Why the “Existence is not a Predicate” Objection Fails

In the coming road to establishing the conclusion of the Ontological Argument, we have probably all heard the all too common objection that “existence is not a predicate.” Since, as Anselm argues in his Proslogion (“A Discourse”), if something only exists in the understanding and it is possible for it to exist in reality, then that thing has the possibility of being greater than if it merely existed in the understanding alone. Thence, through the chain of reasoning, a being by which none greater can be conceived (i.e., “God” – GPB hereafter) is only great as such if it were to exist both in the understanding and in reality. Therefore, God (so defined) exists.

Of course, this is on the basis of Anselm’s assumption that GPB does not exist. He thence further argues that from this conceptual understanding of such a being we can stipulate the actual existence of the thing so defined. However, one tradition of common critics suggest that “existence is not a predicate”, which suggests that we cannot apply existence to the mere concept of a thing and say that it exists in reality. Consider for example when I say “Steven is tall.” This is a proposition denoting some feature of a given person named Steven who is tall. However, in applying that predicate (tall) to Steven, we are presupposing that Steven actually exists.

This line of thinking has gone on to say that if existence were a predicate, then certain existential propositions are either tautologies or are self-contradictory. Considering the difference between (1) affirmative existential propositions (x does exist) and (2) negative existential propositions (x does not exist), x is still a given thing that we presuppose to exist. Thus, affirming x’s existence would just be redundant, and denying x’s existence would be self-contradictory – since, in predicating x we are presupposing that x exists: why would we say then that x does not exist? This has been argued for instance by A.J. Ayer in his book, Language, Truth, and Logic (1936). As he writes,

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. [1]

This is obviously problematic since this objection itself presupposes that concepts apply to the real world. In other words, discussions about a given existential proposition – whether affirmative or negative – regarding the concept of the proposition, must apply to the actual existence of the given thing that the proposition is about. Therefore, saying that “Steven loves dogs” is a proposition that denotes a given person Steven who loves dogs. The predicate of which (“…loves dogs”), is only subscribed to the character stated in the proposition. The proposition by no means is presupposing that Steven actually does exist or does not exist.

William Rowe (1974) is not satisfied with this objection, dismissing it on the same grounds from which we are discussing here. To finish our discussion:

The plain fact is that we can talk about and ascribe predicates to many things which do not exist and never did. Merlin, for example, no less than Houdini, was a magician, although Houdini existed but Merlin did not. If, as these examples suggest, the claim that whenever we ascribe a predicate to something we assert or presuppose that that the thing exists is a false claim, then we will need a better argument for the doctrine that existence is not a predicate. [2]

_________________________

Notes:

  • [1] A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (Dover Books: 1952) p. 43
  • [2] Quoted from Reason and Responsibility, ed. Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau (Thomson and Wadsworth: 2005) pp. 16-17
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5 responses to “Why the “Existence is not a Predicate” Objection Fails

  1. I did not know Rowe already pointed that out. This response fail to note Anselm’s two views of existence, viz., that which is in mind but not in reality, and that which both in mind and in reality.

    If I describe Hamlet and Shakespeare,Shakespeare would have had a property of actual “existence” in space and time, that is in mind and in reality while not so with Hamlet. Hamlet exists in our minds but not in reality.

    Even if we grant that Anselm’s case presupposed existence, it is not the existence of both in mind and in reality but existence in mind alone, to which he reduced to absurdity.

  2. I think Kant pretty well destroyed poor old Anselm and served up a stern warning for anyone who wants to reach God by syllogism.

    Plantinga’s modal ontological argument is a much stronger version of the OA, btw.

    Cheers

    • I would disagree. As E.J. Lowe (2003), Gordon Clark (1973), Alvin Plantinga (1967) and others have noticed that Kan’ts criticism of Anselm’s argument is actually irrelevant – some even to suggest that Kant was probably attacking Descartes and not Anselm.

      • Well, I think he was attacking Descartes, but that attack was a rather devastating critique of Anselm and Descartes.

        I don’t know about Lowe or Clark, but I know that Plantinga tried to avoid Kant’s criticism and that is why he would consider it irrelevant to his argument–because he believes he did avoid the criticism–defining something into existence, that is.

        The problem for the OA is that you cannot escape defining something into existence. However, this is not to say that Kant, nor I, deny that the idea of existence belongs analytically to God, as the idea of having three angles belongs analytically to a three-sided plane figure. In each case, the predicate is linked with the subject, I admit that, but it does not follow that the subject, with its predicates, actually exists. What is true, and this is all your argument proves, is that *if* there is a triangle, it must have three angles, and *if* there is an infinitely perfect being, that being must have existence. That is to say, if I posit a triangle and deny its three angles, then that is a self-contradiction; but there is no self-contradiction in denying the triangle and its three angles altogether. And the same is true of a necessary being.

        Moreover, as Hume, Kant, and Russell noted, the idea of existence does not add anything to the concept of a particular thing or kind of thing. Of course, for Anselm and Descartes, exists is grammatically a predicate, however, in my mind, it has a different logical function than normal predicates. Which is to say, if “Cows exist” means “There are x’s such that ‘x is a cow’ is true”. Then it is quite clear that to say that cows exist is not to attribute a certain quality to cows, but is to assert that there are objects in the world to which the description summarized in the word ‘cow’ applies. In a similar vein, if I were to say “Unicorns do not exist” is the equivalent of “There are no x’s such that ‘x is a unicorn’ is true. Then it is once again clear that ‘unicorns do not exist’ is not a statement about unicorns but about the concept or description ‘unicorn’ and is the assertion that this concept has no instances. The point is that if, although it appears grammatically in the role of a predicate, existence has the differnet logical function of asserting that a description applies to something in reality, then the OA fails as a proof for God’s existence.

        Sorry for the long comment.

        Cheers

  3. I should add that the OA is a weak argument for proving God’s existence, but it is a very compelling argument for getting one to theism once God’s existence has been established.

    Cheers

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