the only easy day was yesterday

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Ontological Essay

I had to write an essay for philosophy class, this is one of them I've written and as it is currently relevant to what I'm putting on this site it seemed logical to post it. I'd appreciate it if anyone who reads this would read the essay and tell me where I'm not being clear and where it get's sloppy and all that...

The Ontological Argument is the oldest of the ‘classical arguments for the existence of the (Christian) God’, which attempts to prove God’s existence a priori. There are two prominent articulations of the Ontological Argument, the passionate and concise assertions of Saint Anselm in the 11th century, and the systematic approach of Rene Descartes in the 16th century.
The earlier version of this argument, belonging to the fore mentioned Saint Anselm of Canterbury, is the first intellectually acceptable proof for the existence of God since the rise of Christianity which seeks it’s task via an a priori and analytic approach to the idea of God, claiming that this idea necessitates God’s existence. Anselm’s first order of business is to determine a definition of God that will be supposed as the idea necessary to the understanding of God. Anselm identifies this idea as “that than which nothing greater can be thought”; by which he means the culmination of all human perceptions of goodness and justness. If we can imagine something being good, says Anselm, and something just, and something happy (and whatever other ‘good’ things one can think of), and imagine the ultimate and absolute forms of each of those things, and continue a step further by combining all those absolute good, perfect qualities into one idea, then we arrive at “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Almost.
Now, if something is to be that thing than which nothing greater can be thought, it must exist; consider the perfect pizza, I’m very hungry right now and I’d really like the perfect pizza, I can imagine it – sitting in my high-rise apartment on Lakeshore Drive with my deep dish pizza that – but it’s not nearly as good as actually eating a deep dish pizza in Chicago. So we can see that existence is better, or greater, in the language of Anselm, than not existing; or rather existence in the world is greater than existence only in understanding. Thus, we arrive, by analogy, back at “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, which, as we’ve established, has all the conceivable characteristics that we can ascribe to it such that it is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, except one thing. Existence. We have not yet specified its state of existence in the world. But, says Anselm, the idea dictates a priori and analytically (he does not use these actual terms), that is, without any further consideration beyond the thought and our definition of “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, that it does in fact exist. And it follows. If the idea is of “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” and existence in the world (among the other things we defined as being part of ‘goodness’) is greater than just the understanding of something, then “that than which nothing greater can be thought” must exist, and we call this being God.
At last, Anselm closes his argument with the assertion that by the definition of God we’ve described not only have we proved that he exists, but that he cannot be thought not to exist. Anselm need only apply the same rule again, with a little twist. If we can agree that “that than which nothing greater can be thought” can exist in the understanding of man (which he addresses, but it is of little importance to the overall health of the argument), then it cannot be said not to exist; for if, as we’ve established, “that than which nothing greater can exist” is said not to exist, still given that existence is greater than not-existence (or existence only in the understanding), it will prove a contradiction to the idea because the idea includes the property of existence, and if it is thought not to exist the idea becomes less than “that than which nothing greater can be thought” and becomes ‘that than which something greater can be thought,’ thus God cannot be thought not to exist.
Descartes form of the Ontological Argument is different in the explanation somewhat, but he arrives at the same conclusion, namely that God exists purely by definition, a priori. Descartes’ proof builds off of a long discourse on the deceptive nature of the world and his attempts to build a new a wholly knowable basis of knowledge for himself in his Meditations on First Philosophy. The most important idea gathered from the ‘meditations’ prior to his fifth, where he states his case for his Ontological Argument, is the way in which he determines that all of his clear and distinct perceptions can be taken as substantively true. He arrives at this conclusion through extensive discourses involving the rejection of everything as fictions and conclusion that through the knowledge of himself being a thinking thing, and everything which that entails, he eventually arrives at the assertion that everything he perceives as clearly and distinctly as he perceives himself as a thinking thing must, then be true, because of the nature of the truth of his knowledge of himself.
Descartes Ontological Argument goes as such (following his contrived assertion of the nature of the truth of his distinct perceptions): I have a distinct and clear perception of an idea of God and that idea necessitates that God exists, thus he must exist given the nature of my clear perception of this idea. At length this is to say, as he puts it slightly differently; I know that I am a thinking thing and that I exist as such, I have this clear and distinct idea that there is a supreme being, given that I am an imperfect (because he had been deceived throughout his life, a perfect being is theoretically incapable of being deceived) being I could not have come up with this idea of such perfection on my own, a perfect being, or God, must have put it in me, to be perfect, as a component of perfection (as Anselm also says), God must exist to be perfect, so God exists.
Since I have a better working knowledge of Anselm’s argument, and since the arguments are so similar in proposition and conclusion, I will address the objections to the Ontological Argument in terms of Anselm’s version.
The first objection comes from a monk named Gaunilo, and is regarded as negligible, and Anselm has quite a simple retort to it. Gaunilo’s objection is known as the “perfect island”. Gaunilo’s objection is known as a reductio ad absurdum objection, which means that he wants to make Anselm look silly, but he doesn’t do a very good job. Gaunilo say that according to Anselm’s argument he could make an argument that as long as he can ‘understand’ the idea of the perfection of something, it can exist. His example is the perfect island; he says that according to Anselm’s argument that he is justified in saying that since he understands what the perfect island consists of, and that existence is one of these qualities, that the perfect island must therefore exist. Anselm’s rebuttal is short and sweet, and really disposes of Gaunilo’s simple objections, all Anselm needs to say is that God, being “that than which nothing greater can exist”, is not a thing, it is not something defined in terms of a physical thing that can be extrapolated into absolute greatness. In essence Anselm is saying that “that than which nothing greater can be thought” is the thing than which nothing greater can be thought, it is the amalgamation of everything good and just and happy; it is the combination of everything great, and it must exist by it’s definition because existence is one of the components of being great, in that it is better than existence only in understanding. The island to Anselm, as a perfection, has only the components of perfection of an island and not the components of an absolute and perfect all encompassing being, which God is. In short, the island is particular, God is universal.
Getting on to more serious objections to Anselm’s Ontological Argument, we come to the 18th century philosopher David Hume. Hume did not only object to the a priori proof of the existence of God, but he claimed that nothing could be proved to exist a priori. His argument rests on his theory of the relation of ideas, as opposed to matters of fact. He proposed that all knowledge is known and learned through two operations of the human intellect, either the relation of ideas, which is the analytic relation of ideas to one another – the idea of bachelor is analytically related to the idea of unmarriedness, the predicate unmarried is included in the subject bachelor in the statement ‘all bachelors are unmarried’. For example, someone who does not know the word ‘appellation’ and learns it’s definition relates the idea of appellation to the idea of ‘a formal title’ such that when they hear the sentence ‘an appellation is a formal title’ they are aware of the redundant nature of the sentence and that ‘formal title’ is included in and non-ampliative of the subject.
Hume’s other side of his fork of understanding is called matters of fact, which he considers the a posteriori side of the fork. On one side is the a priori, analytic side, and on this side is the a posteriori, and synthetic. Hume calls synthetic propositions ampliative of their subject, that is to say, they add to the idea of the subject something that is not known itself in the idea of the subject. For example, the bachelor has a girlfriend; the idea of bachelor, according to the ideas we relate to it, says nothing about having a girlfriend, that this particular bachelor has a girlfriend is a synthetic judgment that is ampliative of the subject ‘the bachelor.’ This judgment about the bachelor is also made a posteriori, or after experience; Hume says, through examples like these that since we need experience to say that any particular bachelor has a girlfriend, or only has one leg, or likes to play the violin, don’t we need experience to make all synthetic judgments? How can we add anything to analytic concepts without a posteriori experience of the world? Thus Hume divides all knowledge into his fork of understanding: matters of fact and relation of ideas.
Now, back to the Ontological Argument. Hume’s rejection of Anselm comes as a simple application of his ideas on understanding. All he has to say is that existence is not a necessary property: just as one thing does not exist in one place at one time (or more extensively: if a certain thing does not exist in all places at all times then that certain thing can be thought not to exist), it can be thought not to exist at all, and thus we need experience of it and it’s property of existence to judge it as existing, this judgment being a poseteriori. Now, if as Hume says, we cannot judge the existence of something a priori because the property of existence is not included in the relation of ideas for anything until that thing is experienced in existence, and thus the other side of the fork towards which our understanding of the synthetic judgment of the existence of something steers is the a posteriori side. And given that it is the synthetic, and thus a poseteriori, or experiential, side of the fork that our knowledge of existence travels an argument for the existence of anything, God included is impossible.
But the argument is not complete, there are holes in Hume’s reasoning which Anselm may not have an answer to, but Immanuel Kant comes along and decides, in his mind, to clean up the mess that is philosophy and put an end to it. He obviously didn’t quite do that, but he was a clearly brilliant thinker. Kant comes into the picture after Hume is done and is ‘awoken from his dogmatic slumber’ by Hume, whom he promptly seeks to disprove in certain aspects.
So Kant gives Hume the respect he deserves for bringing a lot of what needed to be brought to light to light, but he knows what Hume got wrong. In the process of disproving Anselm, and saying that something cannot be proved to exist a priori, Hume takes that analogy as universal and aligns a priori (before experience) with analytic (true by definition), and a posteriori (after experience) with synthetic (ampliative of the subject), which Kant claims to be Hume’s biggest problem with many of his theories. In short, Kant says that Analytic things are always known a priori but says that Hume is wrong in that synthetic judgments can be a priori. He gives the example that we know that 7 + 5 = 12; we know this without experience, but when we look at this closer there is nothing directly within the idea of ‘7’, ‘5’, or the sings ‘+’ or ‘=’ on their own that denote the number 12, yet utilizing the signs together we can make an a priori and synthetic judgment about the statement 7 + 5 = 12, thus Kant concludes that a priori synthetic judgments are possible, and that this may have been one of Hume’s bigger mistakes.
Now, says Kant, it would be possible to prove a priori and synthetically that something exists through a relation of ideas such as Anselm suggests, but only if we can take existence itself to be a property, which he says we cannot. Synthetic judgments require that we add to the subject, and existence is not a quality which is ampliative of the subject, asserts Kant, he says that it adds nothing to the idea of what is being thought of. The idea simply dictates that it may or may not correspond to an object in the real world, the idea of existence as a property adds nothing, whereas a property is a synthetic judgment about an object: for example, this computer, if I say it is white, I add to the idea of the computer synthetically, if I say that this computer exists it adds nothing to your idea of this computer; whether it exists or not is irrelevant, the idea in your mind when you picture this computer is amplified by the predicate white, whereas the idea is not changed by the description of existence.
Kant is widely believed to have put the Ontological Argument to rest with his disposing of existence as a synthetically attributable property and a conceptual tool with which to assert the presence of God.


The W said...

im lost. i think this is something youll have to explain in person one day.

Jasper Yate said...

well explain where your lost, it's not gonna make you understand philosophy requires reading the actual texts over and over and then doing all that over, but this should provide an adequate outline, it's assigned as an essay to someone who doesn't know the topic, so you're a good person to tell me where I'm not being clear. The most helpful thing would be to tell me where I start getting lazy; the anselm, descartes, gaunilo, and hume should be pretty clear at base, but I reawlly simplify some of the hume and kant it's not done justice at all, but it's less important to the scheme of things. It certainly does require personal explanation, but as a summary I want for it to be not confusing...

The W said...

certainly descartes is a place you get lazy, and thats the one work youve mentioned that ive read (besides anslem). im going to read anselm a couple more times, then read your essay again. i get back at you sometime tomorrow.

wheres that quote on the top of the page from?

Jasper Yate said...

on the road, it's kerouac.

the problem with descartes, that i'll look at closer next time i go over the paper, is that his ontological argument is really dispersed throughout, it could probably be reduced to a page or two in the actual text, his meditations really are an attempt to provide a solid basis of metaphysics for the christian that comes off as honest and thus he tries to fool those who are easily won over by deceptive arguments that had previously been in doubt about the objectivity of christian intellectuals to the idea of god. since i write essays in one foul swoop (it's fitting that kerouac came up) when im presented with a problem that cant be solved in my mind while i write a paragraph, usually i just ignore the problem; with descartes i have to distinctly represent his process in arriving at his ontology which takes nearly all six meditations in a small amount of space, relatively. this is also tough because im not as well versed in descartes version, as i am in anselms, so the depth to which i can explain descartes is considerably less, which should be understandable, descartes is descartes for a reason.

as for hume and kant im comfortable that i could write 50 pages on each and my reader will still be clueless, i of course am still clueless i havent been alive as long as some people have spent dissecting the critique of pure reason. but ill probably just have to rewrite the whole thing from descartes on. i cant stand editing its such a pain in the ass.