Thursday, 26 April 2007

Why I wouldn't have survived the Middle Ages

The scene: A hall at the Abbey of Bec, around 1080. A lecture is taking place. Presenting his ideas, the Abbot, later to be Saint Anselm of Canterbury.

Anselm: Let us contemplate that of which nothing greater can be conceived. Now, should this thing exist only in the intellect, it would not be that of which nothing greater can be conceived, since to exist in reality is greater than not to exist. It follows, then, that that of which nothing greater can be conceived must actually exist in reality. It is this which we call God.

Brother PiaTor, a rather lazy and smart-assed monk: But I can think of an Entity greater than your God.

Anselm: What? What is this you say, brother?

PiaTor: Well, it follows that your God cannot think of an entity greater than itself. All I must do is posit an Entity which has all the attributes of your God, but with one additional capability - It can conceive of a yet greater Being. It follows that my Entity, sharing in the attributes of your God, must also exist, and must be greater than your God.

Anslem: Hmmm.

PiaTor: Come to think of it, that greater Entity of which my Entity can conceive must also exist. Hey - we've just refuted monotheism. There's an infinite number of Gods, all all-perfect! This is - wait a minute! Put me down!

Anselm: We shall never speak of this again. Scribe, burn the record of the lesson.

Anonymous Brother: And the heretic, Lord Abbot?

Anselm: The rose garden is looking a bit under-nourished this season...

5 comments:

Dana said...

Sorry, but your logic is flawed; it is the same logic that wonders why God cannot create a rock so large that he can't move it. It sounds like a real quandry, but it's one based on a logical fallacy, a contradiction in terms in this case. Mathematically, it would be expressed as trying to add one to infinity, or divide by zero; the answer is undefinable.

Since Saint Anselm has gone to his reward, I shall assign you your penance. That will be ten Hail Marys -- in Latin, if you please.

Phoenician in a time of Romans said...

Work it through, Dana. Lay out precisely what the contradiction in terms is, and then contemplate what that means in context of a hypothesis of a "perfectly great" entity. It'll come to you.

Phoenician in a time of Romans said...

Okay, let's be explicit (I should attempt a bit of clarity).

The concept of a "perfectly great" entity, defined as that of which nothing greater can be conceived, is inherently a contradiction in terms. This is made explicit by considering that it cannot do what every other entity "less great" can do; namely conceive of an entity greater than itself.

We are therefore left with either concluding an infinite regress of Entities (which is why Brother PiaTor is currently plant-food), or concluding that the whole concept doesn't make sense in itself.

This is obvious when you you consider that "greatness" is a ranking quality, and not necessarily a reflection of a Platonic ideal. Consider an analogy to height - we can rank people by height, but a "perfectly tall" human being doesn't make sense. The most that can be said is that someone is the tallest person yet known.

The ontological argument for God is thus shown to make as much sense as the argument that first posits that everything needs a Creator, labels the Creator of the universe as "God", and then states God doesn't need a Creator. That's what happens when you confuse labels for reality.

Chester N. Scoville said...

This is made explicit by considering that it cannot do what every other entity "less great" can do; namely conceive of an entity greater than itself.

But, if there is, for the sake of argument, such a perfect entity, then conceiving of a still greater entity is a mistake. I'm not sure how the ability to make a mistake is a sign of greater perfection.

But there were, by the way, medieval writers who also thought that Anselm got it wrong, and for much the same reasons you go through.

Chester N. Scoville said...

...sorry, should have mentioned names: Gaulino and Aquinas both rejected the ontological argument.