Anselm’s Ontological Argument and Degrees of Reality



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Anselm’s Ontological Argument and Degrees of Reality

Mark Stone

The ontological argument deduces God’s existence from a premise about what it is to be God. St. Anselm’s version of it in his work the Proslogion begins with the belief that God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived [aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit]. Understanding this belief, which even the fool who denies God’s existence can do, presupposes the reality of God at least as an idea in the understanding. The supposition that this is the only reality that God has, Anselm argues, is contradictory because to exist both in the understanding and in actuality is greater than to exist in the understanding alone and the conception of God that we began with is of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. In the short presentation, I am interested in arguing two points. The first point is that St. Anselm’s argument depends upon the assumption that there are degrees of reality and that our conception of reality is broader than mental and material reality. The second point is that this assumption is untenable and consequently a significant obstacle for accepting his argument. Before presenting these two points fully and developing them, I will briefly examine what is meant by speaking of degrees of reality.

One source for the notion of degrees of reality is Plato. In the Republic, for example, he uses the image of a divided line to depict these different levels of reality in his metaphysics. The largest division is between the immaterial reality of the unchanging forms and the reality of changing material things. The former is an intelligible realm accessible to the mind alone that Plato describes in the Republic as the really real. The latter is a realm accessible to our sense experience and intelligible only in so far as it is related to the other. The relationship between the two is one that Plato describes alternatively as participation and imitation. What reality the things in our changing experience have, they have by participation in the unchanging forms. Their reality is one of imitation in which they resemble the unchanging forms which bear the same name. In the case of justice, there is a single form of Justice itself that embodies what it is to be just and in relationship to which we recognize and judge actions, persons, institutions, and governments to as just or unjust. The shadow of something is an accurate image of what Plato has in mind. For a shadow conveys to our eyes only the shape of a thing and not the substance, and even its shape is a partial distortion of the original. The relation between a shadow and its object demonstrates the distance from which the realities of our experience are removed from the realities of which they are the imitations. The forms are the really real and what we find within our experience is substantially less real. So within Plato’s thought we find a fully developed metaphysics that employs the notion of degrees of reality, a metaphysics in which some things are greater in reality than other things.

Although Aristotle’s views about reality are more grounded in experience, his metaphysics in which actualized form defines reality also allows for degrees of reality. At the lowest degree would be a combination of form and matter without life, such as a bronze sphere. In the Nicomachean Ethics he distinguishes between different types of souls based on whether they are simply alive, or also sentient and moving, or like human beings capable of reason. The heavenly bodies or intelligences, which are eternally active and either involve no matter or a special incorruptible type of matter are of a still higher degree of reality. The unmoved mover, Aristotle’s divine substance, involves no matter and no potentiality. It is pure eternal activity, moving other things not by interaction but only by their desire for it. Like Plato, one the most significant features which divides reality into two distinct parts is the presence or absence of matter. Generally speaking what has matter is subject to change and corruption and what lacks it is eternal. Aristotle’s view, however, is more nuanced. By introducing the type of changes and activities that characterize types of being, he distinguishes additional levels of being. This metaphysics of form, matter, and act becomes the basis for what later becomes a more fully articulated view of the universe called the chain of being. With Aristotle then, although each actualized form is real, some are more real than others depending on their function or activity and its connection to matter. Those forms that are active independently of matter are greater in reality than those which are not. Though different, both Plato and Aristotle provide a historical background in relationship to which we can understand what it means to say that there are degrees of reality and that some things are more real than others. Let us turn now to Anselm’s argument and see how it depends on an assumption that there are degrees of reality.

There are numerous ways to represent Anselm’s argument for God’s existence none of which is a substitute for the original. I present it as follows with numbered statements in order to make it easy to call attention to exactly where I believe the degrees of reality assumption fits in.



  1. What a person understands is in that person’s mind [quidquid intelligitur, in intellectu est].

  2. Something than which nothing greater can be conceived [aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit] exists in the mind of the person who understands it.

  3. But something than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone.

  4. For if it is in the understanding alone, then a person is able to conceive of it existing in reality [esse in re], and this is greater [maius]

  5. That is, this same thing than which a greater cannot be conceived is that than which a greater can be conceived [id ipsum quo maius cogitari non potest, est quo maius cogitari potest].

  6. Since this is impossible, something than which nothing greater can be conceived exists both in the understanding and in reality [et in intellectu et in re].

The critical statements in Anselm’s argument in my estimation are four and five. In four he claims that it is greater to exist in the understanding and in reality than in the understanding alone. In five he calls attention to the contradiction involves in supposing the something than which a greater cannot be conceived exists in the understanding alone: to conceive of this thing as existing in reality would be to conceive of it as being something greater.

Part of what is going on in this argument from the notion that Anselm uses to name God and the key premises that move from this conception of God to God’s existence hinges on what he means by the word ‘maius’ which is translated greater, the comparative or great or large. It seems clear that Anselm is not using this in a literal sense of the word, which would indicate something about size. If we turn to the figurative senses of the word we would not make much further headway. For example, we might refer to a one person as a greater leader than another, or as having greater authority, influence, power, and so on. None of these, however, fit either with the example Anselm uses or his simple statement that it is greater to be thought of as existing in reality than in the understanding alone. To draw this contrast Anselm describes a painter who is contemplating what to paint. “When a painter considers beforehand what he is going to paint,” Anselm observes, “he has it in his understanding, but he does not suppose that what he has not yet painted already exists. But when he has painted it, he both has it in his understanding and understands that what he has now produced exists.” Of the painting Anselm evidently would say without qualification that it is greater. Certainly, now it may have more monetary value or increase the painter’s reputation and influence, and perhaps even power to command future commissions in a way that his idea of it does not. The word ‘greater’ for Anselm in this context, however, refers to none of this. It is used, we might say, in a purely metaphysical sense to indicate that what the painter has produced has more reality than what was in his mind before he began to paint. The contrast is simply the one between existing in the mind and existing in reality, and for Anselm to exist in the mind and in reality is greater than to exist in the mind alone.

One way in which this contrast has been construed involves thinking about what exists in reality as referring to what has a material existence. Gaunilo, who responded to Anselm’s argument, seems to take it in this sense. Gaunilo argues that by parity of reasoning we can argue that a perfect island must exist. Since we know that such a conclusion is unwarranted we know with equal assurance that Anselm’s argument is fallacious. In Gaunilo’s view, we might conceive of an island greater than which none could be conceived. As we conceive of this island and all the possible properties that would make such an island desirable, we might have an epiphany of the sort Anselm calls to mind in which we realize that an island with these properties that exists would be greater than the island in our mind and conclude that it must exist in reality. The line of argument that Gaunilo takes relies on adding what has been called ‘great-making’ properties to the conception of an island. Imagine an island and then gradually make it a greater and greater island by adding more and more predicates to it until you add the ultimate great-making property ‘exists’.1

I would argue, however, that this is not the logic of Anselm’s thought. His logic depends on an assumption that there are degrees of reality and that one kind of reality is greater than another kind of reality. Within this logic the movement from a lower level of reality to a higher level of reality is not the result of applying a great-making property to the lower thing to raise it up. A great-making property would make something greater than other things if its kind. Within a framework in which there are degrees of reality it would never raise it to a higher degree of reality. There are, for example, no properties that you can add to a shadow to make it into the reality of which it is a shadow. The higher degree of reality is not higher because it is greater, it is greater because it is more real. The contradiction that Anselm draws attention to is thus generated by the concept of something than which no other thing is more real. Since we acknowledge that what exists in reality (in re) is more real than what exists in the mind (in intellect) the supposition that something than which no other thing is more real exists solely in the mind is absurd.

Before looking briefly at how this assumption figures into two modern responses to the ontological argument, I want to consider how it relates to the reasoning St. Augustine uses to argue for God’s existence in On Free Choice of the Will. This reasoning is relevant to Anselm’s ontological argument because evidently draws his expression of God’s nature as something than which nothing greater can be conceived from Augustine. In his work On Christian Teaching, Augustine refers to the different levels of being that fall under the assumption that there are degrees of reality. “Those who strive to behold the nature of God through the intellect,” he explains, “place him above all visible and corporeal beings, indeed above all intelligible and spiritual beings, and above all beings that are subject to change. But they all vigorously contend for the excellence of God; it is impossible,” Augustine asserts, “to find anyone who believes that God is a thing than which there exists something better”(11). Although he does not argue for God’s existence here, Augustine’s argument in the earlier work On Free Choice of the Will depends on the ranking of different levels of reality as superior and inferior. He builds his argument on the observations that what exists but does not live or understand is inferior to what lives though it does not understand, and that what lives is inferior to what exists, lives, and understands. His sets his task in the argument to be one of showing that something exists which is superior to what exists, lives, and understands. Unlike Anselm, he does not simply appeal to the idea that God is a being than which there exists no greater being. Rather he provides evidence for the existence of something superior to human reason, and from this concludes that God exists. Both in terms of the language and the conceptual assumptions that he uses, Anselm’s argument fits within this Augustinian framework of thought. This is a framework in which he assumes that there are different degrees of reality.

I would consequently assert that the problem with Anselm’s argument is the assumption that there are degrees of reality because we are unlikely to make this assumption anymore. Certainly, some of the criticisms raised against the ontological argument presuppose that we deny this assumption. The Kantian criticism that ‘existence’ is not a predicate, is one way in which modern philosophers have rejected a view of the universe in which we recognize different things as having different degrees of reality. The Kantian way of doing this was to limit our concepts regarding what can be an object of possible knowledge to empirical concepts and to a priori concepts that are necessary conditions for the possibility of empirical knowledge. From this vantage point Kant did not categorically deny the existence of a reality distinct from empirical reality, but ruled it out as an object of possible knowledge. Existence of any possible thing within his characterization of experience is something that is discovered only by empirical investigation. It is not a predicate that might be an analyzable part of any concept. Hence, the Kantian dictum that existence is not a predicate.

So for Kant, as for most of us, empirical reality is effectively the only reality that exists. It is the only reality about which we can compile evidence for existence. Some philosophers like William Alston argue for contexts in which we can meaningfully use ‘exists’ as a predicate, but this does not mean that for them there are other realities than empirical reality. For example, we might say that Achilles is a legendary character in the Iliad who gave his armor to Patroclus to wear into battle, but I doubt whether Achilles really existed. Or we could say that the Iliad tells stories about the battles at a legendary city of Troy and experts agree that Troy existed. In both of these examples, I am using ‘exists’ as a predicate in a meaningful way. Alston’s elaborate analysis of this use of ‘exists’ as a predicate still leads to the conclusion that we cannot draw any inferences from the truth of statements about Achilles based on the stories in the Iliad about his existence. He concludes that true statements about the figures in these modes of mental existence do not translate into truths about empirical reality. So in reflecting upon my idea of God I can say that God is benevolent and merciful, but nothing about God’s existence will ever follow from my idea. Consequently, even the recognition that ‘exists’ can be used as a predicate does not fix the problem with the ontological argument.



We have seen that the assumption that there are degrees of reality is necessary to the success of Anselm’s argument. Without it the argument disintegrates into one in which he must assert that existence is a great-making property. Such a strategy seems ultimately to validate Gaunilo’s criticism. If the great-making property strategy allows us to conclude that God exists, then it also would allow us to conclude that a perfect island exists. We have also seen how Kant’s approach marks a decisive point in which empirical reality becomes the standard and measure of all reality. From this vantage point Kant assesses the situation correctly: an ontological argument for God’s existence is impossible. As Alston shows, revising the Kantian criticism to acknowledge that we sometimes do use ‘exists’ meaningfully as a predicate does not help. What may be true of the characters and things that have a mental mode of existence ultimately has no implications for whether these characters of things exist. It has become clear that for the most part everyone agrees that something either exists or it does not exist. Something is either real or unreal. Our world is a world in which empirical reality is the only game in town that is open to demonstration.



1 I take it that this is what Rowe does in his representation of the argument. His premise 3 says that if something exists only in the understanding and might have existed in reality, then it might have been greater than it is (11).

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