Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ontological Arguments Part Two: Anselm and the Fool

So I'm reading about Ontological Arguments, and several of them sound very reasonable and then I get to this site, where the author, Ed Stoebenau attempts to pick apart the elements of several ontological arguments by doing the flip that I mentioned in the last post, and coming to the opposite conclusion that "therefore God does not exist."  Not that the author believes that he has proven that God does not exist; but that he believes the argument is not sound.

He begins with Descartes' Ontological Argument, which I believe (agreeing with the author) that it can be easily refuted as an argument.

Descartes' Ontological Argument:

1. God contains all perfections
2. Existence is perfection
3. Therefore God contains existence
4. Therefore God exists

Stoebenau points to the 2nd premise as problematic, but I think there are other problems here as well.  I think the word contains is problematic in this context.  I could use this same argument to "prove" that pink unicorns exist.

1. Pink unicorns contain all beauty
2. Existence is beauty
3. Therefore Pink unicorns contain existence
4. Therefore pink unicorns exist

So apparently it's the premises that are problematic here.  Obviously pink unicorns do not contain all beauty (which some would point out is in the eye of the beholder, so is subjective).  And that's where the argument is mostly problematic in using subjectives to attempt to prove an objective.

The argument works whether something we know exists, or something we know does not exist, like square circles:

1. Square circles contain all absurdity
2. Existence is absurdity
3. Therefore square circles contain existence
4. Therefore square circles exist

I think there is something problematic with the first premise: God contains all perfections.  I don't think anyone could argue against the proposition that by definition God is perfect, but God could impart perfection upon something that is not God.  There could be perfect triangles, for example, and that would not diminish God's perfection.  So that God contains all perfections would be a faulty premise along with "existence is perfection."  You would have to define perfection in such a way as to mean what is only common with God.  I think that can be done, but it isn't done here.

Well I want to get back to this, but I want first to go back as far as Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who was the author of the first significant ontological argument upon which the more well known ontological arguments find their inspiration.

Anselm begins where I believe all ontological arguments should begin, and that is with scripture's own statement regarding the necessity of God's existence.  While Genesis begins with the assumption of God's existence:  "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," There is another passage of scripture, which suggests that God's existence stands to reason such that "The fool says in his heart 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 14:1, NIV)  In his thinking and recognition that as scripture and the word of God, there must be something about that statement such that it would stand the test of reason.  Or else to state "There is no God," one could be within reason and not a fool,  since Anselm believes that God gives understanding to faith.  This appears to be the issue that Anselm seeks to work out.  Keep in mind that he  is not arguing directly that God exists, but that belief that "There is no God" is absurd.  So his argument is known as a reductio ad absurdum.   Many subsequent ontological arguments have attempted to take from Anselm's reductio and form an argument for God's existence.

And so we have Anselm's Ontological Argument in his own words:

And so, Lord, do thou, who dost give understanding to faith, give me, so far as thou knowest it to be profitable, to understand that thou art as we believe; and that thou art that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God? ...But, at any rate, this very fool when he hears of this being of which I speak – a being than which nothing greater can be conceived – understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding, although he does not understand it to exist.  
For, it is one thing for any object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.
Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone; then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.
Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

To break it down in modern terms we get from Alvin Plantinga:

1) God exists in the understanding but not in reality [that is what he seeks to disprove]
2) Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone. (premise) 
3)  God's existence in reality is conceivable.  (premise)
4) If God did exist in reality, then He would be greater than He is. [from 1 and 2]
5) It is conceivable that there is a being greater than God is. [3 and 4]
6. It is conceivable that there be a being greater than the being than which nothing greater can be conceived. [5 by the definition of "God"]

But surely 6 is absurd and self-contradictory; how could we conceive of a being greater than the being than which none greater can be conceived?  So we may conclude that:

7) It is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality.
(God, Freedom and Evil - 1974, Eerdmans Publishing Company) The bracketed text in italics is mine.

Now back to Stoebenau:

In response to Anselm's Ontological argument, he states:

Anselm first gave what has become known as the ontological argument in his Prosologion. He used the definition that God is that being than which no greater can be conceived.Using this, he gave a reductio ad absurdum, that if one claimed that this being did not exist, then there exists a being which is greater than the being which no greater can be conceived. A major assumption of Anselm’s was that whatever exists in both the mind and in reality is greater than that which exists only in the mind. However, it is tough to see why one should accept this premise as sound. Is five dollars actually being in my pocket greater than 100 dollars existing in my mind? Can we even make such a comparison? This does not seem likely. One cannot claim that an old worn down coin is greater than a hypothetical brand new one of the same date, just because it exists. Furthermore, the premise that if one denies the existence of God, that there is a being greater than the being which no greater can be conceived, presupposes the actual existence of that being, so the argument runs in a circle. Hence, Anselm’s original argument fails.

Well I think this argument is problematic and I didn't see it at first.  I had to read through it several times.  If I have an actual $5.00 bill in my pocket, but would rather have a $100.00 bill, I am conceiving of something that I already know exists.  If I have an old $1.00 coin in my pocket but would rather have a shiny new one of the same date, I am conceiving of something that I already know exists. So these are not only things that are conceived, but things that I already know exist - or at least I should know can exist.  Anselm is talking about something that can be conceived but I don't have any concrete example of or any experience with a concrete example of.  At first sight this might seem like a illusory distinction, but it is not when considering the existence of God.  Let's put it this way; suppose I desire rather than the $5.00 bill in my pocket, a bill that represents an infinite amount of dollars in reality.  Or to make it more concrete, how about if I desire an actual infinite number of $5.00 bills in my pocket.  Absurd right?  So what I can imagine being in my pocket can only be that which I know is possible.  It is possible to have 10,000 $5.00 bills in my pocket (given that my pocket is large enough to hold them), but it is impossible to have an infinite number of $5.00 bills in my pocket.

Anselm is saying that the existence of God is logically conceivable, but the atheist claims that God can be conceivable but only be in the imagination and not in reality.  Well there are other things that can be conceivable but not exist in reality, so why should it be any different with God?  Well as I understand Anselm, the difference lies in the nature of God as being both conceivable and the greatest being that can be imaginable.  I can conceive of pink unicorns, and they might not exist, or I can conceive of pink unicorns that don't exist, but which are greater than the pink unicorns that might exist.  And there is no logical contradiction in believing either.

But God is different in that by definition He is a being which nothing greater can be conceived logically, yet He still can be conceived logically.  An infinite number of $5.00 bills cannot be conceived to exist in reality logically.  I can conceive in an abstract way an infinite number of $10.00 bills, which would be greater than an infinite number of $5.00 bills, but again, I could not conceive of them existing logically in reality.

So Anselm's reductio works against the charge "There is no God."  Scripture (Psalm 14:1) is sound when it states "The fool says in his heart 'There is no God.'"  But furthermore, it is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality.

Plantinga states:

...although the argument certainly looks at first sight as if it ought to be unsound, it is profoundly difficult to say what exactly, is wrong with it. Indeed, I do not believe that any philosopher has ever given a cogent and conclusive refutation of the ontological argument in its various forms. (God, Freedom, and Evil – Eeardmans Publishing Company, 1974)

More on Stoebenou's objections in the next post.

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