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Talk Back 12
St Anselm's Ontological Proof

by Ian Mathers

Re: Meditation 13 (Addendum)

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First of all, some background on myself. Unlike most people providing commentary in this section, I am not a religious person, although I currently believe in the existence of what could be loosely termed "God". Despite this, I subscribe to tenets 2 and 3 of the Universal Agnostic church. I am also a Philosophy student, however, and in my Medieval Philosophy class we examined in closer detail St. Anselm's Ontological Proof for the existence of God, and it seems to me at this point to be irrefutable once properly explained.

That means, of course, that my weak explanation of it here probably won't convince anyone not already convinced of God's existence. But hopefully it may inspire thought.

The Argument can be reduced to five points:

  1. God is That Then Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived (TTWNGCBC) *
  2. Whenever a person talks about or considers the possibility of TTWNGCBC (even though they cannot conceive of it, see footnote to first point), TTWNGCBC exists in their understanding. **
  3. That which exists both in re and in intellectu (terms explained below) is greater than that which exists in re alone.
  4. TTWNGCBC already exists in intellectu, as people believe in God, talk about God, and even if they do not believe in God, are aware of the concept. If TTWNGCBC only existed in intellectu and not also in re, then it is not truly TTWNGCBC, as the TTWNGCBC which only exists in intellectu is less great than a TTWNGCBC which exists in re. ***
  5. (5) Therefore TTWNGCBC exists in re. ****

It is interesting to note that Anselm did not write this to actually prove the existence of God, but rather for some monks at the monastery he ran at the time, as a meditative tool. This is why the concepts are so slippery.

Another interesting property of the argument, possibly due to it's construction, is the built-in logical trap based around trying to understand it. It goes like this: once you actually understand the argument, you can no more deny its premises than you can understand what a triangle is and deny that all three interior angles will add up to 180 degrees. They are self-evident. And also, due to its meditative use I'm sure, once you do grasp that elusive secret it slips away again (in my case, after five minutes)... and you are left with the conclusions you've drawn but no way to articulate the meat of the argument, really, in this case why it is that the concept of TTWNGCBC includes the fact that it must exist.

John Tyrrell (from the Church) has pointed out to me that Godel's Incompleteness Theorem may point at TTWNGCBC being pure mathematics and not God, but I do not know enough about higher math to truly evaluate this intriguing prospect. Hopefully when he has time he will add something about this prospect to meditation 13. As for myself, footnote * suffices as a kind of rebuttal (though not rejecting that possibility) of his point.



* It is important to note that TTWNGCBC is not a definition of God, nor even a description. We cannot conceive of what Anselm is talking about here, but we can perhaps conceive of the concept, if you see what I mean. Also, while you could argue that TTWNGCBC may not be God, Anselm (and myself) would argue that if what we are calling God is not TTWNGCBC, then it should be. If that means we wind up describing TTWNGCBC as, for example, math, of wind up pitching the description of "God" at all, I don't have a problem with that, and I don't think even Anselm would have more than semantic problems with that.

** This brings us to the terms in re and in intellectu. They are both forms of existence, each equally valid and each does not exclude the other, but they are different. Everything physical exists in re, or in reality. The computer you view this on exists in reality, for example. But now I have given you additional reason to consider your computer - that means that right now it also exists in intellectu, or in your understanding. Some would dismiss that property as mere philosophical sophistry, but consider this: Take a concept like a triangle. We can find examples of triangular things in re, but can you show me a triangle? Not something triangular, but a triangle? If you can grasp that, you've stumbled unto the Problem of Universals, something that's bugged philosophers for thousands of years. Consider this also: Can you conceive of a square circle? Yes, you can: "An object with four equal sides with all points equidistant from the centre". Could you draw this? Of course not. Does it exist in re? Of course not, not as far as we know. But the concept clearly exists, in intellectu.

*** A word about Being here, as the ancient Greeks (and thus, to an extent, Anselm) understood it. The TTWNGCBC which exists in re and in intellectu is greater than the one that exists in either alone in the sense that it has more Being. This is a whole other can of worms that would take a while to explain, but suffice to say that if you consider your computer as you did in the footnote above, then it has more being by virtue of existing both in re as it always does and in intellectu while you consider it than some tree seen by no one and thought of by no one does, since it exists merely in re. Some may scoff at the idea of human perception (although truly, any sentient perception will do) as that important: I direct them to the scientific maxim that the act of observing changes the observed. Also, note that under the ontological argument it is possible to argue that if no one conceived of the concept of TTWNGCBC than it wouldn't exist. But in order to make that argument the concept of the existence of a TTWNGCBC would have to exist for the arguer in intellectu. Which is a neat trick on the part of the argument, if you ask me. Also note the three kinds of being: Contingent, Impossible and Necessary. Contingent is what we all are: it is possible for us to exist, but nowhere in what we are does it say that we must exist. Impossible is like the square circle, at least as far as in re existence goes: It must not exist in order for the universe to be working properly - implied in the very concept is the fact that it cannot and must not exist in re. Then there is Necessary, of which God (or TTWNGCBC) is the only member. Implicit and explicit in TTWNGCBC is that it must exist, both in order for it to be TTWNGCBC and for the universe to work. No, I can't explain that better.

**** Again, note that what, say, the Christians call "God" is not necessarily TTWNGCBC, as this argument only says TTWNGCBC exists - it does not say TTWNGCBC created us, cares about us in any fashion or is involved with us in any way. Anselm drew these conclusions, but he was a Saint - I am not, and these conclusions, unlike the main argument, do not work to my satisfaction. Anselm essentially took such things for granted. But if TTWNGCBC isn't what we call God, both Anselm and myself agree that it should be, as if it is not than God is not greater than TTWNGCBC (He cannot be), and therefore does not conform to any useful definition of God. This is how I can believe in the validity of this argument (or at least, I have never heard it disproved to my satisfaction) and still hold Articles of the Faith 2 and 3 to be true. It may be true that TTWNGCBC is in fact moral, loves us all, created us, etc. And if so, we owe TTWNGCBC at least our respect (indeed, to not respect TTWNGCBC is rather foolish). But in the absence of any demonstrable evidence that this is true or that TTWNGCBC cares about us in any way, shape or form, mere respect (in the same way one respects nature or mathematics) for the existence of the absolute Being will suffice in my opinion.

I hope this has proved interesting or provocative to at least some people, and that it hasn't proved deadly boring to everyone else. Comments, questions, better explanations than the ones I have here are all welcome at my email address.

Ian Mathers