Conceiving Superman (2016)

Module: Reason and Faith (Nanyang Technological University)

Does The Ontological Argument confirm, at least to a high degree of probability, the existence of the Abrahamic God?

This essay attempts to refute The Ontological Argument by Saint Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm attempts to prove God’s existence through the a priori method. That means to first “begin with some basic characteristic, property, or feature people take to belong to anyone of anything that might count as God…start(ing) with the idea that for something to ‘count as’ God, it must play a certain role or satisfy some description. Then they ask what a being must be like in order to play that role” (Murray and Rea, 2008). Abrahamic theists associate God to be Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent (the three Os are taken to mean, respectively: all-powerful, all-knowing, and, morally perfect) even though there are debates on the inherent problems and compossibility of it. Most “theistic traditions…agree on the following basic claims about God:

(C1) Nothing made God, and God is the source or ground of everything other than God.
(C2) God rules all that is not God.
(C3) God is the most perfect being.” (Murray and Rea, 2008)

Through this method of discovering God based on the role of God, most theists have concluded that God necessarily exists (in all possible worlds). Anselm’s argument is supposed to act as “a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists” (Meister, 2008). I will begin by briefly presenting Anselm’s argument and an objection from Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, followed by another objection to Anselm’s claim that it is always better to exist, and raise a personal objection which will argue that we cannot affirm God’s existence, that is, we cannot know that God exists. Lastly, defend my objection against potential critics.

Anselm’s Argument (The argument in a premise and conclusion format taken from Murray and Rea (2008), can be found in Annex A. The essay will be based on this argument, and the premises as presented.)

If one were to attribute anything that makes a being the greatest ­ “Thou art just, truthful, blessed, and whatever it is better to be than not to be” (Meister, 2008) ­ one would have formed the greatest conceivable being, and that is God. In this a priori method, God is formulated in the understanding and thus, exists in the understanding. However, “to exist in reality is better than merely to exist in the understanding” (Annex A: Premise 3). Thus, God cannot only exists in the understanding because if there were a being that exist in reality, that would make it better than God. Since “it is impossible to conceive of a being that is greater than the greatest conceivable being” (Annex A: Premise 5), this greatest conceivable being cannot only exist in understanding, but also in reality. Therefore, God exists.

Objection by Gaunilo

Gaunilo thinks that the argument is faulty because it “is built on the faulty premise that if something exists in the mind, we can reason to its extramental existence,” which will lead to absurd circumstances. This is a rejection of premise (6) and (7) of the argument, which concludes that given it is better to exist, and God is whatever is better to be, God thus, exists. We have no good reason to suppose that this is true because it could be said of the greatest conceivable anything, which is absurd. Gaunilo gives an instance of the greatest conceivable island. Since existence is better, the island exists. “It should be proved first that this being itself really exists somewhere; and then, from the fact that it is greater than all, we shall not hesitate to infer that is also subsists in itself” (Meister, 2008). The implication of this flawed reasoning will result in eliminating “between what has precedence in time” Meister, 2008). That is, an imagination of the artwork by a painter before painting and the art after being painted. Thus, by reductio ad absurdum, Gaunilo rejects Anselm’s argument.

One might think that Anselm only meant for God to possess the property of being ‘whatever is better to be than not.’ Thus, it does not apply to every other object. Anyone who wishes to defend Anselm has to make the distinction between God and every other object. Alvin Plantinga attempts to do so, by showing that God unlike other objects have intrinsic maximums (In God, Freedom and Evil, cited by Luco, Week 4, p.15-17). “The properties in virtue of which one being is greater…than another…(are) such properties as wisdom, knowledge, power, and moral excellence or moral perfection…knowledge, for example, does have an intrinsic maximum” (Luco, Week 4, p.16). Unlike islands, there could always be greater islands based on factors such as the number of coconuts or beach houses, which could be infinitely many. Michael Martin (In A Philosophical Justification, cited by Luco, Week 4, p.23) objects by claiming that perhaps when it comes to an island, it is not about unlimited coconut trees, but the right number. However, this island would not be able to accommodate an infinite number of people if it did not have infinitely long beaches and unlimited coconuts. This debate will run for every other finite objects. Thus, Martin does not successfully refute, and Plantinga’s defence for Anselm still stands.

Objection: Is it always better to exist?

Premise 3 of Anselm’s argument claims that existence is better. However, it is arguable that not everything we can conceive of should exist. For instance, it would definitely be better that Hitler or the greatest conceivable villain did not exist. This argument does not only apply to the existence of something bad. Suppose we add the condition it is true if and only if the object is good. This will make the world a paradise. However, without bad and pain, how can we come to appreciate good and pleasure? It could be said that it is only in tough times that one builds character and inculcates virtue. Should the theist like to, they could refine the premise and claim that “it is better that God exists in reality than merely to exist in the understanding.” This view is debatable, but would distinguish God from everything else, and avoid the previous issues. Therefore, unless the claim that existence is always better is refined, Anselm is not justified in making it.

Objection: We cannot know that God exists.

Assuming the claim that existence is better, or that it is better that God exists, Anselm’s argument still fails, because we simply cannot know if God exists. The following argument will show that both a priori and a posterior approach fail in affirming the existence of God.

  1. If God exists, He is the greatest possible being.
  2. We cannot know that we are conceiving of the greatest possible being.
  3. So we cannot know that we are conceiving of God.
  4. If we cannot know that we are conceiving of God, then we cannot know that God exists.
  5. Therefore, we cannot know that God exists.

“Anselm explicitly characterised God as ‘that than which none greater can be conceived.’ Contemporary perfect­-being theologians understand Anselm to be affirming that God is the greatest possible being, that is, an individual displaying maximal perfection…Something is God only if it has the greatest possible array of great­making properties” (Murray and Rea, 2008). Someone could insist that Anselm did not mean that God is the greatest possible being, but the greatest conceivable being. This will not work because of the properties associated with God. (“They acknowledge that the term ‘God’ often functions both as a proper name and as a title, they also usually agree that (unlike the office of Presidency) whatever person fills the ‘God-­role’ cannot fail to fill it…The reason is that in normal use, the term is associated with a role (President) that is fulfilled at different times by different people. But if the term were associated with a role that could be filled by the person who in fact fills it, it would be quite natural to use the term as a name…(God) necessarily holds that office (of being God)” (Murray and Rea, 2008)). “(God) is maximally powerful if and only if there is no possible being whose powers exceed O’s” (Murray and Rea, 2008). If there were a being greater than the greatest conceivable being, ‘God,’ then ‘God’ will no longer hold those properties that makes God who He is ­ through the a priori approach of conceiving God, the being that holds that ‘office’ of being God, necessarily hold those properties. “God’s goodness entails that he is maximally loving and benevolent towards every created thing…God is taken to be not merely morally faultless, but morally unsurpassable”(Murray and Rea, 2008). That is, no being greater. Therefore, God has to be understood as the greatest possible being, although the greatest conceivable being may or may not be the greatest possible being.

Most people would contest against premise II. I will be using the following argument: A1.Humans have limited knowledge and capacity.
A2.It is possible that there are things greater than what men can conceive of.
A3.It is more likely that there is a being greater than the greatest conceivable being.
A4.Even if there is a being greater that has yet to be conceived, it does not guarantee that that being is God.
A5.Therefore, we cannot know that we are conceiving of God.

A1: It is evident that humans have limited knowledge and capacity, and anyone who claims otherwise would be God because it would imply unlimited (or infinite) knowledge and capacity. If we had unlimited knowledge and capacity, we would have known all there are to know about our world and would have or be able to achieve everything. As it is, we are still researching about things we do not understand and progressing step by step.

A2: It seems very likely that there are things greater than what we can conceive of, especially if we agree that humans have limited knowledge and capacity. In scientific progression, newer theories often disprove older theories and come up with new findings. It could be said that these unknowns are things that have yet to be conceived and discovered, but it is also possible that some of these unknowns will never be conceived. Thus, it is possible that there are things greater than what we can conceive of, that may or may not be conceived.

A3: If we agree on the limitations of humans and knowledge (A1 and A2), then it evidently follows that likewise when we conceive of the greatest being, it is possible that this greatest conceivable being is not the greatest possible being. This is not only to refute the a priori knowledge of God, but also a posteriori. “The a posterior approach begins with data that people believe put them in direct contact with …‘God’ ­ data coming from revealed texts, religious experiences, mediums or prophets and the like ­ and then builds the concept of God out of those data” (Murray and Rea, 2008). Perhaps theists would like to use observations of ‘God’s hands in the world’ to show that He exists, such as testimonies of miracles. Hume (From The Unreasonability of Belief in Miracles, cited by Meister, 2008) responds by claiming that “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” and argues that there has always been insufficient evidence to prove the existence of miracles, thus, by extension, supernatural beings interacting with us. Most of our discoveries are possible through scientific methods, however, when it comes to proving God, it is highly lacking. We are incapacitated in our means to discover knowledge of the greatest possible being that theists believe exists. Therefore, it is not only possible that there is a being greater than the greatest conceivable being, it is more likely that there is a greater being than the greatest conceivable being, given our very limitations in both a priori and a posteriori approaches. However, note that, the argument here in no way postulate the existence of the greatest possible or conceivable being.

A4: Even if there is a being greater than the greatest conceivable being, it does not guarantee that that being is God. Perhaps in the future, humans having gained more knowledge, will be able to conceive of a being greater than the greatest conceivable being of 2016, but this greater being will still remain as the greatest conceivable being. This is an epistemic issue ­ the seeming impossibility of knowing when we have acquired all knowledge. Thus, even though X is greater than the greatest conceivable being, we cannot affirm that there is no Y who is greater than X, and Z who is greater than Y. We cannot claim that X, Y, or Z has yet to be conceived, because there is no way to know what you have not conceived, and thus the existence of such a being.

Therefore, this sub-argument shows that given human limitations, it is more likely that there is a being greater than the greatest conceivable being. We are inhibited from conceiving of the greatest possible being. If God exists, He has to be the greatest possible being, and if there could be indefinitely greater beings than the greatest conceivable being, then we cannot know God as the greatest possible being. In any case, then, we cannot know that we are conceiving of the greatest possible being ­ we cannot know that we are conceiving of God. If we cannot know that we are conceiving of God, then we cannot know that God exists. This is logically true and evidently so. “You cannot know what you don’t know.” It is epistemically impossible to know what you cannot conceive. Therefore, we cannot know that God exists. This is different from an atheistic position of claiming that God does not exist.

Potential Critics

There are two possible objections I will be defending. (1) Why can’t we assume that the greatest conceivable being and any possible greater possible beings to be God, or, take properties of these greater beings to be properties or knowledge of God, the greatest possible being. (2) Does this mean that we have to be agnostic about everything even for subjects like science?

To address the first objection, we have to establish first that an Abrahamic religion is a monotheistic belief, so there is only be one God, and that is the greatest possible being. So ‘X, Y, and Z’ cannot be God. The Abrahamic God is a jealous God and the first of His ten commandments is that “you shall have no other Gods before Me.” Next, we consider if we are able to know any properties of God. To this, I reply, yes, some of them could be properties of God, however, not in the manner that distinguishes God to be God. From the greatest conceivable being to greatest possible being, lies an indefinite number of unknown greater beings. Any properties that we associate with the greatest possible being will be really for the greatest conceivable being. Any properties that we associate with the greatest conceivable being would really be for all the greater beings ­ on the level of greater beings, the greatest conceivable being is the ‘least superior’ (A3). The properties then, would not be distinctive to God. Consider the unique traits that differentiate you and I. Ascribing a property to the greatest conceivable being would be equivalent to claiming that all the greater beings have a ‘nose.’ We need a property to distinct God from other greater beings, but as shown, we will not be able to. One could insist on claiming these properties to be God’s, but it would not mean much because it does not differentiate Him from other possible greater beings.

To address the second objection ­ we should be agnostic about science even though we face epistemic issues of knowledge. However, this does not mean that we cannot be rational or justified in holding those beliefs. Some older theories held to be true have been disproved and newer ones surfaced. In this quest for knowledge, we cannot affirm with certainty that there is not even the slightest chance that we could be wrong. These scientific theories are held as rationally true until further theories prove them wrong. Through time, we are constantly building our knowledge. (According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions involve a revision to existing scientific belief or practice…a later period of science may find itself without an explanation for a phenomenon that in an earlier period was held to be successfully explained” (Bird, 2013).) Science is testable and falsifiable (Popper’s theory of falsification on what is scientific (Thornton, 2015) and these methods are constructed to maximise the possibility of it being true.

In conclusion, Anselm’s argument fails because we cannot claim God’s existence when we cannot know what we cannot conceive of. However, theists could still make the stand for a plausible or rational belief in God ­ such as an evidentialist­-fideist, teleological or moral argument for God.

Annex A: Anselm’s Ontological Argument (Murray and Rea, 2008)

  1. God is the greatest conceivable being.
  2. God exists in the understanding.
  3. To exist in reality is better than merely to exist in the understanding.
  4. Thus, if God exists merely in the understanding, then we can conceive of something greater than God, namely a being just like God, but who also exists in reality.
  5. But it is impossible to conceive of a being that is greater than the greatest conceivable being.
  6. Thus it is impossible that God exists merely in the understanding.
  7. Thus God exists in reality as well as in the understanding.
  8. Thus God exists.

Bird, A. (2013). Thomas Kuhn. [online] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thomas­kuhn/#2 [Accessed 17 Mar. 2016].

Meister, C. (2008). The Philosophy of Religion Reader. London: Routledge.

Murray, M. and Rea, M. (2008). A n Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornton, S. (2015). Karl Popper. [online] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/ [Accessed 17 Mar. 2016].

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