartshorne raises in connection to Thomist and other empirically-minded objections to the ontological argument, though I have not yet made up my mind on which side is right. One way of bringing focus to the disagreement is to locate on the following: the Thomists are saying that if God exists, then He exists necessarily, but to know (apart from faith) that God exists, we must have recourse to empirical arguments that prove His existence. It is the "if God exists, then He exists necessarily" part that Hartshorne has a problem with, and it is this part that has had me thinking for some time. I'm sure Aquinas and the Thomists would assent to the conditional "if God exists, then He exists necessarily." That is, they would agree that God, if He is to be God, must exist necessarily rather than contingently. This means that if there were some way to prove an unmoved mover but, ex hypothesi, this unmoved mover was revealed to have contingent rather than necessary existence, this being would not be God despite its being an unmoved mover (contra Aquinas' assertion at the end of the First Way that being an unmoved mover is a sufficient condition for being God -- though I take it that at that point Aquinas is anticipating that He will later prove necessity to be the unmoved mover's mode of existence, and so Aquinas is not open to the idea that a contingent unmoved mover would count as God).

As modern discussions of the ontological argument have emphasized, the central point is this: is God's existence possible or impossible? There are three responses to this question, distinguished according to the modal categories of impossibility, possibility/contingency, and necessity. If God's existence is not possible (because of an incoherency in the concept of God, likened to the incoherency in the concept of a triangle the sum of whose angles don't equal 180 degrees), then God simply cannot exist and all the empirical argumentation in the world cannot show Him to exist. Second, if God's existence is possible but He is the kind of being that exists contingently, then his modal status alone tells us nothing about whether He does in fact exist; to determine that question, further argumentation is required, as in the case of any contingent being whose existence is merely possible. Third, if God's existence is possible and God is the kind of being that exists necessarily, then He must exist in reality. This is so because if God's existence were possible but He failed to exist, then He would not exist necessarily, since a necessary being cannot fail to exist.

A summary of the argument by William Lane Craig: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHXq_8n2O1I

Anonymous said...

PART TWO
Hence the supporter of the ontological argument need only hold that God is by definition a necessary being, and that it is possible for God to exist. Clearly the atheist, or fool, can still reject the ontological argument by claiming that God's existence is impossible, arguing this claim from whatever angle. (The atheist could also attempt to alter the definition of God by saying that God is contingent rather than impossible or necessary, and then giving evidence against the existence of this contingent God.)

The key point in this context is that the atheist's "impossibility option" is not a live one for the Thomist. Given his web of beliefs, the Thomist has no room to say that God's existence is impossible. A Thomist analysis of the attributes belonging to God -- an analysis carried out prior to any consideration of whether God exists -- would not reveal God to be an impossible being. And so He must be possible. But since He is possible, He must, being by definition necessary, exist really.

A summary of the argument by William Lane Craig: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHXq_8n2O1I

tolkein said...

I'd always read the argument as showing that belief in the existence of God was rational, not that it proved the existence of God. that is, it is a defeater to the proposition that belief in the existence of God is irrational.

Untenured said...

Good post. Even though I don't buy Anselm's argument, I think most of the stock objections to it are question begging and boil down to mere expressions of incredulity masquerading as arguments.

I think you can get Anselm's underlying point across to undergraduates using some fairly simple examples. Whenever I teach the ontological argument, I ask them whether it is possible to prove that something cannot exist given the kind of thing it is. I then present the example of the "barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves". Most students recognize that there can be no such barber- nothing could possibly satisfy that description. Anselm is just giving us a symmetrical claim: "that than which no greater can be conceived" is a description that cannot fail to be satisfied. If we can know negative existential claims on a purely conceptual basis, why not positive existential claims? Presented that way, the argument doesn't look so "crazy". This doesn't constitute a full answer, naturally, but I find that the example breaks down the knee-jerk resistence that students tend to exhibit when confronted with Anselm for the first time.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Given (6) I don’t see how (7) follows. Perhaps it is the case that “God cannot be thought not to exist” and also that “God does not exist”?

It seems then that the argument, as given, makes an implicit premise, namely “If something cannot be thought not to exist then it exists”, and I don’t see how Anselm or anybody else would justify this premise.

Bobcat said...

I remember when I was a graduate student, one of the departmental metaphysicians taught a course about ontological arguments, in particular ontological arguments for the existence of numbers. It occurs to me that philosophers define things into existence fairly frequently--not only numbers but also things like Lewisian possible worlds.

james said...

"It seems then that the argument, as given, makes an implicit premise, namely 'If something cannot be thought not to exist then it exists'"

That's true, but I'm not sure how much force such an objection has -- the truth of (6) would imply that a nonexistent god is an incoherent thing to posit. Skepticism on this point would be pretty devastating vis-a-vis our ability to reason about things.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

James,

You write: “ Skepticism on this point would be pretty devastating vis-a-vis our ability to reason about things.

Well, unless one is already a theist and believes that God has given us reliable cognitive capacity in all relevant matters, I don’t see why one should believe that being unable to think of something as not existing implies that it does exist. Indeed denial of that hidden premise does not lead to generalized skepticism, just to skepticism about the limits of human thought. In short I don’t see any argument I could use with an agnostic to justify that hidden premise. Do you?

Edward Feser said...

Hi Bobcat and Untenured,

That's a good question, Bobcat. The reason, I would suggest, is that these ideas were still to a large extent inchoate; even Anselm's reply to Gaunilo is a bit murky.

My point was just that to someone whose thinking has been molded by writers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, et al., Anselm's argument is going to look very different than it does to someone whose thinking has been molded by writers like Hume, Kant, Frege, Russell, Quine, et al. The former sort of reader is going to see it more or less the way I've suggested, while the latter is going to see it very differently.

In particular -- and here is where Untenured's point is well-taken -- the latter reader's sort of repsonse is bound to be something like "This is obviously stupid, but where exactly is the mistake?" whereas the former reader's response is going to be either "This is obviously right" or "This seems plausible on the surface, but there must be a mistake somewhere."

Anonymous said...

For one thing, as an Aristotelian, Aquinas is committed to the view that all our knowledge, including knowledge of God, must derive from the senses


According to most philosophers (including religiously-minded ones such as Leibniz) a priori knowledge (mathematics and logic) is necessary; all a posteriori knowledge derived from the senses (natural sciences, history, social sciences) is contingent,ie non-necessary.

Ergo, Aquinas offers no necessary arguments for God's existence, since our knowledge, or apparent knowledge of "God" is by his own definition contingent--or falsifiable (in Popperian terms). Back to the drawing board.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Dianelos,

If you read (6) as shorthand for "To be God would entail being that which cannot even be thought not to exist," then yes, (7) wouldn't follow, since (6) alone doesn't tell us whether anything satisfies that description of God's nature. That's essentially the objection made by Caterus and Kant against Descartes' version of the argument.

On the other hand, you could read (6) as shorthand for "To deny God's existence involves a self-contradiction," in which case (7) would follow. But in that case the argument presupposes that we have a clear enough grasp of God's essence to see that there would be such a self-contradiction, and according to Aquinas, we don't.

I will admit to being not entirely satisfied with Aquinas's response either, even though I think there is something right in it. There's something profound and right about Anselm's argument, even if it does not succeed as a stand-alone proof of God's existence.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous,

Nah. That's because the moderns have distorted what it means to say that all knowledge must derive from the senses. Locke, Berkeley, and Hume collapse the distinction between intellect on the one hand and sensation and imagination on the other, which is why modern empiricism ends up seeing all real existence as particular and contingent. Aristotle and Aquinas, on the other hand, hold that though knowledge begins with the senses, it can outstrip it, since the intellect and its objects are irreducible to sensation and imagination and their objects. (This is why it is very misleading to call them "empiricists," although this is sometimes done.)

The weird thing, though, is that though contemporary philosophers generally acknowldge that the arguments of the early modern empiricists for a collapse of intellect into sensation all suck, they still take for granted the plausibility or even the correctness of many of the radical metaphysical conclusions that were based on this collapse (Humean puzzles about causality, etc.). Funny old world.

George R. said...

It seems to me that Aguinas is right; Anselm's argument fails, because "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" does not self-evidently exist, but the necessity of it's existence must be demonstrated if it is to be known by human reason alone.

This does not mean that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" does not necessarily exist, it certainly does. But the reason WHY this is the case cannot be known by the case alone. Moreover, even if "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" didn't exist, per impossibile, it could still be conceived as existing and thus still be the greatest conceivable being.

Untenured said...

@Bobcat: As I recall, Lewis doesn't try to define possible worlds into existence. Rather, he takes them to be explanatory posits that supply truthmakers for counterfactual propositions. Lewis is basically a Quinean in his philosophical methodology, and I am pretty sure he thinks existence claims are all a posteriori.

There is a very interesting book by Crispin Wright on Frege's philosophy of mathematics in which he argues, essentially, that is it is possible to legistlate entities into existence via definitons. Its a tough slog, but an interesting read.

Jinzang said...

Here's a detailed explanation of Kurt Gödel's version of the ontological argument. It starts by explaining Anselm's argument. All done very nice in the modern fashion with [] and <>.

Jinzang said...

"For how could that which is Existence Itself fail to exist?"

Can't this be attacked by the third man argument? How can redness fail to be red?

James Chastek said...

Anonymous,

Things can be called possible a.) because they are not necessary, or b.) because they are not impossible. Now Hartshorne argues that God must be possible because we conceive no formal contradiction in our conception of him. But this is clearly to call him "possible" in sense b. But this sense of possibility is completely compatible with the existence of anything, even a self-existent being. Therefore it is true that Thomists say "If God exists, he is necessary", but we also say "If God exists, he is possible (sense b.)"

James Chastek said...

Anonymous,

To Craig's argument:

if God's existence were possible but He failed to exist, then He would not exist necessarily, since a necessary being cannot fail to exist.


In the antecedent, "possible" is opposed to the impossible (b.) and in the consequent it is possible as opposed to the necessary (a.). The equivocation makes the whole consequence false.

James Chastek said...

("false" in the sense that it does not follow, not "false" that one can't establish it. I do in fact hold that we can prove the existence of a Necessary being, but it doesn't follow from the way in which this being is given to us as possible.)

Leo Carton Mollica said...

Jinzang:

Thank you for the link. I mean it. Any nastiness in this post is directed at Dr. Small, not you.

While Small's grasp of Gödel's/Anderson's argument seems pretty good (though I'm open to being corrected here), his understanding of Anselm's argument totally sucks, as do most of his superficial references to philosophers born before 1850. Anselm does not take it as axiomatic that God possibly exists, and he most certainly is not applying the modal axiom S5 in conjunction with Becker's postulate. Sheesh, talk about anachronism! (I cannot even bring myself to comment on his treatment of the Cosmological Argument.)

For anyone interested, G. E. M. Anscombe did a wonderful piece on Anselm's Proslogion argument for the Thoreau Quarterly entitled "Why Anselm’s Proof in the Proslogion is not an Ontological Argument" (1985). Do check it out!

mattghg said...

As my readers know, I hate to come across like a doctrinaire Thomist.

Chuckle.

Anonymous said...

James Chastek,

If you are reading, can you elaborate on your objection? I wasn't able to comprehend it exactly.

I'll try to restate the argument just to reinforce and test my own understanding of it. One aspect of the concept of God will be his modal status: He will be defined as a necessary being. This is part of the "significatio nomini," the signification of the name "God" (to follow Aquinas' way of thinking -- he seems to want to speak of significatio nomini rather than definition when he is at the stage of exploring whether a thing exists), that we are using to determine whether God exists (i.e., whether anything meets the description given in the signification of the name "God").

So we know we are investigating whether a necessary being exists. Now, that being might be impossible; this would be because the concept of the being is incoherent, as might be the case if it were impossible that there be a being (necessary or otherwise) that is eternal or trans-temporal, or if it were impossible for a being to be simple yet conscious (these being qualities we might ascribe to God in addition to His being necessary). If such (necessary) beings were impossible, they could not exist.

But what if we accept as possible the bringing together into one being of all the qualities that we normally ascribe to God besides necessity? (Aquinas' list of God's properties in Questions 3-11 of the Prima Pars would be a decent representation of the kind of qualities I mean.) Now what if, in addition to accepting these qualities, we also assented that this being has necessity as one of its properties? We would now be considering a being whose existence is possible and who has necessity as one of its properties. Now, can we be right in further asserting that it is possible for such a being to not exist? I do not see how we can. For if the being fails to exist, this can only be because the being has necessity as a property but is also impossible owing to an incoherence in the concept of it; or because the being is not necessary. I don't see how either of these reasons are open to the Thomist, who obviously will not see God as impossible, and who will agree that necessity is included in the signification of the name "God."

This is my understanding of the argument and how it relates to Thomism, but again, I am open to hearing why this is not right.

Anonymous said...

James Chastek,

Apologies. I didn't see your explanation before your other comments (i.e. "Things can be called possible...") and I didn't take it into account in my response. I didn't respond with the criticism about two sense of "possibility" being in play, but I lean in the direction of saying that my restatement of the argument avoids this criticism.

I am interested in an analysis of what the Thomist means when he says, "If God exists, He exists as a necessary being," especially when this is said while the Thomist is remaining agnostic as to whether God exists. What work does "necessity" do in this conditional for the Thomist?

Daniel Smith said...

OFF TOPIC:
I posted an email I sent to Dr. Feser about the distinction Aquinas made between the terms "made" and "created" in the context of a debate about ID and its view of biological life as "artifact" on my Yahoo Blog

Dr. Feser did not have time to answer my email, but perhaps some of you might. The email was quite long and takes up three blog posts. (Click on "Previous" at the top to go to the next part.)

I'd really like some feedback from knowledgeable Thomists on the content of my argument.

Thanks.

Jinzang said...

"Anselm does not take it as axiomatic that God possibly exists, and he most certainly is not applying the modal axiom S5 in conjunction with Becker's postulate."

As the article states:

"This is the modern form of Anselm's ontological argument, due to Charles Hartshorne. Anselm himself did not have the full power of S5 available to him. So his argument is not exactly the same as this. However, the basic idea of both arguments is that necessary existence is an essential property of God entailed by God's greatness."

I certainly am no expert on medieval philosophy or axiomatic modal logic (S5), so I will leave it at that.

Jinzang said...

"In the antecedent, "possible" is opposed to the impossible (b.) and in the consequent it is possible as opposed to the necessary (a.). The equivocation makes the whole consequence false."

The Stanford Encyclopedia has:

"The operator ◊ (for ‘possibly’) can be defined from □ by letting ◊A = ~□~A. "

I interpret that as meaning possibly is defined as not impossible. So I don't see the equivocation. But possibly I am being impossibly dense.

Maybe you are contrasting two different senses of impossibility? Logical (married bachelors) and essential (water that is not H2O)?

James Chastek said...

Jinzang,

I'm not sure I know how to respond, but I think there might be an illuminating confusion here. On the one hand, the SEP gives a single account of possibility, on the other hand you are dividing what you call logical and essential possibility. But if this distinction is important, but the SEP thinks the distinction is unimportant insofar as what we mean by possibility can be subsumed under a single formula, then we should expect that possibility is the sort of thing we are prone to err about by equivocation.

A complete account of what I think is wrong with Craig's argument would require a division of various sorts of the two main kinds of possibility I spoke of above, along with some arguments for why possibility is a mode of being and thus does not have the unity of a formulaic expression but only of meanings ordered in a hierarchy. All this is too much for a combox. It's enough here to note that the distinctions in the notion of possibility immediately raise the problem of equivocation in analysis.

I do not see the distinctions you offered as being the relevant ones to this problem, but rather the distinction between the possible as opposed to the impossible and as opposed to the necessary.

Anonymous said...

"But this is to confuse what Scholastics call a nominal definition – an explanation of the meaning of a word – with what they call a real definition – an explanation of the nature or essence of the objective reality a word refers to."

Clearly, anyone who claims that he is offering a "real definition" of "X" assumes that there is an objective reality corresponding to "X" and begs the question of whether X refers to an objective reality. If X is the word "God", then an argument purporting to give a "real definition" of "God" already assumes that there is an "objective reality" corresponding to the word. In other words, it already assumes the existence of God!

Domini Canes said...

Anon:

For X to have a real essence does not entail the real existence of X. The real essence of a Copernicium atom (or a proper accident thereof, at any rate) is the possession of 112 nuclear protons, even when no Cn atoms exist in reality. The argument, therefore, does not beg the question, at least not on this point.

Dr. Feser:

What think you of St. Bonaventure's ontological argument?

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Hi Ed,

You write: “There's something profound and right about Anselm's argument, even if it does not succeed as a stand-alone proof of God's existence.

Perhaps Anselm’s argument really says something about the human mind, namely that we are made in such a way that if we carefully consider the idea of God by itself, it becomes unreasonable to believe that God does not exist. Which, I’d say, is quite a remarkable result even if it does not prove God’s existence. For starters it shoots a big hole in the atheistic argument from God’s hiddenness.

Eric said...

I enjoyed James S. Cutsinger's treatment of Thomist objections:
http://www.cutsinger.net/pdf/thinking_the_unthinkable.pdf

Both this blog post and Cutsinger's lecture posted at
http://www.facebook.com/S.Anselmus

Jinzang said...

James Chastek,

I'm sure the muddle is all my own. What I understand about modal logic is in the multiple world semantics, impossible means not true in any world, possible means true in at least one world, and necessary means true in all possible worlds. Now under this semantics there is no room for equivocation between necessity and impossibility. A necessary being must also be possible and cannot be impossible. So it seems to me, unless I have badly misunderstood the concepts.

Where I get confused is the notion of essence, If I understand what Kripke wrote, the essence of X is what is true of X in all worlds. So if God is essentially good, there is no world where God is evil. Easy enough, but I have no idea how one goes about determining what the essence of a being might be. How much more does it include than bare logical possibility? That is where the comments in my previous post were coming from.

sancrucensis said...

Anonymous 3:01 AM wrote: the supporter of the ontological argument need only hold that God is by definition a necessary being, and that it is possible for God to exist. Clearly the atheist, or fool, can still reject the ontological argument by claiming that God's existence is impossible, arguing this claim from whatever angle. I think you might have the burden of proof wrong here. All the objector needs to say is "if you don't know whether the concept of God is incoherent or not your argument fails." In other words, the advocate of the ontological argument has the burden of proving that God is possible (in Chastek's b. sense). But how can one prove that something is possible in that sense? The only irrefutable way of doing so (as far as I can see) would be to show that the said thing exists.

awatkins69 said...

Hi Dr. Feser. I know that your post is mostly making a point about how many contemporary philosophers are unhistorical and refuse to even consider the Aristotelian framework. However, I think some of them do it because they consider it unintelligible.

One thing that may be particularly worrying is how the idea of Being Itself or Pure Being is intelligible. If I understand right, it cannot be something like "existential-quantifier-existence", since God is not of any genus or species. Likewise, It cannot be "individual existence", since you say God is not a being among other beings. What other kinds of being are there? Am I missing something?

Of course, this may only be a problem for Thomists. I believe Bl. John Duns Scotus avoided this problem.

George R. said...

“Of course, this may only be a problem for Thomists. I believe Bl. John Duns Scotus avoided this problem.”

That’s because Duns Scotus didn’t understand the problem.

Listen, there are two ways to look at the term “existence.” First, the common way we look at it is as a genus containing all actual substances. It is abstracted from actual beings and actually exists only in the mind, not it reality. The second way to look at it is as the precondition for there to exist anything at all. It is not a genus and must actually exist in reality.

Now if existence is prior to all other beings, for it is the necessary precondition for the existence of all beings, and it is not an abstraction or a genus, what is it? For it must be something, because everything that is is something. Therefore, it has an essence. But this essence cannot be prior to existence; for nothing can be prior to existence. And it cannot be posterior to existence; for then existence would not something, as it must be. Therefore, there must be a being for whom essence and existence are one.

Anonymous said...

In defense of Anselm's ontological argument:

http://voices.yahoo.com/in-defense-st-anselms-ontological-argument-12167010.html?cat=9