Christianity and epistemic certainty

“I believe everything I believe is true”: It’s an equivocal assertion, obviously true in one sense while obviously foolish and hubristic in another. While talking it over with a group of students, I was struck by the way in which unraveling the two possible meanings of this statement brings us to the heart of the modern allergy to intellectual confidence, while throwing light on a common struggle within the church over what it means to be sure of our doctrine.

If by, “I believe everything I believe is true,” I merely mean that, given any individual belief which I hold at a particular moment, at that moment I believe that particular belief to be true and all other, contradictory beliefs therefore false, the proposition goes beyond truth to settle in the realm of the painfully obvious. When I say that I believe a particular proposition, if I do not mean that I think that proposition is in fact true and not false, then what exactly is the meaning of “believe” at all?

When I say, “I believe that guy is untrustworthy,” if I do not mean that I am convinced of the untrustworthiness of the presumably-duplicitous male in question, any and all known evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, then what else can I mean? Of course, this conviction may be only momentary. My declaration may elicit such a flood of testimony in defense of the character of the hypothetical object of our consideration that my opinion promptly changes and I am able to confidently declare, “I believe that guy is trustworthy.” But in both cases, for as long as I hold the particular belief, I believe it is true and all contradictory beliefs false. In this sense, the statement that “I believe everything I believe is true” is simply a tautology.

On the other hand, if we widen our focus from microscopic to telescopic, pulling back from our consideration of individual beliefs to look instead at the entire shifting and interconnected mass that makes up our belief system, the proposition that “I believe everything I believe is true” takes on a very different meaning. If I believe that I have achieved the Cartesian ideal of an epistemic structure so perfectly constructed as to ensure that every single component belief is in fact true, I am guilty of arrogance bordering on insanity. Obviously, I don’t know where I might be wrong (if I knew the particular belief which was wrong it would be much simpler, since the very act of acknowledging the falseness of a belief sends the prior error up in flames along with the belief itself), but surely even the most conservative gambler would be willing to stake all he had on the proposition that any given individual is wrong about something?

So we have an apparent contradiction: Viewed individually, it is insane to deny the truth of a particular belief, but, viewed collectively, it is insane to affirm the truth all of one’s beliefs.

This paradox leads to two common errors. The first is the error of the man who is so committed to avoiding the folly of universal certainty that he flies off in the other direction and winds up denying that he even believes that what he believes is true. His humility becomes nonsense and ends in incoherence (see “Higher Education, Postmodern”). The second error is that of the reactionary (often Christian) who is so eager to avoid the first error that he affirms–in fact if not in theory–the absolute truth of every iota of his belief system, resolutely ignoring the very real possibility that he might truly be wrong even about something of which he is wholly convinced. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”

As is its habit, Christianity doctrine manages to embrace the paradox without tumbling off into either extreme. In the Christian model of reality we discover a solid substratum of absolute, objective truth, imperfectly known by finite and fallen men. The late Richard Rorty had a point when he spoke of a “God’s-eye view,” and pointed out that men don’t have one. Of course, Rorty went too far in the other direction and concluded that it is therefore pointless to even pursue objective truth (a proposition which he proceeded to defend as actually true, thus validating Hume’s reluctant observation that it is “impossible for [a man] to persevere in total scepticism, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours”), but such a dispirited conclusion does not necessarily follow.

If reality is indeed designed, created, and governed by the Logos of which our intellect is a tiny droplet, it follows that we can know real truth, though the limitation of our minds and the corruption of the Fall should make us humble about asserting with certainty that we do know real truth. Even that which is explicitly revealed by our Creator may be imperfectly understood, as, for example, the Messianic prophecies were for hundreds of years. Like an apprentice painter copying the master’s work, we should always try for as much doctrinal accuracy as possible, and we can and should critique the work of other apprentices (while welcoming their critique of our own efforts), but the standard for such critique is the original artwork, not our copy. Even when our version appears to accurately represent the true model, we must remember that our eye is not sufficiently keen, nor our hand sufficiently skilled, to ensure that all the beauty and nuance of the master’s work is reflected in our own model. “For now we see in a mirror dimly… now I know in part.”

Thus Christian humility embraces the burly confidence that belief may be true, alongside the clear-eyed recognition that a belief may be false. The beliefs which I hold about worship style, church government, baptism, or predestination, I believe are true. And if you disagree, I believe you’re wrong (unless and until you convince me otherwise). But I must disagree with an awareness that we both see through a mirror dimly; that we both squint at a reality imperfectly understood, and neither of us has the right to claim perfect certainty until that day when we shall see face to face, knowing fully just as we also have been fully known.

Knowledge without proof

For nearly four hundred years, the central question of philosophy has been epistemological: Is it possible to know, and if so, how? Descartes struck the first blow, and almost the last, in his attempt to doubt his way to certainty. Though his effort satisfied himself, later thinkers ran into a small problem; like a man measuring a ruler against its own mirror image, Descartes’ rigorous deductions proved that human reason is trustworthy, as long as one trusts reason enough to rely upon it for the proof.

A brief burst of optimism in the possibility that knowledge could be stamped upon a blank mind by the external world withered under the realization that all knowledge of the external world must be mediated through the senses, the reliability of which is just as doubtable as that of reason, and just as incapable of verification. How can we evaluate the trustworthiness of our sense perceptions, other than by comparison against the perceptions of our senses?

And so four centuries of philosophy may be distilled into various permutations and developments of the first half of Descartes’ famous (and misquoted) maxim. “I think,” with emphasis to be placed upon the utter, singular insularity of the pronoun and the uncertainty of the verb. I, and I alone, think, and am not sure. If reason must be doubted, what can be trusted except the single fact that I am a thing, thinking about itself? If the senses are untrustworthy, what can I really know of any other things outside the thing that is me?

Various schools have dealt differently with the dilemma. Solipsism is perhaps the most honest response, accepting the situation at least theoretically. Existentialism offers the most emotionally satisfying solution, proposing by sheer will or luck to rebuild something from the wreckage of meaning – “something” being as specific as one can get. Pragmatism is cheerfully American in its practically impractical determination to ignore all such stuffy questions and concentrate on what works. (Leaving rather vague the question of how we are to judge what works, or what “working” would actually entail.) And postmodernism, at least in its philosophical dimensions, offers the oddest answer in its focus on closely studying and vigorously defending the correct understanding of whatever it is that it insists we cannot know.

All this from one simple assumption, that one cannot know what cannot be proven (in this case, the general reliability of reason and of the senses) — a proposition that provides perhaps the only common theme among all the disparate philosophies from the Enlightenment onward, even among those, like Kant, who appear to accept the possibility of innate knowledge. It is ironic that such an influential premise would be so obviously false as an absolute proposition, so questionable as a mere assumption, and so definitely contradicted by every evidence of human experience.

This epistemological assumption is found even in the definition of knowledge commonly used by those from more conservative philosophical climes, where the existence of such a thing as knowledge is still believed to be possible. Knowledge, so defined, consists of “justified true belief.” In other words: knowledge is belief which actually corresponds with reality and for which we have, as Plato writes, “an account of the reason why [we believe]” (Meno 98).

As a matter of pure logic, the proposition that it is impossible to know what cannot be proven is fatally flawed, for it cannot meet its own criteria; there is no way to prove that what cannot be proven is unknowable, and so the standard falls by its own hand. It might without contradiction actually be true, but the truer it is the less could its truth be known.

So we appear to be at an impasse. Logically, either truth can be known without proof or truth cannot be known without proof. It is impossible to prove the truth of either proposition (a fact which itself fits more comfortably with the former than with the latter opinion). Since neither can be proven, those who accept the latter view must do so on grounds of prejudice (in its most literal meaning) rather than knowledge. Yet prejudice is a powerful thing, and the former proposition in no way benefits by pointing out the lack of support for the latter, so the question is worth further consideration. If we cannot determine the truth of either possibility by direct examination, perhaps more light may be thrown on the issue by working in the other direction.

Let us assume, for the moment, that it is true that nothing can be known except what is provable. Proof comes through logic and reason, working from premise to conclusion. If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then I can prove that Socrates is mortal; but only if I do in fact know that all men are mortal and Socrates is a man. So proof must begin with knowledge, and knowledge is a necessary condition for proof. Thus it follows that either knowledge preexists proof, or else there is no proof and therefore no knowledge.

It is now possible to restate the dilemma advanced earlier: Either truth can be known without proof, or knowledge is impossible, and reason also (since reason depends upon knowledge of basic laws of thought).

It is important to note, again, that neither of these proposition can be proven, though both are logically possible and one must necessarily be true and the other false. (Unless in fact reason itself is untrustworthy, a point to which we will return shortly.) It is ironic that the foundational question of philosophy cannot, in one sense, be settled philosophically.

It is possible, however, to sketch the two camps. On the one hand, we have a reality which is quite literally unthinkable; a reality the very existence of which cannot be asserted without recourse to truth claims which cannot be meaningful if they are true; a reality in which even our own existence is unknowable (since unprovable). Our every instinct, our every thought, even the very arguments which may be advanced in support of such a reality, testify that in fact we do not and can not actually believe in it. To say that it exists is to deny it. Even to suggest it might exist on the basis of the evidence is to appeal to knowledge the existence of which is denied by our conclusion.

Now, such a theoretical reality does have one argumentative strength: it is irrefutable. Its fundamentally irrational nature strikes just as hard against attempts to demonstrate its impossibility (for it if is actual, then the reason I use to disprove its existence cannot be trusted) as against attempts to demonstration its actuality. But let us be clear about what it is: an unthinkable world, indefensible on its own terms, and without a shred of actual or possible evidence to speak in its defense.

The traditional argument against the existence of such a reality is to point out that it is prima facie indefensible. As Aristotle argues, he who denies the law of non-contradiction, tacitly affirms it by that very denial. Putting the point more broadly, the more convinced one is that knowledge is impossible, the more thoroughly one denies one’s own first principle. But perhaps this argument puts too much weight upon human cognition, and in so doing begs the question. Merely entertaining the possibility of a world utterly without knowledge and reason puts us so far beyond the threshold of human thought that no attempted refutation can survive.

So, I will repeat the concession that no chain of logic can drag away the possibility that all knowledge must be proven, and that therefore no knowledge is possible. If we give up the argument at this point, however, we have already conceded the central question. For, if not all knowledge must be proven, then logic is not the only source of truth.

Thus far I have spent little time defending the view that some knowledge is possible without proof, and no time at all clarifying what sorts of knowledge might be known without proof. Taking the latter first, I would suggest that the laws of reason, the basic reliability of the senses, and the existence of the self, at least, are known without proof. With slightly less certainty, I would also propose that the existence of other persons, the existence of God, and a rudimentary moral code are also known without proof; but my purpose here is not to provide an exhaustive list of innate knowledge (an uncertain task at best). So long as one item of knowledge is known without proof, the categorical proposition that nothing is known without proof is disproved.

The difficulty of defending such a position, of course, lies in the fact that the existence of knowledge that cannot be proven cannot be proven. In this case, the proof of the pudding is in the eating; and only in the eating. The skeptic may seize upon this fact as evidence against the possibility of innate knowledge, but it is worth remembering that proof is impossible for either side of the argument, a fact which is only problematic if we assume the premise that all knowledge must be proven. Absent that irrational prejudice, the actual cognitive experience of any normal human should be amply sufficient to convince him of the existence of innate knowledge.

In each case, we find ourselves treating the laws of reason, the basic reliability of the senses, and the existence of the self, at least, as being self-evidentially true, and most so when we are least aware of their operation. We do not experience them as matters of habit, instinct, or convenience, but rather as truths upon which only a sustained and focused operation of the will can cast the least doubt, and that only momentarily. It is worth noting that even so committed a theoretical skeptic as David Hume admitted that “it seems certain, that though a man, in a flush of humour, after intense reflection on the many contradictions and imperfections of human reason, may entirely renounce all belief and opinion, it is impossible for him to persevere in this total scepticism, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours.” We know, and we know that we know; though the knowledge is of a sort which cannot, by its nature, be proven.

In closing, a quick comment should be made upon the matter of definitions raised above. Having objected to the definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” the matter cannot be remedied by simply dispensing with the idea of justification to leave knowledge defined simply as “true belief.” Clearly, not all true beliefs can rightly be called knowledge. (It is almost certain that a few of the innumerable conspiracy theories now current are actually true, but that does not automatically bequeath the title of “knowledge” upon the proponents of those lucky few, despite the fact that their beliefs are in fact accidentally true.) Perhaps the solution is a subdivision of knowledge, somewhat along the lines of the medieval distinction between intellectus and ratio.

On love of self

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend on Facebook who posted a quote which said that self-protection ought to be avoided because it was a form of self-love, the assumption being that self-love is itself wrong. Of course, the point of the quote was simply to argue against a selfish fixation on our own wellbeing above that of others, but I disagreed with the premise that self-love is morally wrong. The discussion that followed made me decide to post something on the topic here as well.

We can certainly begin by acknowledging that self-love is at the root of a deadly collection of sins. Ever since the time of the Fall, when Adam sinned by desiring to raise himself to equality with God, no idol has been worshiped with greater fervor than man has lavished upon himself.

This leads rather naturally to the assumption that self-love is itself sinful. However, such an assumption is unjustified. The mere fact that a thing may be corrupted does not prove that it is bad. (Before the Fall, all of creation was corruptible but good.) The question, then, is whether self-love is inherently bad or becomes bad under certain circumstances.

One starting point for considering this question can be found in the fact that God loves himself, thus proving that not all self-love is wrong. Furthermore, God loves human beings, which means that humans ought to be loved. (Note that this is not the same as saying human beings deserve to be loved.) Jesus makes this explicit when he commands, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13).

Now, it would be logically possible for a human to be obliged to love all human beings except himself. However, if self-love is not inherently evil, as is proven by God’s self-love, and if humans qua humans are to be loved as a general principle, such a position would be hard to justify without explicit scriptural backing, which is lacking. In fact, when we turn to Scripture we find Christ suggesting the opposite when he commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (emphasis added). At first glance one might conclude this was merely a concession to the unavoidable fact of human self-love, but can anyone seriously argue that the One who commanded “Be ye perfect” would have shied away from declaring “You shall love your neighbor and not yourself,” if that were in fact the right course?

How, then, does self-love become sin? When we begin to love ourselves above our God or our neighbor. Returning to Mark 12, Jesus declares, “The foremost [commandment] is, ‘Hear O Israel! The Lord your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” God first, God most, always; our fellow man next, for he is created in God’s image. When this order is disrupted, and only then, self-love becomes sin.

Of course, leaving the theoretical for the practical, in our daily walk self-love does require constant control because it is so insistent on pride of place in our lives. Why not treat it as actually bad, since it is so inclined in that direction? Two reasons: First, because if in fact human beings ought to be loved, and if there is no scriptural exception for the particular human whom one happens to be, then failure to love oneself properly would actually be sin! Virtuous self-love dictates that we ought to always seek what is truly best for ourselves, provided always that it does not interfere with our duty to love God first and neighbor next.

Secondly, treating self-love as inherently sinful often leads to a dangerous misdirection of effort as we strive for virtue. When we believe that the existence of self-love stands between ourselves and God, we will naturally attempt to eradicate it. This leads to a difficult and ultimately harmful struggle to uproot a thing which is not actually bad; while at the same time, every ounce of effort devoted to this attack on self-love will not be devoted to our proper goal of seeking God’s grace to learn to love him and his human creation better.

Human freedom and divine sovereignty

I was recently listening to R.C. Sproul in an audio series on divine sovereignty when he made an argument which is rather common in such discussions, that total freedom for man and absolute sovereignty of God are mutually incompatible. If man is absolutely free, then God cannot be fully sovereign; if God is absolutely sovereign, man cannot be completely free. Sproul took the position that God’s sovereignty is absolute, while man’s freedom, though real, is limited and bounded by that sovereignty. He pointed out that the existence of “one maverick molecule,” that is, a single molecule which is truly free from divine control and capable of acting contrary to God’s will, creates at least the possibility that any or all of God’s plans might be undermined. Since God’s plans cannot be frustrated, nothing in creation can be absolutely free.

While I agree with Sproul’s point as regards his maverick molecule, in making his overall argument he is unclear on the meaning of “freedom” and thereby reaches a conclusion which is misleading at best. In fact, man may be absolutely free and God absolutely sovereign without contradiction, depending upon what is meant by the word freedom.

When we speak of human freedom, we can mean one of three things: freedom of action, volitional freedom, and freedom from obligation. Working in reverse order, freedom from obligation refers to a state in which there is no “ought,” nothing which a man should do, regardless of whether he actually does it. This is the sort of freedom demanded by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who declared that God cannot exist because “man is free, man is freedom,” and therefore there can be no “infinite and perfect consciousness,” for such a being would necessarily imply an objective Good that would have some claim upon man.

I introduce this sort of freedom first in order to dismiss it from the discussion, because Sproul, I, and any orthodox Christian would agree that man is not free from obligation; indeed, I would argue that such freedom is an ontological impossibility. It is the other two sorts of freedom which Sproul appears to conflate.

Freedom of action is the freedom to do whatever we please. Man does not have absolute freedom of action, and a moment’s reflection would suffice to convince even an atheist of this point. Sartre himself, apostle of freedom though he was, acknowledged that one’s circumstances are necessarily limiting. Even the freest man is not free to fly like a bird, breathe underwater, or exist in multiple locations at once. The world around us imposes multitudinous constrains upon our actions, most of which are so routine that we don’t even notice them.

As Christians, we would add God to the list of things which can constrain our freedom of action. The Red Sea blocked the Egyptian’s freedom of action and a sudden appetite for grass blocked Nebuchadnezzar’s, while a large hole in the ground effectively constrained that of Korah and his household. One could open practically any page of Scripture and find an example to support the point that our sovereign God, against whose will even Satan himself is powerless, can and does limit our freedom of action. If God could not constrain our freedom of action – or that of any would-be maverick molecules – he would indeed cease to be sovereign.

But there is a third and more morally significant kind of freedom: volitional freedom. This is the freedom to choose. When we speak of “free will,” we mean volitional freedom. It could be defined as the freedom to select from an array of options whichever one is most appealing to us at the moment of decision.

I said this freedom is more morally significant than the freedom to act, and that is because this freedom is the source of good and evil deeds. Our choices are the stuff of vice or virtue. Without choice a “bad” act is not sinful. This is why, for example, the church has always carefully distinguished between rape and adultery. On the other hand, a “good” act absent volition is not virtuous. If a man absentmindedly stumbles and knocks another out of the path of a falling brick his act was certainly convenient for the one who was saved, but it was hardly morally praiseworthy. Going all the way back in time to the Garden, Adam’s sin lay not in eating the fruit, but in choosing to eat it. Had Satan somehow compelled Adam to consume the forbidden fruit against his will, the Fall would not have occurred. The act of choosing matters. In fact, morally it is all that matters.

One may be volitionally free without possessing absolute freedom of action. Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi, were severely constrained in their freedom of action, but they could still choose to respond to their situation in whatever manner they chose. In fact, man is always and absolutely volitionally free. The choice, whatever it is, is always ours to make. This, not due to any inherent power on our part, but merely because the sovereign God has decreed it so. If we were not free, then God could not justly hold us guilty for our sin, because, as noted earlier, free choice is a necessary ingredient of sin. To quote Augustine, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”

How, then, does man’s volitional freedom coexist with divine sovereignty? Very easily. Remember that volitional freedom does not imply freedom of action. Our maverick molecule (or, perhaps, angel of light) may choose to rebel against God, but the actualization, circumstances, and fortunes of the actual rebellion are all controlled by God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Man may choose whatever he will, but God determines the result. As the old proverb reminds us,

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The omnipotent, omniscient God who holds in his hands all horseshoe nails, horseshoes, horses, riders, battles, and kingdoms is as little threatened by the freedom he has granted to his human creation as a doctor is troubled by the freedom of an infant to kick while being delivered. As Mordecai reminded Esther when she quailed at the thought of risking her life to save her people, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Her choice rested in her hands alone, but the ultimate end was not in doubt.

Absolute human freedom of action is indeed incompatible with divine sovereignty. But a blanket statement that human freedom is incompatible with the absolute sovereignty of God ignores the more morally significant freedom of volition, because it is in fact possible for man to be completely free to choose without compromising the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation.

Against the Ontological Argument (Updated 3/7/10)

“I began to ask myself whether there might be found a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists.”

Anselm of Canterbury’s 11th Century quest for a self-contained, self-sufficient argument for the existence of God led ultimately to what today is called the Ontological Argument, one of the most hotly-debated arguments among the many which aspire to prove God’s existence. An elegantly simple argument, it grounds itself in the very being of God, as its name suggests.

The Ontological Argument begins with a definition. “God” is a term with a particular meaning, whether or not one happens to believe a God actually exists. As a concept, “God” means “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived,” as Anselm writes in Proslogium. Even the atheist understands the term “God” as referring to a being of maximal excellence, such that nothing greater could possibly exist.

And yet, the atheist contradicts himself unawares, argues Anselm. For a being which is actual is greater than an otherwise-identical being which does not exist. Thus, if God does not exist, then it is possible to conceive a being [an actual God] which is greater than that than which nothing greater can be conceived. This creates a contradiction, which is impossible; ergo, God exists.

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. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, 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.

We could restate the argument, reworded for convenience’s sake, as follows:

1. “God” means “a being of maximal excellence.”

2. Existence of a being of maximal excellence is possible.

3. A being which actually exists is more excellent than a nonexistent being.

Kant famously challenged Anselm on this point, but if we are careful with our definitions this premise is actually true by definition. The argument becomes circular if we define “maximal excellence” in terms of what is best, because to declare something best one must possess a standard by which to judge. I can speak of the best car, or student, or man, because I have ideals of automotive, academic, and moral excellence, respectively. In the absence of a standard, comparison cannot yield judgment. The diligent student and the slacker are different, but without a standard (“Diligence is good”), saying one is better than the other is simply absurd. This is why a mixed-race society need not engender racism. So long as there is no idea of racial superiority (“Being white is better”), racial differences are no more significant than the color of one’s hair.

Returning to the question of “maximal excellence,” it seems we need a standard by which to declare existence a good (excellent) thing. As a Christian, I can meaningfully say that existence is good because God exists. (Just as love is good because God loves, and wisdom good because God is wise.) It is better to exist than not to exist because to exist is to be more like God, the standard from which existence draws its value.

However, within the context of the Ontological Argument existence cannot be declared excellent on those grounds, for doing so assumes the existence of God, which renders the argument circular. Yet, in the absence of God, what other standard can an atheistic universe offer? Why, in fact, is it better to exist than not to exist? This thing, A, exists; that thing, B, does not. Difference, yes. But is one better than the other? From what source could existence draw value in a reality that can only offer comparison without judgment?

Fortunately for the argument, this problem can be solved through a clarification of the meaning of “maximal excellence.” If we define maximal excellence ontologically, as the fullest possible possession of all positive attributes (i.e. maximal being), no judgment is necessary. “Best” requires judgment; “most,” mere comparison. If a being’s degree of excellence is simply its degree of being, then the proposition that maximal excellence includes existence becomes an analytic proposition that is true by definition, because its predicate (existence) is contained within its subject (maximal excellence).

4. If that being which is maximally excellent does not exist, then it would be possible for a being more excellent than that which is maximally excellent to exist. (If P, then Q)

5. Existence of a being more excellent than the maximally excellent being is contradictory and therefore impossible. (Not-Q)

6. Therefore, that being which is maximally excellent cannot not exist; i.e. God must exist. (Not-P)

I offered the succeeding elements of the argument so it could be observed it in its totality, but let us now return to (4). Putting aside the premise as a whole for the moment, consider the antecedent: “If that being which is maximally excellent does not exist…”

Now, if the analysis offered earlier is correct, a being which is maximally excellent, as defined in this argument, must exist. The proposition is either necessarily true or unprovable. But this means the antecedent “If that being which is maximally excellent does not exist…” is impossible. (Note that a return to Anselm’s precise wording, “If that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone,” does nothing to remove the impossibility.)

An impossible antecedent in a counterfactual conditional such as (4) renders the consequent vacuous; empty. Premise (5) cannot deny the consequent “then it would be possible for a being more excellent than that which is maximally excellent to exist” because there is nothing to deny. The law of noncontradiction is first of all a law of being; what cannot possibly be cannot be contradictory.

In the language of possible worlds, there is no possible world in which “that being which is maximally excellent does not exist,” and therefore no possible world in which “it would be possible for a being more excellent than that which is maximally excellent to exist.” There is therefore no possible world in which the contradiction proposed in (5), upon which the argument depends, might arise. And without the denial of (4)’s consequent in (5), the conclusion (6) is invalid.

The basic problem is that, if one assumes a maximally excellent being that does not exist, it is not a maximally excellent being, and therefore cannot generate the contradiction which Anslem is seeking. He attempts to avoid this dilemma by speaking of that than which nothing greater can be conceived existing “in the understanding alone,” as compared with existing in reality. However, what Anselm identifies “in the understanding” is not that than which nothing greater can be conceived, but the idea of that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

The idea of a thing, and the thing itself, are distinct and different. The fact that the idea of a maximally excellent being may (in fact must) exist only in the understanding does nothing to refute the fact that, by definition, a maximally excellent being that does not actually exist is not a maximally excellent being.

Once the confusion created by conflating an idea with its object is removed, as it is in (4), (5), and (6) above, Anselm’s version of the Ontological Argument fails because it cannot yield the contradiction upon which it depends.

The argument revised, but still flawed

This does not yet fully refute the Ontological Argument, though. We still have this necessary analytical truth: A being of maximal excellence must exist. Taken by itself, this proposition forms the basis for the Cartesian version of the Ontological Argument. In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes writes,

But, nevertheless, when I think of it more attentively, it appears that the existence can no more be separated from the essence of God, than the idea of a mountain from that of a valley, or the equality of its three angles to two right angles, from the essence of a rectilinear triangle; so that it is not less impossible to conceive a God, that is, a being supremely perfect, to whom existence is wanting, or who is devoid of a certain perfection, than to conceive a mountain without a valley.

Descartes observes further, “the mountain or valley, whether they do or do not exist, are inseparable from each other.” Likewise, “because I cannot conceive God unless as existing, it follows that existence is inseparable from him, and therefore that he really exists.”

In making a response it is important to start, as before, with careful definition. If by, “A being of maximal excellent must exist” we mean, “A being of maximal excellence actually does necessarily exist,” then we have our conclusion: God exists. For “God” is merely the name given the concept “a being of maximal excellence.”

However, this cannot be the true meaning of the proposition, “A being of maximal excellent must exist.” What is actually meant is, “If a being possesses maximal excellence, it must necessarily exist.” Which of course does nothing to prove God’s existence, though it does prove that an existent God would possess necessary rather than contingent being.

Maximal excellence is itself a predicate: we say that some substance or other possesses maximal excellence. The proposition, “A being of maximal excellence must exist” further predicates necessary existence of a being of maximal excellence. In other words, if a being possesses maximal excellence, then it will possess necessary being.

When Descartes says it is “impossible to conceive a God, that is, a being supremely perfect, to whom existence is wanting,” he is correctly observing that a being of maximal excellence would exist necessarily. However, the necessary existence is a condition of the maximal excellence, and cannot be predicated of the being itself unless maximal excellence can also be predicated. Descartes’ argument could be restated as follows:

1. If a being possesses maximal excellence, then it will necessarily exist.

2. God is a being possessing maximal excellence.

Again we must distinguish between idea and object. This premise cannot mean, “Our idea of God is that of a being possessing maximal excellence,” because that would in no way support the conclusion that follows.

3. Therefore, God necessarily exists.

If the conclusion (3) is to be true, both premises must be true. However, Descartes’ only evidence in support of (2) is his own conception of God. He has an idea of God as a being possessing maximal excellence; or, expressed differently, we call our idea of a being possessing maximal excellence “God.” The fact that Descartes (and I, and every man) has an idea of a being possessing maximal excellence does not itself prove the existence of that being, any more than the idea of a horse with a horn proves the existence of unicorns. Neither is it possible to offer (1) to prove (2), because (1) offers not one iota of evidence that some specific being – God – in fact possesses the maximal excellence which would entail necessary existence.

It is true that one might attempt to refine the argument by avoiding the specificity of “God”:

1. If a being possesses maximal excellence, then it will necessarily exist.

2. Existence of a being of maximal excellence is possible.

Unfortunately, this only yields the obvious and useless conclusion that existence of a necessarily existent being is possible. We already know God might exist, the question is whether he in fact does; and it seems the Ontological Argument cannot offer proof on that point.

There are many good reasons to believe in the existence of God. And the reasoning of the Ontological Argument does prove that once his existence as a maximally excellent being is assumed, we can be assured that he does exist necessarily. However, reasoning in the other direction, from maximal excellence to actual existence, appears to run into impassible difficulties, no matter which road we take.

[Note: This post is a significant revision of my original article, first published on March 3. My initial argument rested solely on the reasoning regarding judgment and comparison which I developed in my response to (3) of Anselm’s argument. Further reflection suggested that alone was a woefully inadequate counterargument, which precipitated the further thoughts outlined in this revised post. (3/7/10)]

From Worldview class: The definition of truth

This Friday’s Christian Worldview class featured a lengthy tangent over the definition of “truth,” which ended in a promise to pursue the matter further on this blog. After I had presented the classic correspondence theory of truth, a student objected that this definition “left God out of truth,” and proposed an alternative definition. Hopefully, my response here will help clarify an issue that I didn’t have time to fully address in class, and which I feel I didn’t really do justice to, as my brain was still not firing on all cylinders after a bad cold the day before. (My apologies to students who may have been confused by my attempts at explanation!)

The discussion began when I defined truth as “correspondence to reality.” An objection was made on the grounds noted above, and a counter-definition offered: “Truth is revealed by God through his word and his creation.” In this post, I will begin by explaining the correspondence theory of truth, consider the objections that were offered to it, then analyze the proposed counter-definition.

To begin with, it is important to clarify the point of the inquiry: What does the word “truth” mean? When I say a proposition is true, what am I actually saying about that proposition?

Quite simply, and intuitively, the correspondence theory of truth says that a statement is true if it corresponds to (accurately represents) reality. If I say, “God exists,” and God does in fact exist, then the statement is true. If I say, “I am typing on the computer right now,” and that is in fact what I am doing, then the statement is true. On the other hand, if I say, “George Bush is president of the United States,” then that is false, because in reality George Bush is not president. The statement does not correspond to reality.

It is impossible to think of an example of a true statement which does not correspond to reality, or a false statement that does, which is why the correspondence theory of truth has been accepted for millennia by thinkers both Christian and pagan. When I say, “This is true,” I mean, “This corresponds to reality.”


Yes, it does. But the definitions of “existence,” “intelligence,” “frog,” and most other concepts do too. There is no reason to shoehorn God into the definition of truth when I’m clearly not saying anything about God if I say, “It is true that I had pepperoni pizza tonight.” If I had pepperoni pizza tonight, then the statement is true, even if I am a pagan with no conception of God.


No he didn’t. Truth is not a created thing, for the simple reason that it isn’t a thing at all. It doesn’t exist in itself. It is a quality which may be predicated of certain propositions, much like “heavy” or “long” are qualities which may be predicated of certain bodies. God didn’t create “heavy.” You can’t find a heavy. It isn’t a thing; it’s merely a quality possessed by one thing (a rock, perhaps) as perceived by another thing (some intelligent being). If there were no bodies, there could be no “heavy.”

Similarly, “truth” is a quality possessed by a proposition, if the proposition accurately represents reality. If I say, “I have brown eyes,” and I do have brown eyes, then we say my statement is true. “Truth” is merely a way to say that the proposition accurately portrays reality; it is not itself a thing. If there were no propositions, there would be no truth.


This was the most substantive critique offered, but it is based on a misunderstanding of the definition of truth, reading “correspondence to reality” as “correspondence to my perception of reality.” (The latter being, interestingly, more-or-less the definition of truth offered by the coherence theory of truth, which is the basis for relativism.) However, the whole point of the correspondence theory of truth is to emphasize that truth can only be truth if it corresponds to reality itself. It is anything but subjective, for it depends entirely on the objective: What is the thing itself? If every man in the world believes the earth is flat, and it is fact round, then they are all collectively wrong, for their perceptions do not correspond to reality.

Now, the separate issue can be raised, “How do we know what reality is?” Well, that can be difficult! Men are often wrong, and often about very important matters. That fact notwithstanding, to blame the definition of truth for our failure to always reach it is rather like blaming a target for our poor marksmanship… And merely selecting a new target is unlikely to improve our aim! (And in some cases, the “new target” will actually make things worse, which leads me to the alternative definition mentioned at the start of this post, since I am not merely arguing that the correspondence theory of truth is correct, but also that the counter-definition which was offered is not an acceptable standard of truth.)


My student’s primary objection to the correspondence theory of truth was that it did not directly involve God. In response, he offered the following definition: “Truth is revealed by God through his word and his creation.” There are several problems with this definition. (Note that these are problems with the fundamental ideas being expressed, not merely nitpicking objections to the specific wording.)

The first and primary problem is that this definition of “truth” simply doesn’t fit the word itself. While one cannot come up with a proposition that is true which does not correspond with reality, there are plenty of propositions that are true without being revealed in either Scripture or creation: “I like football.” “Barack Obama is president of the United States.” “Roses are red.”

When I say, “It is true that I had pepperoni pizza tonight,” I mean, “In reality, I had pepperoni pizza tonight.” Not, “God revealed through his word and his creation that I had pepperoni pizza tonight.” When I talk about something being “true,” I am depending on the correspondence theory of truth.

Furthermore – and this is the second major problem – what do I mean when I claim that some historical account in Scripture is true? Surely I mean something more than a mere tautological assertion that it is, in fact, in Scripture? If I say, “The scriptural account of Christ’s resurrection is true,” I mean that Christ did in fact die and rise again. Yet, if my definition of truth is “that which is revealed by God through his word and creation,” then when I say, “The scriptural account of Christ’s resurrection is true,” I am really only saying, “The scriptural account of Christ’s resurrection is scriptural (i.e. revealed by God through his word).” Such a circular affirmation certainly seems to go against the spirit of Paul’s testimony of Christ’s resurrection in I Corinthians 15, when he appeals to the reports of eyewitnesses (those who could say what actually happened – in reality).


Ironically, the statement “Truth is revealed by God through his word and his creation” is actually true. God does reveal truth through his word and his creation. However, not all truth is revealed in this way, and setting up “God’s word and creation” as the definition of truth doesn’t work for the reasons discussed above.

I’ve had to summarize some points to avoid making this post ridiculously long, but hopefully this is enough to give a coherent framework to my argument. If you are a Worldview student who’s here to see my followup to the class discussion, I’d enjoy hearing from you (either in agreement or disagreement) in the comments. Please don’t hesitate to disagree, or simply ask for clarification.