My recent posts, relating to the “ontological argument” for the existence of God, have generated some thought-provoking discussion. The argument, at its core, claims to establish from reason that God must necessarily exist. Debated for a thousand years, it probably won’t be settled anytime soon, but spending time thinking about it can be a rewarding and interesting experience.
One of the main premises of the argument is that the mind can only conceive of “real” things. By "real," Anselm meant roughly "corresponding to reality." It's a pretty basic point, one which would be difficult to prove or refute, that the mind cannot come up with ideas of unreal things. Because the language is is subject to interpretation, the common response to this premise is that the mind can easily imagine many things that are not “real,” things such as unicorns or orcs or dragons. We can imagine, as one of the earliest challengers of this argument did, of a “perfect island.” But imagining something is just that – making believe that it’s real, when in fact it doesn't actually exist. How does that translate into proof?
As one recent challenger put it:
I think Anselm was correct that we can only “conceive” of real things in the sense that we lack the ability to generate completely novel ideas. I cannot create something out of nothing, so the ideas I generate essentially just shuffle existing information. So, as you pointed out with the unicorn, I’m still using “real” things to generate this idea, but I’m shuffling them in a way that doesn’t correspond with reality – therefore we call this “imagining”.
Again, the weakness of this argument lies in the difference between “conceiving” and “imagining”. Or, rather, the lack of a difference… Because the mental process is the same, it is only the result that is different. So, when Anselm states “I conceive of God as…”, it begs the question. Stating that we can only conceive of real things does not give one license to simply assign the label “conceive” to any mental process in order to bring about the object of that processes existence.
Does this challenge defeat the argument? Is there a difference – a difference that matters - between “conceiving” and “imagining”? Was Anselm onto something here, or was he engaging in circular reasoning, as the challenger insists? When I imagine a unicorn, I construct it from various pieces available to me. I may combine a horse of a particular color with the ability to fly and a horn not normally associated with a horse. These constituent parts are conceptual, not imaginary. I know what a horn is, and I know what flying is. Both are real and both correspond to nature. The only issue is whether a particular living being possesses either or both attribute. There is nothing incoherent about a horse having a horn, or of a living thing having the ability to fly. Perhaps no currently living being is so constituted – assuming I could know something of that kind with sufficient certainty. But even if I could scour the whole planet, I could not say that such a being never existed, or that it might not someday come into being.
Moving on, let’s now “imagine” now that I equip the unicorn with a voltage meter and a turbo charger. I just plug them in, one on each side. The voltage meter will allow me to keep track of the state of the batteries, to make sure they stay charged, while the turbo charger should give the unicorn a bit more speed. See the problem? While the horn may work, because some animals have them, and flying may work, because some life forms fly, living beings don’t have batteries to test or combustion engines to enhance. As I try to imagine this new creature, I realize – conceptually – that it simply won’t work. We know from experience and from the use of reason that mechanical gas engines are not living beings, and that living beings cannot be enhanced as if they were combustion engines. We can “imagine” any connection between the two that we want, but our “conception” of what it means to be a living being is different than what it means to be an internal combustion engine. The two cannot be merged, and they cannot be confused one for the other.
So, when Anselm “conceives” of God, he is not constructing a “creature” that he endows with particular traits or characteristics. He is not scribbling onto a page and calling the result "god." Instead, his mind is in “receiving” mode. He is not painting a picture of what “his” god would look like – some imaginary combination of traits for a fantastical tale - but seeing where reason leads him as he contemplates what "God" entails.
Contrary to the challenger’s assertion, a person is not free to assign the label “conceive” to any mental process in order to "bring about the existence of the object of that process." Doing so would be delusional or dishonest. No, the ontological relies on the good faith use of logic and reason to see where they lead. Anselm may have been wrong in his formulation of God as “that being a greater than which cannot be conceived,” but if so, the flaw must be pointed out. It is not enough simply to assert that this formulation of the concept is “Anselm’s definition,” and call it a day.