Friday, January 23, 2009

In Defense of the Ontological Argument

St. Anslem's Ontological Argument asserts that God is the perfect ground for all conception and all reality, so-much-so that the denial of His existence is logically impossible. Therefore, God exists.

Historically, St. Anselm’s argument was held to be untenable. Gaunilo, monk of Marmoutier, responded with his famous In Behalf of the Fool, in which he protests that the conception of a thing does not necessitate its reality. Moreover, Gaunilo charges that people refer to those things they already know (men are known by the characteristics that men have), but the conception of a supreme essence that is greater than all is not something that any person can refer to on their own. Therefore, “one might more appropriately say that it cannot be understood not to exist and cannot be understood even to be able not to exist.”[1]

Knowing, for Gaunilo, implies a certainty that understanding does not: one can understand the existence of another person in a different country, but that in no way means that one knows that other person actually exists. To that end, Gaunilo does not deny that St. Anselm’s argument carries a certain force with it, but asserts that it must be “more cogently argued.”[2]

To wit, the main challenge to the Ontological Argument can be summed up by the simple phrase “it assumes that all ideas have their parallel in reality.”[3] To say this, however, places reverse emphasis on the direction of the Ontological Argument, and ultimately ends in circularity. The Ontological Argument moves from a direction of cause to effect, conception to concretion, but the popular contention that reality contains the parallels of the ideas moves from effect to cause, concretion to conception, and thereby slips the limits of St. Anselm’s a priori intentions.

What St. Anselm was describing was that there is no parallel in reality to a supreme God, for that would make the physical parallel God and not the Christian deity. Therefore, God is wholly beyond parallel in both humanity’s conception of the supreme deity, and in the observable world around us. However, for God to be perfect, He had to really exist, free from parallels, in order to be God. God is His own cause, and our understanding of His supremacy beyond reality and human conception is the effect of His truly being real.

Moreover, if all ideas are paralleled in reality, then reality can be said to be the reflection of an idea. Who conceived the idea then? Certainly not contingent beings who need the reality they exist in to survive! Presumably then, God, who is beyond parallel in conception and reality must have conceived the idea of reality. So unless one is willing to admit to St. Anselm’s a priori assertion, one ends up with an ineffective argument that reads something like this: ideas have their parallel in reality, ergo reality is composed of ideas. Nothing is ventured and nothing is gained from such speedy trips around Pi (π).

© Christopher J. Freeman

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[1] Hopkins, Jasper and Herbert Richardson, ed. & trans. Anselm ofCanterbury V.I, 120
[2] Ibid., 120
[3] Dr. William Mundt, “Fundamental Arguments for God’s Existence” Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, November 30th, 2004.

3 comments:

Ed said...

I take it that Anselm's argument displays the fact that, as a lived experience, you can't sensibly predicate non-existence of God. Which, strictly speaking, doesn't directly display God's existence.

But I'd say it does display the fact that you can't sensibly judge atheism to be true. (If it is successful.)

Of course all this might be due to a problem with our cognitive systems, or with our concepts or something like that. Maybe it is just a bug in the system? You have to decide when and when not to trust in reason, sometimes.

I'm not sure the argument works. I do know this much: if there is something wrong with it, it's not obvious. (That doesn't really count in its favour though.)

Oh, and I'm pretty sure Dr. William Mundt is wrong to think: “it assumes that all ideas have their parallel in reality.”

Christopher said...

"I take it that Anselm's argument displays the fact that, as a lived experience, you can't sensibly predicate non-existence of God. Which, strictly speaking, doesn't directly display God's existence."

Interesting comment, Ed. I hadn't considered the idea that Anselm's argument can be considered a "lived experience." That puts a new twist on it for me that I'm going to have to think about. But for the moment, you're right that God's non-existence is not a sensible predicate. Unlike Kant, it would seem that existence is a necessary predicate due to it being the fundamental basis for description.

"I'm not sure the argument works. I do know this much: if there is something wrong with it, it's not obvious. (That doesn't really count in its favour though.)"

I've vascillated between agreement and disagreement with the argument, to be honest. At once it seems intuitively true but somewhat farfetched. But it never ceases to pull me into greater and greater reflection on the intimacy of our connection to God via the imago dei: we can conceive of God and the notion of his perfection because of our likeness to him and our contrasting imperfection. Still, that seems a bit of a stretch. It's an odd argument, isn't it?

In any case, if something wrong with it, but not obviously so, why does that work against it? Can you explain that to me a little more?

Thank you,
Christopher

Christopher said...

p.s. Ed, Dr. Mundt was convinced by my full essay on the Ontological Argument that his statement "all ideas have their parallel in reality" was an oversimplification, and erroneous. He has since removed that comment from his lectures on Anselm's argument.