The Necessity of God
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The Necessity of God

Ontological Claims Revisited

R. T. Allen

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eBook - ePub

The Necessity of God

Ontological Claims Revisited

R. T. Allen

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Every person acquires a worldview, a picture of reality. Within that picture, the existence of some things will be taken wholly for granted as the background to, and support of, everything else. Their existence will rarely be questioned. The cosmos or universe, the gods, God, Brahman, Heaven, the Absolute--R. T. Allen claims that all these and other world- views have been held to be that which necessarily exists and upon which all other beings depend in one way or another.European philosophers, since antiquity, have offered arguments to show that their chosen candidates for the role of the necessary being or beings that support the rest of reality do actually exist. The Necessity of God sets the valid core of previous ontological arguments. It does not and cannot prove that God exists, but only that something necessarily exists. In an a priori manner and without inferring anything from what in fact exists, Allen proceeds to show that which necessarily exists is one, transfinite, eternal, and the archetype of personal existence: in short, that it is God as classically conceived. As for everything else that may exist, it must be finite and dependent for its existence upon God as its creator and sustainer.Few things are more erroneous in philosophy and disastrous in practice than artificial constructions produced without constant reference to concrete reality. That which necessarily exists may be the one exception. Before this constructive argument, Allen examines previous examples of ontological arguments in order to show exactly where they go wrong and to extract the valid core obscured within them. This will make clear the difference between them and his new version. The reader who is eager to engage the philosophical sources of belief will find a distinct treasure in The Necessity of God.

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Previous Ontological Arguments for the Existence of God

1. Introduction

The likely reaction of most people when they first encounter an ontological argument for the existence of God is that it seems to pull a very big rabbit out of an obviously empty hat. Something must be wrong with it, but it seems difficult to pin down what it is. Precisely because a new version will be presented in the next chapter, the previous ones will be reviewed here in order to ascertain exactly where they do go wrong and to make clear how the revised version will differ. We shall consider only those criticisms which apply specifically to these arguments and not those which attack this whole way of thinking, the principal one of which is that the idea of necessity cannot apply to things but only to propositions. Thus, it may be allowed that “X is Y” can be legitimately said to be necessarily true, but one cannot legitimately say that X necessarily exists. I have nothing to say that has not been said elsewhere about such general criticisms,1 except to argue that it is impossible to perceive the world, to think about it and to act within it, without implicitly applying to it the categories or modalities of possibility, impossibility, and necessity. That is, we would suffer complete practical and mental paralysis if we could not implicitly or explicitly raise and try to answer such questions as: “What could happen next? Could this change? Could I do that or is it impossible? Must this always happen? Is it really necessary to do A in order to achieve B?”

2. St. Anselm’s Two Arguments

Because it was the first to be formulated and is commonly taken to be the ontological argument, we shall begin with Anselm’s first version of it.2 It is that we can form the intelligible idea of “that than which no greater can be conceived” (“the maximal being” as Hartshorne refers to it); that it cannot be thought only as an idea and not to exist in reality; for, if so, it could be conceived also to exist in reality, which would be greater than existing only in the understanding; hence, it must exist in reality as well.
The usual objection to it is that “existence is not predicate” because thinking of something as existing adds nothing to the mere idea of it. This is often taken to be Kant’s objection but Hume had already asserted that to “reflect on any thing simply, and to reflect on it as existent, are nothing different from each other. That idea, when conjoin’d with the idea of any object, makes no difference to it.”3 For example, unlike its design, weight, colour, and shape, the existence of one of Kant’s thaler coins is not one of its properties. Again, the face in a picture compiled by the police does not look any different when the witness says: “That’s him!” that is, when instead of being a picture of a possible person it is recognised as one of an actual person. Therefore “that than which no greater can be conceived,” God or Perfection, cannot have existence as one of their properties and, therefore, it is not self-contradictory to claim that they do not exist.
But Hartshorne, and Robert Flint before him, while conceding that existence as such is not a predicate, rightly asserted that the modality of existence is.4 It makes a great deal of difference to how we conceive of something when we place it in another existential modality; once we realise that a perpetual motion machine is impossible, we shall not waste any time by trying to construct one nor in investigating any claim to have invented one. Conversely, if we were to discover that something exists or happens necessarily, then we would give up any intention of removing or preventing it, or any hope or fear that it might disappear or not happen. Again, not having to exist is one of the properties of merely possible entities, such as ourselves, and so we take care to protect ourselves.
Moreover, despite having Kant’s authority behind it and being endlessly repeated, the claim that existence itself is not a predicate is false. True, it is not exactly the same as all or most other predicates, but the affirmation that something exists does make a difference to our idea of it. As for Hume’s argument, that is a paramount example of picture thinking; our ideas, in his and empiricist epistemology generally, are mental pictures. Hence our ideas, as mental images, will not change when we think of that of which they are the images as real or unreal, just as features in the face in the identikit or e-fit picture do not change when the witness exclaims, “That’s him!” But it makes a great deal of difference to the police’s idea of the person portrayed to know that he is real and not just someone imagined; they now have someone to look for, find, and question, whose movements they can hope to track, whose DNA they may be able to find and examine, etc. Similarly, when children learn that Father Christmas does not exist, they cease to write letters to him. Again, if Kant had discovered that he had, after all, a hundred thalers in his pocket, then he would have been able to spend or invest them. Take away the thought of something’s existence, and you take away the idea of interaction with it. To affirm that something exists is to affirm that its powers are actualised, and things are their powers, or at least what they are includes their powers: money that cannot be spent is not money; women who do not cast spells are not witches; atoms that cannot combine in the ratio of 2:1 with oxygen atoms to form water molecules are not hydrogen atoms.
This general objection is therefore no objection at all. Nevertheless, Anselm’s argument is not saved by its removal, as we shall see in a moment. Instead, the fault in Anselm’s argument lies elsewhere. In fact, there are two errors in his argument.
The first is Anselm’s assumption there is but one being other than which nothing greater can be conceived, and so he seeks to show that the one and only maximal being exists, rather than that maximal being is a category or modality which must be instantiated whether by one or a plurality of beings. It arises from conflating “not having any superior” with “being superior to everything else,” and thus by omitting the possibility of a plurality of maximal beings, each equal to the others and all superior to everything else. Anselm could answer that one who is greater than all would be greater than one who is merely one of the equally greatest, for he would be limited by his fellow. Descartes, Flint, and Hartshorne could have provided parallel arguments but did not probably because they aimed to prove the existence of God and, therefore, assumed the unity of maximal being instead of seeking to prove it.5
Anselm distinguishes “exists in the understanding” from “to understand that the object exists.” But the former conflates two distinct mental acts: merely thinking of (imagining) something and thinking of (imagining) it as existing. The content of this latter act is greater than that of the former one. For in it the object is thought of (imagined) as having its powers actualised: when I imagine that I have won several millions in the lottery, I imagine, not just a lot of zeros added to the total in my bank account but also, at least implicitly, the wonderful things which that sum would enable me to do. Hence in imagining that the maximal being exists, we imagine that its powers are actualised, and hence the content of this act is indeed greater—has more to it—than that of the former act of merely thinking of the maximal being. What Anselm needed to show, therefore, was that the content of “understanding [affirming] that the object exists” is greater again than that of the content of simply imagining it to exist. Yes, in this third act its powers are affirmed to be actualised and it becomes something that we need to take into account. But does that make the content of the idea of “maximal being” yet greater, so that not to affirm its existence would be a contradiction of the very idea? In what way could it be greater still? Surely the answer is by having additional powers, or the same powers to a greater degree, than when it is merely imagined as existing. But to affirm the existence of anything is not to add powers to it but to hold to be actualised the powers already contained in, or implied by, the idea of it. Hence the maximal being, attributed with such-and-such powers, both when simply thought of and also when imagined as existing, would have the very same powers but actualised when affirmed to exist. (Of course, if it does exist we may, as with anything else, learn that it has more powers than what we had already attributed to it and also possibly less.) It would not cease to be the idea of that than which no greater can be conceived when not affirmed to exist, that is, unless something very special is added to the idea or drawn out from it. And that again will bring us to the valid element in the argument.
In passing we may note that Kant may have had some inkling of this when he said that a hundred real thalers “do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible ones.”6 This is not the mistake that it is usually thought to be. His error was to interpret “greater” specifically to mean “greater in number,” whereas what he should have said is that Anselm’s argument entails that real thalers would have additional or greater powers than those merely imagined as existing, for example, that they would have the purchasing power of 110 thalers rather actually become 110 thalers.
In Ch. III of the Proslogium, Anselm adds necessary existence to the maximal being, and produces what is, in effect, his second argument. “It is possible,” writes Anselm, “to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist,” and the thought that it might not exist is therefore an “irreconcilable contradiction.” It would be a self-contradiction to say that a necessary being would not be greater than a merely possible being. But is it a self-contradiction to say that the idea of a necessarily existing maximal being need not have its counterpart in reality? It looks as if Anselm is defining the maximal being into existence and arguing that because necessary existence is part of its definition, as agreed, then it must exist. Why could we not say that RTA is a necessary being and therefore he must exist? Well, for one thing, there is no reason to say that—whereas necessary existence is of the essence of the maximal being, without it the maximal being would be just another being. Only in the case of the maximal being can we go, and indeed must go, straight from idea to reality, from conception to affirmation of existence.
The error in this argument is that the idea of the maximal being is really redundant. For the maximal being is now defined as that which alone exists necessarily, and its exclusive possession of necessary existence is what makes it the maximal being, and nothing else is being asserted of it. Consequently, by “maximal being” Anselm now means “that which, whatever else it may be, alone necessarily exists.” Therefore, what the argument proves is that necessary being exists and does so necessarily. This looks like the mere tautology that whatever is a necessary being necessarily exists—or that if X is a necessary being, then X necessarily exists. And that is the problem with this and the following versions of the ontological argument: they appear merely to define the maximal or perfect being or God into existence, or to end up with a mere tautology, or to do both.
But the true meaning of “necessary being necessarily exists” is very different and profound; it is that the category or modality of necessary being is necessarily instantiated and that therefore something (otherwise unspecified) does necessarily exist. That this something is singular and not plural is demonstrated, if at all, apart from and before or after the ontological argument itself. In other words, in the first steps of the argument itself “the maximal being” or “the perfect being” or “God” need to be taken as mere as ciphers for “necessary being” as meaning the “category or modality of necessary being” and nothing more, if the argument is to be valid.
We shall now quickly examine the later versions of Anselm’s second argument and show that they follow the same basic pattern and appear to oscillate between defining God into existence and proving a mere tautology while hiding the real and valid argument.

3. The Development of Anselm’s Second Argument: Descartes to Ward

In his Fifth Meditation, Descartes took up Anselm’s second line of thought and argued that the idea of existence cannot be separated from that of God as a supremely perfect being, and so God must exist. Likewise Leibniz argued that God, as supremely perfect, therefore necessarily exists. Robert Flint followed this pattern of argument; the idea of God is that of a perfect being; in turn, that is the idea of a necessarily existing one; and thus, without the affirmation of existence, the idea of God is merely “either the idea of nonentity, or the idea of an idea, and not the idea of a perfect being at all.”7
Hartshorne’s argument is a more detailed version of Descartes’ and, likewise, has two parts. The former is Hartshorne’s definition of God as (metaphysical) Perfection, which is in terms of his own panenthenism (God in some way containing the world but not being contained by it, depending upon a world but not upon any particular one, and surpassing previous states of himself as well as all other beings). I shall omit that complication and pass to the latter part, the formal proof. I shall now recast it from its symbolical form into English, and include Hartshorne’s own accompanying comments in brackets, with my own in square brackets:
Hartshorne’s formal proof:
  1. “There is a perfect being” entails “It is necessarily true that there is a perfect being.” (Perfection could not contingently exist: Anselm’s principle.)
  2. It is necessarily true that there is a perfect being or it is not necessarily true that there is a perfect being.
  3. “It is not necessa...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. Preface
  7. 1. Previous Ontological Arguments for the Existence of God
  8. 2. Something Must Exist
  9. 3. Further Attributes of Necessary Being
  10. 4. Impersonal or Personal?
  11. 5. The Relation of the Necessary God to a Merely Possible World
  12. 6. God as Necessary but Also Finite
  13. Epilogue: Review and Prospect
  14. Appendix: Hartshorne’s Dipolar Conception of God
  15. Bibliography
  16. Index
Stili delle citazioni per The Necessity of God

APA 6 Citation

Allen, R. (2017). The Necessity of God (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)

Chicago Citation

Allen, R. (2017) 2017. The Necessity of God. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Allen, R. (2017) The Necessity of God. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Allen, R. The Necessity of God. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.