Archive for April, 2011

Contra Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Refer to this if you wish to get acquainted with the basics of the argument.

A formulation of the argument by William Matson goes as follows:

1. Whatever is understood exists in the understanding
2. When the fool hears of the GCB [greatest conceivable being], he understand what he hears
3. Therefore something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived.
4. Suppose the GCB exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality;
5. which is greater.
6. Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very Being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived.
7. Obviously this is impossible.
8. Assuredly that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone.
9. There is no doubt that there exists a Being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality. (This is God.)

Essentially, the argument works in 3 general steps:
1. Anyone can conceive of a GCB
2. This GCB would have the property of existing beyond mere thought if it is to be a GCB
3. Therefore, this GCB exists beyond conception.

I’m going to specifically address the premises (4 and 5 are dependent premises and are the target at hand) that state that a thing/being that exists is a greater than one that exists only in conception.

Let us suppose that I conceive of a circle. If my conception is to reflect that of the abstract definition, I would conceive the circle as having an infinite number of points to be able to reflect its infinite number of sides, which would allow it to be a perfect representation of the abstract definition. While the circle is the greatest circle I can conceive of, it would be greater yet if it were to exist outside of conception. Am I warranted to jump to the conclusion that such a circle must exist outside of conception? I think not. An actual infinite could possibly lead to absurdities (such as Hilbert’s Hotel). Moreover, I would argue that in this case, the conception of a circle is greater than any possible representation of a circle in our world. What’s greater about a circle drawn on paper, for instance, if it fails to perfectly represent a circle?

The possibilities are: (1) the circle would be comprised of a finite amount of matter, in which case it would not be a perfect representation, (2) the circle would be comprised of an infinite amount of matter, in which case absurdities and paradoxes may come about due to the existence of an actual infinite, or (3), no such circle could exist outside of our conception. The circle cannot be perfect if it doesn’t have an infinite number of points to allow it to have an infinite number of sides. It would be perfect if it had access to an infinite amount of matter, but an actual infinite, let alone an infinite amount of matter, makes no sense given our current understanding of the world and the theoretical problems of actual infinites. I conclude that Anselm’s argument fails on the account of premise 4 and 5.

If you’re interested in reading further, here are some standard objections to Anselm’s argument.

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William James and Free Will

I’m not sure what to make of the arguments for free will in my philosophy book. The argument that William James makes doesn’t impress me much (which I summarize and interpret):

    We cannot, from events that have already occurred, conclude that they were determined. Given that the experience we have in everyday life (of what seems to be free will), we should conclude with indeterminism rather than determinism.

James states that in a world possibilities, there are genuine alternatives to events, whereas in the world of determinism, there could never be an alternative. I take it that the same conditions are assumed, from which I establish my criticism. If the conditions leading up to a certain event are unchanged, how could the event be any different? It seems that James, at most difficult point of the argument, appeals to common experience and states that because determinism cannot account for the lived experience of free will (in a way that he wishes, because determinism does account for it by referring to it as an illusion), we ought to accept indeterminism because we don’t have good reasons for accepting determinism.

Having sufficiently established free will for himself, James goes on to explain the utility of holding such a worldview (the common theme of deriving truth from utility, which I discussed in another topic). How does James deal with the implication that indeterminism potentially destroys any possibility for consistency in our world?* He doesn’t (at least, as far as the book is concerned — I hope a sufficiently complete summary of his argument is presented in the book so that I am critiquing something James hasn’t already addressed).

*Examples can come to mind, such as, in one instance, putting the keys into your car to initiate ignition starts the car’s engine, and in another instance, causes the car to spin like a top for no apparent reason (different outcome from the same conditions).

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