Anselm's Argument for the Existence of God
Some of you will have noticed that I am very hostile to fundamentalist Christians. There is a good reason. I went to a fundamentalist Baptist church that gave me "fire and brimstone" riffs at a young age and this caused me to have trouble going to sleep because i worried that those I loved might not be really saved and might therefore go to hell where they would burn for all eternity. Any group of people who scares the hell out of any little kid should be sent to Gitmo.
Of course, I didn't know that human beings burn fairly quickly -- many of us after all are cremated after death -- and so, if hell means being submitted to fire and brimstone, it cannot be eternal since one will burn up quickly. I realized that I actually didn't know what brimstone is so, I did a word search and discovered that it is an old word for sulfur. Sulphur gas would probably asphyxiate one. So, one might not be conscious by the time one started burning. Oh right, I forgot. It would be my soul that would burn in hell. How the hell does a soul burn? Clearly, this is all a load of crap.
While I was a philosophy student, I read some of St. Anselm's writings. I loved his analysis of time which concluded with the observation that "time hath no space," i. e., time is infinitely divisible. He gets full marks for this observation about time.
St. Anselm is more famous for his argument for the existence of God. His argument is broken down at a Trinity University web site, as follows:
1. God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived. (definition of "God")I had totally forgotten about the role fools played in his argument. Maybe it goes back to the notion, "even a fool knows that," which is often used as an argument clincher (by fools). The Trinity site notes that it is a very strange argument. Surely it is. That is why I have always liked it. This guy may have been the first to "think outside the box."
2. If someone understands the concept of God (i.e. the concept of something than which nothing greater can be conceived) then God "exists in the understanding" of that person. (definition of "exists in the understanding")
3. It is greater to exist in reality than in the understanding alone. (More precisely: if x exists in the understanding but not in reality, and y is exactly like x except that y also exists in reality, then y is greater than x.)
4. The fool understands the concept of God (= the concept of something than which nothing greater can be conceived).
5. Therefore (from 2 and 4) God exists in the understanding of the fool.
6. Suppose for the sake of argument that God exists only in the understanding of the fool (i.e. not in reality as well). (This assumption will form the basis of a reductio ad absurdum.)
7. Then we could conceive of something exactly like what exists in the fool's understanding except that it also exists in reality.
8. The entity that we conceived in 7 would be greater than the entity that exists only in the fool's understanding (by 3)
9. But in that case what the fool conceived was not after all something than which nothing greater can be conceived (after all, we've just conceived of something greater).
10. So we have a contradiction! (Between 5 and 9)
11. So the assumption we made in 6 must be mistaken (since it led to a contradiction).
12. So God exists in reality. (6 was the assumption that God does not exist in reality; since 6 is mistaken, God does exist in reality.)
I cite this argument because there is a deeply fatal flaw that is of linguistic interest. The first premise -- the definition of God -- is "God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived." In it we find the comparative "greater" and the problem with it is that adjectives, including compared adjectives, are normally relativized to some reference class.
Note, for instance, the statements, "Mastiffs are large," and "The Empire State Building is large." However, should we fly up in the sky over New York city, one might be able to see the Empire State Building long after one has ceased to be able to see a Mastiff standing right next to it. Implicit in the statement, "Mastiffs are large," is the argument "for a dog." In short, while "large" looks like a simple predicate like "is blue," it is in fact a complex relational predicate taking two arguments, one of which refers to the thing the property is being predicated of and the other referring to the reference class.
So, we come to Anselm's argument. He uses the comparative "greater" in his definition of God. In fact, in the "original" (I am using a translation), he says "We believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived." Lets go back to the more simple predicate from which "greater than" derives, namely "great." It is possible to assert both that "Einstein was great" and that "Tiger Woods is great." Now, Tiger went to Stanford so he is a pretty smart dude but he is not about to provide novel solutions to any very complex physics problems. Nor would Einstein be able to win the Masters golf tournament four times. So, the apparently simple predicate "great" contains an implicit reference class of its own. To make them explicit, we might say, "Einstein was great as a physicist" and "Tiger Woods is great as a golfer."
So, what about God. Anselm says he is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. So, in logical terms we have the proposition that
For all x: x is a conceivable being, God is greater than x.We have here a restricted universal quantifier "x" but we also have an implicit reference class. Let's make it explicit.
For some/all y and for all x: x is a conceivable being, God is greater than x at y/as a y.We have a choice as to whether our variable "y" is existentially or universally quantified. So, is God greater than any conceivable being at all things or is it just that He is greater than any conceivable being at some things? The notion that God is omnipotent suggests it is a universal quantifier. Of the set of conceivable beings, God is greater than all at all things. That would include being greater at such things as
being a creator of universesI vote for the last for I follow the line of argument in Archibald McLeish's play, "J.B." according to which, "If God is good, he is not God; if God is God, he is not good." I didn't realize that David Hume is responsible for a similar argument until I ran across this religious website. Hume's position was that:
being a lover of all things
being a dirty, rotten bastard
If the evil in the world is intended by God he is not good. If it violates his intentions he is not almighty. God can't be both almighty and good.I love how this site answers the argument. At a key point it is stated:
The main problem with this argument is a lack of understanding of the reason for the creation of the universe. The universe was not created to be good. God created the universe as a temporary testing site for creatures to choose to love Him or reject Him.This makes God into an early day Joseph Mengele. Ain't life grand.