Over the past few days, as Minneapolis was pancaked with snow, I discovered why in the nine centuries since Anselm so many, many able-minded people have spent so many, many hours noodling on the ontological argument: Because it’s FUN!
Really; try it. Conjuring up That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought (TTWNGCBT) in the room of your mind without relying on anything sloppy like scripture, doctrine, revelation, miracles, people, history, rabbis, even words. It’s like having sex with a robot. (Or so I imagine.)
Our old friend Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Godel, among a million others, tried some Anselm-polishing. (Details in Stanford’s awesome online Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
Hegel said in a lecture that he’d found a successful argument for the existence of God but didn’t say what it was. Doh! Suspicious. Like Fermat’s Last Theorem. Bertrand Russell supposedly said it’s easier to believe these arguments fail – that is, don’t prove anything about God – than to say exactly why.
One person who tried was – I’m afraid – Immanuel Kant. The mental King Kong of Konigsberg, Germany, took on Descartes directly (Anselm indirectly) in his “Critique of Pure Reason,” written at the same time as the US Constitution. Kant was no atheist, but he was a genius. Geniuses don’t like sloppy thinking, unless it is their own.
What Kant said feels right to me, a philosophical peanut. So what did he say?
Remember, Anselm claimed that if you defined God as TTWNGCBT, then you cannot say TTWNGCBT does NOT exist without contradicting yourself. Why? To exist is greater than not to exist and TTWNGCBT is TTWNGCBT. Ergo: It exists.
Kant disagreed. Near the end of the “Critique,” he makes four related objections. These are usually summarized: “Existence is not a predicate.” If you’re like me, that summary doesn’t help at all. What’s a “predicate”? Well, a predicate is a characteristic, or property, of a thing. Say the thing in question is, oh, I don’t know … God. Anselm said this God has a lot of predicates such as perfect goodness, perfect knowledge, incredible length and breadth, maximum power, etc. To these he simply added one more “predicate”: existence.
Kant said: Go slow, mein bro.
Kant said: Existence is not the same as those other things – it is not a predicate. To say something exists is to say something about the world, not about the thing. Existence is not just another characteristic piled onto a mental idea of something: it is a statement about whether or not there is something in the world with that name.
In other words, you can’t prove God exists without evidence from the world. You can’t prove It exists using only your mind.