Thursday, January 21, 2016

Kant's Reply to Anselm's Ontological Argument

I'm teaching a philosophy of religion course this term and we're beginning with a discussion of Anselm's ontological argument. The IEP entry has a pretty clear statement of this argument:

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.
Kant famously objected to premise (3) and claimed that existence is not a "real or defining predicate." On his view, the concept of God cannot include existence. The upshot here seems to be that existence is not a "great-making property" because it's not really a property at all. According to Kant, what we do when we say something like "God exists" is to simply affirm that the entity described by the various properties belonging to the concept (omnipotence, moral perfection, creator of the universe, etc.) is actual or real. It's not as if we're ascribing to God some further property--i.e., the property of existence--on Kant's view.

Here's how Kant's main point is spelled out in the IEP entry:

"The idea here is that existence is very different from, say, the property of lovingness. A being that is loving is, other things being equal, better or greater than a being that is not. But it seems very strange to think that a loving being that exists is, other things being equal, better or greater than a loving being that doesn't exist. But to the extent that existence doesn't add to the greatness of a thing, the classic version of the ontological argument fails."

But is it true that existence doesn't add to the greatness of a thing? Consider two possible loving beings, one exists and the other does not. The real loving being could express its love and bring about various positive things in the world whereas the non-existent loving being is not able to do such things. It could be argued that the former is better--in some sense--than the latter precisely because it can do such things and this is due to the fact that it exists. It might then seem that existence is a great-making property after all.

I can think of a few objections to this move. Perhaps Kant might reply that it's not the property of existence which makes the former better, but rather it's the fact that the being engages in certain activities and that these activities have certain results. So it's not as if the former (qua loving being) is better than the latter (qua loving being). They're both the same on the "loving-being-front."

But I don't find this reply persuasive. With respect to lovingness we might say that the two beings are on par--they're both loving. But it still seems that when we compare the two beings and all of their properties taken together, the one which is actual is, in some sense, better than the one who isn't. I'd rather have the former as a friend. Imaginary friends, however loving, aren't as good to have as real, loving friends.

Of course, there's a lot to say about what we might mean by "better" here, but I'll save that for another day. For now, I wonder what you think about whether (a) existence is a property and (b) whether it's the sort of property which "adds to the greatness" of a thing or is a "great-making property."


Anonymous said...

I believe existence to be a property of a thing. What differentiates between me and the idea of me is that I exist. Without the property of existence I am merely a figure in someone’s imagination, I have no ability to affect and be affected by the world around me. Because of this I think that existence is a “greatness making property” since it gives one the ability to influence the world around it. If I am standing on a crowded subway after a long day, I can imagine the perfect chair and how comfortable it would be for me to sit on it in while I wait for my stop. Although I can clearly see all of the chairs properties this imaginary chair does not give me the same satisfaction or relief than if the actual chair existed and I had the actual capacity to sit on it. Existence changes a property from the imaginary to the physical. To me, this change marks a change in the list of properties as well. A chair that I can sit on is a tangible object whereas an imaginary chair lacks the property that is tangibility. In order for something to be real it must exist and be able to influence the world around it. If something doesn’t exist than the idea of realness comes into question. Therefore, if you were to say that existence is not a property of a thing than you would also be forced to agree that being real or not is also not properties, which seems, to me, to be incorrect. Existence and realness are both properties that are critical in determining how and if an object is reflected in the world.

bill harris said...

Anselm wasn't making an argument for the existence of god because this particular belief, in his own epoch, was a given. Rather, he was making various arguments for both the knowability of knowing god versus the impossibility of this--all within the same book!

Kant's point, while obviously valid, must be seen within the context of the polemic engaged with those of his own time, who pulled Anselm's 'ontology' out of its own context--ostensibly to serve a purpose for which it was not designed.

Doing so is what's called 'theology'.