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On Anselm’s Proslogion and “Proofs” for God

I’ve always been very interested in the various Ontological Arguments for God’s existence.  In studying for comps, I’m currently reading Anselm’s Proslogion in which he gives one of the most canonical formulations of the argument.  To wit:

1.) Imagine a being greater than which nothing can be conceived.

2.) This being exists in your imagination.

3.) It is greater (or better) to exist in reality than it is to only exist in the imagination.

4.) Therefore, if the being exists ONLY in one’s imagination, then a greater being (i.e. one that exists in reality) could be conceived.

5.) Therefore, there exists in reality a being greater than which none could be conceived.

6.) This being is God.1

Now this argument is interesting to me because it’s a seductive one.  It’s one of my canonical examples of a specious argument that appears logical, even though it’s so logically flawed that it’s almost incoherent.  To illustrate this point, let me rattle off a few quick critiques.

a.) Point 3.) is unsupported.  Can one say it’s really greater to exist in fact than in imagination?

b.) Point 1.) is flawed because it’s very unlikely that a person can imagine something so great that nothing greater could be imagined.  Either by the original thinker or a later one.

c.) “Greatness” is not unipolar, so a thing “greater than which nothing can be conceived” misses the point.  Many dimensions of “greatness” may, in fact, be implicit tradeoffs so that they can’t both be maximized.

d.) Existence is not, strictly speaking, a predicate.  That is to say, it’s problematic to assert that “existence” is a property of the object to which it refers in the same way that size or color is.  (I get the impression that this point is still up for some debate, but I’m not aware of any compelling arguments to the contrary.  If someone else is, please do post them in comments.)

These are just the four critiques that are on the top of my head.  I doubt I can claim originality for any of them, (and definitely not for d.) ), but the point is that the flaws with the argument are numerous and fatal.  Which is why it’s interesting to me that the ontological argument, in its many forms, is still regarded by some as a valid or, at very least, compelling proof.

Going to a Catholic university, I encountered people all the time who point to this and other easily-refuted “proofs” as being linchpins of their faith.  These were people who could (and often did) routinely construct tight, well-reasoned arguments and attack my own succinctly and incisively when they were flawed.  These are people are well versed in logic and skilled in its use.  And yet their love for this weak, easily-dismissed argument remains.

As near as I can tell, this is due to some form of internal sophistry.  They need the conclusion to be true for their philosophical framework to hold and for their world to make sense.  So they develop a blindspot for arguments that have a logical form and the desired conclusion but whose premises or steps are flawed, sometimes in fatal ways.

This points to one thing that bears consideration about the argument; it is, more or less, formally sound.  That is, the problems with it are not with the individual steps in the argument2 but rather it’s the premises from which the argument is made that are flawed.  My critiques above all attack the underlying assumptions of the argument, not the logical steps it employs.

Another such argument is the appeal to a first mover.  It’s another instance in which flawed premises but fairly sound logic end up producing an argument that’s equally flawed and has proven to be equally seductive.  After all, there’s nothing logically incoherent about either an infinitely regressing chain of causation OR about a chain of causation kicked off by some initial, yet natural base condition.3

It seems to me that the key factor that a lot of these seductive arguments have in common is that they’re formed in an essentially rigorous fashion.  But where a strong argument would have strong premises and strong logic, these arguments have strong logic married to premises that are either deeply flawed or, worse yet, semantically meaningless.  It’s open question to me whether “a being greater than which no other can exist” even means anything.4 It may be in the same semantic class as the phrase “a gnome which contains more glass jelly than any bunny rabbit.”  It’s syntactically correct, but what it’s actually describing eludes me.

If that’s the case, and the premise of the argument is based on semantically empty statements, then really, the argument’s not erroneous, so much as everything that follows from the premise is incoherent.  This, then, becomes a classic case of “Not Even Wrong“.  And if that’s the case, then I guess I shouldn’t trouble myself about it overly much.  But so long as otherwise brilliant people are turning to arguments that are, at the very best, wrong or, at worst, total nonsense in order to prop up their personal philosophies, then I’m sure I’ll have a hard time letting the issue drop.  It may well be simply my contrarian nature or it may be the pedantism inherent in all philosophy, but either way, so long as people are being seduced by these bits of pseudo-logic, I’ll have a hard time ignoring them.

UPDATE: Commenter J points me to an excellent parody of Anselm’s argument by the inimitable Julian Sanchez:

  1. For every good thing that exists, I can imagine a still better version that does not exist.
  2. Generalizing, extant things are always less perfect than those that exist only in the imagination.
  3. God is defined as a supremely perfect entity.
  4. Therefore God is purely imaginary.

1 – I’m open to critiques of my rendition of Anselm’s proof. I’m laying it out here more for clarity than for exact accuracy. I’ll try not to use this simplified form as a straw man.

2 – This is especially true with later, more refined versions of the Ontological Argument which improve on Anselm’s in some meaningful ways.

3 – If you’re one of those people that asserts that whatever that natural starting condition was is what we call God, then we don’t have anything to talk about. I mean that literally.  You’ve added nothing to the conversation and have just shuffled the problem away behind a semantic curtain.

4 – Whether it does mean something or not, hinges largely on the definitions of “greater” and on how one resolves the seeming equivocation between existence-in-thought and existence-in-reality.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion/Atheism.


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