The Ontological Argument and the Irrelevance of Kant

St. Anselm (1033-1109) was the Archbishop of Canterbury and became a Benedictine monk who taught theology and philosophy just starting in his 20’s. In 1093, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. In his Monologion (1077), Anselm offered a number of arguments such as moral and cosmological arguments for theism (among others – gradation of being, contingency argument, etc.).

However, as Craig writes in his essay on the Ontological Argument (2004), “Anselm remained dissatisfied with the complexity of his demonstration and yearned to find a single argument which would on its own prove that God exists in all his greatness” (ed. W. L. Craig, To Everyone An Answer (2004), p. 124). This would later set up what Anselm would call the conception of God as “the greatest conceivable being” (aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit).

As Anselm writes:

Indeed, we believe You to be something than which nothing greater can be thought. Or is there, then, no such nature [as You], for the Fool has said in his heart that God does not exist? But surely when this very same Fool hears my words “something than which nothing greater can be thought,” he understands what he hears. And what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand [i.e., judge] it to exist.

For that a thing is in the understanding is distinct from understanding that [this] thing exists. For example, when a painter envisions what he is about to paint: he indeed has in his understanding that which he has not yet made, but he does not yet understand that it exists. But after he has painted [it]: he has in his understanding that which he has made, and he understands that it exists.

So even the Fool is convinced that something than which nothing greater can be thought is at least in his understanding; for when he hears of this [being], he understands [what he hears], and whatever is understood is in the understanding. But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding.

Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury (Trans. Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson) Chapter II, pg. 93

As Anselm would later recognize in his Proslogium, a person who understands that such a being exists, sees that it must exist, since if it did not exist, then it would not be the greatest conceivable being. Therefore, “for anyone who properly understands the word God will see that God cannot fail to exist” (Craig, p. 124). Anselm’s argument can then run as the following:

  1. God exists in the understanding but not in reality
  2. Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone.
  3. A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality can be conceived.
  4. A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality is greater than God – from (1) and (2)
  5. A being greater than God can be conceived (3), (4).
  6. It is false that a being greater than God can be conceived – by definition of “God”
  7. Hence it is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality – (1)-(16), reductio ad absurdum

As Alvin Plantinga rightly explains in regards to what Anselm means by ‘conceivable’, we are to say that “there is no logical impossibility in the supposition that it obtains” (Plantinga, God and Other Minds; 1967, p. 29). In other words, there is nothing logically hindering something from being the case – indeed, it is conceivable. Furthermore:

…to say specifically that a being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality is conceivable, is simply to say that it is possible that there is a being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality – that is, it possible that God exists” (Plantinga, p. 29).

Of course, in regards to (6) and (7), a contradiction emerges when suggesting that it is possible for a being greater than the being by which “nothing greater can be conceived” exists.

(II).

Plantinga comments before expositing the Ontological Argument that “to the unsophisticated, Anselm’s argument is (at first sight at least) remarkably unconvincing, if not downright irritating; it smacks too much of word magic” (p. 26). Of course, it seems as if we are “defining God into existence”, and we aren’t really establishing anything in Anselm’s argument that seems to have any overwhelming bearing on its conclusion – that a being by which no greater can be conceived.

A famous criticism of Anselm’s argument comes from German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his Critique of Pure Reason, where he states:

‘Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing… By whatever and however many predicates we may think a thing… we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that the thing is. (Kant (1781/1929), A598/B626 – A600/B628.)

In other words, in regards to the subject-predicate relationship, existence is not an attribute, or “divine attribute or property” (E.J. Lowe, 2007). The conclusion in essence of Anselm’s argument is that:

  • ‘In rejecting the existence of a thing we cannot be contradicting ourselves’ (Plantinga, God and Other Minds, 31).

Since as Kant also writes:

“If… I reject the predicate while retaining the subject, contradiction results; and I therefore say that the former belong necessarily to the latter. But if we reject subject and predicate alike, there is no contradiction; for nothing is then left that can be contradicted.

To posit a triangle, and yet to reject its three angles, is self-contradictory; but there is no contradiction in rejecting the triangle together with its three angles. The same holds true of the concept of an absolutely necessary being. If its existence is rejected, we reject the thing in itself with all its predicates; and no question of contradiction can then arise” (see Critique of Pure Reason, tr. N.K. Smith (London, 1929), pp. 502-503).

In other words, if we were to say “There is no God”, then no contradiction emerges because a denial of the subject also follows with it a denial of its predicates (Omnipotence, omniscience, etc.). The simple response to Kant’s criticism that existence is not a predicate is essentially a red-herring to Anselm’s argument. To quote E.J. Lowe once more:

‘Nothing in… the ontological argument implies that… existence… must be a divine attribute or property, in the way that omniscience or omnipotence are… [T]he Kantian objection… is just a red herring with no real bearing on the soundness of the ontological argument.’ (2007, 337)

Since however, “‘By whatever and however many predicates we may think a thing… we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that the thing is’ (Kant (1781/1929), A600/B628); as Kant makes a right observation here, he is by no means attacking the argument that Anselm is suggesting.

Plantinga then proceeds to rightly assert an observation that is crucial to analyzing the criticism of Kant:

Unfortunately, it seems to have no particular bearing on Anselm’s argument. For Anselm can certainly agree, so far as his argument is concerned, that existence is not a real predicate in the explained sense. Anselm maintains that the concept the being than which none greater can be conceived is necessarily exemplified;

that this is so is in no way inconsistent with the suggestion that the whole concept of a thing diminished with respect to existence is equivalent to the undiminished whole concept of that thing. Anselm argues that the proposition God exists is necessarily true; but neither this claim nor his argument for it entails or presupposes that existence is a predicate in the sense just explained” (Plantinga, God and Other Minds, p. 36).

Conclusive remarks can be made about Kant here. In Robert Maydole’s essay on the Ontological Argument (2009), he writes that “Kant is half right and half wrong.” Continuing on that thought:

He is right that existence is not a property in the usual sense of being includable in the concept of a thing. His explanation is that existence is not a property at all. A better explanation would be that we beg the question of the thing’s very existence if we include existence in its concept or essence. True, we do not add to the concept of a thing when we say that it exists. So existential propositions are indeed synthetic. But, contrary to Kant, I think that we do predicate something new of a thing when we say that it exists. (Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. W. L. Craig, J. P. Moreland; cp. 2009, p. 570 – emphasis mine).

(III). 

In regards to Kant’s criticism, other philosophers have taken a relatively similar position. In A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1952), he writes that “existence is not an attribute. For, when we ascribe an attribute to a thing, we covertly assert that it exists: so that if existence were itself an attribute, it would follow that all positive existential propositions were tautologies, and all negative existential propositions self-contradictory; and this is not the case” (A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic; cp. 1952, p. 43). Defining a “negative existential” as the following:

  • A negative existential claim is one denying the existence of some thing: e.g., ‘Pegasus does not exist’ and ‘There are no round squares.’ (Winthrop University, Quine Notes)

In other words, provided we were to have some existential proposition such as “dogs are faithful” or “unicorns are fictitious” (see Ayer, p. 43) we would be positing an affirmative tautology and having their negations function as self-contradictory, which Ayer takes as “following grammar beyond the boundaries of sense” (43).  This quick section will deal with criticisms of Anselm from a positivistic perspective.

To quote Ayer in full,

A similar mistake has been made in connection with such propositions as “Unicorns are fictitious.” Here again the fact that there is a superficial grammatical resemblance between the English sentences “Dogs are faithful” and “Unicorns are fictitious,” and between the corresponding sentences in other languages, creates the assumption that they are of the same logical type. Dogs must exist in order to have the property of being faithful, and so it is held that unless unicorns in some way existed they could not have the property of being fictitious.

But, as it is plainly self-contradictory to say that fictitious objects exist, the device is adopted of saying that they are real in some non-empirical sense – that they have a mode of real being which is different from the mode of being of existent things. But since there is no way of testing whether an object is real in this sense, as there is for testing whether it is real in the ordinary sense, the assertion that fictitious objects have a special non-empirical mode of real being is devoid of all literal significance.

It comes to be made as a result of the assumption that being fictitious is an attribute. And this is a fallacy of the same order as the fallacy of supposing that existence is an attribute, and it can be exposed in the same way. (A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic; Dover Publications, 1952, p. 43).

The problem with Ayer’s analysis (despite its irrelevancy) of these kind of existential propositions is that they ignore the consequence of the truth or falsehoods of them. For, according to Ayer, negative existential propositions if true express nothing particularly meaningful. It is why Ayer for example says that “unless unicorns in some way existed they could not have the property of being fictitious.”

Of course, considering if the proposition Unicorns do not exist were true, then no subject-predicate propositions of any sort are about unicorns. As Plantinga similarly notices in regards to negative existentials, “this is plainly outrageous” (God and Other Minds, 39). 

Why couldn’t one talk or think about beings that do not exist?

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