Friday, 9 January 2009

The Ontological Argument For Beginners - Part One


St. Anslem, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All-England.


St. Anselm was born in the tiny Alpine city of Aosta (a truly beautiful place and well worth a visit!), became prior and then abbot of the Benedictine house at Bec in Normandy, and in 1093 became Archbishop of Canterbury.


A year after his election as abbot at Bec, in 1079, he wrote what would become his most famous work, the Proslogion, a work which sought (amongst other things) to demonstrate the existence of God. Now, obviously, Anselm was a Catholic Christian, and was thus writing to an audience that believed in God. With this in mind, Anslem wrote from the perspective of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), not to replace faith with a purely logical knowledge of God, but for philosophical logic to work as ancilla theologiae, a handmaiden to theology.

Anslem's argument for the existence of God in the Proslogion is "ontological" because it is derived from ontology, the study of being. It is based on a definition of "God" that we can all accept, even atheists, and attempts to use this understanding of the concept of God to show that such a concept must logically exist in reality.

Anselm defines God as aliquid quo maius cogitari non potest, that is, "that than which no greater can be thought". In other words, God is the superlative. Anselm argues that if one accepts that "God" is "that than which no greater than can be thought", then to deny his existence is illogical, since a one can imagine a truly existent God to be greater than a non-existent God.

We can sum up the logic of this simple argument thus:

1. "God" is that than which no greater can be thought.

2. A real God is greater than an a non-existent "God"

3. Therefore God, by definition, must exist.

For those interested, there is a Second Form of the Argument.

The second form of the argument makes a distinction between contingent (transient, dependent) and necessary (transcendent, independent) beings. The Second, slightly more technical version of Anselm's Ontological Argument goes thus:

1. "God" is that than which no greater can be thought.

2. Because "God" is unsurpassable in every way, which means He transcends and is independent of all other things, he must have necessary existence.

3. For "God" to fail to exist would make Him a contingent being, a logical impossibility if nos. 1 and 2 are correct.

4. Therefore God exists - necessarily.

Anselm therefore considered saying "God exists" to be an analytical proposition, meaning that it is true by definition, not by any experience or proof. Eg, by definition, "bachelors are unmarried men". To deny that "God exists" is therefore a paradox, illogical, and totally wrong!

That's a basic introduction to the argument. Many people think it's a load of rubbish, including a monk named Gregory of Marmoutiers, whose objections we'll analyse in Part Two (coming soon!).

Yours,

Augustine

2 comments:

Rob said...

I thought you'd post about your new Bishop!

Still a good post though!

Augustine said...

There's a post somewhere further down where I've copied the press release... that's pretty much all I know at the moment! I've only met the man once, and he seemed nice enough, but I don't know what his views are.