Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Anselm, Gaunilo, and God (after listening to the bishop on Super Bowl Sunday)

Every now and then I like to revisit my old philosophy papers. I'll find almost any excuse to do this. This week my excuse is a conversation that took place in the halls of my church. It's not every day that on the way out of the sanctuary, on the way to pick up your son from the nursery lest his banshee wail disturb the peace of the entire congregation, you hear someone toss around works like ontological and cosmological. I don't normally like to step into the conversations of others, but when they break out words like that, well, screaming child or no screaming child, all bets are off.

It turns out that a new friend of mine was waxing poetic on the various merits and demerits of medieval "proofs" for the existence of God. He didn't like Aquinas' cosmological arguments because they seemed to him too much like weak analogies.

Of course, weak analogies don't seem to bother too many people in the profession of religion, which is perhaps another reason why I recaptured my amateur status. For instance (and I know this is a serious digression, but its my blog, isn't it?) our bishop visited our church this week, and gave an inspiring pep talk, I mean sermon, titled "The Best is Yet to Come." It was firery (in a good way - in the sense that it displayed an inner fire and a passion rather than in the sense that he threatened us with fire) and inspiring. Uplifting, even. But it was also a nearly unending string of fallacies strung together with appeals to emotion rather than reason.

The bishop's favorite fallacy: weak analogy, followed closely by false cause. It was not faith alone, for instance, that caused Rudy to "play" football at Notre Dame, nor was it simple, unwavering belief that landed America on the moon first. And, incidentally, faith in God is not sufficiently like playing football at Notre Dame or taking a trip to the moon.

But the bishop did his job, which is why his job is not my job. He roused a congregation which has been dormant too long, with his (fallacious?) emotional appeals. We're now properly motivated for the work that lies ahead of us.

But, enough picking on the bishop, especially since this is supposed to be a brief introduction to a paper on the ontological argument of Anselm of Canterbury (1033 - 1109 CE). My friend - who pointed out the weak analogies of Thomas Aquinas, but not bishop James King - much preferred Anselm's "proof" for the existence of God. This reminded me that in another life I gave a much celebrated treatment of that argument. So, because my new church buddy reminded me of who I used to be, here's a paper I wrote on the ontological argument (though Paul Tillich argues that it isn't a properly ontological argument, a point which will have to wait for another time or die a slow painful death due to a total lack of reader interest), called Anselm, Gaunilo, and God:

Maintaining a belief in God, or a god, is often quite difficult because God is not the sort if being that can be directly experienced. You can't see God, or directly perceive God with any of your senses. If God sends messages they are not unambiguous. Anyone who, upon committing an act claims that God told them to do it is fishing for an insanity plea. If there is a God - and, of course, I believe that there is - God is a being categorically different than the rest of creation.

This creates problems not just in the realm of belief, faith and religion, but also for philosophers trying to prove the existence of God, or trying to explain any attributes of God. In his Proslogion, just before his famous "proof" for the existence of God, Anselm of Canterbury makes it clear that this is not lost on him. He asks of God, in the first chapter, "Lord, if You are not present here, where... shall I look for You?" and later, "...if You are everywhere why then... do I not see You?" He states clearly, "Never have I seen You, Lord my God. I do not know Your face." Each of these statements and questions admit the possibility of doubt, for Anselm has never directly encountered God. And yet each of these statements and questions are made to the God in whom Anselm clearly believes. Why? Anselm makes, at the end of chapter one, a cryptic statement which might answer this question, when he says "I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but believe so that I may understand." While Anselm sets out to "prove" the existence of God, his proof is possible only because he already believes in God. Faith, or revelation, informs all of Anselm's reason.

Anselm's famous "proof" begins in chapter two of his Proslogion. First he asks God to give "understanding to faith." He already believes in God, and is now simply asking for certainty. He wants to understand that God exists, and that God exists the way that he believes God exists. So he "wonders" without doubt whether it is possible that God does not exist, using the famous verse, "the Fool has said in his heart, there is no God."

To address this Fool who "says in his heart, there is no God" he gives a description of God as "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," and argues that even the Fool can think of this, because he can hear these words and understand them. And so, since even the Fool can think of "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" this can exist in the mind even if not in reality.

He then says that "it is one thing for an object to exist in the mind, and another to understand that an object actually exists." He argues that it is "greater" for an object to exist in both the mind and reality than just in the mind, and so God must actually exist in reality, by definition. After all, God is "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," and since it is possible to think of God existing both in the mind and in reality, if God did not actually exist in reality then one could think of something greater than "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," which, he argues, is absurd. "Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in mind and in reality."

There are a number of ways in which this "proof" can be attacked, some of which were employed by Anselm's contemporary Gaunilo. But before we attack his argument, it must be admitted that this is an argument that has rightly been taken seriously for almost a thousand years, and ought to be around for many more years. It is simple and elegant. But it, like every other argument about God, is vulnerable for a number of reasons.

The first two points of vulnerability in this argument are unsupported assumptions by Anselm. The first is that God is "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought." While most descriptions of God may hold this statement to be true, this is not the way in which God is often described. Many people who speak of God might not recognize God by this description, which is certainly not a comprehensive definition of God. But this may be a trivial objection because the statement may be true of God, or concepts of God, anyway. Anselm might argue that even if God is not definitively "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" He is certainly described by that statement.

The second assumption is that it is greater to exist in both reality and the mind than just in the mind. I wish that Anselm included more arguments here. I'm not sure what he means by "greater." But this may also be a trivial objection because he is not arguing that it is greater to exist in reality than in the mind, but that it is greater to exist in both rather than just one. Generally we will grant that two is by definition "greater" than one.

Anselm's contemporary Gaunilo outlines other points of vulnerability in his famous objection to Anselm's "proof," A Reply to the Foregoing by a Certain Writer on Behalf of the Fool. Gaunilo points out that Anselm, in chapter four of his Proslogion distinguishes between two ways in which someone may think of a phrase: to understand the words themselves and to understand that which the words signify. He says that the Fool could hear and understand the words used to describe God without also understanding what those words signify. So the Fool would have the words "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" in mind without actually having "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" itself in mind, and so only the words, and not that which the words signify, would, to the Fool, exist in mind. And if "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" must exist in mind for it to be manifest that it exists in reality, then it is not demonstrated that it exists in reality.

But the most famous of Gaunilo's objections is the one commonly called the "Lost Island," in which Gaunilo attacks the way in which Anselm went from God existing in mind to God existing in both mind and reality. He says that someone can describe an island which is difficult if not impossible to find, on which there are "all manner of priceless riches and delights." It is, in fact, "superior everywhere in abundance of riches to all those other lands that men inhabit." So this lost island is the greatest island.

Now, having heard this lost island described, Gaunilo says that he can understand these words, and also that which the words signify. He says then that this lost island exists in his mind. And yet it is not demonstrated from this that the island exists also in reality, even though it is thought to be the greatest island, and even though "it is more excellent to exist not only in mind alone but also in reality." He says that if anyone tried to pursued him by these means that this island existed beyond all reality, "I should either think that he was joking, or I should find it hard to decide which of us I ought to judge the bigger fool - I, if I agreed with him, or he, if he thought that he had proved the existence of this island with any certainty."

I, though, am not sure that this analogy of Gaunilo's is as good one. After all, an island is a specific form of being, that is; island. But Anselm in his proof did not mention any specific form of being. He did not mention the greatest this or the greatest that, such as Gaunilo's greatest island, but rather, he mentioned "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," the greatest unspecified thing. And so while it is not manifest from definition that Gaunilo's lost island exists in reality, it still may be for Anselm's God.

It is not necessary for the greatest ideal island to exist in reality, though it is necessary for the greatest actual island to exist in reality. An island may be thought to be the greatest island and yet still not exist. It would then not be the greatest island. This, though, does not carry over to Anselm's "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought." His definition is much tighter than Gaunilo's definition of the lost island. It is still true from his definition that if "that-than-which-nothing-greater-could-be-thought" did not exist, and yet could be thought to exist; there would be an absurd contradiction because you could think of something greater than "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought." Gaunilo has employed a weak, but very interesting analogy.

Still, Gaunilo, in forcing us to look more closely at Anselm's argument, has pointed out a few more potential problems. To defend Anselm from Gaunilo's analogy we had to say that his concept of God is as an "unspecified" greatest thing, distinct from Gaunilo's greatest island, a specified thing. That Anselm's God is unspecified means in part that it is impossible to give this God any attributes. Sure we can from Anselm's "proof" know that something exists than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought, a "greatest" thing, but what else can we know of this greatest thing? On what grounds can we call this greatest thing "God"? And, even if we can call this thing "God," what else can we know about this God? Has Anselm's proof really helped us to know that there is a God? Has it really helped us know anything about God, if there really is such a being?

These are questions Anselm must address in his reply to Gaunilo, A Reply to the Foregoing by the Author of the Book in Question. But before he address ways in which to ascribe attributes to God, he must deal with some of Gaunilo's objections to the way in which he attempted to "prove" the existence of God. First he claims that he is not replying to the Fool, but to "one who, while speaking on the Fool's behalf, is an orthodox Christian." While this at first seems to be just a witty stab, it turns out to be crucial to his argument. Gaunilo claimed that it was possible that, for the Fool, God does not even exist in mind. While Anselm will not necessarily grant him this he does not belabor the point, because he knows that, in responding to a Christian, he is responding to one for whom God does in fact exist in mind. And so, even if God does not exist in the mind of the Fool, that God exists in the mind of anyone is sufficient, Anselm thinks, to prove the existence of God. He then employs the same proof by definition of God as that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought.

He also claims, revisiting another argument from his Proslogion, that God's existence, by this definition, is so certain that God cannot even be properly thought not to exist. He says that when someone tries to think of God as not existing, "either he thinks of something than which a greater cannot be thought, or he does not think of it." If the doubter does not think of "something than which a greater cannot be thought," that person does not think of God, and so, in not thinking of God, cannot "think that what he does not think of (God) does not exist." But if the doubter thinks of "something than which a greater cannot be thought," then that person can also think of Anselm's argument. Then they would know that God, by that definition, must exist, or else "something than which a greater cannot be thought" would not be "something than which a greater cannot be thought." So it is impossible to think of "something than which a greater cannot be thought" as not existing, because if it did not exist it would not be "something than which a greater cannot be thought," and so in thinking that it could not exist you would not be thinking of it.

This may seem like hair-splitting, but it is essential to Anselm's argument that attributes can, from this definition of God, be ascribed to God. And some other attributes must be ascribed to God in order for this definition of God to be recognizable as God. From this argument, that God cannot be thought of as not existing, he argues that God is present in all times and all places. If God could be thought of as not existing in a certain place then God could be thought of as not existing, even if only in that place, which, by his definition of God, would be impossible. Likewise, if God could be thought of as not existing in a particular time then God could be thought of as not existing, even if only in that time, which, by his definition of God, would be impossible.

He then introduces a mechanism by which other attributes of God might also be smuggled in. He says that "since everything that is less good is similar in so far as it is good to that which is more good, it is evident to every rational mind that, mounting from the less good to the more good we can from those things than which something greater can be thought conjecture a great deal about that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought." So, by understanding what is good on the earth, though it is "less good," we can, in so far as that which is "less good" participates in the goodness of the God who is "most good," understand at least a little of the goodness of God.

I'm not sure, though, how far this kind of argument will take us in discovering attributes of God. Many theologians after Anselm are prone to point out that while God is good; the goodness of God seems categorically different than the goodness of man, or any other object creation. This is, of course, because God is categorically different than any other object in creation. Thomas Aquinas, after all, makes God a species to Himself. So while it may be possible to conjecture about "more good" from "less good" in that both are "good," I don't know that from this it is possible to know anything for sure about what is "most good," since the goodness of the "most good" is categorically different than the goodness of lesser goods.

So what are we to make of Anselm's famous "proof"? Does it work? Does he demonstrate the existence of a God who is recognizable as God? I'm not sure that he does. There are still some interesting issues that need to be worked out, the inability to ascribe attributes to God by his definition notwithstanding.

The first issue is his notion of God existing in mind. It is an interesting statement, to say that that which is thought of exists in the mind. Yet this is essential to his proof. He argues that "just as what is thought is thought by means of thought, and what is thought by a thought is thus, as thought, in thought, so also, what is understood by the mind is thus, as understood, in the mind." Yet a literal reading of this argument would have to say that to understand a brick, or a rock, or an elephant, that would somehow mean that I have a brick, or a rock, or an elephant in my mind, which is a truly odd thing to claim. This raises questions of what exactly is mind, and what does it mean to have something in mind, which Anselm does not address. Without clear concepts of mind, and of what it means for something to exist in mind, it is difficult to claim that God does in fact exist in mind, even though God can be thought of. Surely to claim that God exists in mind is not to claim that the substance of God is literally in my mind any more than to think of a brick means that the substance of that brick is in my mind. This is an issue that I wish Anselm would have clarified.

Another important issue with Anselm's argument is raised in this question: if Anselm shows that something than which a greater cannot be thought (God) exists in mind, and therefore, by definition, in reality, does he show that there needs to be only one such being? While Anselm believes in a monotheistic God, does he, by his proof of God, prove that the God of his proof is monotheistic? In the specific language of his proof, unfortunately, no, he does not. God as that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought is not that-than-which-nothing-equal-can-be-thought, and while that may on the surface seem to be a trivial claim, it might actually be crucial. For God's existence to be proven by Anselm's argument, God must be recognizable by Anselm's definition. Anselm's argument is solid enough - except for the bit about in mind, which may be trivial - to prove whatever is described by his famous phrase. But is God described by that phrase? A monotheistic God is not, because there is room, in his phrase, for more than one such God. A Christian God may not be either, because, as seen earlier, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe any specific attributes to God as described by Anselm's phrase.

Is it possible to clean up this definition of God so that God may be recognizable by this definition? Yes, I suppose it could be possible, but to do so will take a greater mind than me.

Addendum (added Feb 7, 2006, at 9:45am): In my paper I argued that Anselm's argument was, with a few conditions added, "strong enough" to prove that there is a greatest existing thing. I no longer can stand by that statement, as it - along with Anselm's argument - assumes that creation can be divided into a kind of hierarchy of goods. That mode of thinking has led to a great deal of harm, as that which, by its own nature, has been deemed "less good" within the natural environment has been subject to destruction by the "more good" humans.

There is no reason other than moral arrogance to assume that something are by nature "more good" than others. This kind of claim is also incompatible with Darwinian evolution, which turns the medieval notion of a created gradation of goodness on its head. Evolutionarily speaking, if one can say that one form of existence is "greater" than another, it is quit possible that the "least" by human standards (insects) are by evolutionary (and therefore divine, if in fact evolution by natural selection is the means by which the universe has been brought into its present transitory state of being) standards are actually the "greatest." This is because, in terms both of raw numbers and variety insects are the most numerous (by far) form of life on our planet.

The old adage that if we destroy our planet in a nuclear holocaust the only thing that will survive are the cockroaches speaks to the relative "greatness" of insects.

As such it is absurd to think that we can divide the natural realm into grades or degrees of relative greatness, and then make assumptions about the nature of God based on those artificial distinctions.

7 comments:

Princess Pinky said...

There is a reason why I will NEVER be a philosophy major, and more importantly a degree holder in such a field. Whenever I think I am putting too much thought into a blog entry, I read you and happily go back to debating about which shoes I want to buy.

Sandalstraps said...

I'll happily take that as a compliment!

But I care about shoes, too. Sami just got me a nice pair of Josef Siebel's, which were half off at Dillards. They made my day. I just don't care about your shoes!

Tom said...

You're such a girl, Chris.

Brian Cubbage said...

Chris Baker = "shoe-loving girly man greater than which cannot be conceived."

(Just kidding, of course; I love scoring a good pair of shoes, too.)

Sandalstraps said...

Sami says that if your feet aren't happy the rest of you can't be happy.

Of course I only listen to her when it serves my purposes.

Brian Cubbage said...

Seriously, though, on the topic of the ontological argument: I don't quite think it works, but at some level I don't feel entirely satisfied that I know what is wrong with it.

For instance, I find myself coming back to Anselm's response to Gaunilo. You're right, Chris, that Anselm points back in his response to claims he had already made in the Proslogion (Chapter 3, I believe). But I get the sense that he is really presenting a slightly different version of the original argument related to the first. I take him to be adding the following claims to his argument:

(1) God would have the property of necessary existence (whereas everything else besides God would have the property of contingent existence);

(2) It is greater to exist necessarily than to exist contingently (i.e., to have the property of necessary existence rather than the property of contingent existence). (2) would replace his original claim about it being greater for a thing to exist in thought and reality than simply in thought alone.

Since he already defines God as "that greater than which cannot be thought," the conclusion follows here as validly as it would have followed in the original argument-- maybe more so. It might also escape your hierarchy of goods argument, since it would trade on intuitions about the way existence works as a property, not on comparative judgments about the greatness of types of existing things.

What do you think?

Sandalstraps said...

I'm stumped. That does, I think, get past the hierarchy of goods. The next thing that would need to be argued for it that it is, in fact, greater to exist necessarily than it is to exist contingently. But that would have been obvious to anyone who could read Anselm in his day, so it would be unfair to criticize him for failing to anticipate modern skepticism.

On a gut level I am uncomfortable with his argument. Even if, in structure, it worls, it still doesn't work because he has proved (if anything) that his definition of God (a greatest existing thing) exists rather than actually proving that God exists.

Tillich argued that Anselm's definition of God prevents his argument from actually being an ontological argument, but I'll have to reread that part of Theology and Culture to remember the details of the argument.

One point on which Tillich attacked Anselm, I remember, is on Anselm idenitifying God as an individualized expression of existence (an existing thing) rather than with existence itself, or the ground of existence.

But I want to say that Anselm's argument (despite what I wrote in my original paper) doesn't work not just because of a bad definition of God, but because of some flaw in the argument itself. But there's a reason why the argument has lasted as long as it has, and if you remove my attack on the hierarchy of goods then I can't come up with another flaw at the moment.

Perhaps I should more thoroughly reconsider Gaunilo's objection?