Whenever I discuss the ontological argument with my atheistic friends, I find that they always get hung up on the same word, “greater”. They want to infuse it with moral or aesthetic meaning, and so suspect that it is subjectively defined. They don’t think there is any objective way to determine that one thing is ontologically greater than another (a flea is no greater than a child and the fact that you would swat one and not the other is just based on speciesist opinions). Indeed, to fully explain what Anselm meant by the definition, we would have to develop the neo-platonic notion of the Great Chain of Being, which is far more central to the argument than most contemporary philosophers of religion realize. Nonetheless, that requires some metaphysical assumptions from which many atheists will shy away. I want to sidestep that whole discussion by using something other than “greater.” My proposal is to run the ontological argument on a “more actual” relation. I think you can still derive the traditional divine attributes from this term, but it doesn’t suffer from seeming subjective (what is more actual is an objective question). Nonetheless, understanding what is meant by “actual” will require some metaphysics. When discussing proofs for God, metaphysics is inescapable.
What do I mean by “more actual”? I am appealing to the distinction between act and potency in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense of the word. For Thomas, God is the only being that is purely actual. This is because God’s essence is His existence. God is “I am”. The distinction between act and potency is an important one in the history of philosophy. It is that distinction, which allowed Aristotle to provide a response to the Eleatics, who denied change. The Eleatics argued that change was impossible because it would have to involve being arising from non-being. Since nothing comes from nothing, change cannot arise from non-being. Instead, Aristotle said that change occurs when a potential is actualized. So, a seed can become a plant because it is potentially a plant. And it undergoes that change when it is acted upon by actual things like water, soil, heat, etc. We see change happen all around us, and it is rooted in the nature of things. For instance, I am potentially bald, a potential that I am slowly actualizing with every lost hair follicle. So, while act and potency are metaphysical concepts, they are fairly close to our commonsense. The log is potentially fire, smoke, and ash. The log is actually hard and damp.
An ontological argument that exploits the notion of actuality is a bit odd and perhaps shocking for my Thomistic friends. It is commonly thought that Thomas Aquinas did not accept the soundness of such arguments, a point that I am not going to discuss here. Nonetheless, I think the premises of such an argument could be defended. The argument would run like this:
1. God is that than which none more actual can be conceived (definition).
2. If God exists only in the mind, something more actual than God can be conceived (premise).
3. If something more actual than God can be conceived, something more actual than God can be conceived (tautology).
4. If something more actual than God can be conceived, something more actual than ‘that which none more actual can be conceived’ can be conceived (from 1 and 3).
5. Nothing more actual than ‘that which none more actual can be conceived’ can be conceived (premise).
6. Therefore, it is not the case that God exists only in the mind (from 2,4,5).
7. If it isn’t the case that something exists only in the mind, then it exists in reality (premise).
8. Therefore, God exists in reality (from 6 and 7).
Now, there are a few premises and a definition. The definition, I think, is fair. Aquinas takes great pains to show that whatever is pure actuality has the divine attributes. So a being than which none more actual can be conceived would be purely actual, and so simple, a se, necessary, immutable, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and good.
Furthermore, I think (2) is defensible. Generally that which exists merely as a conception is less actual, in some way, than its counterpart in reality. You can’t be cut by the thought of a knife. Also, (5) seems plausible. For if something more actual than ‘that than which none more actual can be conceived’, a contradiction arises. Lastly, all that is meant in (7) is that if something doesn’t just exist in the mind, that means it exists independently of our minds, which is to say that it exists in reality. I suspect someone might say that it is a false dichotomy to insist that if something doesn’t just exist in the mind, then it must exist in reality, but I can’t think of any alternative. And if an alternative could be found, I am sure the argument could be adjusted in the relevant ways.
One last note is to consider whether this argument is susceptible to parody. I think it is less susceptible. Consider Gaunilo’s island. Could we define an island than which none more actual can be conceived? Well, every island is a composite of act and potency by nature. So no island can be maximally or purely actual. One can admit that islands that exist in reality are more actual than islands that exist in the mind, but this does not mean that ‘an island than which none more actual can be conceived’ would necessarily exist, since there is no such thing. There are, at best, islands that are more actual than other islands, but that doesn’t lead to parody.
Here is an argument for Divine Simplicity inspired by this argument formulated by Alexander Pruss. In my argument, I define God as a maximally great being.
1. If God has parts, then either God has an actual infinity of parts or a finite amount of parts.
2. God has an infinity of parts only if there can be an actual infinity of concreta.
3. God has a finite amount of parts only if a finite amount of coconut trees on an island doesn’t prevent it from being a maximally great island.
4. An actual infinity of concreta is impossible.
5. An finite amount of coconut trees on an island prevents it from being a maximally great island.
6. Therefore, God has no parts.
1. This premise is essentially trivially true. It should be noted, though, that I take the claim that God has parts to be a real ontological claim about constituents that jointly compose the divine substance. That is, the denier of divine simplicity cannot fall back onto an anti-realist position about parts (that the parts of God are just ways we conceive of God’s essence) as that would be indistinguishable from the doctrine of divine simplicity.
2. Given that God is a concrete reality, the parts of God would be concrete realities. Hence an actual infinity of parts would be an actual infinity of concrete parts (not too controversial).
3. A common objection to Gaunilo’s lost island, one that I think is quite right, is that an island cannot be maximally great since it must have an finite amount of some constituent parts, e.g. coconut trees or, say, island beauties. But the addition of one more part would be greater, so finite parts are incompatible with maximal greatness. One might insist that the parts of God are not like trees or beauties. But why think that? Suppose you think, for instance, that God is three persons, but you deny that those persons are identical with God (as some theistic personalists are apt to do). Instead, you hold the view that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are parts of the Divine Substance. Why wouldn’t you be inclined to think that one more person would be greater? Perhaps you might have some argument about harmony to justify a particular finite set of person-parts, but it isn’t obvious that that sort of “aesthetic” judgment is objectively correct, or, if one is at all concerned with defending Christianity, that three persons achieves that harmony. Or, consider omnipresence. Does it entail that God is present in every spatial location? Some argue that omnipresence is entailed by omniscience, that God is present in all locations in so far as intellect is cognizant of those locations. But those who want to attribute parts to God want to say that God’s Intellect is a different part than, say, God’s will, love, power, etc. If so, it seems that only part of God is omnipresent, namely God’s intellect. But is all of God’s intellect cognizant of a location or only part of God’s intellect? Could more of God’s intellect be cognizant of a location? Could more of God’s parts be present in a given location? Could more locations add to the parts of God’s intellect? If so, it would seem that more parts of the intellect, more intellects, more wills, more love between more persons of the God-head would increase God’s greatness. But then a God with parts cannot be maximally great for the same reason an island, pizza, or human cannot be maximally great. A person who rejects divine simplicity, but holds that God has a finite amount of parts, needs to show that no addition of parts could make God greater. But prima facie, and absent any reason to think otherwise, I think it is reasonable to think that an addition to at least some of the finite sets of divine parts would make a non-simple god greater, which is to say that a maximally great non-simple God is impossible.
4. There are many arguments against an actual infinity of concreta. Consider, for example, Craig’s use of Hilbert’s Hotel and related paradoxes.
5. As mentioned in my defense of (3), there doesn’t seem to be a finite amount of coconut trees (or island beauties) that would be consistent with an island being maximally great. All else being equal, an island with 100 coconut trees seems to make an island greater than some island with 99 coconut trees. We might suppose then that, all else being equal, an island with n coconut trees is less great than an island with (n+1) coconut trees. Therefore, a maximally great island with finite parts is impossible. Given that all islands are necessarily finite, a maximally great island is a logical absurdity, which is why I think most parodies of the ontological argument are ineffectual. They depend upon substituting “God” with something that is implicitly a finite composite. Now, one might say that there are other reasons for why a maximally great island is impossible, e.g. such an island must be a contingent thing given its dependence on space and time. But surely the finitude of great-making island properties are among the reasons such an island cannot be.
I think (1)-(5) are defensible and true. Therefore, I think God has no parts, i.e. God is simple. QED
Consider Gaunilo’s refutation of Anselm’s ontological argument:
…[I]t is said that somewhere in the ocean is an island, which, because of the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of discovering what does not exist, is called the lost island. And they say that this island has an inestimable wealth of all manner of riches and delicacies in greater abundance than is told of the Islands of the Blest; and that having no owner or inhabitant, it is more excellent than all other countries, which are inhabited by mankind, in the abundance with which it is stored.
Now if some one should tell me that there is such an island, I should easily understand his words, in which there is no difficulty. But suppose that he went on to say, as if by a logical inference: “You can no longer doubt that this island which is more excellent than all lands exists somewhere, since you have no doubt that it is in your understanding. And since it is more excellent not to be in the understanding alone, but to exist both in the understanding and in reality, for this reason it must exist. For if it does not exist, any land which really exists will be more excellent than it; and so the island already understood by you to be more excellent will not be more excellent.”
If a man should try to prove to me by such reasoning that this island truly exists, and that its existence should no longer be doubted, either I should believe that he was jesting, or I know not which I ought to regard as the greater fool: myself, supposing that I should allow this proof; or him, if he should suppose that he had established with any certainty the existence of this island. For he ought to show first that the hypothetical excellence of this island exists as a real and indubitable fact, and in no wise as any unreal object, or one whose existence is uncertain, in my understanding” (Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, In Behalf of the Fool, 6).
To summarize, Gaunilo thinks that the ontological argument proves too much. We should expect to be able to demonstrate the existence of a superlative within any class or species of a thing. Not only would perfect islands exist, but perfect pineapples, perfect pencils, and perfect pizzas!
But Anselm is not without a response:
Now I promise confidently that if any man shall devise anything existing either in reality or in concept alone (except that than which a greater be conceived) to which he can adapt the sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him his lost island, not to be lost again
But it now appears that this being than which a greater is inconceivable cannot be conceived not to be, because it exists on so assured a ground of truth; for otherwise it would not exist at all.
Hence, if any one says that he conceives this being not to exist, I say that at the time when he conceives of this either he conceives of a being than which a greater is inconceivable, or he does not conceive at all. If he does not conceive, he does not conceive of the non-existence of that of which he does not conceive. But if he does conceive, he certainly conceives of a being which cannot be even conceived not to exist. For if it could be conceived not to exist, it could be conceived to have a beginning and an end. But this is impossible (Anselm’s Apologetic In Reply to Gaunilo’s Answer In Behalf of the Fool, 3).
Admittedly, it is not very clear how Anselm’s response undercuts Gaunilo’s parody objection— at least at first blush. The idea seems to be that whatever is “that than which a greater is inconceivable” cannot be thought to be contingent. But islands, at least normal islands, are contingent.
Someone might decide to bite the bullet and insist that she has conceived of a necessary island. Has she escaped Anselm’s criticism? Interestingly enough, it seems that Anselm is willing to concede that if such a person truly has followed his line of reasoning, then such an “island” is no longer lost, but is never to be lost again. Still, one might raise the question, “what kind of ‘island’ is it?”
The television show Lost offers an interesting perspective to this question. Lost was well-known for referencing a wide variety of philosophic themes. Many of the show’s characters are named after various philosophers, e.g. Locke, Rousseau, and Hume. Recently, I stumbled across a snippet from Lostopedia that I thought was very interesting. The author writes:
The underlying philosophy of the entire show is the 11th century discussion around what is called Anselm’s ontological argument for God and Gaunilo’s refutation using the “lost Island” argument… And for television, a truly greater island would be one that moved in space, or in time, or even thought for itself. In fact this fallacious argument can be extended to prove the existence of anything, like tropical polar bears (Lostopedia, Philosophers/Theories).
Upon reflection, I think the show proffers insights into how one might respond to Gaunilo. That is, if we start to imagine what kinds of attributes a perfect island should have, the island begins to look less and less like an island, and more and more like God. On the show, the island could cure John Locke and others, it had enormous power, it could travel through space and time, and seem to be self-aware and express intentionality. Towards the end of the series the island seemed to be anything but an island at all!
Suppose we are able to imagine an even greater island, one that not only travels through space and time, but somehow manages to transcend it. Perhaps this island would be morally perfect—the island on the TV certainly wasn’t. Would the island be pure actuality? Would it be omnipotent and omniscient, and omnipresent? At some point our greatest “island” just happens to have an ill-selected pseudonym. It would be more appropriate to consider it divine. And as we reflect on its nature, we’re no longer wondering how many coconuts, beautiful hula-girls, palm trees, or secluded beaches the island should have. When we reflect upon the phrase “that than which none greater can be conceived” we realize that it is a description that cannot be grafted onto just any other term. When attached to terms referencing contingent things, we’re either uttering nonsense, as we do when we speak of round-squares, or we are no longer talking about a contingent thing at all. If we loosen up the concept sufficiently to accommodate the Anselmian phrase, we’ve traded our initial concept for the divine concept. The very meaning of this phrase is that which blocks Anselm’s argument from proving too much.