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Good Friday: Rally For Reason With St Anselm’s Ontological Argument

St AnselmIt’s Good Friday, an excellent time to prove—I use this word in its logical sense—that many people come to religion through rational argument.

We earlier this week examined the so-called “Reason Rally“, a gathering of non-theists who joined in their belief that belief in God is unreasonable and irrational, that anybody who believed in God was making an appeal to emotion, an obvious fallacy, or because they choose to believe in improbable, even demonstrably untrue, physical events; that the religious are equivalent to “pastafarians.” These notions are staggeringly false, gross ahistorical distortions, all the product of willful intellectual laziness and no small amount of arrogance.

To prove my claim, let’s examine St Anselm’s “ontological” argument, a proposition which has led many to believe in God. This version is from William Placher’s eminently readable A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. There are pithier entries, but pithy doesn’t always equate to intelligibility (all marks original):

1. “Something than which nothing greater can be thought” exists in the understanding. [Even the atheist knows what “God” means.]

2. It is greater to exist in reality than merely to exist in the understanding.

3 Suppose that “something than which nothing greater can be thought” existed only in the understanding. Then it would possible to think of something even greater, namely, an entity otherwise identical which also existed in reality.

4. But this is impossible, since by definition it is impossible to think of something greater than “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”

5. Therefore “something than which nothing greater can be thought” must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

6. Since God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought,” God exists in reality.

A rebuttal to this is not, “This is stupid”—or any variation on this which substitutes another disparaging word for stupid—nor is it an objection to say that, “Philosophers reject this” because, of course, while that is true, it is not a refutation, because it is equally true that “Philosophers accept this” (both propositions imply a prefixed Some or other measure word). And whether or not any philosopher accepts or rejects any argument, it is not a proof of its validity or falsity. Thus, because St. Aquinas rejected this argument (which he did), this empirical fact is not a refutation (though the argument he provided might be).

You are also disallowed the “It’s obviously false”, which I hope you agree is a cheap dodge. It is also invalid to say, “You only believe this because you want to” because even if it is true that I want to believe this, even if I want to believe some false thing, I can also want to believe any number of true things. My belief does not change the argument’s validity. Lastly, you cannot merely “link” to somebody and say, “This guy showed it’s false” because that action (of yours) does not imply that you understand both St Anselm’s and the other guy’s arguments.

You must make the mental effort to see why this argument is true or why it is false; but not just that. For you must also understand its force, true or not. If it is true, then other truths may be deduced from it, like these truths or not. If it is false, and you can show why, then you will have understood something deeper.

In short, to say why it is false, you must provide a rational argument. And to do that merely concedes the argument which began this essay: many paths to religion are rational. For it cannot be denied that this version of the ontological argument—and there are others, just as there are many other logical arguments for the existence of God—is a rational argument. It was posited from pure reason; there is no emotional appeal; there is no call on revelation. It is apolitical. If somebody believed in God because of becoming convinced by this argument, then even though the argument turns out false (though obviously he were not aware of this), he will have committed a rational act. And then, the argument might be valid…

Counter-arguments can certainly be offered. Not all are convincing; what some thought to be a major counter-argument was turned around and became itself another argument for the existence of God. I’ll begin the thread of just one objection, leaving as homework you to finish it and to find others.

Now, Placher said that when people first read this argument they are struck by its elegance but can’t escape the feeling that the wool has been pulled over their eyes, but identifying the specific fallacy that produces this feeling eludes them.

Perhaps an error lies in Step 2: why is it greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in thought? Well, I can imagine Barack Obama losing his bid for election, but better would be for him to lose in reality. Many other examples will suggest themselves: this step appears fine. So instead focus on the word existence.

What does it meant to say something has existence? Any thing has a list of traits. Take a Benelli Vinci shotgun. It traits include a gauge, it is camouflaged, it has a recoil pad, in-line inertia driven action, and so forth, a list to which we can add “existence.” Is adding “existence” necessary to understanding this fine hunting tool? Isn’t “existence” implied by all these other things? Well, you can’t be camouflaged if you don’t exist, even in thought. Can we strip away all other attributes and be left with existence alone?

Which is where I’ll stop and leave you to your reason.

Update A reminder that what I am claiming is that some people come to religion because of rational, reasonable arguments. I am not arguing that this version of the ontological argument is true.

53 thoughts on “Good Friday: Rally For Reason With St Anselm’s Ontological Argument Leave a comment

  1. The error is that the definition is paradoxical.

    1. Greatest exists in thought (A=true)
    2. If A then Greatest exists in reality (B) (if A= true then B=true)
    3. If B then greatest in reality is greater than greatest in thought (A != B)
    4. Therefore greatest in thiught is not the greatest, so A is false. (A != true)

    Greatest cannot exist in thought by this definition.

  2. B,

    I saw (on line, but can’t rediscover where) a talk by Plantinga once. He was relating a visit to a hospital at which he chatted to a physician who claimed to be a solipsist. He reported that the conversation was friendly, but non-specific. After Plantinga left that doctor he came to another who said to Plantinga, (words to the effect) “I see you were talking to So & So. We here all treat him very nicely and carefully.” “Why’s that?” “Because when he goes, we all go.”

  3. Will,

    I don’t follow. Your step 1 appears to be a restatement. But your step 2 is not the same. If we combine your steps 1 and 2 on one line, we have, “If greatest exists in thought then greatest exists in reality.” which is false. And from there, you’re stuck.

  4. RE: “..non-theists who joined in their belief that belief in God is unreasonable and irrational…” [and, I’ll add, particularly mean & vindictive]

    There’s other, simple, ways to assess…namely reviewing the divinely inspired documents for credibility.

    THAT quoted conclusion was identified at the very outset of Christianity — others, such as Marcion (and his “Marcionites” following “Marcionism”) analyzed the God of the Jews & the God of Jesus and concluded they couldn’t possibly be the same. Part of his claim to fame (for those that do not confine their study of religious history to church-screened-&-sanitized versions) is that he originated the New Testament. Not the current one but one that’s close…prompting the Church (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) to come up with the correct version. These competed well into the 400s or so.

    Justin Martyr, writing roughly 150 AD, in his First Apology, Chapter XXI (Analogies to Christ) noted that the Jesus story was essentially a re-shuffling of elements already contained in a variety of pagan religions (even the concept of the Trinity is a more or less exact mapping of the Capitoline Triad). His point being (this was written to the Emperor/Caesar) that if such beliefs were ok in the pagan religions, they should not be an issue with Christian beliefs. This defense went so far as to assert that the similarities in Christian belief (with the exception of a monotheistic outlook vs. polytheistic outlook) were SSSsssoooo similar because the Devil knew what was coming & inspired the false pagan religions to preemptively confuse & mislead.

    All of this is readily verifiable, and in many circles, very very well known.

    What the atheists wonder is why they ought to believe a God & associated doctrine that looks indistinguishable from a longstanding pattern of plagarism & shuffling of established themes. If this latest God IS the true God — why is such a creative Being’s on-sight (Earthly) activity so indistinguishable from what human’s clearly dreamed up via their imaginations?? One would think he’d come up with something unique to distinguish Himself from the crowd…after all, He is the maker of Heaven & Earth & all that is seen & unseen (a very impressive credential & power).

    Also, why is HIS inspired documentation the source of so much confusion??? Look at all the various mutually exclusive variants of Christianity in the world stemming from varied interpretations of the same exact words. Even where everybody pretty much agrees, consider how uninfluential so many very basic precepts have taken hold (e.g. love thy neighbor as self; turn the other cheek, etc.) illustrated by: http://www.loweringthebar.net/2011/12/muslim-police-break-up-christian-broomstick-fight.html One might think the most devout adherents of a faith subject to an all-powerful diety would get along well but it just ain’t so.

    Or to use the Christian reference: Judge a tree by its fruits…the fruits of Christianity are diverse & bloody–especially bloody with regard to Christians-on-Christians! Consider that just recently generations of Christian-on-Christian violence in Ireland finally stopped; the persecutioins that drove the Pilgrims to emigrate to an unknown world were particularly buoody & deadly, a fact we forget with school emphasis on Thanksgiving: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html .

    An atheist observes this history and current events & concludes that if this diety really exists, its pretty darn uninfluential….certainly not up to the hype. And thus safely disregarded. And dismissed.

    One can talk endlessly about logic and so forth…but…actions always speak louder than words. And the actions in the historical record are impressive, after a fashion.

  5. Ken,

    Thanks for reminding me of two other fallacies I forgot to warn against. You may also not say that because other arguments (along similar lines) are invalid that this argument is false or that it should not be considered.

  6. St. A’s argument is fundamentally flawed by taking a though concept (“God”) and concluding that if something greater cannot be conceived, or some ultimate must exist, then that ultimate must necessarily be “God” … the failure is it skips entirely why a particular concept dreamed up in someone’s mind must necessarily equate directly with something in reality. There an unstated implicit postulate embedded in there. Ultimately, “I think, therefor it is” is nonsensical. Its basically the same thought system applied by “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne…which she basically plagarized & updated from an older work dreamed up earlier.

    The Movie about Spinal Tap, a ficticious rock band that appears to be headed permanently into the obscurity of “has been great,” includes this [probably unintentional] paradoy of the same sort of thinking:

    [Asked by a reporter if this is the end of Spinal Tap]
    David St. Hubbins (lead guitarist): Well, I don’t really think that the end can be assessed as of itself as being the end because what does the end feel like? It’s like saying when you try to extrapolate the end of the universe, you say, if the universe is indeed infinite, then how – what does that mean? How far is all the way, and then if it stops, what’s stopping it, and what’s behind what’s stopping it? So, what’s the end, you know, is my question to you.

    St. A. took basically the same thinking & just jumped to the conclusion that since I imagine the “end” to be such & such…then therefore it is also such & such in reality.

  7. The mistake atheists make is that they assume those calling themselves Christians 1) actually are, and 2) are already perfected. Its funny how the atheists reject what is preached but take the preachers at their word that they honestly represent what they preach. And Christianity is an invading force attacking fallible clay. Although “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” the clay ain’t givin’ up the fight easily.

    As for the similarities of Christian theology to “a longstanding pattern … of established themes,” C.S. Lewis attributed that to echoes of the supernatural truth infusing all religious understanding. Patterns are to be expected, especially when the canvas on which the paint is applied sets certain boundaries by its very nature.

  8. 1
    2
    3
    4. Therefore, “‘something than which nothing greater can be thought’ existing in reality” can only exist in understanding.
    5. Since God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”, “God existing in reality” can only exist in understanding.
    6. God does not exist in reality.

  9. Will’s step 2 is not the same, but he has correctly identified one of the problems in Anselm’s argument all the same (in Will’s step 3). The concept of a thing and the thing itself are not in the same mode. Reasoning that assumes that certain concepts imply their very reality does indeed assume that the two are inseparable (at least in the case of concepts that imply their own reality). The basic thrust of Anselm’s argument is that the mere concept cannot be the greatest thing – the greatest thing must ipso facto be real, else it is not the greatest. All this proves is that no mere concept can be the greatest thing. It does not prove that there actually is any such greatest thing. And for it to prove this, it must assume that concepts and actual existing things are of distinct modes. But once you’ve assume that, the two do not exist along the same scale, and the argument falls flat.

    This is, of course, not the only reason it falls flat. Kant’s line of argument – that existence is not a predicate – is the most convincing. (No, it is not an argument from authority to name the originator of a convincing argument.)

    In any case, your post is a straw man. Atheists do not, as a group (probably there are some who di, but this is not the majority), assume that no religious conversions ever happen because of reason. It would be more accurate to say that atheists (a) know that VERY FEW (to the point of not being even a significant minority) religious conversions owe to reasoned argument and (b) that no rational arguments yet presented for religion that we are aware of are convincing. Certainly Anselm’s is not.

  10. With all respects, it may be possible to think about an überGod.
    And then we have turtles all the way down.

  11. Joshua,

    Will’s argument still fails I think, or at least it is not presented fully. But that is neither here nor there.

    Perfectly fine to name an argument, as you say. But we can also say that many have argued existence, pure existence, is a predicate in the case of God: God is existence in these arguments. In other words, Kant doesn’t necessarily convince.

    The post is not a straw man, and you have failed in the burden of proving that it is. The best you can do is to say that, to your knowledge, (a) is true. It, however, is false in fact. I have already shown that some people have (and do) in fact believe based on arguments like St Anselm’s; that is, that they have come to God based on reason (true in my case and for many others). And (b) is flatly false: that people have been convinced by rational arguments is a fact. Now, you can say that “I, Joshua, do not believe any rational arguments exist” and that might be true, but that does not imply “There are no rational arguments” for there very clearly are (St Anselm’s just is one). There are also rational and valid arguments, which is an even stronger statement.

    Update Just so you and others can see the difference. Newton proposed certain theories of physics which were later shown to be false. It was clearly rational, in Newton’s day, to believe Newton’s theories true. Likewise, somebody can be rationally convinced by St Anselm’s argument, not knowing of any refutation. It is only irrational to continue to believe it after the person has been presented with a valid argument which refutes it but who refuses to accept this valid argument.

    Update 2 (Quickly) And you forget to mention Dawkins and Dennett etc., who assuredly tell us that religion is emotion, etc. The most vocal critics, like organizers and speakers of the Reason Rally, clearly appeal to emotion to say that the religious appeal to emotion, etc., etc.

  12. Very interesting, Briggs.

    I guess I’m not so much in disagreement with Anselm’s steps, as in whether the argument conveys anything meaningful. If we boil it down, it appears Anselm is simply saying:

    (1) There is something greater than everything else.
    (2) Call that thing “God”.

    That’s all fine and well, but it doesn’t help us decide whether “God” exists in any meaningful sense. In other words, suppose the greatest thing we can conceive of is some physical law . . . say, the elusive “theory of everything,” or perhaps the multiverse generator, or matter itself, or some other concept. Now I could turn around and call that “God” and in some sense I would be right (at least in the sense of it being an ultimate indirect “creator”), but I’m not sure it gets us very far in terms of demonstrating what most people think of with the term “God.”

    Have I missed something in Anselm’s argument, or is he really just riding off the idea that we call the greatest thing we can possibly think of “God”? I think his real problem is Step 6.

    —–

    Also, I’m not sure your point is correct that someone following the above thinking is necessarily acting rationally. By simply laying out a train of thought in a nice, ordered series of written steps, I don’t think we can conclude that the thinking that went into it is rational. We might conclude that the thinking isn’t emotional, being so nicely laid out and all, but if the steps include clearly illogical assumptions/conclusions (I’m not arguing here that Anselm’s argument does, just making a general point), then we would still be justified in saying that the person is being irrational, no matter how nicely or orderly they laid out their thinking.

    In order for us to conclude that some people come to their religion rationally, I think we have to examine their thought process and conclude that it was in fact rational, not just ordered or clearly spelled out.

  13. Ken: The rehashed pagan imagery/motifs argument is off topic here but just for your clarification: These arguments have been thoroughly debunked by many scholars and historians of religion. I know many, many people on the Internet rehash these ideas about recycled pagan mythologies but that does not make them true. The Mithras mythology as being copied by the early Jewish Christians is one such invention. The Mithras cult turns out copied from the early Christian imagery. It always amazes me how atheists rehash the same arguments that are patently false. My call is to people who read what Ken or I say: look into the responsible scholarship, not the Internet garbage; see for yourself. For example, Lee Strobel has a popularized book to debunk a lot of this type of argument, “In Search of the Real Jesus”, where he interviews some of the leading, most widely respected scholars of today. At the very least, if reading such material doesn’t at least raise doubts about the latest atheist propaganda, then nothing will.

  14. Eric,

    Thanks.

    But this is just the point: if the argument is indeed simply laid out, an “ordered series of written steps,” and the person becomes convinced of that the argument is valid, then they have committed a rational act. Cleanliness of prose clearly isn’t enough, as you hint, but many have taken St Anselm’s and Newton’s (see previous comment) arguments as valid (St Anselm’s might even be so; and clearly some of Newton’s still are, though some are not). And most of these surely did so for rational reasons.

    It is also, as I say in the main text, irrelevant whether an argument’s validity is emotionally pleasing or not. I may love the ontological argument, and even desire it be true, but that does nothing to the validity nor to whether it is rational to believe it. It is rational to believe, too, in the absence of a valid refutation (which might even exist, as some have hinted).

  15. prompting the Church (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) to come up with the correct version.

    Ever hear of the Orthodox Church? Do you suppose that at the time of Marcion there was such a separate entity as the Roman Catholic Church? The Great Schism had not yet happened.
    + + +

    The ontological argument has intrigued far more supple minds than those of comm box frequenters. Kurt Gödel, for example, prepared his own version.
    http://sas.uwaterloo.ca/~cgsmall/ontology2.html
    + + +

    The main reason Moderns are unable to grasp the argument properly is that they interpret the phrase “can be thought” in psychological terms rather than as a limitation on the possible.
    + + +

    An important reminder: Anselm made the argument in an entire book, and the logical steps to which it is sometimes reduced omit a great deal of his background and explanation. In particular, he wrote in another language than English, and his words did not always have the post-Kantian meanings that Late Moderns assume without question. The original is here for those who might want to give it a shot: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/anselmproslogion.html
    + + +

    Probably most importantly, those who approach the argument with the mental categories of post-Humean, post-Kantian thought — i.e., those who approach it with a skull full of mush — will not even grasp what the argument is about. Anselm was arguing from a Platonist background and his categories of thought must be considered from that POV.
    + + +

    Aquinas was an Aristotelian, not a Platonist, and so his objection was simply that Anselm was starting with certain assumptions a priori that really needed to be established a posteriori. In particular, Anselm starts assuming that God’s essence just is to exist. Aquinas establishes that as the tail end of a proof that starts with the empirical observation that in the world some things are better than others, implying that there must be a best. (“Better” is a better word than Anselm’s “greater.”)

    Example used by Feser: a Euclidean triangle drawn with a straight-edge is a better Euclidean triangle than one drawn free-hand because it is closer to what-it-is-to-be a Euclidean triangle. The what-it-is-to-be is called the “essence” of a Euclidean triangle. We can conceive of a Euclidean triangle than which no better triangle can be conceived. By “thought”, Anselm means “conceive,” not “imagine.” We cannot imagine a perfect triangle; but we can conceive of one. [And note that in the Platonic metaphysic, this automatically means that this perfect triangle must exist in the world of forms.]
    + + +

    Just as for triangularity, so too for existence. Existence is “better” (“greater”) insofar as it approaches Existence Itself. Necessary existence is “greater” than contingent existence. And of that which exists necessarily, Existence Itself is the “greatest.” Now, try to conceive of Existence not existing. Can’t do it. (Although Kant do it. LOL) Existence Itself must exist if anything empirical exists; and this Existence Itself is what we call God. That in God, his essence = his existence is an “axiom” for Anselm but a conclusion for Aquinas.
    + + +

    This is why Gaunilo’s objection fails. “I can imagine an island that is greater than any island; but this island need not exist.” But islands have contingent existence, not necessary existence, and so are not even within the domain to which Anselm’s argument applies.
    + + +

    For a easy-to-read exposition of these points, see Ed Feser’s blog, here:
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/11/anselms-ontological-argument.html
    + + +

  16. Dr. Briggs:

    The argument that “we can conceive of a thing, therefore that thing must exist in reality” can be part of a rational argument, but is a logical error.

    Your paraphrase of Anselm’s argument, which concludes that God exists, employs this flawed logic. Such a conclusion would indeed be rational (not irrational), but would erroneous, or in the categories you cited, “stupid”.

    My understanding is that Anselm himself used his ontological argument as a rational foundation for the idea of God, not as a proof of the actual existence of God. In this context, his logic is sound.

  17. I have to admit: I don’t get it! But…

    1. “Something than which nothing worse can be thought” exists in the understanding

    2. It is worse to exist in reality than merely to exist in the understanding.

    [Reality is a bitch and life means suffering (one of the Four Noble Truth). This is where I get stuck. I don’t know if it’s better to exist in reality than merely exist in the understanding. ]

    3 Suppose that “something than which nothing worse can be thought” existed only in the understanding. Then it would possible to think of something even worse, namely, an entity otherwise identical which also existed in reality.

    4. But this is impossible, since by definition it is impossible to think of something worse than “something than which nothing worse can be thought.”

    5. Therefore “something than which nothing worse can be thought” must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

    6. Since Satan is “something than which nothing worse can be thought,” Satan exists in reality.

    ^_^

  18. Briggs, I understand your point. If I may, however, it appears we are then discussing (at least in part) semantics. Specifically, I can lay out any series of steps, proceeding from point A to point B in my thinking. If we then state, as you do, that this constitutes a “rational” approach, then fine, we can call it that. But by calling it “rational” what we have done is limit our definition of “rational” to the concept of using reasoning powers, as opposed to, say, acting out of pure emotion or out of instinct. To that extent, I would agree with you.

    However, the word “rational” has other meanings, including those that deal with whether the reasoning that went on is sound or reasonable. In that sense of the word, one could make an argument and not be rational. Indeed, the very idea of someone making an irrational argument presupposes that this is possible, whereas under your terminology, it would be impossible, so long as the individual were unaware of the argument’s flaws.

    By no means an ultimate authority, but dictionary.com, for example, gives the following definitions of “rational”:

    1. agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible: “a rational plan for economic development.”
    2. having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense: “a calm and rational negotiator.”
    3. being in or characterized by full possession of one’s reason; sane; lucid: “The patient appeared perfectly rational.”
    4. endowed with the faculty of reason: “rational beings.”
    5. of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: “the rational faculty.”

    You appear to be focusing on #4 and #5. Fair enough, but that is only part of the word “rational.” Again, I don’t disagree with the general thrust of your point that many people come to religion based on rational argument. I’m just questioning the more narrow idea that the simple act of advancing an argument means one is acting rationally. At that point we have a semantic question about what we mean by the word “rational.”

  19. Briggs –

    You have shown that some people do come to God through reason – but that is an empty thing to show since no significant number of people has ever denied that. You have not shown that the number of people who come to God by reason is anything more than a vanishingly small minority – which I believe you know it to be. The vast majority of believers are not believers for rational reasons, and that is because all known rational arguments for the existence of God suffer from serious flaws. Including the one from Anselm you’ve just highlighted.

  20. @Eric B.
    The logical flaw you mention at 6:02 PM misrepresents Anselm’s argument. See the link to Feser’s explanation, provided above at 4:45 PM.

  21. It is late and I am just ruminating.
    Definition: Infinity is the largest number that can be imagined. Given our definition, is Infinity > Infinity -1? Yes, by definition but I see a problem. Is Infinity + 1 > Infinity? No, by definition. It appears as though our definition requires that Infinity +1 = Infinity (not to mention Infinity + Infinity = Infinity). However, subtracting a single unit from each side of
    Infinity +1 = Infinity , means that Infinity = Infinity -1 which obviously contradicts our definition.

    This suggests that there is a flaw in the original definition or our implicit assumptions as to how to apply mathematical/logical operations to such a number. But does this mean that Infinity exists or does not exist? I would say that it cannot exist as a number like other numbers. However, Infinity is a construct that we can usefully treat as if it was a number but is not a number like other numbers.

    Mathematicians must have worked this problem many times.

    Now if we replace Infinity with the Infinite, I think we are close to deconstructing Anselm’s argument.

  22. It’s a persistent delusion that proof exists ‘out there’ somewhere. ‘Proof’ is just a tendentious way to describe that which persuades. If I say Anselm’s argument doesn’t persuade me you may all get together and call me irrational (or rational – I’m easy) but so what? You were just persuaded (or unpersuaded) yourselves. Forming a club where you can all say how right you are and how wrong I am may be comforting but I remain unpersuaded.

    I do believe that rational arguments persuade best because they follow the natural logic of the mind so I’m not “anti-rational” (if anybody is).

    Anselm fails to persuade me because for me a trick with words – which is all his argument appears to me as – is insufficient to establish something as awesome as God.

    ymmv

    and ain’t that the truth?

  23. Most people inherit their religion. A tiny percentage arrive there (some arrive there twice, once before and once after rejecting their parents’ religion) by ratiocination. The significance of that fact is confined to the absolute or comparative number of such religionists.

    I’m in the fuzzy-headed-hey-I’ve-been-hoodwinked-by-this-argument group. The concept of God varies greatly. In my mostly-atheist world, I reject the personal God of the Christians, the God who watches over humanity and adjusts weather and other factors in favor of the devout, often at the expense of the scoffers.

    Women find the attributes of male religious leaders irresistibly attractive. Now, that is a far better argument (and a more practical one) for God’s existence than the one posited above. The clergy are the most energetic and enthusiastic group in the world, when it comes to earthly pleasures. Surely that is proof that the One True God blesses some by taking away blessings from others. “For many have fallen short…”

  24. Replace the word “understanding” with “imagination.” You’ve got the wheel to spin your imagination into reality.

  25. Joshua,

    Thank you. I think it fairer, and surely more accurate, to say that neither of us has direct evidence of the number of folks convinced (to atheism or to God) by rational argument. Both sets of people are probably, as Human Person suggests, smaller than those who come to their beliefs because of custom or emotion (many at the Reason Rally, judged by their behavior, came to atheism through paths other than argument). And your last claim “all known rational arguments for the existence of God suffer from serious flaws” is just false.

    bernie,

    It’s a good try, but it doesn’t quite work. You can’t think of “infinity” (except in some definitional terms; the actual number must necessarily escape your imaginative powers) so you can’t think of “infinity + 1”, and anyway there is no such number.

    Rich,

    Well, no. “Proof” is not just a “tendentious way to describe that which persuades.” I presume you hope your comment (the one you just gave) is persuasive in some sense. Right? I hardly think you were being tendentious when you wrote it. And then what if I were to say to you that I have a proof that 1 + 1 = 2 (even, if you like, developed the old fashioned way, beginning with axioms and the notion of a “successor function”, etc.). Would you claim that tendentious?

    Proof is a very strong word, like true or false. Some things just are true, others false, and we can surely prove some things which are true, and some which are false.

    Eric,

    Thanks for the refs!

  26. All I have to do logically conclude that God exists is to make sure the existence of God is implicit in the assumptions used in my logical arguments. Therefore, to claim that no logical arguments for God exist is like claiming that it is impossible to assume that God exists.

    Fine for logic, but what about reality? It’s almost as trivial. But the answer is different. Logic and reality are not the same. But they have a relationship. In the scientific method, this relationship is expressed in the assumption that the sole test of knowledge is experiment. (“Science” would not be science without this assumption.) Note this is much weaker than St. Anselm’s assumption. No one has been able to define the term “God,” as commonly used, based on such a weak premise. Much less perform a falsification experiment to test a knowledge of God. Therefore, St Anselm’s ontological argument from a scientific standpoint is, as they say, not even wrong. I am not interested in any non-scientific, but rational, standpoints.

  27. As I see it, the argument suffers from the fallacy of equivocation.

    “Then it would possible to think of something even greater, namely, an entity otherwise identical which also existed in reality.”

    “Think” in this instance is a product of understanding — if understanding means thought (first equivocation). So the sentence is tautological.

    The second equivocation occurs around “think,” where “think” is implied to mean instantiate. I cannot instantiate something greater than I can understand — assuming understand really means “think of”. Neither can I instantiate “[s]omething than which nothing greater can be thought.”

    As a Christian, non of this rocks my philosophical boat, so speak. But the logic is flawed.

  28. Matt:
    I am not conversant with much of the formal logical language and terminology that might be needed in this discussion. I think I am saying essentially the same thing as Jim Fedakowe not apply the same assertion to your rendition of Anselm’s first statement?

  29. >>And your last claim “all known rational arguments for the existence of God suffer from serious flaws” is just false.

    Could you please provide me with a counterexample to the claim? I’ll take your silence to mean that you still believe that St Anselm’s argument is rational and suffers no serious flaws.

  30. “Think” in this instance is a product of understanding

    Anselm wrote: “Aliud enim est rem esse in intellectu, alium intelligere rem esse.” Note: “in intellectu.” This translates as ” For it is one thing for something to exist in a person’s thought and quite another for the person to think that thing exists.” So Anselm is starting with what some here suppose is a defeater for his argument!

    He goes on to write: “Et certe id quo maius cogitari nequit, non potest esse in solo intellectu. Si enim vel in solo intellectu est, potest cogitari esse et in re; quod maius est.” Note again: “in intellectu.”

    In both Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics, to “cogitate” or to be “in the intellect” is something much more than what we mean by merely “think” or (worse!) “imagine.” The Late Modern and Post Modern tend to feel rather than think, in any case — a locution that began to surface already in the 1950s. It was Nietzsche’s triumph of the will over the intellect. (“Das Kriterium der Wahrheit liegt in der Steigerung des Machtgefühls.”) Hence, we feel that the expression “greater than which cannot be thought” (nihil maius cogitari possit) is a psychological statement about our understanding, rather than a statement about what is possible per se.

    Certainly, the argument may be flawed; but the fact that for a thousand years philosophers have been resurrecting the argument and debating it should surely be an indication that the flaw is not stupidly obvious.

    Thomas Aquinas thought that the premising definition — Et quidem credimus te esse aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit — was premature and must be reached as the conclusion of a prior argument; viz., his “Fourth Way.”

    The demand that all this be proven only by the methodology of natural science is like asking for a culinary proof of the Moonlight Sonata, or demanding evidence of the existence wood using only a metal detector.

  31. First a brief comment on the “proof”, then on to the main issue.

    #5. should actually read as follows:
    5. Therefore “something than which nothing greater can be thought which exists in reality” must exist in the understanding.

    Although the “understanding” of that perfect thing must include its existence there is no good ground for assuming that the understanding does in fact correspond to reality.

    (I’d love to be able to go on and support mt’s argument that Anselm really proves that god does not exist, but of course the added word “only” in his #4 is not a fair step so I can’t)

    While it is not “irrational” to make a logical error it is arguably stupid to do so – and since (at least in my experience) we all make stupid mistakes quite frequently, I suspect that those who are offended by the charge of stupidity are displaying a higher level of arrogance than that of which they accuse their accusers.

    What *is* irrational is to persist in believing arguments which have been shown to be incorrect, and it is only slightly less irrational to repeatedly fall for false arguments in favour of a proposition just because you want to have a “reason” to believe it.

    Frankly, the only faith for which I have any respect is that which admits it is *not* supported by reason. If the existence of God were provable by reason then there would be no reason for faith and so to claim to have made an act of willful faith would itself be unreasonable. (Except perhaps if belief in god were attributed to faith in reason, which then sets reason above God – which may well be a greater sin than not believing in “him” at all.)

  32. Mr Briggs,

    I was rephrasing the original argument, which says what I said, that ‘if greatest exists in thought then it has to exist in reality, otherwise the thought isn’t the greatest’.

  33. Paraphrasing seems to make things clearer:

    “1. Something than which nothing greater can be thought” exists in the understanding. [Even the atheist knows what “God” means.]

    1. and 6. God can be conceived of.

    Comment: since the word greatness is used as a measure of “godlikeness” in the argument I shall, for clarity, substitute godlike for great.

    2. It is greater to exist in reality than merely to exist as a concept.

    2. A thing that exists is more godlike than it would be if could be conceived of but didn’t exist.

    3 Suppose that “something than which nothing greater can be thought” existed only in the understanding. Then it would possible to think of something even greater, namely, an entity otherwise identical which also existed in reality.

    3. Suppose that one could conceive of God but that God didn’t exist. Then it would be possible to conceive of something even more godlike, namely an otherwise identical God that did exist.

    Comment: Error! The non-existence of the first God wouldn’t preclude its being conceived of as existing. So the “otherwise identical” God conceived of as existing would, in concept, be wholly identical to – and therefore no more godlike than – the first.

    4. But this is impossible, since by definition it is impossible to think of something greater than “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”

    4. But this is impossible, since by definition it is impossible to think of something more godlike than God.

    Comment: the comment after 3. shows that 3. doesn’t require us to think of something more godlike than God.

    5. Therefore “something than which nothing greater can be thought” must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

    5. Therefore God must exist in reality as well as in concept.

    Comment: Following the previous points this is now obviously a non sequitur.

    6. Since God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought,” God exists in reality.

    Comment: this substitution could, of course, have been made from the start.

  34. 1. There is such a thing as “existence”; I exist, you probably exist, this keyboard and monitor exist, and a bunch of other stuff I can poke or kick or eat exists, like my dog and my wife, etc.

    2. “Existence” exists; if you and I and other stuff exists, we may confidently assume that “existence” itself exists. Because if it didn’t, this conversation wouldn’t exist and then what would be the point?

    3. We can conceive of a concept we name “all of existence”, in other words, the Universal Set which includes Everything that Exists. Maybe we don’t know all the elements in that set, but we can certainly define its totality.

    4. It is impossible to conceive of a set that contains more than Everything that Exists; because whatever it was that was conceived would by definition fall into the set of Everything, including our most fanciful thoughts and conceptions (as thoughts and conceptions). There is nothing more that can be outside the set of Everything.

    5. Therefore Everything is the most we can conceive of, and Everything that exists exists, including existence.

    6. Let us define “God” as Everything that Exists, and even more.

    7. Therefore God exists, and God is beyond our ability to conceive, beyond our understanding.

  35. “We earlier this week examined the so-called “Reason Rally“, a gathering of non-theists who joined in their belief that belief in God is unreasonable and irrational, that anybody who believed in God was making an appeal to emotion, an obvious fallacy, or because they choose to believe in improbable, even demonstrably untrue, physical events … These notions are staggeringly false, gross ahistorical distortions, all the product of willful intellectual laziness and no small amount of arrogance.”

    Tsk tsk. I was expecting better really. It’s simple enough to explain why most atheists (dis-)believe the way they do:

    1. Such-and-such a god is, by his/her holy book(s), unworthy of praise. This is essentially a personal moral argument, so as something of a libertarian I won’t look much more into it.

    2. There’s not only no scientific evidence for the existence of anything supernatural, but all the scientific evidence we’ve accumulated points to there NOT being anything supernatural. Hence, belief in the supernatural is unreasonable and irrational from a scientific point of view*. Properly speaking though, that means an atheist should be saying “I do not believe in god, but sufficient evidence will change my mind” (for the record, this is my position), although I rather doubt many of the more militant kind say that.

    Why the asterix in #2? Simple – because there are rational social and emotional reasons to believe in the supernatural. Belief can be a great emotional support and “social glue”, and has inspired many great works, be it religious belief, patriotism, or belief in some other ideology.

    A final thought: I wonder if atheists in America would feel the need to be as militant if religion didn’t play such a big part in public life? To me, it seems that being a Christian is a requirement to enter Congress or run for President (are there ANY openly atheist members of Congress ATM?), which is surely ridiculous in a country that is supposed to have separated Church and State. Which is, I suspect, the point some of those atheists are trying to make.

  36. Ye Old Statistician said:

    “The demand that all this be proven only by the methodology of natural science is like asking for a culinary proof of the Moonlight Sonata, or demanding evidence of the existence wood using only a metal detector.”

    The relationship between natural science and things that exist, such as the existence that St Anselm argues for God, is not arbitrary, capricious or whimsical. Unlike the relationships in the analogies above.

    A better analogy would be energy. Everyone agrees that energy exists yet energy cannot be observed directly. Only its effects. For example, kinetic energy is never measured directly. It is the result of putting measurements of mass and velocity into a formula. This is acceptable because the process used to develop and calculate the formula, as well as the measurements, have be subjected to the scientific method. This is the only reason it is acceptable to label a belief in energy as a scientific belief. Any other basis for belief would be a non-scientific belief.

    St Anslem’s argument is non-scientific. To reject a non-scientific theory of existence is not an arbitrary rejection. It is one based on the strength of the collective experience of hundreds of years of success with the scientific method versus, say, witchcraft.

    Note I am not arguing that St Anselm’s argument is illogical or irrational (whatever that means). Nor do I argue that his conclusion is wrong. Only that the assumption: “It is greater to exist in reality than merely to exist in the understanding.” cannot be experimentally confirmed. Ergo, any conclusions (any knowledge) derived from that assumption must be non-scientific.

  37. Spock: Does not compute.

    God: I think, therefore I am.

    Resort time-share salesman: You want it, you can’t counter my arguments immediately, sign here.

    St. Anslem must have been a clever guy; too bad the math/logic for this hadn’t been invented yet. It looks like he is trying to define a partial order on the set of everything, both existing and thinkable, thinking big. Too bad there doesn’t have to be a greatest element.

    I am grateful for these early thinkers because they certainly advanced reason and logic.

    Science won’t prove that God exists, nor that He doesn’t. Neither will logic and reason.

  38. Thanks as ever Prof Briggs for a most thought provoking post. I realize I am late in commenting on it and so may be simply repeating what others have said.

    I am fascinated by the degradations between appeals to emotion, apologetics, reasoned argument, rational argument and logic. I feel this post bounces about between most of them, though the appeal to emotion is quite surpressed, but I suspect still there.

    Is what is reasonable always rational? What role does logic have in the untidy world of reality.

    I think there is no doubt that apologetics is an attempt to claim theism is reasonable, whether it succeeds in this is far more debateable, and how well these arguments are attached to rationality and logic is even more tenuous in my mind.

    No doubt there is an appearance of logic, with predicates and syllogisms, but is this appearance genuine?

    I am fascinated by the first clause – Prof Briggs starts his quotation by saying all is original, but then adds after the first clause “[Even the atheist knows what “God” means.]”

    Well, whether I am an atheist or not is not particularly relevent, but I have no idea what God means and find this a very poor definition with which to start.

    As Prof Briggs has reminded us in many other posts when you deal with superlatives – leading cause of death, nothing greater – you are guaranteed its existence – as long as you define your terms.

    A non-theist pan-universe will still contain something greater than all others – it has to, any ranking will always have a first place – exepting the null set and that does not apply to our universe whether it is theist or atheist.

    Whether this “greatest” exists in the understanding is irrelevent – and I do question whether humanity does trully have an understanding of something of which nothing greater can be thought – we are rather limited beings and have very little understanding of what “greater” really means.

    The arrogance to assume that our ability to think about something is relevent for its existance is a hubris worthy of the fall – by what logic or rational is this reasonable? I do not see it at all.

    Prof Briggs states that many people come to religion through rational argument – and claims he has logically proved it with the example provided in this post.

    Oh my – is an attempt at something the same as doing it?

    I am unconvinced – to make their cases both Prof Briggs and St Anselm have to presume far too much.

  39. Lets assume that Anselm was right all those years ago, we have a proof of Gods existence.

    As Mr Briggs has said in other posts we can now build on this basic truth a whole edifice of knowledge, sort of like what Newton and those that followed did with his few truths.

    What has been built on Anselm’s proof?

    Nothing. It is hollow.

  40. [For Briggs] Chinahand — that bracketed comment in the quotation is original and not Briggs’s.

  41. 1. “Something than which nothing greater can be thought” exists in the understanding. [Even the atheist knows what “God” means.]

    This is the weakness to the argument. It is not true that the atheist knows what “God” means.

    Provide me with a definition of God that is not fraught with contradictions, and I’ll consider it.

    God is an ill-defined, floating abstraction – not tied to any observation. The contradictions render any meaning nil.

  42. I googled the phrase “[Even the atheist knows what “God” means]” and discovered that A History of Christian Theology is available on google books.

    Fascinatingly after the section Prof Briggs has quoted we get this –

    [Anslem] … seems to be offering an argment that should persuade even the atheist, yet the argument comes in the context of a prayer, and Anselm always retained his Augustinian conviction that faith must precede understanding.

    Erm … Prof Briggs how does this comment affect your argument? I feel that something material has been left out of your case! 😉

    I fully agree that someone can be mistaken when they prioritize faith over reason, but in the spirit of full disclosure I think you should have admitted your prize witness’s foibles!

  43. Like many other low-brow people I became a Christian directly after I went and asked the Lord if He exists.

    He responded. Admittedly, He seems to have a remarkably short fuse when dealing with sinners, but He most certainly did respond. (“Here I am. Decide right now, or I leave. And know that you may very well not have another chance at this. Oh, and don’t mess with Me: you won’t like it.” pretty much sums it up.)
    (I have always wondered if He does so in general, or if I was just a special case – don’t think it was special, but then why oh why are there so many Muslims, Hindu’s, etc running around? Doesn’t anyone even BOTHER to check??? I mean, I had no pre-conceptions – if Krisna was the Living God, who would I have been to disagree?)

    Once you realize that the hippies screaming: “Your subconscious is creating arch-typical (?) hallucinations” is patiently stupid, it does all follow.

    Sure, then you get issues of devils, the glass-darkly thingy, your own fallibility, the legions of liars around you, etc. etc…

    Dealing with all that takes reasoning. A lot of it, systematized, adaptive… error-correction perhaps above all… learning, understanding, etc. One of the children of this… task, was the scientific method.

    That is why the Christians and Jews built the greatest civilization the world had ever seen: Christianity (not ‘religion’, Christianity specifically) demands the ability to reason in its adherents. And that is of course why the whole world is auto-piloting itself to Hell even now: hippies are sociopaths (of varying degrees) who do not practice the hard art of reasoning, since neither fact nor logic nor reason MATTERS to them… and so they suck at it.

    Hippies are inferior at ACTUAL reasoning; they are little more than parasites in all things. They are however superior at gaining positions of authority – the corrupt, the lying, always have an enormous advantage in that regard.

  44. @ mbabbitt: “The rehashed pagan imagery/motifs argument is off topic here but just for your clarification: These arguments have been thoroughly debunked by many scholars and historians of religion.”

    JUST because some scholars have “debunked” them doesn’t mean they’re correct.

    As I noted, Justin Martyr addressed this about 150 AD in one of his very famous apologies — his first … specifically in section/chapter XXI & XXII where he made comparisions to a number of pre-existant Roman & Greek diety figures. Other writers at the same time Christianity was coming into vogue made similar observations — that was occurring at a time where it was/is clear that many “Church Fathers” writings show indications they were unfamiliar with one or more of the Gospels. Its not just about Mithras, not by far.

    David Ulansey, that did much to decode Mithraic symbolism, notes: “Our earliest evidence for the Mithraic mysteries places their appearance in the middle of the first century B.C.: the historian Plutarch says that in 67 B.C. a large band of pirates based in Cilicia (a province on the southeastern coast of Asia Minor) were practicing “secret rites” of Mithras.” He’s careful to distinguish between the Roman “Mithras” and the Persian “Mithra”– very very different but sound alike dieties. See: http://www.well.com/user/davidu/mithras.html

  45. @cb: “Once you realize that the hippies screaming: “Your subconscious is creating arch-typical (?) hallucinations” is patiently stupid, it does all follow.”

    How so? I mean, from a scientific point of view, which is least plausible?

    1. You’re hallucinating (or similar).

    2. Someone’s playing a trick on you.

    3. You’re lying for some reason.

    4. A supernatural being is communicating with you.

    God knows I’m no fan of hippies, but #1, #2 & #3 are far more plausible than #4. They can be scientifically explained, have been recorded as happening before now, obey the laws of physics, etc etc etc… #4 by definition does not. It is, in fact, the kind of claim that requires extraordinary evidence.

  46. 1) Easy, I did not have to think of them myself.

    2) Ok, for the sake of argument

    3) “Suppose that “something than which nothing greater can be thought” existed only in the understanding. Then it would possible to think of something even greater, namely, an entity otherwise identical which also existed in reality. ”

    The problem is, you cannot think of an “something than which nothing greater can be thought”. For this to think about, you need to think of all the attributes this “something” has. But as the number of attributes is at least equal to the number of positive integers, you never get to the end of this list. And that means that you cannot think of “something than which nothing greater can be thought”, as there is always an infinitive number of attributes left to think about.

    and another one

    1) Let’s assume 3) is right after all, and there is a “something than which nothing greater can be thought”. Now, I can still choose one of the attributes of this “something”. After all, it is an attribute I can think of, by definition. Let’s say this attribute is the fraction of your possessions you need to give to the poor. Giving the right amount gets you in heaven, and giving the wrong amount gets you in hell. A very important attribute, therefore, and as this is something I have thought of, it must be part of the “something”, by definition.

    But now I have thought of an infinite number of different “something than which nothing greater can be thought”-s. After all, the “something” that wants you to give 1/2 of your possessions to the poor is as great as the “something” that wants you to give 1/3. And what about the one that wants you to give 399823778873465874/2384197856874568734658374568568374658746. And the number of different fractions is as big as the number of different positive integers.

    But by definition there has to be only one “something than which nothing greater can be thought”. This is a contradiction, and therefore there is no “something than which nothing greater can be thought”.

  47. From CB:
    “That is why the Christians and Jews built the greatest civilization the world had ever seen.”

    Would this have been the 1,600 years of the Dark Ages — between the fall of Rome and the Age of Reason?

  48. “A rebuttal to this is not, “This is stupid”” Well its an accurate summary that saves a lot of time……

    Lets start with

    ” “Something than which nothing greater can be thought” exists in the understanding”
    This is an assertion without proof. It also implies that man understands fully the nature of god.

    “It is greater to exist in reality than merely to exist in the understanding”
    This is an assertion without proof. It implies that realisations are more perfect or of a better quality than idealisations. After a lifetime in product engineering and system design I’d beg to differ.

    “Suppose that “something than which nothing greater can be thought” existed only in the understanding. Then it would possible to think of something even greater, namely, an entity otherwise identical which also existed in reality.”

    This supposition is based on the two previous unsupported assertions. which means that the paradox that St Anselm relies on :
    ” But this is impossible, since by definition it is impossible to think of something greater than “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”” doesn’t actually occur.

    and so the conclusion

    “Therefore “something than which nothing greater can be thought” must exist in reality as well as in the understanding”

    isn’t reached

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