The ontological argument as a critique of atheism

What gets called Anselm’s Ontological Argument starts as a critique of atheism, i.e. the whole argument is a response to Ps. 13 and 52: the fool said in his heart ‘there is no God’. So why not keep it as a critique of atheism? So taken, Anselm is only obliquely interested in proving “God exists” but is directly interested in showing that atheism is incoherent.

The bones of the argument are

Atheism requires thinking about God and judging he is non existent.

Thinking about God and judging he is non existent is impossible.

Atheism is impossible.

The first premise is a definition, so all the interesting work is happening in the other premise. As I’ve argued many times before, the Anselm is tacitly starting with chapter 7 of Augustine’s De doctrina, where Augustine claims that if you are thinking about X but can think of something better, then X is not God (call it Augustine’s axiom or AA). In other words, the argument starts with a criteria to sort out thoughts and determine whether they are not about God. There are interesting conceptual difficulties with AA (isn’t the thought of God plus chocolate better than just the thought about God?) and they need to be met with a robust sense of transcendence, but either leave them aside for the moment or limit yourself to considering just strata of being and not any putative merological sum.

By contraposition AA states that God is that than which nothing greater can be thought, but keep it in its original form. Anselm’s argument then becomes:

1.) AA

2.) Anyone who (supposedly) thinks about God as non-existent can think about something that would be better if it existed (namely, God as existent)

3.) Therefore, whoever thinks about God as non-existent is not thinking about God.

4.) But atheism requires thinking about God and thinking about him as non-existent.

5.) Therefore, atheism is impossible.

Notice the argument never leaves the head. We are simply asking whether we can conceptualize God as non-existent, and Anselm claims that this involves a fundamental incoherence that goes unnoticed by atheists. Better yet, since Anselm is as free to define his terms as any man, he can claim that what he means by God is something that makes atheism incoherent. If one defined God as “thinking” he could get the same result, but what makes Anselm’s argument so interesting is that he starts from an account of God that is far more plausible than claiming “God is thought”.

Notice that the Guanilo parody arguments seem to miss the point against the argument given here. Guanilo would have to replace “perfect island” for “God” in AA, but this only gives us an obvious falsehood.

So there might be more bite to the OA as a critique of the possibility of a certain kind of thought (namely, atheism) than as a proof for a being existing in the real world. That said, if atheism were impossible, then theism would be true, and if theism is true, God exists. That’s just how contradictories work.



-Even if one were praying solely out of his own self-interest he would still pray to our father or for us sinnersThe normal way of acquiring goods is getting them from those who already possess them, whether by gift or learning or seeing things modeled.

-One of Socrates’s central teachings is less often recognized than explicitly made.  While even the sophists could accept that the tyrant doesn’t do good things, Socrates insists on a claim, verging on the bizarre, that the tyrant is the least free of all men and never does what he wants. He makes it explicitly in Gorgias, he builds a whole city in defense of the claim in Republic, etc.

Suffering and the human person

-If there is a self, there is suffering.

Christianity = yes, and there are selves.

Buddhism = yes, but suffering can cease.

Modern World = No, selves will do away with suffering. There are two variants:

(Christian variant) God and the Church exist to humanize us, minimize suffering, and lead  all things lead to heaven

(Secular variant) the main task of reasoning and science is relief of man’s estate. We will humanize him, provide more goods, figure out the laws of nature and put them under our control. Humans do not need to wait for heaven to enjoy the life of a self without suffering.

-Humility is selflessness, so both Christianity and Buddhism involve fundamental selflessness. For the Buddha, the last obstacle to conquer is the comparison of oneself to others. For Christianity, one of the two ultimate goals of human life is to see persons as other selves.

-For Christianity, to deny the reality of the person is to deny God first. Personality exists in excelsis though unfathomably. Freedom and power exist without unactualized possibility, communion exists with absolute sufficiency of each self, the goodness of each person is equal to their community, and (most of all) origination exists without causality.

-The West has not lost the theological conviction that the self exists in excelsis. Our humanist atheism is unthinkable except as the substitution of man for God, i.e. placing humanity in the empty space of the God who does not exist, and who somehow kept humanity ignorant, violent, and without technology. That this substitution was even a possibility is something we learned from Christianity first, which consists in just this sort of man-God substitution.

-If the West lost this sense of personality in excelsis nothing in our present consciousness of the world would make sense.

-New atheism is the last mode of prophesy, perhaps even the last call to repentance. At bottom it is the horror that we would lose the ability to curse God, blame God, substitute humanity for him. We can only live in the hole left by the god who never existed. Sure, Dawkins is blaming christianity and Pinker is proving it is violent, backward, stultifying, irrational, but there is a critique of atheism-as-oblibiousness too since if we lose the sight of humanity as divine substitute then we will lose humanism too. For example, the central humanist value of compassion is based on an account of humanity as a species fundamentally willing and able to do away with suffering. Humanist compassion must see humanity’s motives as pure, its power and technological potency as unlimited, its knowledge of the true causes of things as having no fundamental limitation. Sure, Pinker would deny this if we put it so explicitly, but the denial could never enter into the structure of humanist compassion, since humanist compassion could never be, say, Mother Teresa’s compassion of solidarity in suffering and an acceptance of its redemptive power and our inability to meet it with some final solution. Saintly compassion is exactly the sort of misguided compassion that our technological and social engineering is already solving and will continue to solve.




Logic outside formal thought

Cognitive models are limited to capturing formal thought, and so any text of material logic can be turned into a catalogue of modalities of knowledge that cognitive models ignore. Take just the first eight chapters Posterior Analytics. 

1.) All discourse and learning is from previous knowledge. That is, all acts of reasoning develop previous insights.

2.) There are different orders of priority in knowledge and therefore in causality. This follows from knowledge = knowledge of causes. What is closest to sense is most known to us in a qualified sense what is most general is most known to us absolutely. Orders in causality map over this: causes closest to sense are causes in a qualified sense while those furthest from sense are causes absolutely.

3.) Some non-tautological knowledge is indemonstrable due to reasoning being superfluous. If some basic premise were tautological (A=A) then when we try to add anything to it we only end up saying the same thing twice, viz. “A is A, and B is A, therefore…B is A.” No knowledge can be developed from a tautology, but it is possible for arguments to develop knowledge, therefore there is some indemonstrable belief that is non-tautological. Definition must be something other than tautology.

4 and 5.) There is a difference between what is said of all, the per se, and the commensurately universal (or per se and first). This was the subject of AI = AS.

6.) Proof of conclusions is from mediated universality. A proof is from a middle term, named such from its universality being midway between the major and minor. This status as proof is a function of recognizing the more universal as more known. See #2.

7.) Discourse must be homogenous, whether properly or by subordination. The homogeneity of the science or discourse has to range over all possible predicates while still allowing for their discovery. Clearly a model of a genus as a predicate list does not allow for this.

8.) All demonstration is of the eternal, no demonstration of the corruptible as such. Formal structures cannot capture this. Some fruit fly or nano-secondly existing element is just as good a syllogism as God, triangles and the universe.

One can go on mining truths like this ad infinitum. If one wants truths of material logic closer to physical science, he can go diving in Topics, which is a much longer book than Posterior. 


Formal logic can’t distinguish between the per se and the per accidens, especially when the accidental is said of all. So velocity is both d/t and p/m, and whenever one has v, d/t or p/m he can always substitute any for the other, but universal substitutability doesn’t make any two things related per se. v is d/t per se and anything else per accidens.

Plato was the first to figure out that sophistry trades in the per accidens and he demonstrates again and again how it can trick even the wise. The distinction is Trasymachus’s undoing even though he proposes it first: if leadership is a skill then a leader never makes mistakes qua leader but he also never works for his own advantage, and he will always agree with the exercise of the skill that he finds in others as opposed to seeing to outdo them. The platonic project is defined in opposition to sophistry as the search for the “thing itself” (perseity) in its opposition to the accidental, even if (and perhaps especially when) the accidental is said of all and convertible with it.

But AI only goes as far as formal systems do, and so the anticipated “singularity” would be an intelligence that never distinguished the per se from the per accidens. At the summit of human-created intelligence we therefore get an artificial sophist. Not quite, however, since sophists only come from the ranks of those who know the accidental, which is a fog that the AI can neither fall under nor dispel.


Trinitarianism and the Gospel

Thesis: Every transitional event in the life of Christ begins with an explicit revelation of the Trinity.

The revelation of the trinity is therefore not simply in the Gospel but is structural to it.

Conception and Birth: the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

[W]hat is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…. you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins… All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23”The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”– which means, “God with us.”

Public Ministry: 

Which can be distinguished into (a) his baptism (b) his first sermons to his believers (c) his preaching of the kingdom after the death of John and (d) his journey to Jerusalem (this last also is a transition to his passion).

(a)  As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

(b) I take John as giving the chronological order of the events of Christ’s life, so the first sermon to believers in to Nicodemus:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7… 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

(c) Following John’s own confession that “He must increase, I must decrease” we get:

34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.

(d) After a messianic prophesy in Mt. 16: 24- 28 (and all Christians, following Ps. 110 and 2 and Daniel 7 take “messiah” as somehow equal to God or God born of God), we get the Transfiguration, which recapitulates the trinitarian theophany of the Baptism, this time with the Holy Spirit not as dove but as shakina or cloud:

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”


This begins with the Last Supper:

10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. 12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. 13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son…16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; 17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.


‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord”….21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.


[He] commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me.

For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.

When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?

And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

[And here we get a recapitulation of the Baptism and Transfiguration]

And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.


Post-mortem knowledge

STA’s arguments for the immortality of the human soul turn on the mode of knowledge and not its objects, and so it seems that any attempt to explain post-mortem experience has to start by vacating all objects of human knowledge. For Santayana this is a deal-breaker:

Perhaps it is not logically impossible that spirit should exist without body: but in that case how should spirit come upon any particular images, interests, or categories? If occupied with nothing, it would not be a conscious being; if occupied with everything that is possible, i.e. with the whole realm of essence at once, it would not be the consciousness of a living soul, having a particular moral destiny, but only hypostasis of intelligence, abstracted from all particular occasions. But can intelligence be abstracted from particular problems and from problems set by contingent facts?

Realms of Being, p. 565.

But to lose all objects of experience is not the same as to become oblivious to them: if Pac-Man left his two dimensional existence for our own then all substances he has ever known would be lost, since in our world two dimensionality is not a substance but a limit of substance. For all that, in his new perspective he would see in a single perspective what he before could only know from a moving, variable, and much more limited perspective that shifts over time.

In God a single thought suffices to capture everything in its distinction, while in us there is a distinct thought for every distinction in thought, and so just as a single three dimensional perspective suffices to capture all that is two-dimensional, the single divine perspective suffices to capture all that is divided in lower ones, and which the lower beings can only explore over time.  This is what STA means when he says that all thought is a participation in the divine light, and all things are seen within it. All knowledge causes unity because it makes a world, but from the perspective of divinity all these worlds are parts seen from a single, all encompassing perspective. To use STA’s idiom, all knowledge is a participation in divine knowledge.

An object is simply an intelligence in act, and so to posit actual intelligences without actual objects is a contradiction. To prove the existence of intelligence after death is to prove an object of thought after death. This object is in one sense just the material world, though it it no longer known from a perspective within that world. To think that this loss of perspective is a loss of object is ultimately to muddle the mode of knowing with the object of thought.



Consent and violation

  • In The Waste Land, a typist living alone in an apartment has a man over for dinner:
    He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
    A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
    One of the low on whom assurance sits
    As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
    The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
    The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
    Endeavours to engage her in caresses
    Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
    Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
    Exploring hands encounter no defence;
    His vanity requires no response,
    And makes a welcome of indifference…
    Bestows one final patronising kiss,
    And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .
    She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
    Hardly aware of her departed lover;
    Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
    “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
    There are three persons here: two in the story and the reader. The reader can’t miss that something wrong and perhaps even criminal has happened, but neither person in the story seems aware of the violation. The woman is resigned and in shock, and sees the act as something to be suffered though,  escaped, and left behind. The man leaves with a patronizing kiss, perhaps partly in remorse, partly in annoyance that she wasn’t more into it, partly in an attempt to control her feelings and turn everything that just happened into something loving and interpersonal. Or at least non-criminal.
    Most common law and statutory accounts of rape turn on consent, but when we try to discern this in the story we end up in aporias. If “consent” means the accused took reasonable steps to discern consent then it’s hard to see the act as anything other than rape, but if being “without consent” requires actively non-consenting or refusal then the description frustrates an attempt to characterize it as rape. These two definitions are difficult to cordon off from each other, however, and the dialectical push and pull between them makes me want contrary resolutions.
    On any account of consent some actions will be rape, but the number of them will be dwarfed by acts of sexual degradation and violation where consent is either problematic or irrelevant, especially in societies that maximize the domain of sexual activity. It seems like our conceptual apparatus is too crude to capture all these modes of violation – it is not clear that “rape culture” succeeds in being an adequate label, and “harassment” seems to be a good first step in describing a behavior but is clearly not adequate to describe what happened in the Waste Land. We seem to want a solution to all of this that will leave sexual freedom intact but it’s not clear what this is supposed to be. What do we want? New laws? Trial by media? Counteracting sexual exploitation and power with the fear of accusation? What exactly (or even roughly) is the standard of chastity-cum-justice that one must meet to produce a movie, perform stand-up comedy, or run for office?
  • Fiddling around with the insemination hypothesis

    Are traditional Christian sexual mores a result of seeing sex = insemination?

    The equality indicates only ability to substitute, not definition. Wherever one would once say sex, he has to be able to say insemination.

    What this might explain:

    1.) Sex is procreative. The substitution of “insemination is procreative” causes little controversy, since it’s equivalent (perhaps even identical to) “sowing is for growth and eventual reaping”.

    2.) Marriage is heterosexual. Marriage is consummated by insemination, and insemination is heterosexual. One can’t inseminate the gastrointestinal tract.

    3.) All non-inseminating acts of sexual climax are “acts against nature”. Here the “nature” means “definition”, i.e. it is contrary to the definition of insemination to think one could do it to the gastrointestinal tract, by oneself, in same-sex couplings, into latex bags, etc.

    4.) Artificial contraception is “against nature”. Here meaning “definition” again, but with a different account. Deliberately inseminating is contrary to deliberately attempting to rule out the possibility of it occurring.

    Where it might break down:

    1.) If sex is insemination it seems like it should be analyzed like sowing. But it would be a mistake (peccatum) to sow in midwinter. Sowing at times of infertility would be no less a mistake than to sow into a place that was infertile. This was Novak’s original critique of Catholic sexual ethics.

    The charge is the familiar one of biologism, though it is not at all clear how biology is leaving something out when we analyze sexual activity while biology leaves nothing out when we analyze cognitive activity. The disembodiment that leads us to see the body as a tool of a sexless spirit might not be always easy to distinguish from the view that sees the brain as only a tool for a separated soul. Materialism and dualism might be both picking and choosing in their own ways.



    An NFP post

    0.) NFP writing is driven by experience, and experience is always more variegated than any one act of writing can capture. Mrs.Darwin hits just the right note with “NFP has been, intermittently, a trial, a slog, a blessing, a lifeline, and just a thing that we do or don’t do, depending on necessity.” The list could be multiplied ad infinitum and, to make it even more difficult, any set of descriptions can be different dimensions of one and the same experience.

    1.) Some programs use fertility awareness as a supplement to artificial contraception, but I’m here understanding NFP as something morally opposed to artificial contraception (AC). It is not opposed to the goal of AC but to the means. Having sex while avoiding conception is an activity with no fixed moral status – it can be anything from virtuous to selfish, loving to exploitive. There is probably some interesting moral story to be told here and an interesting set of distinctions to be made, but I’m leaving them all aside. I’ll assume the goal is given as virtuous (though, again, this is only a possibility) and consider only the means.

    2.) AC is deliberately rendering any acts of intercourse infertile, whether through barriers, chemicals, surgeries, or any other means of art. Human beings have extensive experience doing this in morally unproblematic ways: we spay and neuter pets, geld horses, castrate farm animals, etc. Krueger National Park even controlled the elephant population with Norplant. This is morally unproblematic since the use of animals for our own enjoyment is unproblematic. By “use” I don’t mean merely that we can use animal functions or skills for our benefit but that they are subordinate to us in such a way that allows for their existence to be a matter of use. This is why if AC on these animals is either inefficient or undesirable we would just as soon control the species by killing off members. We don’t castrate male chicks since it’s easier just to dispose of them. We don’t geld bucks in the woods since its easier and more enjoyable to hunt them.

    3.) Here’s the syllogism:

    The existence of human animals is never subordinate to the use or enjoyment of other humans.

    The moral justification of AC requires that an animal’s existence be subordinate to human use or enjoyment.

    There is no moral justification for a human animal to use AC on a human animal (whether in the person of himself, or another)

    Both premises are variants of arguments from St.JPII, though my explanation is orthogonal to John Paul’s.

    4.) While other arguments against AC make it relevantly similar to other sorts of non-procreative sex, it’s more relevantly similar to cannibal-farms or suicide. We can’t farm persons for soilent green since the existence of a person can’t be ordered to the use and enjoyment of another. We can’t kill ourselves because our own existence is not entirely our own but is always possessed by others, whether partially by our loved ones or entirely by the divine.

    5.) AC is part of the larger project of making human existence existentially subordinate only to itself. Euthanasia and embryo farming would be other practices in the same line. But the general act of usurping divine prerogatives for ourselves describes a class of actions that is much broader and more ancient than our ability to effectively practice AC.




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