Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.
Broseph, want to cover the ontological arguments? They’re clever, but I always feel like something’s a bit off with them. Keep it up, Brocrates. You should be a brofessional bro-it-all.
Sure thing, bro. The brontological argument is definitely the philosophical argument with the highest controversy/word ratio in history - Anselm’s, the original, clocks in at just 75 words in Latin, but holy shit do people love to argue about it.
So, here’s the breakdown of the original. God is the greatest bro we can think of, right? Well obviously He has to exist. I can think of a bro with all the qualities God has, and who also exists, and obviously it’s way better to exist than to be imaginary. So if God is the greatest bro we can think of, but he doesn’texist, I can think of a greater bro, and that shit is a contradiction. God can’t be the greatestand imaginary. So obviously, God has to exist.
The thing is, if this argument works, it only works for one being, and that’s the greatest being. Some bro named Gaunilonwrote a rebuttal in the form of a reductio that said, “Hey, imagine there’s a greatest imaginable island. But obviously a greatest imaginable island would exist, since an existing island is better than a non-existing island. Atlantis is real, bro!”
Anselm was, as you can imagine, not amused by these Antlantian shenanigans. He argued that no island fit his argument. For example, take the best fucking island you can imagine. Now add another foot of beaches. Now what if the island were alive and provided food to its inhabitants? 'But then it’s not an island.’ Are you sure? Ancient civilizations did indeed conceive of island gods and living lands - it’s conceivable that the island is divine, even - but Anselm’s god is even greater than island gods. The key to Anselm’s argument is that nothing greater than God can be imagined. Since God also has the property of being greater than everything else, you can’t imagine a second greatest conceivable being, bro. You’re just picturing God.
Well, Aquinas came along and said that we can’t actually conceive of God’s existence. Sure, we can conceive of God existing, but we can’t grasp his essence, which for a bunch of complicated reasons was also his existence. Consider this: even if we all agree that 'God’ names the greatest being, we all disagree over what that entails. Christians think He’s a Trinity; Muslims think He’s not a Trinity; Pastafarians think He is primarily noodles. So what, exactly, do we conceive of? And even if we do manage to agree on a list of properties, it just doesn’t follow that because we name something 'greatest fucking thing imaginable,’ it exists - our imaginations are imperfect, bro, and maybe they go farther than reality can - what about a square circle? I can imagine that, even if I can’t picture it; I can definitely imagine a God who can make a square circle, and a God who can actualize contradictions is definitely greater than a God who can’t. That doesn’t mean that God can actualize contradictions - Aquinas thinks He can’t, and almost every serious philosopher of religion agrees with him on that. Aquinas is the Ron Burgundy of the Middle Ages, and most people thought that he pretty much dealt with Anselm for good.
Descartes had his own version of the ontological argument which he hinted at in the third and developed more fully in the fifth Meditation - he said “Look, bro, I have this notion of a perfect being. Just because I don’t grasp the essence of that being, or see the fullness of its nature, doesn’t mean I don’t get the idea of perfection. God has all the perfections: He knows everything, He’s everywhere, He always flips the cup in one flip, He makes an incredible risotto, and He has existence. QED, bitches.”
Does that work? Well, Descartes just says, “I can think of a perfect being, and he would have the property of existing.” Bro, I can think of a Martian, and he would have the property of being from Mars. That doesn’t mean a Martian exists, just that if he did, he’d be from Mars. Sure, a perfect being entails existence, but he would have to exist first. So, Descartes is going in circles, or, as we philosophers like to call it, 'being a dick’.
Gottfried Leibniz had his own version of the ontological argument that depended on possibility instead ofconceivability. He completely avoided Aquinas’ objection about our failures to properly imagine God and said, “God is the greatest possible bro, and the greatest possible bro would exist.” So as long as God ispossible, God exists - and Leibniz saw no reason why God couldn’t exist. There’s a contradiction in a God who can make contradictions true, so that version of God is impossible, but a God with all the perfections doesn’t present any obvious contradictions, and we can’t assume contradictions where none show themselves.
Then Kant came along and put what a lot of people thought was the final nail in the coffin of the ontological argument, no matter what form you took it in: he said 'being’ isn’t a real property of things. “But Kant, obviously some things exist. How the fuck could 'being’ not be a real property of those things?” Kant responds something like this:
Bro, properties are things we can ascribe to things, right? So when I say, “My, that’s an attractive sister you have there, Descartes,” I’m ascribing the properties attractive, Descartes’ sister, and standing there to a thing. Some things are Descartes’ hot sister, and some things aren’t. But when I say something is, I’m not ascribing a real property to it; of course it exists. If it doesn’t exist, it can’t have properties to begin with. So when I say “Descartes’ hot sister exists” I’m not giving her the property of existence, I’m really saying “All those properties belong to one thing.” I’m saying something about the properties themselves - I’m saying “the properties of being Descartes’ sister and of being hot” are shared by a thing. So you can’t say “God exists because he has the property of existing” - all you’re really saying is, “The properties of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. are all had by a thing.” But that’s what you’re trying to prove, asshat. It doesn’t fly.
And that was pretty much the end of the ontological argument for a long fucking time. Recently, though, a bunch of bros have gotten around Kant’s objection by focusing on the property necessary existence, instead of existence itself. Even if existence isn’t a property, necessary existence probably is. These proofs take their cues from Leibniz, but use modal logic, the logic of necessity and possibility, which itself makes use of possible worlds - ways the world could be. It’s possible that Philosophy Bro could have been born in the 1800s; it’s necessary that he’s fucking awesome. It’s possible that Justin Bieber could have been a boy. It’s possible that OJ did kill those people. It’s even possible that the Earth could have never existed. These are all parts of possible worlds, though the 'worlds’ themselves are best understood as complete specifications of universes. Something is necessary if it is true in every possible world, andpossible if it is true in at least one world. Alvin Plantinga has the most famous modal ontological argument, and it runs something like this: “God would have the property of necessary existence if he exists. Now, He is possible, so He exists in at least one world - but if He exists in that world, he has the property of existing in every world. So God possibly necessarily exists, so he necessarily exists, so he exists. Problem?”
Obviously the controversial part of that is, “God possibly necessarily exists” - are we sure God is possible? How would we go about proving that? Leibniz assumed it was true because he we couldn’t prove that God was impossible, but can we prove that God possible? That’s a tall fucking order, one bunches of smart fucking dudes have failed to meet. “Imagine a possible world in which God exists” - yeah, asshole, but only if He’s possible. It begs the question in a difficult way to get around. “Imagine a world in which Goddoesn’t exist.” What does that world look like? How could you imagine a world in which an invisible, nonphysical being definitely doesn’t exist? You might be imagining a world in which He just hasn’t revealed Himself to anyone. You can’t just define God out of a possible world any more than you can define Himinto a possible world. Plantinga himself admits that he doesn’t successfully prove that God exists, but claims he does provide an argument for rationally believing in God if one believes that God is possible. Rational belief, way outside the boundaries of the Pride Lands for today. Sorry kids.
So there’s a brief overview of the history of the ontological arguments, bros. There are versions I didn’t cover - especially Godel’s - and formulations that I didn’t mention, but they all revolve around one idea - the idea that God must exist a priori, provable from reason alone.
Thomas Williams’ translation and commentary of Anselm’s original argument and the ensuing riposte with Gaunilo is available on Amazon: Proslogion, with the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm
Alvin Plantinga lays out his modal ontological argument, as well as a complete metaphysics of modal logic and his response to the Problem of Evil, in his seminal 1979 work The Nature of Necessity.