For those of us familiar with the ontological argument, we may also be familiar with Immanuel Kant’s “textbook critique” of the Anselmsian proof. To be clear, Kant’s criticism is two-fold: (1) A concept cannot be formed to guarantee its own instantiation (i.e., have an instance) in extra-mental reality. For instance, whether or not the idea of a supreme being corresponds to any reality outside the human mind cannot be settled a priori (as Anselm allegedly tried to do). (2) Although existence is a grammatical predicate, it differs from other predicates in that its logical function is not to add a further component to a concept.
The “textbook criticism” that I am referring to is (2) – the famous “existence is not a predicate” objection. This is a philosopher’s fancy way of saying that you can’t define something into existence. A common analogy used is the idea of having 100$ dollars in my pocket compared to actually having 100$ in my pocket. Surely the latter is greater, but that doesn’t mean that there actually exists 100$ in my pocket.
(I) The Ontological Flaw of Kant
I wanted share some thoughts given to me by my personal mentor (you can view his pagehere). Kant’s criticism is similar to Aquinas’ but with an important and different emphasis. Aquinas would have one concern with regard to God’s essence is his existence and vice versa. However, only God has this pure “esse.” The reason Kant’s criticism holds some weight is because we don’t know God directly, so we can’t know God through the linkage of essence and existence. However, God in Scripture still reveals Himself as such a being (e.g., “I AM who AM”). So, on some level Kant and criticism (2) is flawed. Specifically, not in an epistemological sense but ontologically in regard to God.
However, in regard to us and all created beings it is a legitimate objection as accidents exist only in the context of matter and differentiation of such matter (or, in the case of angels as differentiated essence with limited accident attributes; or even possibly as unique created essences much like Leibniz’s monads). Created matter is an instantiated essence and that essence will always have accidents. The absence of either on some level implies the absence of the other.
In other words, there can’t be a created material being that has an essence without accidents and vise versa save in definition and thought (e.g., one can conceive of a material essence separate from accidents but it couldn’t exist in an instantiated way without having accidents). For example, immaterial created beings can be essences without accidents (e.g., angels and disembodied souls) but they don’t exist in themselves and have boundaries of function (especially the disembodied souls).
(2) The Alleged Irrelevance of Kant
Though some philosophers have questioned the reply to Kant’s criticism by saying that is indeed still relevant (Heathwood 2010), I think there is some legitimacy to the “irrelevancy” critique. For instance, Descartes in his ontological argument would have said that the idea of a perfect being not existing in reality is inconsistent. However, Kant’s criticism would be helpful here because even if this were the case, that still doesn’t entail that such a being actually exists.
However, this criticism cannot be applied to Anselm. Suppose for example Anselm and Kant were conversing over dinner about the ontological argument and Kant adapted his criticism of Descartes to Anselm’s argument. If Kant were to say, “Your argument assumes that if the idea of an X that does not exist in reality is a self-contradictory idea, then an X exists in reality. But this assumption is wrong: the idea of a unicorn that does not exist in reality is self-contradictory, and no unicorns exist in reality.” Anselm may have very well agreed with Kant here (see Inwagen 2010, 360 on this), though this was not the route he was taking.
Consider Arthur Schopenhauer’s description of the ontological argument:
On some occasion or others someone exocogitates a conception, composed out of all sorts of predicates, among which, however he takes care to include the predicate actuality or existence, either openly or wrapped up for decency’s sake in some other predicate, such as perfection, immensity, or something of the kind (Plantinga 1990, 37).
It is charged that Anselm was going about a procedure of a similar kind. In other words, that he “started with some concept that has instances contingently if at all and then annexed existence to it” (ibid). However, suppose we were to frame the ontological argument in the following way:
- (1) God exists in the understanding but not in reality
- (2) Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone.
- (3) A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality can be conceived.
- (4) A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality is greater than God – from (1) and (2)
- (5) A being greater than God can be conceived (3), (4).
- (6) It is false that a being greater than God can be conceived – by definition of “God”
- (7) Hence it is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality – (1)-(6),reductio ad absurdum.
Is Kant’s or Schopenhauer’s treatment of the proof at all relevant to the above argument? The answer is no. Kant was not only unsuccessul in showing (a) that there are no existential propositions but also (b) the proposition “God exists” is not necessary. Hence, apart from whether or not Anselm’s argument is successful, Kant’s criticism does not hold.
(3) Geisler and the Missing Premise
It has been often charged that Anselm’s argument says something to the effect of, “Whatever is possible to conceive as existing must necessarily exist (in reality).” In other words, the proposition that “the rational is the real” would seem to be true. However, this isn’t the case. Anselm is rather saying something to the effect of, “What is necessary to conceive as existing must necessarily exist.” Our proposition could then be better stated as, “the rationally inescapable is the real.”
As it was once nicely put to me, the “rational” only guarantees the logically possible, while the “rationally inescapable” guarantees what is logically necessary. Now, the truth of “the rationally inescapable” won’t be addressed here, though there are some considerable treatments of it (Geisler 1973, Purdy 1982).
Geisler, Norman. “The Missing Premise in the Ontological Argument,” Religious Studies. 1973. 290.
Inwagen, Peter Van. “The Ontological Argument,” A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion. 2010. Wiley-Blackwell.
Plantinga, Alvin. God and Other Minds. 1990. Cornell University Press.
Purdy, Richard. “Norman Geisler’s Neo-Thomistc Apologetics,” Jets. 1982. 351-358.
The image used in this article was taken from cartoon artist Adrian T. Roman, “Drawn Theory” (http://drawntheory.tumblr.com/)