Month: May 2017

Cotter on Epistemology and Skepticism: Part 1

Cotter on Epistemology and Skepticism: Part 1

In this post I will be doing a study on the Epistemological section of the book “The ABC of Scholastic Philosophy”. The preliminary remarks are full of  definitions of certitude (which he defines as “unhesitating, firm assent (or dissent), without fear of error”), and the particular end one should aim at while doing epistemology. Cotter thinks this end will be, “Formal Certitude or Objective Certitude”, the attaining of which is the most perfect of the hierarchy of certainty. Cotter defines Formal Certitude as that  “firm assent (or dissent) which is necessarily true and known to be true”. He strengthens this definition by giving an obvious example of the equation 2+2+4. This is something know to be true, which also has a corresponding object in reality.  He contrasts this with a weaker form of certitude, one in which the first definition can possibly be in direct opposition to, “Subjective Certitude”. Cotter defines subjective Certitude as that “assent (or dissent) which is indeed firm, but really should not be firm”. Cotter, again uses obvious examples, mentioning the absurd belief of our ancestors, who once held that the earth was flat. Obviously this was held firmly, and yet there was too limited data available and it certainty did not correspond to reality. Cotter also briefly mentions respective and practical certitude, but only practical certitude will need mention in this essay. Practical Certitude is that which “is an assent (or dissent) which is firm merely for practical reasons, viz. because otherwise life would be impossible.”. An example of this would be the belief that the world will not be subject to a black hole, something practical but ultimately out of our control.

To begin, Cotter defines the views of several types of skeptics, a group of people who would obviously disagree with the philosophical enterprise he is seeking to establish. He starts by defining the views of an individual who would identify as a universal skeptic, a person who believes in no such object as a truth known with formal certitude. For the purpose of this article, we will leave his defense against the universal skeptic as the only one mentioned, but there will surely be other posts on the topic (he does mention the partial skeptic as well, but that is not entirely relevant to this work). Cotter then divides the universal skeptics into two sub groups, those of the objective and subjective skeptics. The objective skeptic believes that we do hold truths with a certain firmness, and yet we should never do so. The subjective skeptic in contrast holds that we both should not hold to any position with firmness, as indubitable, and that we, absurdly, never do hold to such a belief with a complete assent. That is to say, that we literally are never sure of anything, and we never should think or hold any position with such commitment. This will do with the definitions for now as we continue into the juice of his analysis.

Cotter after defining his terms seeks to give a lesson in the history of this skepticism, noting the Sophists held no belief in the Law of Contradiction, thinking they could prove every proposition to be a truth and a falsehood. Now, Cotter being a Thomist, thinks Aristotle solved this, but for now we will withhold judgement (plus it is outside the current area of study). After this, Cotter presents a number of arguments against Skepticism we will mention below. Here is the first argument:

  1. That statement is absurd which denies implicitly what
    it affirms explicitly.
  2. Now universal skepticism may be expressed in such a
    statement. (namely that skepticism holds to the proposition ‘skepticism is true’ implicitly while denying such a proposition can in principle hold such a value).
  3. Therefore universal skepticism is absurd.

Now this first argument looks very promising. Cotter pins the skeptic using a powerful (and quite common modernly) retorsion argument to the effect that the skeptic is committed to formal certainty even if outwardly denying it, which is obviously fallacious. Now Cotter does anticipate the charge of question begging (because you have to admit the certainty of the premises to accept the conclusion) and answers with the following: “This is not a proof in the strict sense of the word.  This is not directly addressed to the skeptics, but to such as are not yet infected with this extreme form of intellectual despair. To the ordinary sane individual the absurdity of skepticism is manifest enough.”

Perhaps this could be charged as ad hom in nature, but I do not think it needs to be. Cotter shows the absurdity of skepticism on the basis of a first principle he thinks is immediately apprehended and there is no reason to doubt. Not directly addressed to Skeptics, perhaps he could treat this as a Moorean fact, one that shows, at least the one not “infected by skepticism” , the reasonableness of accepting every day truths (like the truism that some things are held with certainty and are known factual), thus shifting the burden off the Dogmatist. It is true to the one simply looking at this argument without any prior commitments to US, any claim of skepticism has been issued a powerful defeater in the form of an argument such as Cotter’s. Thus, this would at least show the unappealingness of it. Given that this was the goal, it can be supposed Cotter is successful in achieving it.

Cotter gives a second argument appealing to pragmatic considerations. This will be displayed in the following:

  1. A doctrine is practically impossible, which cannot be carried out in practice.
  2. Now universal skepticism cannot be carried out in practice.
  3.  Therefore universal skepticism is practically impossible.

At first glance this would not appear obvious. Why ought the universal skeptic have any harder of a time living than the every man? Cotter again ahead of the critic, anticipating this objection, issues out a clear and convincing example, once again illustrating his masterful rhetorical skills. Cotter gives out a powerful set of criterion, which the universal skeptic does not follow. To quote:

“To carry out practically the doctrine of universal skepticism, one should (a) really doubt everything and (b) live accordingly. But this is impossible, nor has any skeptic ever attempted it. For (a) no one can honestly doubt in his mind about his own existence, about the existence of the world around us, about the principle of contradiction etc., though one may, of course, deny them externally. (b) Imagine the life of a consistent skeptic: Why does he get up in the morning ? Why does he eat ? Why does he breathe ?
Why does he dodge autos? If nothing is certain or if he is not sure of anything, he should do none of these things.”

This argument, which by his own earlier admission, is not a proof, but an appeal to pragmatic considerations that should speak to the lay person and the epistemic pragmatist. Cotter makes the case that, why ought a huge part of our daily experience be thrown out, when even the Skeptic doesn’t follow suit? The warrant for skepticism considerably weakens if you understand common place considerations. Hence, the epistemological skeptic is shown to be sure of at least the pragmatic value of formal certainty, and hence should see his error, follow suit in abandoning his position.

Cotter, showing the absurdity of this level of skepticism to the lay man, then seeks to wield off objections (these objections are the best part of the book). He fends off the charge of ad hominem, that he is calling the skeptics liars, by noting that the skeptic is simply inconsistent, not necessarily to be participating in purposeful deception. This appears defensible in the face of this charge, considerably softening the blow. The second objection is a bit better in gradation, which is to state that the basis on which the skeptic holds her position is found in practical certainty of the calamities that would ensue if one is not cautious of  “dodging an auto”, noting that an error merely probably will happen. Yet as Cotter notes, we cannot simply say that our belief is merely probabilistic in all of these cases. For example, the reason for dodging an automobile is because we have certainty of the disposition of our bodies in relation to the causal powers of an automobile. To say this is merely probabilistic is patently absurd. The third objection raised against Cotter is similar to the former, saying that the “rule of life” is probability, not formal certainty. While Cotter agrees that there are many cases in which we have to rely on probabilities, our certitude is only based on this. The belief that we will not get food poisoning is a practical consideration, while the fear we have in relation to a car is obviously more than this. It then follows from both these arguments that Universal Skepticism is false.

Now Cotter thinks two corollaries follow out of the defeat of universal skepticism. The first one is that we can have formal certitude of at least something. He notes in relation to the first point that while the failure of US does not entail universal assent, formal certainty is more certain that one would think, which he seeks to prove later. Secondly, he argues that it follows not everything is a two sided debate, the skeptics are simply wrong here.

We will not look with any tedious study upon Cotter’s closing objections and answers, because they are largely similar in nature and flow from eachother. Cotter simply states that things like 2+2=4 are formally certain even in the midst of errors. He also notes that the variety of errors in the world do not lead to a universal doubt, but rational skepticism, simply forcing us to make our judgments with a bit more apprehension. Most forcefully, he argues that contradictions obviously do occur among men, and yet this does not lead to any universal doubt. He also notes that it simply isn’t true that all men contradict their fellow man in every event, although in what manner we don’t he does not clarify. The first point is key because he notes later the reason for this doubt is not in the general unreliability of our faculties (which he defines later) but a missed judgment, that we simply did not fully apprehend the object of our mind.

Overall, Cotter has some powerful considerations contra skepticism, which I think have bearing still today. Cotter’s style and precision help convey this argument even clearer than the vast majority of thinkers in his tradition who have thought about this question, hammering home the absurdity of his opponents position quite artfully. Yet he does this with considerable charity, presenting understandable and well thought out arguments against his position, for the purpose of enlightening the reader.

A Neo-Scholastic Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

A Neo-Scholastic Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

In this post I will be discussing a formulation of the Principle of Sufficient and it’s relation to the Cosmological Argument. However, instead of Leibniz’s version of it, we will be using a special formulation of the PSR, made popular by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, stating the crucial principle as “Everything is intelligible”. While for the format of the Argument I will be making modifications to it, this same basic formulation holds true. While Leibniz held that explanations tended towards an explananas, the Scholastic view was that explanations supervened on being. Due to this, the Scholastic has the machinery to escape a great deal many of the problems associated with conjunctive propositions, such as the ones discussed by Van Inwagen. The Thomistic view of truth being a transcendental is key here. Truth is merely being in relation to the intellect. This allows for propositional knowledge to merely be a correspondence relation, not something that is extramental. A point such as this is note worthy here because most scholastic’s held God lacked propositional knowledge, for reasons of Divine Simplicity (which we will discuss soon in our upcoming series on God and His Existence). The reason the point is relevant to the PSR is that because truth is being ordered to the intellect, it is by definition intelligible. So upon noting a specific being we can see by virtue of what it is whether it is intelligible of itself. Since we come to know objects by their quidities, we can note whether its essence ordered to the intellect entails it’s being. If it does not, it is merely in potency to an act of existence, and hence needs an external explanation. With these notes in mind, here is the article:

The Argument from Contingency

This argument, with roots in Greek Philosophy, was perhaps most popularized by the Polymath Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz. While we will be taking some steps back from the position of Leibniz, we do owe a basic formulation to him. The argument we will defending is not the exact version of Leibniz, as said before, who felt that explanations typically terminated in Propositions. For the proponent of a Averoest-Thomistic view on propositions, this is simply wrong headed. Propositions purely supervene on being, being merely devices of the conceptual order.  With that note, the formulation of the Argument will be presented as follows:

  1. Everything that possesses being has its existence plus every attribute it has intelligible, and it has it intelligible in one of two ways A. Through itself and what it is internally (necessary) 2. Through another due to a deficiency in the being with regards to self intelligibility. (contingent)
  2. If the universe, the whole existing really related world of causal powers (Anderson), is not an intelligible ground for its existence, it has to find its intelligibility through another
  3. The universe and all of its constituents is not a intelligible ground of its own being (it is contingent)
  4. Therefore, the Universe’s ground for existence is found in another
  5. The universe may receive it’s intelligibility externally in one of three ways A. Through an essentially ordered series of contingent causes B. Through an accidentally ordered series of contingent causes C. Through a First Sufficient Explanation (FSE)
  6. If an essentially ordered series of causes is finite (if one wants to know what an accidentally ordered series and an essentially ordered series are, I refer you to this post) , it is more than obvious that a FSE will have to be posited to explain the effect. Such a series would terminate without an explanation if this is not the case, which is manifestly repugnant to the First Premise
  7. If such a series is infinite however, we have an absurd conclusion, for merely merely moving the series to an infinite number of deficient sustaining causes serves no more as an intelligible ground for the universes existence than positing a brush of infinite length with the ability to paint by its own self movement.
  8. Therefore such a series is reliant on a FSE outside of it, imparting intelligibility to the series as a whole
  9. If the amount of sustaining causes is constituted by a finite accidentally ordered series of sustaining causes, then as stated in premise six, such a series would terminate without an explanation, which is repugnant to premise one. Hence, a FSE has to stand outside the series, giving such a series its intelligibility
  10. If such a series is infinite however, Leibniz’s argument from Geometry books is of great applicability. For positing an eternal generation of Geometry books serves as no intelligible grounding for their contents or being, and is obviously analogous to an eternal procession of sustaining causes. In order to give intelligibility to a series of this variety, one would have to posit a FSE outside of such a series all together, imparting the intelligibility to each member.
  11. Hence this series has to terminate in a FSE
  12. But all three of the options amount to option C (that the explanation for the Universe is a First Sufficient Explanation)
  13. Therefore, there is a First Sufficient Explanation
  14. Anything that is composed of distinct parts is contingent on them, and hence stands in an essentially ordered series
  15. The FSE cannot in principle stand in such a series
  16. Therefore, the First Sufficient Explanation is not composed of parts
  17. Supposit and essence are distinct parts
  18. Therefore, the FSE can have no distinction between Supposit and Essense
  19. Therefore, the FSE is completely One, with no others possessing its self sufficient glory, for if another did, then it would have to share the Supposit from the FSE, which is impossible
  20. Essence and existence are parts
  21. Therefore the First Sufficient Reason is not composed of essence and existence
  22. But the First Sufficient Reason exists as we have shown, and there are objective facts that can be said about the First Sufficient Reason
  23. Therefore, in the First Sufficient Reason Essence and Existence are not distinct, but are unified, that which explains what the FSE consists in entails that it exists
  24. Such a Being is by definition necessary, with it’s act of existence being identical with itself, making it the sort of Being who could not not exist
  25. Therefore the explanation of the existence of the universe is found in a Necessary Being, one whose essence is its existence, and who is self sufficient, existing with a supreme Oneness unequaled

Now this argument seems a bit odd at first. How exactly is the first premise even justified? After all, this is the crux of the argument. Have we done a few well researched experiments and came to the conclusion that it was true? While there is appeal for the first premise on purely inductive grounds, the strongest justification for it comes from the various retorsion arguments that show that a denial of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (The first premise), leads to self referentially incoherent conclusions. An example of these oddities would be largely found in the fact that a denial of the PSR leads to a level of skepticism not even anticipated by Descartes himself. To quote Alexander Pruss, a Baylor Philosopher:

“Start with the observation that once we admit that some contingent states of affairs have no explanations, a completely new sceptical scenario becomes possible: No demon is deceiving you, but your perceptual states are occurring for no reason at all, with no prior causes.

Moreover, objective probabilities are tied to laws of nature or objective tendencies, and so if an objective probability attaches to some contingent fact, then that situation can be given an explanation in terms of laws of nature or objective tendencies.  Hence, if the PSR is false of some contingent fact, no objective probability attaches to the fact. “

So the denial of the PSR leads to a level of radical Skepticism that seems completely untenable. Hence to deny the PSR, under the assumption that it is done rationally, leads to the denial of reason itself. To try to appeal to laws of nature, or perhaps powers (which has other issues for the atheist), one would have to compare an explanation from literally no catalyst to that of an objective law, which seems to be impossible. Hence Pruss concludes:

“it may be taken to follow from this that if the PSR were false or maybe even not known a priori, we wouldn’t know any empirical truths.  But we do know empirical truths.  Hence, the PSR is true, and maybe even known a priori.”

This argument shows that anyone who thinks the root of knowledge comes from experiential apprehensions like I do, who is at the very least a weak empiricist, should accept the PSR, and hence the crucial premise of the argument.

Though this argument is good enough to rationally compel the reasoned individual, it can be pressed even further. Following the lines of Edward Feser, we can challenge a denier of this premise as a denier of logic, which is undeniably self referentially incoherent. For if the denier of the Principle of Sufficient Reason  seeks to justify her central premise,  this would involve moving  from a few premises in a way akin to a Syllogism and arriving at the conclusion that the PSR was false. But to do this seems to entail a sort of government by this principle. The reason is that unless the Premises are moving along with a sort of entailment, it could follow that the conclusion is simply a brute fact. Yet the critic came to the conclusion the PSR was false through this very method, a method deduced from premises which rationally followed from each other. Any attempt to justify the critical argument against this rebuttal would seem to require again using logical reasoning, which appears to lead to an infinite regress which is untenable in this sort of philosophical endeavor. Therefore, since we can rationally come to the conclusion of the PSR’s falsehood if it were false, it absurdly follows that the PSR is true!

One could deny these arguments by saying that we are noting examples that are only related to human affairs, and particularly ones related to action and becoming. Perhaps a principle such as this governs our intellectual processes, while not governing reality as a whole, something even Kant might implicitly accept. However, once analyzed, this becomes all the less plausible. For if the PSR is merely contingently true of intellectual judgements, its needs an explanation for why it only governs intellectual judgements. The only two options are appealing to A. a First Principle outside of our intellectual judgements serving as the explanation of it applying to our intellectual judgements, or B. positing it as merely a brute fact, making the PSR false. However, A. is outside of our intellectual judgements and B. allows the absurdities we just discussed to slip in, making it all the less preferable. Therefore, the PSR is a First Principle governing every layer of reality, for if it were not, one could always run the same two options just presented to the questioned layer of existence, making this a all or nothing affair.

What of the second premise, that the universe, being the interrelated world of objects in our experience, if it were not the intelligible ground of its being, would need an explanation? This inarguably follows from the first premise. This is simply the form of the first premise with new subjects. It is  a conditional statement, which is largely reliant on the truth of the first premise, which we have argued is practically indubitable. To appeal to brute fact scenarios, saying the universe is simply there has some prima facie compellingness, it requires a denial of the first premise which seems quite implausible as we have shown. This reply doesn’t seem to even address the First premise in any real extended way and will not be treated with any considerable length for this reason. 

The third premise is perhaps the most controversial (besides the first). Is the universe naturally an explanation in and of itself for itself?  It is very rational, in fact indubitable to think it is not. Here are just three arguments to that effect. Firstly, whatever is really distinct from an act of existence cannot be intelligible through itself with regards to its own being. But the universe contains many concrete objects that when abstracted reveal just that. When we abstract what it is to be a dog, we find out that what it is distinct from that it is, which is to say its nature is not by necessity existent. The concept of doggity is the same in both a mind independent Dog and one that exists only in the imagination. These quiddities also happen to be analogous to many items we know do not exist like Unicorns and Phoenix’s.  Even moving down to the sub atomic realm, we find just this. Nothing about the essence of any of these items reveal that it exists. For if it did, that item would be self sufficient and have aseity. But since this is false from our experience of many of these things coming into being and gaining accidental forms (like Quarks do when they move spatially), we can conclude that the universe simply does not exist by its own essence, or by the essences of its constituents (if you more plausibly treat the universe as a collection rather than a thing), for nothing about it entails an identity with its act of existence. It follows from this the explanation cannot be a being among beings, but Being or existence itself (which we will go into later). The essence of this cause ultimately has to be identical with its act of existence.  If the universe had this feature however, our experience of matter-form composites would be illusory, since matter is the primary form of limit, and secondary matter serves as the main principle of  identity. The argument would go as follows: Our experience shows a plurality of distinct items that exist, and form substances that have objective tendencies distinct from each other. From this it follows to have a collection of items distinct from each other is proof of at least some contingency, because no matter the status of Leibniz’s law, it does not match up with the accidents that make up our primary sense data. The descriptions of these items are not identical with its act of existence, and the differing elements of our sense data show this. To be material, or to be in a spatial relation, or to have a particular color different than another object is to be unidentical with simple existence.  To press this point further, in order to display a dissenting option on this matter (that all things are identical with their act of existence) to an interlocutor would be to distinguish her from yourself based on a sort of natural difference, which perhaps could show a denial of this point to again be open to more retorison argumentation. Secondly, since atoms have the ability to terminate in all sorts of objects within our experience like water and humans, we can conclude from the fact that it is susceptible to different perfections, at least spatially, that it has to have an explanation for its being and the particular accidental forms it possesses, showing at least the non essential elements to be contingent. Nothing about the operations of these atoms is necessary to them, but appears to require the ordering of another. In order for a disposition to be actuated in a way not ultimately natural or essential to it, an external explanation for this governance needs to be posited, hence requiring an external explanation. Thirdly and lastly,  the fact that the universe exists through its parts is a key metric of its contingency. For anything that is compiled cannot be an explanation for itself, since all the parts are ordered in potency to the whole which is in act. Anything that is in potency is merely possible,  which displays that the universe, rather than being an ultimate ground for its existence, is completely unintelligible in and of itself.  Something that is Simple has to ground the being of anything that exists through its parts (which will be shown in greater length below), in no small way due to the obvious fact that many of the parts are purely contraries and contradictory’s. Nothing about the essence of a human explains the essence of a hydrogen molecule. Since these contraries and contradictory elements are directed towards each other as we have shown, forming a really related world of causal interactions, an external explanation is needed to explain the fact the universe is composite. This directedness is non essential (how could it be in the midst of the distinction just noted), and so treating the  universe as a being and not simply a set of beings will not suffice to serve as an explanation for why it exists and why it exists in the way it does.  However, maybe the objecter wishes to press a point about part based necessity. Why can the universe not be necessary through its parts? The reason this escape route is fallacious is that postulating part based necessity seems to be a contradiction in terms. One is either contingent on ones parts, which is to say it is not intelligible in itself, or it is necessary through ones parts, which is impossible, because to have real parts is to be dependent on them. Hence, such a system requires a natural compiler to incline these distinct parts together, something that explains the composite. Since all of these parts have quiddities distinct from their existence as shown from our first argument,  the beings of the world will have to be created and conserved as well. Retreating into Monism will not help the denier of the world’s contingency here either. For Monism ultimately leads to the conclusion that the ability to isolate a variable is false, since variables under Monism are merely illusory. This therefore makes the success of science purely chance, which the proponent of scientism should obviously deny (obviously there are points about Scientific realism vs anti realism, but that discussion is for another day). For this reason, and the fact that it does not correspond with our introspective experiences of unity, most metaphysicians and scientists do not look upon this position favorably. This is however not the only argument that can be leveled against a Monistic escape route. Even treating the universe as a continuous whole, it cannot ground its own being. For even if we consider the universe in and of itself as a unified thing, it still has features that are not describable in a way conveying identity with being itself (like say being material and having a space time history of a certain length), which means it is still merely possible as was shown earlier. Therefore, since  the contingency of the world with regards to esse (being) has been shown, it requires an explanation.

Premise Four follows unarguably from the other three premises.

Now premises 5-13 are explained in their respective ways above, but there is room to comment on them in some form here. It is perhaps arguable that they need to be stated, as my definition of the universe allows for these series to be included. However, this is merely an exercise in precision.  The first evasion route one could take from positing a First Being fails because if it were true, the PSR would be false, and since the PSR is not false as we have shown above, a series such as this without an FSE is ill fated. The second way is no more of an escape route than the first route, as an essentially ordered series of causes that was not competent in serving as an intelligible ground for its own being on a finite stage will not be helped being infinite. The analogy used was the one penned by Garrigou Lagrange with regards to Aquinas’s argument from motion. Just as a broom cannot suddenly sweep by itself if it’s handle is long enough, a series of causes unintelligible with regards to existence, will not gain intelligibility if the parts posited are too deficient in this respect, no matter if the length of such a series is infinite. The other two routes were with regards to an accidentally ordered series of procession. The first argument based on a finite series requires the same argument against it as refutation of a a finite essentially ordered series. For if the explanations merely terminated on something that was a brute fact, then the PSR is false, and since we have shown the PSR to be true, such a series is not sufficient in itself. Now, the second argument from an accidentally ordered series, this time presented in its infinite variety, fails because of Leibniz’s analogy and its relevance to our present proof. To quote Leibniz:

“We can’t find in any individual thing, or even in the entire collection and series of things, a sufficient reason why they exist. Suppose that a book on the elements of geometry has always existed, each copy made from an earlier one, with no first copy. We can explain any given copy of the book in terms of the previous
book from which it was copied; but this will never lead us to
a complete explanation, no matter how far back we go in the
series of books. For we can always ask:
Why have there always been such books?
Why were these books written?
Why were they written in the way they were?
The different states of the world are like that series of
books: each state is in a way copied from the preceding state—though here
the ‘copying’ isn’t an exact transcription, but happens in accordance with certain laws of change”


For even in this series we run into obvious issues, while every book is explained by a previous book, the existence of books, their contents, and the length they have been written is simply unintelligible when just looking at this series alone . One could ask all of these questions about any contingent object. If a procession of these objects were the only things to possess being, then why do we not run into the same issues. For just as the Geometry books are not grounded due to the type of thing they are, even in spite of them being existent from all eternity in a procession, why is not any series of contingent objects also of this variety? Just as nothing about a geometry book contains any self sufficiency, contingent sustainers no matter how long they have been around, still are definitionally unintelligible, requiring a external explanation of a much higher sort. Hence, since all three options amount to option C, it follows that a First Sufficient Explanation exists.

Now the remaining premises are either about attribute deriving. To start, as shown earlier, since parts require a compiler outside of the being in which they inhere (unless one wants to postulate a break in the PSR, which is absurd or self causation, which breaks the Principle of Contradiction), a FSE, being fully sufficient could not be the sort of thing composed of parts. Since essence, existence, nature, and supposit are parts, these must be foreign to the FSE. Therefore, the FSE must have the attributes of complete uniqueness and supremacy, and identity with being itself. A Being such as this cannot help but be necessary, for what it is (it’s essence) entails that it is. Therefore, a Supreme First Cause and Sufficient Reason for all of reality exists, explaining everything outside of itself.

Now we can seek to prove more attributes of this First Being, not directly listed. From the conclusion that the First Cause brought all of reality that was not Himself into being without any causal conditions or preexistent matter, it follows that such a being is utterly omnipotent. The reason for this conclusion is from the plausible belief that the gap between being and nonbeing is infinite, so whatever brought the world into being from non being would possess infinite power. Also, this is defensible from the truth that the beings in our experience are only in potency to existence, which requires something possesing infinite active power. The First Cause moved the object from potency to act solely from His own power, meaning that His  power is not limited by the constraints of our experience to only act on a particular, actualizing subjective potency’s on an already existent patient. This shows that the First Being is not limited in the way we are, and can bring about a merely potential state of affairs in a self sourced manner. Secondly, the First Being must be an intellectual Being, since the only way a particular perfection or object can be brought into being is if it is found formally, virtually, or imminently in the cause (If this were not true, it would be inexplicable what is actualizing a particular potency, hence requiring the PSR to be broken, which we argued cannot in principle be true).  Since humans are one such contingent being, a species who possess an intellect, it follows the First Being, the creative cause of man as we previously have proved, possesses an intellect, at least in an analogous fashion to our own. For the First Being can have those perfections which formally contain no sign of limit in a manner at least analogous to our own, not eminently. Another argument to this effect would be that, since the First Cause is Being itself, which would seem to be what the implied conclusion of Anselm’s argument presented in the Monologium  (He did believe Divine Simplicity was a conclusion of his particular proofs as well), we can use Anselm’s doctrine of pure perfections and predicate any attribute that has no principle of limit or sign of imperfection to the First Being. Since an intellect has no intrinsic principle of limit or sign of imperfection (at least considered in itself), it follows not only that the First Cause is befitting of an intellect to match His essential perfection, but that He is all wise, His mind being in the intrinsic mode of infinity. Thirdly, since any principle of limit would be a part to the First Being, and since the First Being is as we have previously shown is not composed of parts, it follows that the First Being is unlimited and hence infinite. Fourthly, the FSE cannot be material for two obvious reasons. The most manifest way to prove this is that anything material is composed of matter and form, and since composition is repugnant to the First Being, the First Being is not material. Another way to show this is that anything material has spatial relations, and since the First Being is self sufficient something else would have to explain the particular relation He has, which is a contradiction in terms. This conclusion holds whether one wants to adopt a relative or absolute view of space, either way ends up with foreign attributes not fitting to the FSE.  Lastly, as Augustine noted, since existence is the first perfection, prior to any of the essential goods of any concrete object,  we can conclude naturally that something that is essentially Being itself would be essentially perfect, Perfection itself even. Therefore we have arrived at a being who is Omnipotent, Uncomposed, Intelligent, All Wise, Infinite, Immaterial and Perfect, not just possessing these things, but in His beautiful simplicity, being these things, with all of His fantastic attributes flowing from the same total reality. To quote the words of Thomas Aquinas, from this proof alone we can arrive at “That which all men call God”.


GARRIGOU-LAGRANGE, Réginald Marie., and Bede ROSE. God-His Existence and His Nature. A Thomistic solution of certain agnostic antinomies … Translated from the fifth French edition by Dom Bede Rose, etc. B. Herder Book Co.: St. Louis, Mo. & London, 1934. Print.
 Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Heusenstamm: Editiones Scholasticae, 2014. Print.
Koons, Robert C., and Timothy H. Pickavance. Metaphysics: The Fundamentals. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley, Blackwell, 2015. Print.
Moreland, James Porter., and William Lane. Craig. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.
Anselm, Sidney Norton Deane, and Gaunilo. Saint Anselm: basic writings: Proslogium, Monologium, Gaunilons In behalf of the fool. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974. Print.
DAquino, Tommaso, James Francis. Anderson, and W. Norris. Clarke. An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1997. Print.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, and Philip P. Wiener. Leibniz Selections. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1979. Print.
Natural Theology or God and His Existence Part 1: Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Natural Theology or God and His Existence Part 1: Anselm’s Ontological Argument

[This essay is developed in terms of a book, so the formatting will be odd, also I cut out Descartes OA for the sake of space, and the fact it is not very good]

God and His Existence

  1. The Ontological Argument
  2. The Various Cosmological Arguments, the types and their veracity
  3. The Teleological Argument
  4. The Argument from Eternal Truths (Divine Conceptualism)
  5. The Henological Arguments
  6. Arguments from the Existence of Moral Values and Duties
  7. The Immediate Experience of God



This chapter will treat the topic of God’s existence in the various major ways it has been discussed through history. While the writer is clearly sympathetic to the defense of the theistic proofs, a survey of opinions will be addressed, using many points from atheists and skeptics within the Philosophy of Religion. While CAB (The head writer) is a committed theist, not all of the proofs will be immediately accepted, and many will be outright rejected as we will see. This is clear when reading a proof like the cosmological argument, which has quite the supply of iterations and versions. Given the high amount then, it will be quite hard to agree with all of them. However, as we will see, the quantity is strength here. Another word of warning is needed before we begin, one of immense importance. The chapter will be full of Metaphysical terminology that will perhaps be glossed over, so the reading list at the back might be quite helpful to the lay reader (assuming I ever finish writing this). With so many historical periods being traversed through these proofs, the terminology will simply have to change frequently. Cosmological arguments which seek to explain the universes beginning will shift from the Aristotelian language of Al Ghazali and Bonaventure, to the language of Modern Astrophysics. With this word of caution in place, we will proceed to the various arguments for the existence of God, separated from the breadth of evidence for revealed religions, within the context of Natural Theology.

  1. The Ontological Argument

The Ontological Proof’s for the existence of God are a tradition of arguments based around the concept of God as a maximally great being, and moving onwards from this to His existence. Originally written in 1078 by Saint Anselm of Canterbury in his Proslogion, this argument has been debated with great frequency, with no shortage of detractors, and quite a few major supporters. Thinkers like Descartes, Gödel, Bonaventure, Norman Malcom, Robert Maydole, Dun Scotus and Alvin Plantinga  have all offered support for versions of this argument. For the sake of this discussion however, we will focus on two versions:

  1. The Classical Anselmian Formulation
  2. Alvin Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Proof

We will proceed from here to a long treatment of Anselm’s argument,  then move hence forth to the one deemed most successful in modern philosophy, Alvin Plantinga’s formulation using S5 Modal Logic.

  • The Classical Anselmian formulation

The version of this argument which typically receives the most treatment in philosophy classrooms today is the version  belonging to Saint Anselm of Canterbury. While there is some debate on the purpose of this argument, whether it was truly an argument or a sort of a petitionary prayer, most commentators do agree Anselm was trying to convince even the fool that God, the concept he is aware of even if he does not fully understand all of the implications, entails His existence. Anselm argues the fool does have this concept in his intellect from a reading of Psalm 14:1 “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”…”, because any sort of denial presupposes a subject to be denied.  A key reason many interpret this as a prayer rather than an argument against unbelievers is that the historical context. Like Aquinas’s proofs, the middle ages was not a period of significant strife among religious skeptics, if you could even say something akin to an atheist existed in 11th. Century Europe. Like Aquinas, who was battling groups sympathetic to other deity concepts like the Pantheists, or educating Theology students, Anselm did not have His goal as an evidential apologetic. It is debatable if even Pantheism was in the crosshairs, as Anselm’s proof has been quite convincing to Pantheist’s like Spinoza. Rather what Anselm was doing was formulating a shorter work than the long proof of the Monologium, which served as quite an extensive argument in length and substance. The Proslogion is very brief however, with most of it being a treatment of what would later be known as perfect being theology. Secondly, to support the position this is a prayer rather than an argument, an assumption can be made based on the very use of the Psalm. Anselm was never questioning the inspiration of sacred scripture, in fact it is probable following Augustine, he sees this authority piggy backing off the “miracle of the Church”, in that it was converting the whole world with fisherman as some of its key early catalysts. Only God could make such a movement powerful, Anselm likely thought. It is not of the present task to decide the correct reading, as it is still obviously a (mostly) working logical argument. With this background information now in place, we will move onto the argument.

While the exact intended formulation of this argument is contested among Historians of Philosophy, it is of the opinion of the author that the version presented by Father Brian Davies presents this in the most defensible way possible. It is helpful to note still there is debate among historians and philosophers on what Anselm’s intended formulation was, and the formulations given will likely vary across introductory works. Here is the argument as presented by Davies:

  1. On the assumption that that than which nothing greater can be conceived is only in a mind, something greater can be conceived;
  2. For some­thing greater can be thought to exist in reality as well;
  3. The assumption is therefore contradictory: either there is  no such thing even in the intellect, or it exists also in reality ;
  4. But it does exist in the mind of the fool;
  5. Therefore that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in reality as well as in a mind.

From this we can proceed. To start out this argument relies on quite a few metaphysical terms. An example of this would be how Anselm proceeds from Premise 1 to Premise 2. Anselm is using a sort of Platonic view of gradation to serve as a fulcrum, comparing mind independent reality with that of the conceptual realm within the intellect. Anselm illustrates what he takes to display the truth value of mind independent realities combined with conceptual realities supremacy by using the example of a painter and his artwork. To quote the Proslogion “For example, when a painter envisions what he is about to paint: he indeed has in his understanding that which he has not yet made, but he does not yet understand that it exists. But after he has painted [it]: he has in his understanding that which he has made, and he understands that it exists”. The painting can be enjoyed in the world as well as delighted about in the intellect upon its assumption into reality.  Dun Scotus also notes that a Being, having only mind dependent existence, seems to have an intrinsic limiter, namely the intellect, and hence Divine Infinity, clearly a property of a perfect being, is nonfunctional, which would also seem to support Anselm’s task, that His greatness would entail His being.  Anselm however takes this as a simple truism, and hence the fool, who has the concept of God in his mind if you give the Biblical account credence, when truly grasping the idea of what the concept of a greatest conceivable being entails, will be forced to admit His existence. From here Anselm tries to create a reductio ad absurdum (Reduction to the Absurd). This concept of the Divine exists, and yet it is only existent in the intellect. Existing in reality has no signs of any imperfection (This will be noted yet again during our treatment of the Divine Attributes), and like the painting, there is reason to suppose it would be greater to have being apart from the intellect. But if the being exists only in the mind, then a greater can be conceived. The idea either does not exist in the intellect, or it exists in reality as well. Since one contradicts background information we already know (namely the concept of God exists in the intellect), the way out of the dilemma is to accept that this being exists in reality as well. Therefore, God, who is the maximally great being this proof sets to argue for, exists.

Now this argument was very controversial even in its day, and obviously with any argument so meaningful if true, there have existed skeptics. Yet most accept there was not a decisive critique until Immanuel Kant offered one in his Critique of Pure Reason. Still, it is worth mentioning the opinions of two of the greatest detractors of this proof, Gaunilo of Marmoutiers and Saint Thomas Aquinas, who were functioning during the point of the arguments greatest fame.  Aquinas’s argument is much briefer and of less note, so we will treat it first. Aquinas, arguing from an Aristotelian epistemology, points out we cannot form any argument from God’s essence to His existence, because we have not abstracted or entertained His essence. While Aquinas certainly does think that God’s existence (Note Aquinas takes God’s esscence to be His existence, but he comes to this position based off A Posteriori proofs) will be self-evident if humans experience the beatific vision, due to them perceiving God in His fullness, it isn’t self-evident to most individuals on earth (if not all), nor will it be unless we receive the special grace Aquinas posited to explain the experience of Abraham and Moses. Still, even with Aquinas’s great note, there still is a certain weakness to his objection. Aquinas perhaps takes for granted how controversial Aristotelian metaphysics was and still is, and hence it seems without arguing for an entire ontology, we will have to limit our discussion of it there. Anselm, being a Middle Platonist along the lines of Augustine, would not accept the idea of abstraction being key to epistemology and would instead opt more for an Iluminationist view of the mind and its grasp of the abstract concepts (We will touch upon this in our examination of divine conceptualism). It would be silly to not argue against Anselm on his own terms, unless we defend a whole ontology.  The more interesting critique will be that of Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, a monk who wrote against the argument while living as a contemporary of Anselm. We will focus on this critique and Anselm’s reply in the next sub section.


Gaunilo’s Piland

The most viable pre-Kantian criticism of Anselm’s argument came from a Monk operating contemporaneously with Anselm in the person of Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. While even Anselm accepted how cordially Gaunilo operated in his critique, there is a level of bitterness in their correspondence. For example, Gaunilo titles his rebuttal “On Behalf of the Fool”, an obvious slap at Anselm’s Proslogion. Still, it can hardly be denied that Gaunilo’s counter argument offers a sort of persuasiveness to it. To show Gaunilo’s refutation it would be helpful to display by looking at Anselm’s argument. Gaunilo used the terminology offered in Anselm’s proof but replaced God with a Piland, which is the greatest island conceivable (He actually said just the greatest Island, which Anselm pointed out, but it is helpful to strengthen the arguments of an opponent). With this in place, we will see what Gaunilo was stating. Using this argument you could prove something as absurd as an imaginary island from the concept of it alone. Gaunilo and many others took this as a solid defeater to Anselm’s position, and hence the glory of victory seemed belong to Gaunilo (if you could say Theologians have victories of this sort). Still, most have thought Anselm’s reply was solid enough to still make the argument quite respectable even if still, quite odd.  Anselm replies that things like Island’s are like the series of natural numbers. It is not quite evident that there can be an intrinsic maximum on these sorts of items. You can always conceive of a greater entity that exemplifies these particular ideas, a higher number in the series or more wildlife or tree’s on the Island. Is this necessarily the case with God?  Perhaps not. To give an example, think of God’s omnipotence. Typically theists have defined God’s power as entailing the ability to create any logically possible thing. If we define power as many modern theists do as the ability to bring about all possible state of affairs, does there seem to be any greater property that God could “exemplify” with regard to causal prowess (Note: I use this term loosely, God is typically though to possess Aseity, or self-existence apart from abstract objects like properties) ?  I think not. Surveying all of the other properties typically thought of as better to have than not to have seems to justify this intuition even more. Goodness, knowledge, and the whole host of typical divine attributes seem to fit plausibly under properties that can have intrinsic maximum’s. There is perhaps a layer of vagueness with regards to properties like justice, but again, these seem to be plausibly incorporated under Anselm’s defense as well. For example, if you accept the Christian view of a triune God, each person of the Godhead would be rendering to the other members of the Godhead His due to a maximal extent, namely infinite love. This perhaps toes the line into natural and revealed theology, but it is worth mentioning as a solution to this problem, and one a Catholic like Anselm would probably be sympathetic to (Note: There still is come vagueness with regard to the number of members of the God head for example, on this alone, but the point still has some weight, namely that a normally transitive property can function essentially). This objection while still used in moderation, has never been regarded as decisive in the opinions of most philosophers, most recognizing Anselm’s defense as at least plausible. Gaunilo’s Piland has been replaced by the objection of Immanuel Kant as the default objection to be dealt with by contemporary defenders of this argument. With that in mind, we will move on to the objections first presented in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, namely whether being or existence functions properly as a predicate in an argument, or whether it’s denial leads to self-contradictory results.



Kant’s Objection

The objection of Immanuel Kant is by far the most famous objection to the ontological argument. Most philosophers accept it as decisive. Is this the case however? We will ultimately see. The first argument Kant presents in his Critique of Pure Reason is translated as follows:


“If,  in  an identical proposition, I  reject the predicate while retaining the subject,contradiction results;  and I  therefore say that the former belongs necessarily to  the latter. But if we reject the subject and predicate alike,  there  is no contradiction for nothing is then left that can be contradicted.  To posit a  triangle, and yet to  reject its  three angles,  is self-contradictory;  but there  is no contradiction in rejecting the triangle together with its three angles. The same holds true of the concept of an

absolutely  necessary being. If its existence  is rejected, we reject the thing itself with  all  its predicates;  and no question of contradiction can then arise. There is nothing outside it that would be contradicted,  since the  necessity of the thing is not supposed to  be derived from anything external;  nor is there anything internal that would be contradicted,  since in rejecting the thing itself we have at the same time rejected all its internal properties

… I cannot form the least concept of  a  thing which,  should it  be rejected with all its

predicates,  leaves behind a contradiction”

To summarize, Kant is arguing that rejecting the existence of something is not akin to rejecting a proper accident of it. A triangle being 3 sides makes any sort of negative proposition denying this self-contradictory, because it is of the very nature of a triangle to have three sides. Rejecting existence however seems to lead rejecting the whole substance and all of its features, and hence it seems God could be consistently denied existence.



Now this seems to have some bearing to Anselm’s proof at face value, but upon a further look, this conclusion is less obvious. Historically, the first argument Kant used is probably lodged for the most part not at Anselm, but the ontological arguments of Descartes and Christian Wolff. Read in this context, it is quite obvious what Kant is saying. In Descartes Meditations on the First Philosophy, he reasons from the essence of God to His existence, by way of asserting that He cannot conceive of God’s essence separate from His existence, because it seems to include it by its very nature. Descartes also uses the example of a triangle which makes this even more obvious. Kant’s critique seems to quite frankly, tear down the arguments of the other two thinkers. Is it, however clear this line of argumentation works against Anselm? Perhaps not. To quote Father Brian Davies on the subject “most people writing on Anselm assume that he does (Try to define God into existence). But we may, in fact, challenge this assumption. Early in the argument of Proslogion 2 Anselm introduces a premiss assert­ing existence (‘Something than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the intellect’). And his question in Proslogion 2 is not whether we can move from a definition of God to the reality of God,  but whether we can reasonably suppose that something  than which nothing  greater  can be conceived exists only in the intellect.” If this is the right way of reading Anselm, perhaps Anselm does have an ample rescuing device to his proof.

This however is the less popular objection Kant fired against Ontological proofs (in other words Anselm is not out of the firing zone). Kant’s main objection is his second one, whether it is a valid belief that being or existence is a true predicate.  To quote again from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason:

“‘ Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. … . By whatever and however many predicates we may think a thing … we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that the thing is.”

In this quotation Kant argues that adding is or exists does not add anything new to the concept of God. What it does is merely constitute a new relation. This is not however the case with attributes like red or omnipotence, which seem to function and have conceptual value. Existence does not seem to function as a predicate in any real sense, and Anselm, at least critics have said, seems to place existence “on to” God. There is also a feel of Pre-Fregian fregianism, in asserting that existence as perfection or predicate seems to have strange consequences for nonexistent objects. An example of this would be a Phoenix. To talk about the existence of a Phoenix using being as a first level predicate, something along the lines of the sentence “The existing Phoenix’s do not, in fact, exist,” would have to be a functional proposition. This sentence is  self-contradictory and obviously absurd however, and its implications ought to make one skeptical of existence being a first order predicate. Now the Scholastics did use existence as an accidental predicate, affirmed of a subject, and hence, a discussion on these two views will be needed. The question however, is whether, Anselm is open to this criticism. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not so clear it is. To quote Alvin Plantinga:

“According to the great German philosopher and pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, the ontological argument arises when “someone excogitates a conception, composed out of all sorts of predicates, among which, however, he takes care to include the predicate actuality or existence, either openly or wrapped up for decency’s sake in some other predicate, such as perfection, immensity, or something of the kind.” If this were Anselm’s procedure-if he had simply added existence to a concept that has application contingently if at all-then indeed his argument would be subject to the Kantian criticism. But he didn’t, and it isn’t.”

Also to quote G.H. Joyce, an opponent of the argument, notes that a crucial error when accessing this argument is treating it as if the absurd results of applying listing existence as a proper predicate arbitrarily to finite objects:

“Kant criticizes the ontological proof at length in the Critique of Pure Reason. It is frequently assumed that his refutation was decisive; but in point of fact his arguments are wide of the mark. He throughout treats the notion of the infinite nature as though it were on a par with other natures, and could be represented either with or without existence. He fails to meet the fundamental contention of those who defend the proof, viz., that the nature of the infinite is inconceivable apart from real existence”

And yet again:

“They (the modern opponents of the argument) think it sufficient to adopt an illustration employed by Kant, and to say that we cannot prove the existence of a hundred dollars from the idea of them, no matter how good the dollars are supposed to be. Of this imaginary refutation of the ontological proof Professor Sorley well says: “It really misses the point of that proof which was an effort to discriminate between the idea of God and all other ideas.”


To summarize, Kant’s point about predication perhaps has some value. Applying predicates to random essences (existence being one such predicate), seems to be an ill adviced way to form propositions or arguments. However, Anselm is not doing this; he is meditating on the attributes and the implications of a Metaphysically Ultimate being, and arguing mind independent reality follows for God. This is not like adding an act of being arbitrarily to the whole host of items within the conceptual realm, generally finite ones. This point is also arguable against Gaunillo, whose argument seems especially prone to an error of this sort as well.

  Due to a variety of arguments against the applicability of these old rebuttals, is now true, since the 1960’s a complete shift in reading Anselm has occurred. It is now true that a great many philosophers, theistic in persuasion or otherwise, accept that Kant’s criticism has more limited strength than the historical consensus has attributed to it. This does not mean it is never used, and as we said earlier, there is a definite application available here to attack arguments like that or Descartes. In spite of this however, it seems clear Anselm’s argument is at least immune to the objections of Kant.

As I have noted, it is not of the current project to answer, the interpretation of Kant, thinking along the lines of Frege, about existence being merely a second order predicate. This is because we will treat this important discssion in a further chapter on the Divine Attributes, since it is especially tied to Divine Simplicity. For now however, we will move on from the major criticisms of Anselm’s arguments and go on to the version typically recognized as the most defensible by modern proponents of this family of arguments, the modal version popularized by Alvin Plantinga, arguably anticipated by Anselm himself.

To conclude, while Anselm’s proof is a metaphysic dependent argument (to be fair, what argument is not?), most of the common points against it are at the very least answerable, if not conclusive. If you accept a system like that of Aristotle’s, then plausibly yes, the a priori element in this proof will be subject to intense skepticism. However, arguing on Anselm’s terms and granting his middle Platonistic leanings, it seems to be at least a defensible line of argumentation, and one with some fruits to the enterprise of Natural Theology.





Will continue in part 2 with Plantinga’s version



Davies, Brian. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2004. Print.
Joyce, George Hayward. Principles of Natural Theology. Neunkirchen-Seescheid, Germany: Editiones Scholasticae, 2016. Print.
Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2008. Print.

MobileReference. Critique of Pure Reason: by Immanuel Kant. Boston:, 2008. Print.