Analytic Theology

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Ontological Argument Redux

December 19th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: The Ontological Argument for the existence of God is one of philosophy’s most notorious puzzles. Personally, I am inclined to view it more as an artifact of middle-ages Scholasticism; perhaps there is something about the Latin language, or predicate calculus, or being shut up in a monastery, disposing one to such undertakings. As classically put by St. Anselm, the Ontological Argument goes something like this.

1. By definition, God is that which nothing greater (i.e., more perfect) can be conceived.

2. “Actual existence” is a necessary attribute of perfection. God can’t be imagined as not existing, since if so, we easily can imagine a better iteration of a God, who does exist. Anything “most” perfect, must exist.

3. God therefore exists.

I wholly am inclined to agree with Bertrand Russell’s analysis of the Ontological Argument, an adjunct to his theory of descriptions. Russell (following Kant) observed, “existence” is not an ascriptive predicate. Rather, to say something exists, is to affirm there are objects answering its description – instances of it can be found, by using empirical procedures, in the world. Conversely, to deny something exists, is to deny there are any such objects.

“Exists” therefore is the iteration, or instantiation, of a given concept. You’ll never be able to affirm God’s existence by speculating about his feature-set, or what his imaginary characteristics must be. The reason why is, no matter how much abstract thinking you do about it, you’ll never be able to cross the gulf from “idea” to “reality.” Rather, the question is – can a God with such a feature-set, actually be found, exemplified in reality, as a matter of experiential fact.

For a moment, though, let’s confine ourselves to Anselm’s assumptions and mode of discourse, the parameters of the exercise he undertook. One of God’s attributes, according to Anselm, is “actual existence.” Three others might be, “omniscience,” “omnipotence” and “omnibenevolence.” What’s missing from this list? Isn’t God’s most important attribute – at least, a monotheistic God’s, which is what we’re talking about – that there are no others?

Indeed, one of the main problems with the Ontological Argument is, it does not “necessarily” prove “God exists.” Rather, to the extent it proves anything, it is, any number of different Gods potentially could exist. That is, if {a, b, c, … n} necessarily comprise God’s ascriptive predicates, we can’t really say something with {a, b, c, … n} “necessarily” exists. Rather, we have to go looking around for it. We sure can say, though, what God isn’t, i.e., something lacking any one of {a, b, c, … n}. A God-candidate missing one of these elements, won’t be God. This doesn’t rule out, however, the possibility any number of different God-candidates possess the feature set {a, b, c, … n}. Which creates a real problem for a God who wants his Chosen People to believe only in Him.

Certainly this is what Yahweh meant when he told the assembled Hebrews, “You shall have no other gods before me,” Exodus 20:3. This literally was the very first thing he said, after introducing himself: “Hello, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” Exodus 20:2. You almost can imagine him adding, “Care for some water?” (as we know from Exodus 13:3, the people were getting rather thirsty at this point). Only after this, from Exodus 20:4 through Exodus 31:18, does God lay down a whole bunch of other proscriptions and requirements.

Consider also God’s situation when Moses first encounters him, after peregrinating about the countryside. At Exodus 3:2, God appears in the guise of a “flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” This is a very low-to-the-ground deity, indeed; but one of many Gods competing for the early Israelite’s attention and affection.

As summarized by Mark S. Smith in The Early History of God 7 (2d ed. 2002), “Israelite religion apparently included worship of Yahweh, El, Asherah, and Baal,” all Canaanite deities. Through parallel processes of “convergence” and “differentiation,” various attributes of these deities eventually became absorbed into Yahweh. Another writer, Jeffrey H. Tigay, states at You Shall Have No Other Gods – Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions 1 (1986): “Although monotheism is recognized as an innovation of the Israelites in the Biblical period, the dominant view among critical scholars has been that the Israelite populace as a whole was not monotheistic or even monolatrous in the time of the patriarchs or Moses, but only became monotheistic shortly before even after the fall of Judah.” Says another: “[S]ufficient artifactual material has been excavated from the regions of the two petty states of Israel and Judah to support the notion that the populace revered more than just the single deity that now is posited in the texts as the sole legitimate object of worship,” Handy, L, “The Appearance of Pantheon in Judah” in Edelman, D. (ed.), The Triumph of Elohim – From Yahwisms to Judaisms 27 (1996).

The existence of polytheism, and its derivability from the Ontological Argument, demonstrates no God is “necessary,” in the sense the Ontological Argument uses this concept. So, one might ask, why attempt to derive any kind of proof, insisting on this element, as a required component of God’s feature-set? What exactly is wrong with a “contingent” God, anyway? The God of Moses certainly didn’t make any claims he was the only one out there. Rather, his concern was to divert his People’s gaze from those other Gods, by insisting only he be worshipped (in and of itself implying, he wasn’t unique).

In this sense, I think we can point to Yahweh as a God who really wanted to do something about the Ontological Argument’s deficiencies, by insisting he was the only one out there, actually in-the-world (as manifested by the burning bush), whom the Israelites ought to worship.