Thursday, April 27, 2006

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")
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 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."

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 universes
being a lover of all things
being a dirty, rotten bastard
I 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:
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.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

Reading Anselm's original, I see he makes the point right off that God is a 'being'.
I am assuming that St. Anselm means the Christian God (I mean he quotes Psalms xiv) or can, 'something which nothing greater can be conceived.' (translation #1) be highly abstract; metaphysical?

12:19 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I have heard a lot of things, L>T, the wildest being from a Morman I knew who was very smart who believed that the question, "Where is God today?" has an answer like, posssibly, "on Mars." That makes God into a being that can occupy our space/time universe. Others see him as having existence on another plane -- not an alternate universe by a different plane of existence but who can manipulate actions and events on our plane from his plane. That is just plain silliness. Once you grant that God is omnipotent then you are free to give Him/Her any properties you want.

The idea we were created in God's image either means he has human form or has, among others, human qualites. This too is silly. Its all silly.

There is no God of the sort fundamentalists talk about. I know there are more "sophisticated" conceptions but I don't care about those. Which is to say, I am a fundamentalist athiest and an agnostic as to all other versions.

12:26 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If there is no God, then how did you come to exist?

1:59 PM

Blogger am said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:05 PM

Blogger am said...

This is an interesting analysis of the argument, but even without a linguistic analysis there are many other reasons why it's flawed. The one that really sticks out, I think, is the assumption in the first line "God is ..." When he said this, he already assumed that the definition is true and that God exists, so the rest of proof is superficial.

5:06 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Very good analysis. I always knew there was something wrong with Anselm's argument, but I thought the problem was more like a leap from Parmenides's idea that motion is an illusion to Democritus's concept of atoms and "the void." By that I mean that the argument seems bulletproof because it's difficult to figure out why it's wrong within its own terms, and you need to step outside its terms.

I prefer Aristotle's approach (later borrowed by Aquinas) that there must be an ultimate cause.

As for man being created in God's image, it was always explained to me that it meant man was created as perfect and sinless (sin, incidentally, is an ancient Hebrew archery term which means "to miss the mark"). God created man for reasons I still haven't been able to grasp, but for the simple fact that we are not God then we couldn't stay perfect, and were destined to fall into sin.

As far as the God can't both be good and almighty argument (and therefore the Christian God can't exist) I will have to borrow something from Frank Herbert's God Emperor of Dune (interesting because the series seems to have little respect for any religion). The God Emperor regretted his personal involvement in a fight because it weakens his people and makes them reliant on him. This, coupled with free will as inherent to any being (otherwise we would not be distinct from God) are an adequate explanation for why God allows evil things to happen.

6:09 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

If mankind could accept the idea that God is a being conjoured up & created in 'our' own image, religion might start to make sense.
I mean we already call God a 'He' & give him as you say, human qualities.
I think the Christian God exhibits the whole range of human emotions.

This makes sense if you see it from a logical point of veiw, because how could humans come up with anything else?
& you are right, it is silly. It's silly because it's childish.

The only excuse for God is that he doesn't exist.

8:26 PM

Blogger Sean said...

I find Kelly's argument to fall pray to the same problem c0mmie finds with Anselm; first the assumption that God exists is made, then all other decisions arise from there. As Kelly himself says "... the argument seems bulletproof because it's difficult to figure out why it's wrong within its own terms, and you need to step outside its terms." The answer does not reside in the assumption that the Christian God exists and within that belief’s dogmas, it resides outside those terms.

People used to believe that the direction a flock of birds turned as they flew was an omen, that it had some meaning inherent in it. Right was good, left was bad (I enjoy irony of the modern implications of this haha). All sorts of meaning was derived from this event of flying birds, and people took it all quite seriously. Now, it's considered "superstitious" and silly. Today we understand there is no cosmic meaning in the flight path of birds, though applying a meaning AFTER THE FACT to flying birds was and is exceeding easy. With a good imagination and you can come up with some very compelling material. Then find a great author/speech writer to get your message out and you're home. But the fact remains that the event was meaningless and the rest was just a story, as good as that story may have been.

I reside firmly in the existential agnostic camp, i.e. God may exist, he may not, but it really doesn't matter one way or the other, I'm here, you're here, and I have to deal with that reality. The conception of God, in really every world religion, seems profoundly childish; God throws tantrums and defies his own laws of conduct and intelligence at all turns, usually for personal gain (he did love him some sheep sacrifices). You'd think we could have come up with a better image of God, and I find it a bit insulting to the idea of an All Powerful Being that It would take the form of the God depicted in the Bible, the Koran and elsewhere. If there is an all powerful being, it seems that our capacity to understand the nature of that being would be far beyond our abilities. To think that we would have that ability seems like hubris.

11:52 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

"If there is an all powerful being, it seems that our capacity to understand the nature of that being would be far beyond our abilities."
Agreed (assuming you change "our" to "the," otherwise it doesn't make sense).

But your observation does not apply to Aristotle's argument for an ultimate cause. This does not beg the question of whether God (or a god) exists, but rather deduces that there must be a god because things exist and all things are caused by other things (although if you wanted to dispute the second part, go right ahead because I'd love to hear it).

"God throws tantrums and defies his own laws of conduct and intelligence at all turns, usually for personal gain (he did love him some sheep sacrifices)."
I absolutely disagree with this. I find no basis for it in the Bible.

12:49 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I forgot to mention that if you could prove God's existence and identity (as the Christian God) then it would defeat the purpose of faith, so as long as you refuse to accept anything on faith you can never believe. I'm not sure why one would refuse to accept anything on faith, but I'm also not sure why people accept things on faith either. It's a concept that's difficult to understand, and perhaps somewhere in there is another argument for God's existence.

12:52 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

(he did love him some sheep sacrifices)

Sean, priceless! Liked him some virgin nookie, too, at least once. Ah, I could go on and on, but have essentially godded myself out over on L>T's blog.

Kelly, maybe Herbert seems to show little respect for religion because his concern is to portray it exactly as it has too often been used, as a tool for manipulation and control? Anyway, I thought dependence (reliance) and (more importantly?) obeisance were the whole point. Free will does not imply being distinct from God, only being kept in the dark.

(Now I think I'll wander over by L>T's place and see what my latest tantrum in the wee hours hath wrought. I've been accused of setting myself up as my own god, so I thought I'd act the part.)

12:55 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

LG, what a COUP! I just KNEW HE must read your blog!

Beyond words, beyond the limitations of time and space...and English spelling conventions, too, it would seem!


5:12 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Kelly, faith exists because proof doesn't, purely and simply. It is obscene to have faith that something is true which one cannot prove. It goes against the very notion of rational thought.

7:30 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

In a final response for anyone to think about if they want to (although that might create some kind of paradox) I would question whether rational thought is worthy of higher regard than, well, anything else. I think some feminists at least would argue that emotions are at least as valid as rational thought.

11:24 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Yeah, yeah, I know, "Where was I when You farted the whirlwind and laid the foundations of the whirled?" I've got Daniel Webster's book on my side; I bet "existence" doesn't even appear once in Yours.

God: owned. And by an out-of-shape middle-aged pedant at that. Is this why You always send angels to do Your wrestling with mortals?

(You don't need that last comma, either, while I'm at it. Be glad I wasn't Your comp teacher. Now sit back down and stop disrupting the class. And keep Your vain threats to Yourself.)

Kelly, doesn't it depend on what exactly you are talking about? In some areas of discourse emotion (and superstition?) have no valid place.

And by the way, only an accredited degree-issuing institution can create even one Doc, let alone a pair.

2:19 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Kelly, you are using the term "valid" way too loosely. Validity is a property of arguments. It cannot be a property of an emotion.

9:39 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

It does have other application as well (particularly legal), but you're right, I was using it too loosely. I didn't intend, however, to say that an emotion could be valid, but rather that emotions in general are, to some, as important as (or more important than) rational thought.

9:04 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

True...and there you have the answer to the question, "How can such a lovely little planet be so exquisitely screwed up?"

7:17 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given that Anselm wrote in Latin, you did not go back to the original. You went back to S.N. Deane's translation, which is poor. If you are to indulge in philosophical analysis, you need to be more precise. Your analysis of the use of the term 'greater' would have benefited from a more thorough reading of Anselm, in which you would have seen that for him (a reasonable position it seems to me) to be greater at being a dirty rotten bastard is to be lesser at being a clean healthy good guy. It is to lack the kind of attributes that are ascribed to God. What you think is a positive is in fact a negative. God is greater than Tiger Woods, not because he can play a round of golf in fewer strokes (even if he can), but because he possesses attributes which are greater than the attributes that Tiger Woods possesses, e.g. he is omniscient, whereas Tiger Woods's knowledge is limited.

10:17 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

This argument (commonly referred to as, "The Problem of Evil") is a common and ancient argument about the existence of god. If you go to http://www.theperfectsquare.net/wiqed/index.php5?title=There_is_a_God, you can see arguments for and against the basic propositions regarding the existence of god, and contribute your own edits and topics. Check it out!

10:48 PM

Blogger surlesyeux said...

Kelly, you should google Aquinas arguments about god, and try to find a page that disproves them. I was just reading one that totally addressed what you just said;
"But your observation does not apply to Aristotle's argument for an ultimate cause. This does not beg the question of whether God (or a god) exists, but rather deduces that there must be a god because things exist and all things are caused by other things (although if you wanted to dispute the second part, go right ahead because I'd love to hear it)."

It was talking about the idea of the ultimate cause and how why should god be exempt from needing a cause? If he is, for some reason, exempt, wouldn't the universe be as well, and therefore getting rid of the need for God as the ultimate cause in the first place?

ps as a feminist, I don't think faith by any means trumps rational thought, and emotions do not necessarily have the merit logic does.

11:37 PM

Blogger odrareg said...

I see clearly that the language guy is into the mischief of not wanting to see greater or lesser in terms of positive attributes.

He brings in a fool's thinking, the behavior of being silly, and the heart and mind of a dirty rotten bastard.

All these are negative attributes, no person can be considered great who is into the pursuit of such negative behavioral attributes.

Anselm, as every intelligent person not sunk in mischief knows, unlike the language guy sunk in mischief, is talking about greater or lesser in terms of positive attributes.

What the language guy has achieved in this write-up of his is to have shown himself to be a most mischievous guy, not really after knowledge, truth, and wisdom.

Please disabuse your heart and mind of such a nasty streak.


4:28 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does the fact that I exist support the idea that there might be a god?

8:53 AM


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