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Anselm's argument

I promised Richard Symonds something on Anselm's argument, so here it is. This is from a book I am doing so any suggestions for improvements would be gratefully received. Sorry it's a bit long.

Anselm’s argument simple and elegant. He begins by characterizing God as a being greater than which cannot be conceived. That God, if he exists, is such a being seems clear. If you conceive of a being, yet can also conceive of a still greater being, then the being you first thought of cannot be God.

Armed with this concept of God, we can now argue for God’s existence as follows. We can at least conceive of such a being. That there exists a being greater than which cannot be conceived is at least a hypothesis we can entertain. But, adds Anselm, as it is greater to exist in reality than merely in our imagination, this being must really exist. After all, if he did not exist, then he would not be as great a being as we can conceive.

Here is the argument laid out more formally:

1. God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived
2. I can conceive of such a being
3. It is greater to exist in reality than merely in the imagination
4. Therefore the being of which I conceive must exist in reality

This argument is called an ontological argument (though that label is not Anselm’s - it is Kant’s). An ontological argument attempts to establish the existence of God by reason alone. Though several philosophers have subsequently offered ontological arguments of their own, including Leibniz (chapter xx) and Descartes (chapter XX), Anselm’s is the original and, arguably, the best.

The ontological argument was once very popular, but that popularity has waned. Few philosophers – and I include among them the majority of philosophers who believe in God – now consider the argument cogent. Still, while few philosophers find the argument convincing, there remains no consensus as to exactly what is wrong with it. Let’s finish by looking at three criticisms.

Gaunilo’s island

Even in Anselm’s day, the argument had its critics. A monk called Gaunilo pointed out that we could, by means of a similar line of reasoning, apparently “prove” that a perfect island – an island as perfect as it is possible for any island to be – exists.

Here’s Gaunilo’s argument. Can we not conceive of a perfect island – an island perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? It seems we can. But if we can conceive of such an island, and it is greater to exist in reality than in imagination, then the island we are conceiving of must exist. If it didn’t exist, it would not be perfect in every way.

On the seemingly safe assumption that there is no such island, it seems we have no choice but to accept that there is something wrong with the argument that appears to establish that there is. But if there is something wrong with this argument, isn’t there also something wrong with Anselm’s analogous argument for the existence of God?

Anselm knew of Gaunilo’s criticism, and replied to it, although his response is widely considered to amount to little more than bluster. One move we might make in defence of Anselm’s version of the argument is to insist that, actually, we cannot conceive of a perfect island. We might think we can, but we are mistaken. An obvious problem with this move, however, is that merely invites the same response to the claim that we can conceive of a perfect being. Perhaps we merely think we can conceive of such a being. I’ll return to this suggestion at the end of this chapter.

Kant’s criticism

The philosopher Kant offers one of the best-known criticisms of the ontological argument. According to Kant, Anselm’s mistake is to treat existence is a further property we might conceive of something possessing in addition various other properties such as, for example, being tall or all-powerful. Existence is not such an extra property. If you imagine a pile of money, and then add to what you are conceiving the property of existing, you do not in fact add anything to what you were already conceiving.

But if existence is not a property that can be added to our conception of thing, Anselm’s argument fails. If existence is not a property, then it is not a property that might be included in the concept of God. As the ontological argument requires that it is such a property, the argument breaks down.

Kant’s diagnosis of what is wrong with the ontological argument, while ingenious, is not universally accepted. In particular, it is debatable whether Kant is right to deny existence is a property.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Kant is mistaken and existence is a property that we can add to our conception of a thing. Unfortunately for Anselm, the argument then runs into other difficulties, such as the following.

Can we conceive of God?

Suppose I define a wibble thus:

Something is a wibble if, and only if it, is: (i) red, (ii) spherical, (iii) weighs one ton, and (iv) smells of fish.

Are there any wibbles? I have no idea. Perhaps there is a wibble floating in a harbour somewhere (functioning as a buoy, perhaps)
Now suppose I define a wooble thus:

Something is a wooble iff. it is: (i) red, (ii) spherical, (iii) weighs one ton, (iv) smells of fish, and (v) exists.

The difference between these two concepts is that we have added existence to the latter. Of course, Kant would deny that we can do this. He would insist that the concept of a wibble and the concept of a wooble are the same. But let’s suppose Kant is mistaken. Let’s suppose we are dealing with distinct concepts.

Notice that, in order for something to be a wibble, it need not exist. A merely imaginary object can qualify as a wibble. For something to be a wooble, on the other hand, it must exist. If it doesn’t exist, it is, at best, not a wooble, but a wibble.
I can conceive of a wibble. But can I conceive of a wooble? Not if there are no woobles. I might think I am conceiving of a wooble, but if there are none, the most I can be conceiving of is a wibble, as what I am conceiving of will not possess the further property of existence (though I may think it does).

Similarly, if existence is one of the properties built into the concept of God, then I cannot prove God exists by supposing I can conceive of him. If there is no God, then I cannot really conceive of him (just as, if there are no woobles, then I cannot really conceive of them, though I may think I can).

So, even if we allow that existence is a further property that we can build into our concept of a thing, it seems Anselm’s argument still fails. It fails because the argument now begs the question. One of Anselm’s premises is that we can conceive of God. But as Anselm’s concept of God includes existence, in order to know that we can conceive of such a being, Anselm would need first to have established that there is a God. But that is what his argument is supposed to establish.

In other words, Anselm’s argument is circular. The most it establishes is that, if God exists, then God exists. But that is something with which even an atheist can agree.


Andrew Norman said…
I think the other possible objection to Anselm is his assumption that it is "greater" or "more perfect" for something to exist, than not. Why is it? Some properties clearly can't be ranked in this way - would it be greater for something to be red all over, or blue all over? Would it be more perfect for something to be large, or small?
Anonymous said…
Yeah - have people played around with the 'perfect' bit enough? The idea of a perfect island – an island perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape, for instance - that seems to me not perfect at all, but just what we like (if we do, those of us who do). Perfect includes the meaning 'complete' for instance - which might make sense for a deity but not so much for islands. But a perfect deity - apart from completeness, what does that even mean? Perfect for whom, perfect in what circumstances, perfect how? Maybe in reference to a deity, completeness is all it's meant to mean (in which case perhaps existence would subtract rather than add). Did Anselm mean 'perfect' as very very very good, so good that it can't be better? Or did he mean finished, accomplished, complete, so much so that nothing can be added? Or did he mix the two?
Anonymous said…
I think "necessary existence" only makes sense in the context of some kind of Platonism or idealism: taken as such, something that exists necessarily is highly abstract precisely because it exists in all logically possible worlds. To be _actual_ in any logically possible worlds means to have at least some contingent properties that are actualized. It is only if ideas/abstract qualities etc. are allowed some existence independent from their actualization (Peirce's firstness, maybe? Whitehead's eternal objects?) that a necessarily existent thing has any meaning. But on this reasoning, Anselm's "conceiving" of God should not be taken at face value. Anselm might have a less-than-perfect conception of the idea of God. Perhaps the concept of God contains some kind of deep internal inconsistency.
potentilla said…
The weasel word "conceive" (I can't be bothered to look up the Latin). What does it really mean?

Your objection is that we can only conceive of something that actually exists. But can I conceive of a wooble? Not if there are no woobles. I might think I am conceiving of a wooble, but if there are none, the most I can be conceiving of is a wibble, as what I am conceiving of will not possess the further property of existence (though I may think it does)

I am not so sure. Can we not be said to conceive of, say, fairies, or Santa Claus?

I would rather object to the word "conceive" on the grounds that conceiving of something requires a reasonably specific definition (which we can manage in relation to fairies, Santa Claus and wibbles, but not, apparently, God). Or at least I have never read of any Christain attempt to define God anything like as concretely as a fairy, where by "concretely" I mean using words that don't themselves require a lot of further definition and explanation, un-mysterious words.

Otherwise, one is just saying "I am conceiving of a wurble, but I can't explain to you exactly what a wurble is, except that it is mimsy and slithy".

On a more practical note, I would delete the reference to buoys, to prevent your more incorrigibly literal readers becoming distracted in thickets of speculation about whether there are really any red spherical buoys which weight a ton.
potentilla said…
For example:

- I can conceive of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived
- Tell me a characteristic of your conceived being
- Well, he is omnipotent
- So, he can make the wibble both red and not red at the same time?
- Yes
- How? and what would the wibble be like?
- It is a mystery, and I don't know.

So the property of omnipotence cannot be defined except in mysterious terms, or alternatively excludes the power of doing anything logically impossible, which strikes me as quite a big omission, apart from begging the question as to why it would.

The claim to be able to conceive of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived strikes me as not much more than being able to say those words (or write them, in one language or another).

I think I am saying the same thing as the end of merlijn's comment, which I saw only after I posted the first time.
Anonymous said…
I have problems with Anselm's argument as well:

1. God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived
2. I can concieve of such a being—

I stop there, and rewrite it:

1. God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived
2. Therefore, I can
not concieve of such a being.

How could I ever concieve of something that should be the ultimate concept? I agree that, if I can concieve of it, I can concieve of something greater than that—but therefore, I cannot concieve of an ultimate concept.

But because I cannot concieve of it existing (as in it is out of the grasp of my knowledge) then neither can I concieve of it not existing. That too is outside of my knowledge.

"An ontological argument attempts to establish the existence of God by reason alone—"

I think any argument that tries to establish the existence of God by reason alone is faulty. But conversely, I think an argument that tries to establish the non-existence of God by reason alone runs into the same problem. Namely, the problem we're running into is reason itself. Reason can't reason about something that should be, by its own reasoning (or theology) out of its grasp.

If God exists, I cannot concieve of God—but rather, God concieves of me (I may be tainted by my own theology here—the argument becomes circular. But let's suppose the theology and keep going:) If God exists, I exist in a world that is permeated by God, as if there is a bright light shining behind me and the whole room is illuminated—but I can't turn around to see the light itself because I'll be blinded. Again, reason cannot concieve of what is (reasonably, hah!) beyond it.

But can I even know that God concieves of me? Not absolutely. What do I do? We have to analyze—or maybe just consider—our experience as-we-see-it, then converse with others who live in the same universe as us (as in the illuminated room). I may assume that, because there is an illumination, there is a light, but I will never know the nature of the light—the nature that it exists (still fumbiling with existence as a property there). The mystic says the light is conscious and seeks to form a relationship with it; the atheist says it isn't conscious, and builds an ideology about the glowing room. Which one is right? I can't tell. Reason can only suppose, and faith can only believe. But both are informed by the other, and no one uses either "purely" in itself.
David said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said…
Here I argue that "Anselm arrives at his conclusion only by befuddling object language and metalanguage, blurring the distinction between 'a being that exists' (meta) and a being that exists (object). ...Anselm first begins to blur the distinction between object language and metalanguage when he claims that that which is understood exists in the understanding. This is the moment at which the often criticized leap from concept to being occurs. What exactly would it mean if I told you that upon hearing ['wibble'] that an [wibble] came into existence in your understanding? This seemingly small shuffling of words has nontrivial ontological implications, giving a conjuring of our understanding a hint of independent existence."
Stephen Law said…
I have a lot of sympathy with most of these comments. I think Ophelia and ajn in particular are on to something. "Absolute perfection" seems as elusive as "absolute simplicity". Wittgenstein points out re the latter (in PI) that talk about simple and complex is relative and context dependent, e.g. is a chessboard square simple or complex? Is a 1" line? It depends what you mean - a 1" line could be seen as two 1/2" lines or as a three inch minus a one inch,etc. In his earlier work, Witt made the mistake of supposing there must be certain things that are simple period. And then struggled to identify them. His later diagnosis of this earlier mistake was that he had used "simple" out of context, so that it then seemed to pick out something deep and profound, but actually ended up being what Woody Allen calls "so much chin music". The same is true of similar talk of God being "simple", "perfect" etc., I think.
john c. halasz said…
Anselm was a very early Scholastic, 11th century, long before the whole Aristotelian apparatus of argument and "proof" had been revived and worked through with Thomas Aquinus et alia. His basic premise was that understanding follows belief, rather than belief is to be provided by understanding. This is actually "correct", in that it is the basic posture of Christian theology/apologetics: that's why they call it "faith". (To modernize/secularize such a claim a bit, consider the hermeneutic "principle" that to interpretively understand a matter requires taking account of one's own situated participation in the matter.) And in Anselm's world the "problem" of atheism, the non-existence of divinity, was scarcely conceived to "exist". (There were, of course, ancient classical pagan thinkers who questioned or debunked the pagan gods, but those were precisely the "false" pagan gods, and, to the extent that such writers were then still known, served only to re-enforce the point.)

The upshot here is that Anselm's "proof" should be regarded in an heuristic and hortatory sense, rather than as logically dispositive. "God is that than which no greater can be conceived". Consider that as a riddle to be solved. Whatever your answer might be, then THAT is God. (The "intention" was to distinguish and correlate the belief in divinity between a civilized pagan, a Christian peasant, and a learned monk). "Necessary existence" comes in putative response to "the fool", who would think that conceptual "belief" can be entirely disengaged from existence. If one is a contingent and finite being, (i.e. limited and perishable), existing among other contingent and finite beings, then that which would be "greater" would be non-contingent and non-finite, in terms of which the existence of contingent and finite beings might be sustained, through their participation with it.

Now I myself am an atheist, though of an indifferentist variety, (noboby gets a leg-up through the profession of their beliefs), and of strongly anti-positivist instincts. But I think that Anselm's "proof" should be distinguished from its deployment in 17th century rationalism, in which its positional and "strategic" significance was much different. And I think Kant's basically one sentence refutation, - that existence is not a predicate,- is dispositive. But the idea that matters of belief and "faith" can be disposed of, ahistorically and extra-culturally, by technical refinements in logical argumentation just strikes me as silly and beside the point.
Stephen Law said…
Hello John

I am not quite sure I understand what your conclusion, or your argument for it, is. Can you clarify?

You seem to suggest Anselm is not even attempting to make a rational case for God's existence. You point out Anselm would not have been familiar with Aristotelean logic.

True. But I take it Anselm et al did possess something like the concept of making a rational case in support of a belief, even before their exposure to Aristotle, right? Or are you denying they possessed anything like that concept?

Certainly that is what Anselm appears to be doing, right? Making a rational case (notice I didn't say "give a proof") (perhaps he is doing other things AS WELL, of course, including the things you mention - however, the fact he is doing these other things doesn't show he is not also making a rational case for God's existence)

To bolster your case against the suggestion Anselm is presenting an argument for God's existence, you point out Anselm would not have considered atheism a problem. May be so. But the fact that Anselm would have taken God's existence as a given does not establish that he didn't think it interesting or worthwhile to construct such a rational case, right?

So what's your case for saying that Anselm is not attempting to make a rational case for God's existence, if indeed that is what you are claiming? I 'm not sure.

You say: But the idea that matters of belief and "faith" can be disposed of, ahistorically and extra-culturally, by technical refinements in logical argumentation just strikes me as silly and beside the point.

Well, actually, modern scientific and/or logical developments might yet be able to "dispose" of belief in God. Which is not to say that everyone will be persuaded, of course (the traditional religious view that the universe is 6k years old is easily falsified by modern scientific developments and discoveries - but of course not everyone can see this).

But in any case we are here attempting not to "dispose" of belief in God, but merely to show that this particular argument for God's existence fails. That's a worthwhile project, right? Not "silly"?

Or are you denying this, too? Can you clarify?

This sounds to me like a post-modern dig at analytic philosophy, right (it's SO unsophisticated!)?
john c. halasz said…
Well, I'm not exactly familiar with Medieval thought. I'd guess that Anselm was working from Augustinian tradition with its admixture of Neo-Platonism. And clearly he's giving an argument of sorts, providing reasons that are meant to be persuasive. But, if one wants to understand what someone is saying, one has to try to understand what they are trying to do in and with what they are saying. And Anselm was not attempting to give a "proof" in the modern sense as something logically dispositive and definitively unanswerable. Rather for him "reason" was a means of further understanding the faith, of explicating and elucidating it. (I'd guess, as a "defender of the faith", given when he lived, he was probably partly preoccupied with the possible claims of rival faiths, such as, e.g., the way that Moslems mercilessly made fun of the "Trinity"). And so, as I said, the "intention" of his "proof" is more heuristic and hortatory than logically dispositive. And it's better understood if taken as a sort of riddle, if you want to understand why he might think that he can get from concept to existence. (After all, "faith" itself is a kind of riddle, and to explicate it involves explaining why one "must" believe in imcomprehensible mysteries). Purely logically, the claim that the concept "necessary being" entails necessary existence is a petitio principi. But if one is already in the world, as a contingent being, then the possibility of conceiving a being greater than oneself is already given with one's own existence, such that willy-nilly one does conceive of some such being, and necessarily conceives/believes it as existing. Or something like that is what I take Anselm to be saying/claiming: it's not a matter of providing an unassailable premise that is proof certain of an objective knowledge of God's exixtence, since God, after all, would be transcendent and not available to any mortal, finite objective and certain knowledge. (That the Creator is greater or more perfect than the creation would be taken as read by Anselm, a truism. Later Scholastics recognized that the Creator and the creation could not be said to "exist" in the same sense, and usually resolved the question by appealing to "the unity of analogy". But the recognition of that difference was lost in later renditions of the "proof").

So the upshot is that Anselm's "proof" is a much different matter than later versions of the "ontological proof". In Cartesian meditation, the "proof" serves to get from the certainty of the cogito to a metaphysical "guarantee" of the objective veridicality of its "innate ideas", which is positionally and functionally an entirely different matter in a different framework, including its idea of "proof". And, strange as it is to the eyes and ears of modern readers, those 17th century thinkers did not seem to be able to discuss causality, intelligibility, and their interrelation without somehow bringing God into the "equation".

But I don't think anyone was ever persuaded to adopt a religious faith or belief by purely logical argumentation. And I'd also doubt that people would be likely to be argued out of religious faith or belief by purely logical means. Religious ideas have a "logic" of their own, even if it's not logical, and if one is going to deal with such matters, one should take account of the complexion of religious ideas and thinking and attempt to understand them as best one can, which does not require regarding them as true. One has to attempt to understand the sources of their compellingness in religious "experience", such as ideas about suffering, sin, transcendence, redemption, vocation and the like. This is not a matter of etiquette, but of "proper" procedure in rational understanding, (though that might be related to "etiquette" in a deeper sense). At any rate, religious ideas are not necessarily irrational, so much as arational, and one should take account of the limits of reason and logic both, or so, at least, I would maintain from a post-Kantian point-of-view. When dealing with impassible ideas such as "God", which can neither be proven, nor entirely disproven, then the most one can do is examine how such a concept functions in relation to other concepts to get a sense of what it might mean and observe the matter quasi-behaviorally in terms of how the holding-to of such a concept might be lived-out in the "stream of life". Part of the problem here is that attempts at logically refuting such ideas might simply misunderstand what is at issue and what the stakes are,and thus be misaimed and counterproductive. (The presumption that oneself is completely rational and the other simply irrational is per se without rational warrant, especially as it ignores that one's own beliefs might be dubious or riddled with unexamined presuppositions). But part of the problem is the "nature" of religious belief as historically transmitted through traditions. Religious beliefs are a mixed bag and are not simply cognitive, but contain ethical, expressive, and practical components, as well, but in such a way that they are holistically connected with each other, such that they operate "beneath" the level of the rational differentiation of validities, in terms of which modern forms of rationality and argument function. To be sure, some aspects of religious beliefs can be directly refuted by factual evidence, but not necessarily the whole web of belief, and the credibility of religious belief has long since been eroding in the modern world and such belief has rationalized itself. Further, account has to be taken of the modal quality of beliefs: two people might believe in exactly the "same" thing, say, the literal ressurection of Christ, but modally their beliefs are different, such that for one it might amount to a kind of supernatural rocket science and for the other a physical impossibility, which is credited precisely because of the "absurdity" of its transcendence. Which goes again to precisely "what" is being believed. Believing that the world is God's creation amounts to the adoption of a certain "spiritual" attitude toward the world and the creatures in it, rather than a causal myth. (It might be helpful to revert to the Jewish version here, rather than the Christian dogmatic approach with its emphasis on the one "correct" theological doctrine, and repeating what the Christians already did to the Jews: G-d revealed himself through His commandments, with "In the Beginning" basically just backlighting. To believe in creation as a causal myth is to revert to the pagan idolatry of worshipping blindly the mythified forces of nature over against the injunction to the strangeness of the ethical compact toward the other.) Thirdly, arguing "rationally" with and against religious belief basically appeals to the "freedom" of persons to make rational choices in disposing over themselves and the conduct of their lives. To which the religious might respond that that is exactly what their religion enables. And one doesn't have to argue with religion, any more than one is rationally obliged to accept religious belief oneself. Science deals with the causal explanation of empirical phenomena and has no need for religion, nor any special competency for dealing with it, since it's not an empirical, causal matter. But if one is going to argue with religion, one should be clear with oneself why one is taking up the matter and doing so, and in what respects. (Which, again, requires the effort to understand the religious point-of-view and its contents). Is it because religion is somehow an offence against science or "humanity" or reason? All religion or specific religions? Or specific aspects of a religion, such as certain customs, practices, or ethical rationalizations of the treatment of others? Or is one taking objection to the ideological functionalization of religious beliefs for basically extrinsic political purposes? (Though that's about as old as history itself). Or is it that one thinks that the abolition of religion by itself would amount to an emancipation of human beings from all superstition, folly, unreason, and error? At any rate, whatever one's purposes, arguments against and criticisms of religion amount to a "negation" of "who" people are and how they are that "who", and requires a willingness to actually address that "who", as well as, take account of and reflect upon "who" oneself might be. Logic alone here would be a pretty blunt and inadequate instrument.

But we probably have some differences over what might be called "philosophical explanation" and the refutation of error. To me, to philosophically explain an error is not a matter of simply disambiguating all terms and attaining complete clarity about the matter to provide for formal logical inferences that can correct and remove all errors. (I think that overestimates the powers of formal logic and somewhat misunderstands the actual workings of language, meaning and truth). Rather the philosophical explanation of error occurs through understanding the sources of error and how one gets into them, dissolving the error by reorienting oneself to it and finding one's way about and around it. There is after all a difference between material inferences in natural language and formal inferences in logic, and formal logic unto itself can not generate the categories/semantics upon which it operates. For that we are thrown back upon the resources of natural language. "Making sense" is "prior" to logic and formalization is always a secondary matter. And formal logic can not of itself guarantee that it has disambiguated and clarified its terms "properly" and relevantly. That can only be determined through the continuation of dialogue/argument. And the telos of "complete" and final clarity is itself dubious and depends on its premises. But there will always be others who "make sense" differently with different premises. That's not really so scarifying once one realizes that coming to an understanding with others in an inevitably plural world is the point of "argument" and not surmounting that world, as if one could get somehow outside it.

I'm not particularly taken with pomo. My point-of-view comes more from Gadamer and hermeneutics and I come from a Marxist background with which I'd still notionally align myself. So it's German historicism rather than French formalism that's at issue here, if you can tell the difference. The point is to understand ideas in terms of their historical "origins" and genesis in inherited traditions not only to note their repetitions and variations within that tradition, together with the pitfalls and "refutations" that have already occurred and don't need to be repeated, nor sustained, but to reflectively understand one's own situation in relation to that past and continuing history, if only to guard against that "enormous condescension of posterity" that mistakes the mere existence of the present age for "progress".

john c. halasz
Anonymous said…

I think "existence" is a property, but not of the thing said to exist or not exist. If I said "X exists" what I am really saying is that "X exists in the universe" which is a proposition about the universe, i.e. that the universe contains at least one X.

Suppose X were unicorns - do unicorns exist? A quick search of google reveals millions of both fiction and non-fiction references to unicorns. We all know what a unicorn is, in fact some of you might be imagining this lovely creature right now. But do they exist?

I say they do - they exist in our collective imagination and also in the fictional world of certain books, movies and video games.

Does god exist? Yes, he/it is a hypothetical entity which we have all read and spoken a great deal. God is less well defined than unicorns. Everybody knows that unicorns like to whinny and canter. It's much harder to get any kind of consensus about what gods like.

Christians, athiests and buddhists can all conceive of gods therefore gods have a kind of existence.

I think the question we should ask is not so much "does X exist" more "in what manner does X exist". So if you said "Does Sherlock Holmes Exist", I can correctly reply "Yes, he exists as a fictional character in films and books which are objects that exist in the material universe".

Stephen Law said…

So you are now conceding Anselm is indeed attempting to make a rational case for the existence of God, right (though he may be doing other things too)? Good. So it's worth while pointing out why that case fails, right? That's not a "silly" exercise after all, as you originally suggested.

If you reply to this, please answer the above question by checking one of these boxes: YES IT IS A SILLY EXERCISE... NO IT ISN'T A SILLY EXERCISE...

You said: But the idea that matters of belief and "faith" can be disposed of, ahistorically and extra-culturally, by technical refinements in logical argumentation just strikes me as silly and beside the point.

You seem now to be defending this by pointing out people are rarely argued into or out of a religious belief. True, perhaps. But irrelevant, as we are simply asking: is this a cogent argument?

Whether or not anyone will be persuaded by the argument or by criticism of it is another matter (partly a psychological matter of course), as I myself have repeatedly pointed out in several recent blogs, and again repeated in my reply to you above. So I am completely baffled as to why you raise it.

You also say: At any rate, religious ideas are not necessarily irrational, so much as arational, and one should take account of the limits of reason and logic... When dealing with impassible ideas such as "God" [impassible - er, that the right word? S.L.], which can neither be proven, nor entirely disproven...

Well, see my earlier blogs on whether atheism is a faith position and also on the "mystery" move, which I think deals with all of this pretty thoroughly.
john c. halasz said…
Stephen Law:

Offering a reason or giving an argument is not the same as claiming a dispositive proof, no? And I've tried to make plain what I think that Anselm thought he was doing with his "proof",- (though Anselm wouldn't have called it that, as it's an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "test", while Anselm was a French-speaking English archbishop appointed by a French-speaking English king: probably "demonstration", a showing-forth, is what he called it),- and why given the complexion of his thinking and the limited nature and context of his aim, he might not at all have double-counted "necessary existence" as both a premise and a conclusion or simply overlooked the fact that "existence" is not a predicate. (I also pointed out that the Cartesian version of the "ontological proof" missed and flattened out the Scholastic distinction between the being of God and the being of the world, while deploying the argument for much different purposes, and it's that version and its cognates that Kant refuted, correctly according to the super-majority of philosophers). So you're criticizing and refuting an argument that Anselm didn't exactly make. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not that is "silly".

But, mind, what I said was "silly" and, more to the point, "beside the point", was the notion that matters of religious belief and faith could be refuted and disposed of by means of formal logical arguments alone, "ahistorically and extraculturally". Arguments have contexts and aims, which is how they get going in the first place, And they are not simply a matter of drawing the "correct" formal inferences through the "clarification" of terms, while condemning all ambiguous matters to the "fallacy of equivocation". (Do you mean that there's just one such fallacy?) To be sure, one has to sort through ambiguities and make the relevant distinctions between meanings, but the ambiguity of language is a feature and not a fault. And the point of argument is to conduct inquiry and gain understanding, such that attempting to understand opposing "positions" and precisely in their strengths and not just their weaknesses is a part of "proper" rational precedure, since one always has to take account of the possibility that oneself might be in the wrong or have misunderstood of misjudged something. Using argument to "put oneself in the right" is never a good move in my book.

So when it comes to arguing with and criticizing religious belief, it "pays" to attempt to understand something of the "logic" (or, perhaps better, the "grammar") of religious ideas and the questions and issues that they are actually dealing with, which might be irremediably ambiguous, "hard", or irresolvable, rather than assuming one already understands its terms and one can dispose of the matter simply by "clarifying" the world.

I'll just get you started on some bits of a version of that "grammar". Semtitic monotheism originated, probably evolving over the course of several centuries, with the ancient Judaic critique of pagan idolatry, as a blind worship of the mythified forces of nature/powers of the world, which connects directly to the formation of an ethical compact. Henceforth, human beings, at least, Jewish ones, are strangers in the world, not, no longer, subject to its given order, and that compact enjoins welcoming the other as a stranger, rather than reducing him/her to one's own image. (Nothing is more irritating than those flat "Enlightenment" claims that all religion reduces to magical thinking and superstition, which entirely misses the religious critique of magic and superstition, of which many Enlightenment criticisms were just secularizations. Religious traditions do, of course, contain superstitious and ritual practices, but, as, Weber pointed out long ago, all major religions develop elite and demotic versions, and ritual actions do not simply equate with magical practices). But then, if G-d is the unity of the world, he is thereby not in it, but transcendent to it. Which means that for all the world He does not "exist". (Again, the "universalism" of the Enlightenment owes much to this monotheistic unification of the world). Does G-d speak to the world? Of course, he does, through the prophets and scribes, and that is no stranger than ascribing a "voice" to conscience. Does G-d exercise agency in the events of this world? G-d calls to account beyond and through the events of this world. (It's true that religious traditions confuse orders of meaning/implication and orders of causality, but that matter is never sorted out once and for all, and one shouldn't make an obverse version of that confusion in reducing religious ideas to causal myths. Norms of explanation themselves evolve through the "progress" of science and they are not the only sorts of norms we need concern ourselve with). But what of all that ridiculous doxology of superlatives, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, and the like? Well, G-d is transcendent to the world, beyond all worldly power, beyond finite knowledge, beyond all claims to righteousness, vengeance or satisfaction. But why is there evil and suffering in the world? Because the world is fallen and entangled in its sinfulness through its separation from G-d. The duty/devotion of repairing/redeeming that world is enjoined on all. But then why did G-d create the world from "nothing' and thereby separate himself from it? Much speculation there. Some Cabbalists claimed that G-d created the world by contracting himself from it and leaving a void: the world, I suppose, would be G-d's melancholia. But that the world was created from "nothing" means that it is not an entirely given, predetermined and final order, which is why care for the world as "creation" can be enjoined. (In other words, again, "creation, is not a causal myth, nor even a causal claim at all, which is to confuse religious thinking with metaphysical claims about "necessity"). But what evidence is there for such religious beliefs? None, for all the world, except in the "experiences" of religious transcendence.

The upshot of this trite little synopsis is that people have their reasons, which doesn't mean that they are "good" reasons, nor that they are necessarily "clear" about them, but that they need to be addressed substantively in terms of the questions that they would answer to rather than simply dismissed as erroneous. And criticisms of religions that actually engage with its "substance" rather than dismiss it as an error in logical operators are likely to be both far more interesting and persuasive. Especially since they don't automatically adjudicate the questions about the burden of proof in one's favor and evade addressing the difficult questions with "progressive" bromides. One's own beliefs might be as arbitrary, unfounded, conflicted, or dubious as those of another. But most of all, one shouldn't make the mistake of misrecognizing religious claims to "truth" for simple cognitive claims that can be disposed of entirely by appeals to the "scientific method". For one thing, science is not based on any sort of "certainty", is always open provisional and incomplete by its own "principles", makes no demand on or for "absolute" beliefs, and does not amount to a "world-view". But more to the point, belief and knowledge are two different words with different and only partially overlapping usages, which are not simply substitutable or continuous. (There is a sense in which, if one knows something, one doesn't have to believe it: one knows how to go about in the world with it, until one doesn't). But "faith" or religious belief is precisely not knowledge, even if religous believers or traditions make that confusion, which is why it is "faith". "Faith is the evidence of things unseen and the substance of things hoped-for", as the famous tag goes, which was a deliberate deployment of Greek philosophical vocabulary to paradoxical effect. And such a tactic of resorting to paradoxical expression is rather common in religious discourse, and can't be simply put down to a logical error or nonsense: rather it is an effort at indirect communication of conflicted and ambiguous experiences. To try and answer religious belief with objective knowledge of an entirely immanent world is to misrecognize them and mistake the sort of "objectivity" they lay claim to, which concern the transcendence of personal egoism toward a suprapersonal mode of existence in the world.

I'll freely admit that I have a distaste for dogmatic "militant" atheism, as mirroring the very religious chauvinism it take objection to. The point should be "break" that mirror relation. And then there's the problem of "there is no God, and Sartre is his prophet": i.e. very little "necessarily" follows from atheism, any more than religious believers all think alike and are equally incapable of rational understanding or deliberation. I don't much care for the Enlightenment revivalism that is currently fashionable in some quarters of the internet and elsewhere, which often strikes me as little more than a neo-neo-positivism. Aside from its problems of preaching to the choir, it seems to me to frequently manifest its own obverse version of "love covereth a multitude of sins". Logical refutations arguments for theism, which have ben long since discredited anyway, and which nobody except paid-up members of one clerical mafia or another bothers with anymore, and "vindicating" atheism simply serve to distract from one's own dubious assumptions, such as, e.g., paralogistic leaps from scientific falsificationism to ultilitarian ethics or liberal individualism, or overblown assumptions about the scope and mode of natural scientific explanation, combined with a failure to differentiate the questions that they address from those questions to which they are unamenable or irrelevant. I certainly don't regard Dennett as a daring and ground-breaking thinker: I think he misunderstands/misrepresents natural selection, I don't care much about "cognitive psychology" which I think a dubious project, I think computationalist theories of "mind" are wrong for biological reasons, ev. psych. is bunkum, "memes" is an empty, silly idea, which is exactly what they've come to mean on the internet, and a sophisticated, clever mechanistic reductionist is still a mechanistic reductionist. Dawkins used to be a biologist famous for his popularizing books, but gene-selectionism looks much more limited in scope nowadays, since genomes have been discovered to be remarkably "conserved", that the genome is a digital code was always popularizing tosh, and he's supposed to be nowadays a "professor of the public understanding of science", in which case pontificating against theism is not only publicly and "politically" counterproductive, but entangles science with matters that are not particularly relevant to understanding its methods, ideas and processes per se, (which, hint, are not quite as purely "empirical" as often supposed, but involve the "abductive" generation and development of ideas/theories through empirical research, which is something I think is not commonly understood in terms of how evidence confirms, supports, and/or corrects theories). Unrestrained and unreflective technophilia and instrumentalism are often enough on display, often enough oddly combined with hyperbolic fears about "relativism", without sorting through, distinguishing and explicating the issues involved. So, yeah, I think there's much that's "silly", quibbling and misdirected in all that hash. I don't think that atheism is somehow particularly virtuous, nor that religion, (or money or capitalism or anything else), is the root of all evil, error, and superstition, since there is no such singular "root". And I don't think either religious belief, or religious tolerance are necessarily signs of "bad faith", rather than a civil right.

But, hey, if you hadn't apparently misread what I was saying particularly about Anselm and misattributed the point to which "silly" applied, I would have spared you all this tediousness. At any rate, I understand "Aufklaerung" to involve the enhancement and elucidation of understanding through removing obstacles to it, come what may, rather than "refutation" through mispresentation and invective.
Anonymous said…
Just as a side comment on Ophelia's objection, I think I am right that Anselm doesn't claim 'perfection' for God for the sake of the proof (although I suppose that could be implicit) but 'greatness' which is a bit less problematic if we think of it as 'powerfulness' or something like. The idea of perfection was introduced for the refutation, I think.
Stephen Law said…
John, you say:

"Offering a reason or giving an argument is not the same as claiming a dispositive proof, no?"

I have no idea what a dispositive proof is, but yes he is offering an argument, agreed. For the existence of God, correct? So we can reflect on whether it's a good one, can't we?

But then also say:

"So you're criticizing and refuting an argument that Anselm didn't exactly make."

Certainly I am supposing is that Anselm is offering an argument for the existence of God. Are you suggesting I am mistaken in thinking that? Sometimes you seem to be.

I have scanned through your posts looking for arguments that might back up the suggestion that I am mistaken. The only ones I have found were in your first blog and I dealt with them all. So far as I can tell, you have not offered one good argument for why Anselm should not be understood as putting forward an argument for the existence of God, an argument that even his contemporary, Gaunilo, understood Anselm to be making and indeed attempted to refute.

Could you keep your posts shorter, John? A lot shorter... then they will be more likely to be read.

Maybe a single paragraph putting forward very concisely what you consider to be a compelling case for supposing that Anselm is not offering an argument for God's existence. If that is what you think. I'm still not sure.

But maybe your view is that Anselm is offering an argument for God's existence, only not the one we think he is offering. He is offering a different argument. That would be an interesting point.If you could make it. You would have to spell out what the premises and conclusion of this other argument are. Then we could have fun attempting to refute that too.
anticant said…
Would the abolition of religion emancipate human beings from all superstition, folly, unreason, and error? No, it wouldn't - but it would eliminate the conceit that a person's actions are commanded or endorsed by a supernatural entity. It would thus increase awareness - if not acceptance - of individual and collective reponsibility. Surely that is eminently desireable?
john c. halasz said…
Stephen Law:

Boy, oh boy! I tried at least a couple of times to spell out what I think Anselm's argument was and how it worked. It is not an apodictic proof, moving from unshakeable premise to necessary conclusion. (The notion of such proof is a later invention, probably in stages: neither Plato, nor Aristotle quite had such a notion). It is a limited argument that offers a, (i.e. one), reason why one might *believe* in a transcendent God. (There are probably some quasi-Platonic background assumptions about the transcendent/objective existence of ideas affecting the context of the argument. Since questions always tend to inform the answers that they might invite, it's no accident the Heidegger didn't ask "what is Being?", since that would have yielded the same old metaphysical sorts of answers, but "what is the meaning of Being?". Anselm would not have had the same sense of the meaning of "objective existence" as we would. But I don't think the argument hinges on any idea of existence being already an idea). Shortest version: the argument does not move from idea to existence, but from existence to idea. That, (i.e. tode ti, existence, not essence), than which no greater can be conceived. The assumption is that one wouldn't elect to the place of "greatest thing" something non-existent, such as Homer Simpson's chocolateland. What you seem to be missing is that the argument is not just for the existence of God, but is also a standard Christian criticism of idolatry. Anything elected to the place of "greatest thing" which would be worldly, immanent, contingent would prove out in life to be idolatrous, deceptive, pagan: the argument implies a reduction to absurdity. Again, the argument offers a reason meant to be persuasive, but does not claim to be dispositive, definitive, i.e. that one could not possibly think otherwise. (Anselm first wrote out the "proof" in a letter to another monk, who wrote back, "no, I don't think so", to which Anselm responded in another letter, "no, you didn't understand" and tried to rephrase).

There's some irony in the fact that Anselm's "proof" actually has a bit in common with Kant's confutation of the ontological proof in the "Transcendental Dialectic", wherein "the ideas of Reason" are at once the source of criticism of error and themselves the source of error qua "transcendental illusion". There is a strain in Kant's thinking that is secularizing the religious criticism of idolatry, as there is in much post-Kantian thinking, (hey, even Nietzsche!). (It's all too obvious in Marx).

So, from my point-of-view, at least, you confuted the wrong argument, made a mistake, argued with a phantom. Which is liable to happen if one treats things formally, as if there really were such a thing as "timeless truth" and ignores history and culture. There are always contexts and background assumptions informing thinking, which can never be fully explicitated and formalized, which effort might be only adding on another layer of assumptions, without being able to offer any formal guarantee that it's got it "right", and so might be self-defeating. And if one is going to argue with and criticize a web of belief, it "pays" to try and understand what those beliefs are and for what sorts of reasons they might be held and how those reasons are held, since, er, one's own web of belief might have analogous "problems", because no one's web of belief is ever entirely "justified", nor for that matter even fully conscious. At least, if one wants one's arguments to be effective, i.e. persuasive, then they have to be accurately addressed. But most people have other things to do, besides argue. Have fun.
Stephen Law said…
Hello John. I see. So Anselms's argument "is not an apodictic proof, moving from unshakeable premise to necessary conclusion."

Where did I say it was such a proof? I just took it to be an argument, identified premises and conclusion, and suggested two reasons why the argument might fail (you are not denying the argument has premises and conclusion, are you?)

You say "It is a limited argument that offers a, (i.e. one), reason why one might *believe* in a transcendent God." Yes, it is an argument for the existence of God. Agreed. One we might then rationally assess, right? And that assessment could be a worthwhile exercise, right?

Now you suggest Anselm ALSO intends something else: you say "the argument is not just for the existence of God, but is also a standard Christian criticism of idolatry."

Of course, this does not contradict anything I said, does it? To say, as I did, that Anselm is offering an argument for the existence of God, and to set it out and assess it, is not to deny the possibility he might be doing other things too, is it?

The interesting question is: what is this other argument I have overlooked, and what grounds are there for supposing Anselm is offering it?

The argument turns out to be that anything worldly and contingent would not be the greatest being conceivable and so would not be God (given we define God thus).

Er, yes. Obviously.

You say "So, from my point-of-view, at least, you confuted the wrong argument, made a mistake, argued with a phantom."

Well, again, John, you have not shown this. You have conceded Anselm is offering an argument. An argument for the existence of God. The one I assessed, in fact.

Yeh, maybe there is another argument on offer AS WELL. But then if the one I assess is there too, I have not "confuted" the "wrong" argument; rather I have merely not mentioned another one.

The other one being the obvious one that a worldly, contingent being cannot be God, if God is the greatest conceivable being.

Yeh, like I never thought of that...
john c. halasz said…
Stephen Law:

Well, I'll mkae one last attempt to "clarify" and then I'm bailing, (because, er, the matter doesn't interest me so much). I'm not saying that Anselm made a "rational" argument and did other things besides. I'm saying those "other things" *are* the argument that he was making or attempting, (and, as to whether it is "rational", an argument is an offering of "reasons" intended to convince.) Probably the problem here, by which you can't seem to grasp what I think I'm plainly, if verbosely or redundantly, saying, is that I'm interpreting/reconstructing what Anselm would be saying/doing differently than you are. And specifically, I'm rejecting your penultimate step three as flat-footed. Insofar as there is any question of "perfection" rather than "greatness" here, "perfection" would mean something like the fullest possible realization of a being, such that it becomes or manifests itself as, as it were, a paradigm of itself. (If you'd want to dig "deeper" into the argument, then drawing out that implied ontology might be the place to look, though that might involve reading up on scholarship on early Medieval thought, which might be too boring for tears). Note, then that there would be no separation of "perfection" from being, so that "perfection" could be an added predicate: "perfection" already belongs to being as a possibility of it. Anselm asks why would a painter conceive a beautiful image and not paint it. (I dunno; ask Marcel Duchamp). Similarly, the fool *in his heart* says that there is no God, but, why, when the proposition is put to one to conceive TWNGCBC, would one deliberately chose something non-existent as, as we might say nowadays, an intentional object? There's not necessarily a warrant here for attributing the idea that existence is a predicate to be added on to a mere concept, such that the concept is rendered more "perfect" by virtue of existing. Rather, this looks a bit more, ceteris paribus, like an appeal to common sense. Keep in mind that we are dealing with a situation already in the world, which, however fallen, finite, and contingent, involves the "problem" of relating to that world and the other beings or creatures in it, and hence of how to dispose of one's soul/self and how to conduct one's life within it. (Hey, the effort to construe the "necessary" order of the world with indirect implication for the ethical conduct of life was the gist of classical metaphysical thinking, eh?) The existence of the world, however fallen, is never put in doubt, but we're singing Peggy Lee here, to the extent that Medieval monks can: is that all there is? Wouldn't it make more sense to conceive that all this gathers and realizes itself in something fuller and higher than the potentially degrading world of experience that we are in? (Yeah, there does seem to be an echo of the Neo-Platonic via negativa as the "upward way" here).

The upshot is that Anselm's argument is at once far shrewder and more limited than you're taking it for. Again, he is arguing from already within the faith and the function of his argument is supplementary and explicative. The argument appeals to *belief* in a conception without any strong separation of self/soul/conceiver from the world conceived. But, diagnostically, supplying additional premises to it depends precisely on the separation of "subject" from world. There is no question here of starting from scratch, from an allegedly presuppositionless presupposition, as with from Descartes through Hegel to Husserl. And there is the further problem that God is transcendent. God is obviously not an empirical object in the world, nor for that matter is "He" an object, an It, at all. (Whatever "He" might be conceived to be, perhaps it's that very excess over conception that's the point and at issue). So the "existence" of God is not a matter of specifying an existential quantification. Later Medieval Scholastics recognized the problem quite well: since God is transcendent, separate from the world, He can't be said to "exist" in the same sense as worldly beings. There is a difference in the two senses of existence/being, which can neither be proved, nor reduced. (They knew their business well, even if it's no longer our business. Eagleton caught the point well in his LRB review of Dawkins' latest screed, in saying that it is reasonable to say that God does not "exist" from a religious point-of-view, since he was educated as a poor boy by RC priests well enough to get clear of them and to pay them grudging respect. This was derided in some quarters as a howler, as if a crude contradiction, p or not-p, but, no, it was a recognition of a significant difference. As for Dawkins' theologically ignorant reduction of religion to "fairie tales": well, then so are all human desire, will, goodness or justice). It's that split level in human existence, which modern thinking would perceive in terms of the transcendental/empirical distinction and later reduce again, that's really at issue here, neither eliminable, nor resolvable.

So is Anselm's argument actually convincing? Well, neither you, nor I would be inclined to believe in a transcendent God, nor in any transcendent world-beyond-the-world. I won't presume to speak for others for whom it might have some residual appeal. But we all face an analogous "problem" in terms of how to dispose of ourselves and relate to the world and the others and other beings in it. The boundaries between sense and nonsense change historically from multiple sources and, needless to say, without meaning nothing can be either true or false, but would be simply senseless. Though the further problem is that the sense of true and false, dependent on the alteration of meaning, can not be entirely separated out, since the transformations of meaning constrain what is, is no longer, and will no longer be thinkable. But that awareness/understanding is the only real basis for trying to reconstruct the "arguments" of a tradition that inevitably weighs upon us, even as we fromatively try to escape it.

I don't know what you sought by instructing me to review your posts on the "mystery move", which, er, sounds Dennettish. Whether there is any strangeness, "mystery", or wonder in the world is neither an objective, nor a subjective, merely "aesthetic" matter. I suppose it all depends on how the world strikes one, the sources of which are unfathomable. And then it's a matter of how one "cuts" reality at its "joints", through which to articulate it, which is always a matter of decision, but never quite subjective, nor voluntary. But it's one of those philosophical nonaccidents that Wittgenstein ends up PI with a peculiar topic: "aspect blindness".

I hope that this provides you with those "missing premises" that I already thought I'd provided, however garrulously. Though, obviously, my premises are not the same as your premises.
Stephen Law said…
As you have now dropped the stuff about Anselm not offering an "apodictic proof", I take it you accept your mistake in supposing I simply assumed Anselm was offering such a proof. Good.

Now, you insist Anselm is offering a different argument, not the one I take him to be making. Fine. But back up your claim. In particular, show:

(i)Reasonable grounds for supposing Anselm is not offering the argument that I, and pretty much everyone else (including, it seems, even his contemporary Gaunilo), take him to be offering.

(ii) A clear statement of what the alternative argument is.

(iii)Reasonable grounds for supposing this alternative argument is in fact one Anselm is offering.

I cannot clearly identity in the several thousand words you have written either (i) or (iii).

As for (ii), I can't find that either. You conceded Anselm is offering an argument for the existence of God. But your previous blog presents the argument as one against the claim that God is something contingent and worldly. That's a different conclusion, isn't it? You can see how this could be confusing, can't you?

Certainly,though you think you have made the alternative argument plain, I am still scratching my head to figure out what it is.

Possibly, you are developing the argument by insisting that existence/perfection is not some arbitrary, bolt-on addition to the concept of God? Of course, this move is not uniquely medieval; it has been made countless times (in response to Gaunilo, in fact).

So help me out, John. Don't give up. Why not do this?:

Display the argument as a series of premises and a conclusion. Like I did. As clearly and concisely as you can (cut out all unnecessary words and digressions). I am genuinely interested to see it.
john c. halasz said…
Stephen Law:

Er, since you disregard most of what I've said in your obsession with formalizing the argument rather than understanding it, as if the first were prerequiite for the second, rather than the other way around, I'll just repeat that it's not an anccident that I brought up "aspect blindness" at the end of my last post.

But I've already made plain as the light of day from the get-go what I think Anselm's actual argument is, what it aims at, and how it works. GOD IS THAT THAN WHICH NO GREATER CAN BE CONCEIVED. That's it, the entire "argument". Now consider that as a riddle and try to solve it. Everything Anselm says after that amounts to comments trying to explicate his riddle-device, and are not the argument or "proof" itself. And again, Anselm explicitly states that he believes in order to understand and not vice versa and that the "function" of reason is to further understand and explicate the faith, such that the faith is pressuposed. You might as well regard that as the "major premise" of the whole argument, sine qua non. And the argument only purports or aims at giving a reason why one might (or perhaps should) *believe* in God as transcendent. It is not offering "proof" that a transcendent God necessarily and objectively "exists". It merely asks why the hell one would choose to believe in a transcendent being that does not "exist". Add in the "fact" that God, whatever He may be, is not an object or a thing and that, as transcendent, He would not "exist" in the same sense as worldly things exist, stretching a bit beyond Anselm, one could ask how and why would one prove that God objectively and necessarily "exists": isn't that just a category mistake, an attempt to derive the greater from the lesser? And that at least hints at how Anselm might have construed his own argument as working: again, to repeat myself, since you reduce or ignore what I say, as a kind of reductio/via negativa, whereby all finite, contingent, worldly beings that might be elected to the place of "greatest conceivable that" fall short individually and in sum total. That, at least, goes to the actual and express "function" of the argument as an explication/eludication of the faith, since faith in God enjoins rising above blind and idolatrous worldly things, in which one's own desires are at once subjected to and worshipped as the mythified forces of nature, and orienting one's desires and existence in the world toward God, by which one gains a clearer perception/conception of the things of this world and their truth, even if one still sees their intelligibility "through a glass darkly". And that might also provide the sense to the expression "necessary being", which is not just noncontingent being, but beyond all finite beings and their sum total, the transcendent "source" of being, which provides finite, worldly being, which indubutably exists, the "light" in which the manifestation of their intelligibilities might dimly be construed. The two further premises I offered were: existence in the world, since Anselm is not standing back and gazing in the world high and low, discerning a transcendent being on its horizon, attempting to prove its existence like the necessary properties of a geometrical object or the establishment of an empirical discovery. It's the circumambient experience of the empirical world, in which neither its nor one's own existence is ever in doubt, that forms the implied "stage-setting" of the "proof", (since, er, situated existence in the world is not just a modern idea). And, finally, the implied ontology of "perfection" not as a property of being, but as its fullest realization and "completion".

I have to go now, so I'm posting and will finish later.
john c. halasz said…
O.k. Back for more. So you wanted the premises enumerated into a nice tidy little package. Well, to repeat myself again, I'll just letter those premises:
A. Belief is prior to understanding, such that commitment to belief is required for understanding, and the purpose of reason/argument is to further the understanding of the faith.
Aa. Hence the only point of the argument is to offer a reason for believing in a transcendent God, and such belief already implies a belief in His "existence" as transcendent, since asserting such a belief and asserting the non-existence of what is believe in would be deemed a self-confuting or contradictory behavior.
B. The argument proposes a riddle to be solved and the solving of that riddle is the entire "argument".
C. The solving of the riddle implies a reductio/via negativa, whereby everything worldly and thus finite and contingent beings would be deemed to be insufficient for the place of "greatest that", up to and including the sum total of all such existents, both because one can always conceive a "greater" that exceeds such existents and because settling in at any such stage amounts to a submission to idolatry in the world, which thwarts and confutes the desire of a seeker after "truth".
Cc: "Necessary being" would refer to that which would cast "light" upon the world and allow for the discernment of the limited intelligibility of its finite, contingent existents.
D.The argument is made from the standpoint of the circumambient experience of existence in the empirical world, in which neither one's own, nor the world's existence is put into doubt, but draws on the experience of both the existence and the insufficiency of that world, hence the needfulness of a "path" beyond it, which is also itself a way-of-life in that world.
E) The argument apparently draws on an implied ontology, whereby "perfection" would not be an added predicate to existence, but simply the fullest possible realization of an existent. That would also be why the argument is not saying that existence itself is an added predicate to the "perfection" of a concept or that the concept of "perfection" itself enjoins existence. The argument does not, pace any "consensus" move from the "perfection" of the concept to the hypostatization of its existence, ("the amphiboly of the concepts of reflection"), but from existence to its realization in the concept of its "perfection", which just might involve,- hey, whad'ya know?,- the transcendence of worldly existence in the recognition of its "source".

So I've just repeated the previous paragraph in the above paragraph, just like I've made and repeated these same points in above posts. I fail to see what was so hard to grasp, or why I was being "unclear". But why no numbers? Well, would you try that approach to understanding Hegel, with his "dialectical" style of argument/exposition, ("Darstellung", literally, putting-there, letting the matter, "die Sache", show itself of itself from its own "movement"), wherein the argument is multi-track, handling several distinct "propositions" at once, such that their cross-implications and mutual modifications and interrelations need to be drawn out and taken account of? Good luck trying! In other words, there might be a bit of the same "dialectical", or, to try and translate, conjunctural, argumentation going on in Anselm, such that to try and abstract his argument out of its own context and framework,- (and, again, I think that is already a dubious "move", since, if you ignore the latter, you'd have no "controls" as to whether you'd gotten it "right"),- and press into into the form of a linear, consecutive set of inferences, then you might just be mistaking the whole, if limited, argument and its "point". I understand well enough what it is to read an "argument" and draw out its points and try and see how they might fit together. (We are not in grade school math class here, with one of those "story problems", whose pedagogical point is to try and get the pupils to distinguish the empirical from formal-mathematical, as well as, how to apply the formal to the empirical. We are not doing math at all, and trying to make a nice clean distinction between the formal and the empirical, or, worse yet, between the transcendental and the empirical, is bootless. The two always "contaminate" each other, which I would say is a "good" thing. But I don't need your pedantically condescending pedagogy, as if I don't know how to do math. If you want to do math rather than "philosophy", go ahead, but I'm not interested). But what you want to "know" is whether Anselm's argument is convincing, eh? Well, not to modern, differently situated atheists, like you or me, but at least we should see that the argument addresses "belief" and doesn't offer a "proof" in terms of logical, or worse yet, metaphysical, "necessity". But is the argument and its inferences formally valid? Well, that's hard to say, since the conclusion to which it "points" is itself open-ended. And that's probably the main "take-away" from the argument: that God would refer to a transcendent "being" at or beyond the horizon of worldly existence, which is the opening or opennness of "truth" in the world, through which the existence of that world might be seen as "otherwise". At least, that offers a minimal characterization of an otherwise impassible concept, which can be interpreted/analyzed "functionally" in claims/discourses in which it occurs. Which might be the only real point of attending to such "archaic" arguments. However, taken in its own context and framework, I think Anselm's argument can be recognized as passingly shrewd and even reasonable.

But let's take some scratches at its implied ontology, since that seems to be part of what you're missing. To do so, you'd have to strip away modern conceptions of the "subject", as conceiver and knower, separated from the objective world in which it exists and which it stands over against, ("Gegenstand"), (which is a "good" thing and should be done for other reasons, since it's itself riddled with errors). And one would even has to strip away the "clear" distinction of concept from object or thing, which I think only was clearly made with much later Scholastic nominalism, and which itself is problematic. (That's why you guys try to build up ever more elaborate formal apparatuses, to strip away the interferences of words and even concepts to get at and precisely specify the "things" themselves, eh? But, of course, I think that's self-defeating and useless or redundant, since the only way that "things" themselves can appear to us is through the uses of our words and concepts, or, at least, symbolic constructs. So rather than trying to "prove" or re-enforce, all too much like the legitimating function of the Scholastics themselves, the truths of science, beyond what science at any given time can offer or achieve, maybe your time would be better spent trying to tease out, elucidate and explain the knowledge-constitutive rules by which bodies of scientific knowledge actually operate, replacing a delusive epistemological problematic of the "certification" of knowledge, with one of translation, so as to provide for the communicability of knowledge, not only between the branches of the special sciences, but between the sciences and ordinary knowledge and experience of the world. But, oh well, that would require actually knowing something, besides "philosophy".) O.K. Are you done? 'Cause, yoo whoo, over here! Now thought/conception is no longer determinative of being/existence, but being precedes and exceeds thought/conception. And that's as it should be, even from the most "modern" point-of-view, since "being is always more being than consciousness", eh? So the "soul" is already participant in being and being/existence comes into thought/conception through its following out of the "movement" of being/existence itself, whereby the realization of being itself and its coming into thought/conception are conjoined. (To borrow another line, the scandal of philosophy is not that it can't "prove" the existence of the world, but that it ever feels the need to prove its existence). The realization of being/existence as its "perfection" can only be conceived here as its coming to its own conception, which is analogous to its coming to conception in thought. Ah, but what if being/existence exceeds its conception in thought? What if each and every conception of a finite being at once falls short of its participation of being as a whole and implies the separateness of being/existence from thought/conception? Does then the conjunction of being/existence with its thought/conception, by which the "perfection" of being/existence is its coming to realization in the manifestation of its own concept, fail and become diffused? Or does that very failure not tell against the limitations of thought/conception, and thereby point beyond the limitations of thought/conception to a "higher" and fuller realization of being/existence, which would be transcendent to this world and our ability to conceive it and its existents, but, by the same token, would preserve the holistic framework by which being is conceived through its realization and allow for our limited, finite conceptions of limited, finite things in their partial intelligibility. That, at any rate, would be my effort to reconstruct the implied ontology at issue, such that Anselm is not adding on "existence=perfection" as a predicate to the mere concept of God. God here resembles, in more modern terms, a "condition of possibility" of conception and predication. Which goes to Anselm's reply to Gaunilo, which you characterize as mere "puffery". To the contrary, Anselm is flustered by his failure to communicate the point of his argument, and far from the counter-example of "a perfect island" telling against the argument, he's wondering why it would be raised. Anselm thinks that Gaunilo is being pedantically obtuse and is making what amounts to a category mistake, which any learned monk properly drilled in the paradigm of quasi-Neo-Platonic, Augustinian thinking should know not to make, confusing a being with the being of being. So aside from his frustration that "puffery" probably boils down to monkly etiquette: how to respond to Gaunilo and save his point without saying that he's stupid.

So you ask how do I know that this is Anselm's argument. I don't, since it's neither my specialty, nor cup of tea. But your apparent appeal to the "authority" of consenus, (including Gaunilo), won't do. Do you think that texts have simply plain meanings and can be taken as read? Why? Because literal meaning is the primary form of meaning and because the primary function of meaning is representation? I take it that one attempts to read a text in terms of what it is attempting to do and how it might "function", and that appeals to authorial intentions, as the standard of interpretation, are useless, since that's just another interpretation derived from the reading of the text. (Besides, who "knows" what anyone in the 11th century "intended"; that's a hard enough question nowadays with respect to both oneself and others). So one attempts to "reconstruct" the text in as best a way as one can, even strengthening its implications beyond what can be explicitly found there, strenthening one's "opponent's" position and reflecting on the weaknesses of one's own position to attain the fullest possible understanding of the "Sache" at issue, since "understanding" is as much a matter of recognizing differences as identifying agreements. That's a matter of avoiding the "straw man fallacy", or, in another idiom, the principle of "hermeneutic charity". Is there really that consensus that you claim? (Kant was focusing on Leibniz-Wolf and probably had never heard of Anselm). Well, you might look up an essay on Anselm by one Cora Diamond, whose title I don't recall, since it's been a long while,- (ask around),- since she's a former British academic, though probably still in the U.S. and she's drawing her salary from the same racket that you are. Then you can argue with her. The battle of the books is endless, but not all of us are profiteering off of it. So, yeah, I am questioning what might be called your intellectual ethics, as shown forth in your abstractive/extractive style of reading. You want everything in nice little neat numbered points? That might be good for passing tests in school or Power Point, but little else. You want everything lined up in p's and q's so that you can knock them down again? That's a tautological exercise that has little to do with any genuine life, thinking, or inquiry. If you think that there's a "consensus" backing you up, maybe you should just read more widely outside your academic discipline: there's a reason why they can it a "discipline" after all.

Have I been "punching above my weight"? I don't think so, on the evidence of your replies. But you and I have already wasted enough of my time as it is, on a matter that doesn't concern me all that much.
john c. halasz said…
Oh. One last point. If you'd really want to get into Christian/ metaphysical conceptions about God, or the arguments of metaphysicalized Christian thinking, and how screwy it all is, you should go back Boethius, with his conception of God as an eternal present that sees and knows all times. But time involves changes/transformations of meanings and conditions, such that all time and times being gathered into an eternal present, which could be transparently "seen" and known, is, at least, humanly speaking, an incoherent notion.
Stephen Law said…
Apologies for not responding to everything in your comments, John. I only have so much time and so tend to focus on what seems most important.

The substantive matter at hand is your charge that I:

“…confuted the wrong argument, made a mistake, argued with a phantom”

I am, you claim,

"…criticizing and refuting an argument that Anselm didn't exactly make.”

Well, it would be awful if I had gotten Anselm wrong and had argued with a phantom. So I was interested to find out.

So I asked (i) what are your GROUNDS for claiming that the argument I (and pretty much everyone else, including even his contemporary, Gaunilo – it is undeniably the standard interpretation) attribute to Anselm is NOT Anselm’s argument.

I also asked (ii) what are your GROUNDS for thinking your argument IS Anselm’s.

Re (i) Your central case for saying the standard interpretation is wrong seems to be that I am insufficiently sensitive to the historical context (also, for some reason, you don’t like it when premises and conclusion are displayed vertically, as this is like “doing maths”)

But Gaunilo certainly WAS sensitive to the historical context, wasn’t he? He was actually a contemporary of Anselm’s. Anselm even rated Gaunilo as a critic. And yet Gaunilo interprets Anselm as I do. That supports my interpretation, right?

Also, thinkers far more expert than either you or I, who know Anselm’s work and also its historical context intimately, also interpret Anselm the way I do. It is, as I say, the standard interpretation.

So you argument based on my insensitivity to historical context seems a bit flimsy, does it not?

In fact, even if I personally happen to be a bit ignorant and insensitive re historical context (and I am), that wouldn’t actually be grounds for supposing the standard interpretation was wrong, would it?

And let’s not forget that if you read Anselm (have you?) he certainly does appear to be offering exactly the argument that Gaunilo, I, and pretty much everyone else discuss or criticise.

It doesn’t look anything remotely like what you say he’s saying, so far as I can see.

Re (ii) You say: “you ask how do I know that this is Anselm's argument. I don't, since it's neither my specialty, nor cup of tea.”

You DON’T know your argument is Anselm’s? It’s not your specialty?

But then I am slightly puzzled by your confidence that not just I (not, I admit, much of an expert) but pretty much everyone – experts and contemporaries included – have got Anselm’s argument wrong.

Let’s again remind ourselves what you said:

“…you confuted the wrong argument, made a mistake, argued with a phantom”

Strong claim. Is it justified?
Steelman said…
J.H. said: "GOD IS THAT THAN WHICH NO GREATER CAN BE CONCEIVED. That's it, the entire "argument". Now consider that as a riddle and try to solve it."

If I understand you correctly, you might agree that: Anselm's argument is in some ways akin to a Zen Koan. And that these riddles are of a nature that doesn't easily lend them (if at all) to the application of formal logic, so its a mistake to try to put them through that particular type of analytical grinder. Anselm was warning Christians away from the idolatry of objectifying a concept of God the way a Zen master might warn his pupils that his teaching is like a finger pointing at the moon (and not to mistake one for the other).
john c. halasz said…
Stepen Law:

1) Proofs and arguments, just like cognitions, explanations, discoverires, inventions, and the like are human practices or activities that occur in specific contexts with background assumptions that generate the frameworks, in which they have their point and applications. Do you agree or disagree?

2) Appealing to Gaunilo as "interpretant" is like appealing to Wagner to interpret Marx, since, hey, they were contemporary, such that Marx even bothered to compile some notes on Wagner's criticisms. But perhaps a better example, which would bring out my worries about formalization and its pitfalls, would be the neo-classical criticism of Marx' rendition of the LTV as incoherent, which began in the 1890's when Marx was already dead. There's what's called the "transformation problem" of converting labor values into actual production prices, by which exchanges occur and business decisions are made. Marx certainly recognized the problem, since there are sketches of partial "solutions" left in his papers, but he didn't bother to "solve" it. However, since the 1960's, there have been efforts to reconstruct Marx' economics in formal-rational and mathematical terms, and the results are now in, since 15 or 20 years ago, though there are still a few different versions with technical differences beyond my ken. The upshot is that Marx' LTV is at least a rationally coherent account, and that the neo-classical criticisms involved re-normalizing each production period as at equilibrium, which was a neo-classical assumption, whereas Marx did not make the same assumption, since the whole point of his argument was to track the long-run, cumulative disequilibrium tendencies of the operation of industrial capitalist economies,- (competition breeds monopoly and monopoly breeds competition, etc.). As a result, the neo-classicals were double-counting and attributing the error to Marx. It's hard to believe that their error was not motivated, partly by their need for a formalized mathemetical treatment of the matter, in which their tools "must" be made to work, no-matter-what, inspite of the underlying problem of conceptualizing the matter for providing the conditions of valid application, and partly out of implicit ideological defensiveness/criteria of "justification", which doesn't imply any personal malice, though it perhaps reacts to Marx' perceived "malice". The upshot here is that formalizations might be "good" or "bad", depending on how and for what they are applied and the underlying conceptualizations that they serve: formalizations can be either "clarifying", or, otherwise put, incisive, drawing out what otherwise might not be "perceived", or obfuscating.

2B. But why would you claim that that a liberal/academic "consensus" amounts to "justification"? Are you just imaginarily claiming strength through numbers? Or is it that the furious "power" of academic industry is supposed to grind down anything in its path? Whose consensus, by the way? Doesn't it occur to you that "tradition" is transmitted by uprooting its contents from its "original" contexts and recontextualizing them in different historical circumatances? Er, which develop their own "consensus", (see point 1). So, er, maybe understanding "tradition" involves stripping away the incrustations of the same to try and understand the "mediations" between past and present and "self"-awarely come to terms with what one is addressing in a re-contextualized present. Otherwise, why bother? Is the only "point" to re-confirm one's own prejudices? Or is the point to grasp what a retrieval of "tradition" might add to an understanding and criticism of the present?

3. You ask by what "authority" I'm so "confident" in my interpretations. Well, I'm not so "confident". Yeah, I've never read "Proslogion" and am relying on articles and essays that I have read, nor have I read up on early Medieval thought, nor Neo-Platonism, whether Plotonius or before or after. I've, of course, read Augustine's "Confessions" and read up a bit on him, since he's a major figure/transmission point of peculiar Western traditions as a whole, but, like most modernists, I tend to skip from Plato/Aristotle to plop down in the middle of the 17th century and move on from there. So I'm certainly not claiming any specialized "authority" on either Anselm, Neo-Platonism, whether prior to Plotonius, on the man himself or afterwards, nor on early Medieval thought. My only claim is to be offering a best account of Anselm's "actual" argument in the present tense, under the assumption that he is being reasonable and even passingly shrewd in his own context, with its assumptions, in which case he "knows his business". Even if I were wrong about Anselm, that best case scenario would still need to be addressed, if one wanted to dispose of the "problem". I've made a single argument throughout my screeds about what Anselm's argument "actually" is, and, inspite of my asides directed at more present implications or the effects on present "traditions", I've tried to articulate the tracks upon which that argument works, and how they might be brought together. I've felt sheer irritation when you've dismissed my points in terms of your own perogatives, trying to "drill" my account into your own terms, such that when I point out it's not a "proof", but merely a limited argument, you then ask whether it's still not an appeal to reasons, and when I point out that those reasons occur within the faith, and that part of the point of the argument is directed against "idolatry", you reduce the point to mere contingency, such that, "of course", it's supposed to prove "necessary being": I just think that you're refusing to consider the tracks or threads of the "actual" argument that I'm trying to bring together to explicate how that argument might actually "work" in its more or less limited context.

4.So then there's that problem of what I call "linear" and you call "vertigal",- (somewhat strangely, in my book),- argument. But you initially concluded your post by claiming that "Amselm's" argument/proof was circular. Ah, this is that old "concept containment" problem, innit? Are arguments- or judgments- analytic or synthetic, explicative or amplicative? Is circularity "vicious" or "virtuous"? How do arguments make a difference while making sense? It seems to me here that the use of argument is to draw out significant differences as a matter for thinking/reasoning and not to dispose of them in some "final" proof. It seems to me that we don't want to draw all such differences together into some final mataphysical unity of "reason", do we?

5. In my last posted screed I offered a speculative account of what the background of Neo-Platonic ontology might be like, (since, hey, I've never read up on it and have only encountered the topic indirectly in readings, so I'm just working from more "normal" sources like Aristotle and Hegel). My implicit point, aside from the homework that you would actually need to do,- (er, Cora Diamond and scholarship on early Medieval thought) -, was threefold: a. to explain why Anselm doesn't face the concept-hypostatization charge, since that's already taken care of in his background suppositions; b. to point out the aporetic "joint" of the putative Neo-Platonic account, whereby either finite being/knowledge is all there is and thus the account fails in its own terms or the very finitude of existents and their conception points beyond to a "transcendent" source, which conserves the account at the expense of its empirical reference; and c. to point out that the concept-hypostatization charge does not apply to Anselm's "actual" argument, but should be directed to its metaphysical background as a whole. I do think that Kant's basic criticism of "pre-critical" metaphysical ontology is right. But that shouldn't blind one to the elements of reasonableness in Anselm. Since he only aims to "justify" the reasonableness of a belief, the point that to believe in X, is "necessarily" to believe in its existence, while not 100% true, is true enough, and that's not a "proof" of the "existence" of what is believed, but just of a belief in existence. That doesn't get one to the claim that what is "necessarily" believed in is a "necessary existence", i.e. non-contingent. For that I think one would have to fall back on the implied ontology, whereby contingent existence is perceived as deficient, such that what should be "necessarily" believed in would be a "necessary existence". But then that whole conception of "necessary existence", humanly speaking, is deserving of examination.

6. So the whole vision of the world in which Anselm is operating is one in which all finite existents and conceptions point beyond themselves, through their own deficiencies, to their "source" in some sui generis "higher" being which is not empirically manifest. That's fairly standard issue for metaphysical thinking. But the upshot is a structure of signification/intelligibility in the world, which has long since been broken down and reorganized numerous times since then and is not our's. The modern vision of the world and its structures of signification/intelligibility can be summarized in the rather crude slogan "existence precedes essence", which itself is rather metaphysically retrograde, insofar as it's precisely the notion of "essence" that tends to get beaten into a bloody pulp. Still, anyone who fails to be puzzled by those issues of the relations between signification/intelligibility and existence is either scarcely thinking, or scarcely has a pulse. And anyone who abstracts those questions by means of concepts and theories from the issues and anxieties that surround and attach to them has abdicated the vocation that merits thinking.
Stephen Law said…
I certainly take steelman's point - very clearly made - that anselm would also have been keen to point out that if God is the greatest being conceivable, then God is not a worldly, contingent being, etc. Such a being is certainly not Odin or Zeus or another pagan god.

But of course this is not to say Anselm is not offering the argument normally attributed to him.

Certainly the standard interpretation of a philosopher does sometimes turn out to be wrong.

But I don't see that I have yet been given any good grounds for supposing Anselm is not offering the argument he appears to be.

It's a simple question: what is the case to back up John's accusation? John says he's providing it, but when we get to the crunch, I can only ever see irrelevancy, digression, jargon and pseudo-academic waffle.

John seems to think clarity is the mark of the unsophisticated.

In my experience, lack of clarity is usually due to confusion and lack of communicative skills. When peppered with jargon and pretentious-sounding references, it can sound impressive. Certainly, the person producing it may sincerely believe they have an important insight. They may succeed in impressing both themselves and others. But I have experienced too much of this sort of waffle not to be quite so easily impressed.

As John Searle once said. If you cannot explain it clearly, that's probably because you don't understand it yourself.

I would suggest that the fact that a professional philosopher of almost 20 years standing cannot fathom what John is on about half the time should at least give him pause for thought, particular before he implies that said philosopher must therefore be too dim and unsophisticated to get it.

There may be a point of genuine value in what John is saying (beyond the fairly obvious things we have already identified). But I just can't see it.

And of course I am not the only one. See comment on 15th March at:
john c. halasz said…

Thanks for that. Cool body armor, by the way! Non-objectifying thinking and its sources and relevance is part of what I'm trying to get at. But, of course, we're dealing with different religious traditions at different times and places here. But, IIRC, I did mention in a prior screed here that, if you're going to deal with religious thinking, you should try to understand its "grammar", and, in another screed, that religious expression is likely to be paradoxical, as a means of indirectly communicating its conflicted experiences. And that same or, at least, similar example of the ambiguity of the sign/gesture of the pointing finger occurs in Wittgenstein's PI, IIRC, from the get-go.
Stephen Law said…
Actually, to be fair to John, some of his less clear passages are at least suggestive. His use of the word "grammar" is peculiarly Wittgensteinian. Which got me thinking...

There is a sort of neo-Wittgenstein view about religion that it can only be properly assessed from the "inside", as it were. Science has its own standards of rationality and approaches; religion a quite different set of standards and approaches. It would be a mistake, claims the neo-Wittgensteinian, to try to assess religious claims and arguments from the point of view of e.g. science. To properly criticize, you need to "go native".

This sort of view is of course very attractive to religious folk concerned about Richard Dawkins' arguments, say. It provides a protective "buffer" between science and religion.

And of course it also appeals to those who like to see science taken down a peg or two.

It's a view. Whether or not it is true is something we should discuss in a main posting, I reckon. I'll get onto that shortly.

By the way, I'm not saying this is John H's view. Merely that some of the things he says are suggestive of it. It would sort of make sense of a few of the things he says, e.g. his insistence that my assessment of Anselm's argument is too "external" etc.
john c. halasz said…
Hey! Stephen. Why the hissy-fit? And the hysterical denunciations in which names will be named?

I'm guessing it has nothing to do with any deft parrying of "moves", such as "Gaunilo vs. Marx", nor any challenging of academic convention or consensus. Rather I think it might have to do with the sardonic metaphor of "essence beaten to a bloody pulp", which was a reference/allusion at once to Sartre, to the continued usage of the term, though differently, in Heidegger, to the pomo criticism of "essentialism", as a stereotype, without any consideration of its background or why it might have been considered meaningful, to the legitimate criticism of the concept, in terms of "family resemblances", and the like, and finally, to the complicity of "essence" in the murder of the Jews and further instances. (I come directly from a Hungarian Christian family from that time, such that I can not fail to miss the "point"). But there was absolutely no personal, ad hominen reference involved. If you want to denouce me for my habits of mind, or my multiple insistencies, or my lamentable prose style, so be it. But I will not be denounced in the "name" of I couldn't possibly know what I'm talking about.
Stephen Law said…
I still don't know what you're on about, John.

In fact it's getting even more obscure now. Almost like a parody...

Hmm. Maybe you're just pulling my leg? Surely no one could seriously spout this stuff in earnest?

You're a troll right? I claim my £5!

I must say that if you are a troll - you're good! You had me going for ages.

I'm guessing a Sokal-style hoax. See:
Steelman said…
SL: Did you just add that bit about Sokal to your last comment? I was posting exactly that when the page reloaded to preview my comment. Or maybe my eyes are so fatigued from reading John's voluminous posts that I overlooked it...
Stephen Law said…
Yes I just added the Sokal thought. I say troll.
Stephen Law said…
It's gone very quiet in here...
Steelman said…
The sound of one hand clapping can be very quiet indeed.

I find it hard to believe that Mr. Halasz has actually run out of words to torture.
Anonymous said…
Apologies: I'm fairly late here.

I wonder what your thoughts might be on "Devil Parodies" of Anselm's argument. I think the conventional wisdom is that Devil Parodies (viz., those which treat the "worst conceivable being") is that they're either innocuous (they only prove that the "worst conceivable being" can't exist), or else they're redundant (i.e., they present no challenge over and above Gaunilo's parody).

For what it's worth, I once argued otherwise at the Aristotelian Society.

At any rate, it might be worth noting the existence of such Devil Parodies, for completeness' sake.
As I point out in my paper, Devil Parodies tend to get "re-discovered" every 30 years or so.
Most recently, the topic arises in an exchange in "Mind" between Peter Millican (113 [2004]: 437-476) and Yujin Nagasawa's (forthcoming) discussion of Millican, available on YN's homepage.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Tim
any chance you can email your paper?

I am developing the God of Eth (evil God) as a paper so this stuff might well be relevant (see God of Eth link in sidebar).
Quietudinous said…
That was trolling par excellence! Highly entertaining.
Anonymous said…
I only have a BA in Philosophy, but I found Halasz's critique extremely lucid and incisive.
If you can conceive of something for which nothing greater can be conceived then you are God because only the greatest being could conceive of the greatest thing or being. If I can prove that I am not God, then I can prove that I cannot prove there is God. I think I can prove I am not God but I don't have time now. :-)

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Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o