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Saturday, April 6, 2013


Having embarked rather unwisely on this effort , I have no choice but to carry on, at least for a little while longer.  I am pleased to report that my former colleague, Bruce Aune, has contacted me with a refutation he has written of an effort by two other colleagues, Gareth Matthews [now deceased] and Lynne Baker, to resurrect the most notorious of the proofs for the existence of God, St. Anselm's Ontological Argument.  After I have concluded this superficial review of the treatment of the subject of God in the Western philosophical tradition, I shall, with Aune's permission, post his refutation of the Matthews/Baker argument.  That, I feel, will lend a certain class to what is otherwise my rather unimpressive discussion.

By the way, while writing these posts, I have also begun work on what will eventually be a three volume collection of my published and unpublished papers, to be offered as e-books on  Digging through my heaps of papers and offprints, I came upon a translation of the full-scale scornful attack on me in 1959 in the Soviet journal Literaturnaya Gazeta.  It is a hoot, and I shall be sure to include it in Volume Two [my political writings] along with the letter to the NY TIMES that provoked it.

Well, back to work.  The principal philosophical purpose in constructing rational proofs for the existence of an infinite, omnipotent, eternal being was of course not to propagate the faith, nor even to strengthen faith in those who found themselves wavering.  Everyone understood that that would be a fool's errand.  The point was to demonstrate that faith in the Revealed God is compatible with the demonstrable truths of rational metaphysics and science.  The roots of the proofs can be found in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, although neither of them believed in a Creator God -- an infinite, eternal being who brought the finite experienced world into existence by an act of creation.  The most influential passages are to be found in the Physics, Book VIII, Chapters 4-6, where Aristotle offers a number of arguments in support of the thesis that there must be at least one being that is both unmoved and is itself the source of motion in other things -- the Unmoved Mover.  As Aristotle says in the opening sentence of Chapter 6, "Since there must always be motion without intermission, there must necessarily be something, one thing or it may be a plurality, that first imparts motion, and this first movent must be unmoved" [for otherwise we would be required to ask what had moved it.]   It was not much of a leap for the medieval scholastics to identify this Prime Mover with God.

By the way, the Prime Mover is necessarily eternal [for either coming to be or passing out of existence is a kind of change, which is to say movement].  Since the Prime Mover does not do anything physical, how on earth [or, perhaps more accurately, in heaven's name] does it manage to produce motion in those less perfect things that do come into being and pass out of existence, that do undergo change?  The answer is that the Prime Mover moves by being the object of desire.  The Prime Mover itself is in a condition of perfect and perpetual thought about itself, or self-consciousness.  It takes no notice of the realm of things constantly in motion.  [It could not do so, because this would require coming to know them as they come into and pass out of existence, and this coming to know would be a form of change, which is impossible in an unmoved mover.]  But the heavenly spheres do take notice of the Prime Mover.  The spheres are the most perfect material things [as evidenced by their having the most perfect shape, that of a sphere].  They are not made of earthly substances -- fire, air, earth, and water -- but consist of a fifth more perfect substance, a quint-essence.  Out of endless love for the Prime Mover, the spheres seek to become like the object of their love, but because they are material, however pure, they can only achieve a lesser perfection, namely perfect motion, which is to say [as all the Greeks would agree] circular motion.  So the spheres endlessly revolve, imparting by their friction lesser motions to less perfect terrestrial beings, while also, through their friction with one another generating vibrations which result in the music of the spheres, inaudible though it is to humans. 

Thus it is that love makes the world go round.  [You can see why I love this stuff.]

Well, fast forward maybe fifteen hundred years [a mere nothing to philosophers], and we find a group of brilliant and very industrious Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers multiplying proofs for the existence of God.  Aristotle's argument for the existence of one [or more than one] unmoved movent becomes the formal arguments for a First Cause, a First Mover, a Necessary Being undergirding the existence of contingent beings, and so forth.  These are all variations on a theme, and they all have the same logical structure:  Start with a fact about the world testified to by our senses -- there is motion, there are causes and effects, there are contingent beings, which is to say beings that, because they exist at one time and do not exist at another time cannot be said to exist necessarily.  Then, argue that whatever moves, or causes something to exist, or  exists merely contingently must be preceded by something else that moves it, or causes it to exist, or upon which it depends for its existence.  Finally, conclude that an infinite regress is impossible, that there must at some point be a mover that does not itself move, a cause that is not itself caused, a ground of contingency that is not itself contingent. 

It does not take much more work to demonstrate that there can be only one Unmoved Mover, only one First Cause, only one Necessary Being.   And self-evidently this Unmoved Mover, First Cause, or Necessary Being is God.

This group of proofs for the existence of God acquired the name "Cosmological Arguments," from the fact that each of them starts with some observed feature of the cosmos -- motion, causation, contingency.  But two other proofs were at one time or another put forward for the existence of God, one designed to appeal to the simple non-philosophically trained common man [which is to say the barely literate nobility -- no one was much worried about the peasantry!], and the other so ethereal and raffiné that it could not even secure the endorsement of the Existence-of-God-prover-in-chief, Thomas Aquinas.  The first argument, which flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, came to be known as the Argument from Design.  The second, invented by the eleventh century Benedictine Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, and embraced by a number of otherwise sensible philosophers, is known as the Ontological Argument.

Easy stuff first:  The Argument from design proceeds by appealing to the apparent fittingness of means to ends in the natural world, a fittingness that we are accustomed to encounter in the purposively designed and executed products of human intelligence.  Probably the best known exponent of it [before the modern reincarnation as Creation Science] was William Paley, the early nineteenth century cleric.  Here is a bit from Paley to give you some idea.. Imagine, he asks us, that we are walking along the beach and come upon a pocket watch in the sand.

"[W]hen we come to inspect the watch, we perceive... that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, if a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.... This mechanism being observed,... the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use."  Paley goes on to argue that the human eye is vastly more complex than a watch, with its several parts carefully adapted to one another for the purpose of making sight possible.  And so forth.

This is a really lousy argument, as David Hume demonstrated to great comical effect in his posthumously published work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  As I have had my say about Hume on this blog, I shan't repeat Hume's objections here to the Argument from Design.  But although serious philosophers agree that it is a non-starter, it remains popular with the faithful.

Which brings us, at long last, to the most notorious of all the arguments for the existence of God, The Ontological Argument of Anselm.  Here is the entire argument, as stated in Chapter Two of Anselm's Proslogion:

God truly [i.e., really] exists.

Therefore, 0 Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me to understand—to the degree You know to be advantageous—that You exist, as we believe, and that You are what we believe [You to be]. Indeed, we believe You to be something than which nothing greater can be thought. Or is there, then, no such nature [as You], for the Fool has said in his heart that God does not exist? 2 But surely when this very same Fool hears my words “something than which nothing greater can be thought,” he understands what he hears. And what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand [i.e., judge] it to exist. For that a thing is in the understanding is distinct from understanding that [this] thing exists. 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. So even the Fool is convinced that something than which nothing greater can be thought is at least in his understanding; for when he hears of this [being], he understands [what he hears], and whatever is understood is in the understanding. But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding. For if it were only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality—something which is greater [than existing only in the understanding]. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be thought were only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought would be that than which a greater can be thought! But surely this [conclusion] is impossible. Hence, without doubt, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Well, enough for one day.  Tomorrow, I shall post Bruce Aune's critique and refutation of the attempt by two of my former colleagues to defend Anselm's argument. 


Don Schneier said...

Versions of the Argument From Design regularly get trotted out these days by Creationists in their attempts to refute Evolutionism. One measure of the strength of those efforts is that they never seem to address Hume's objections, as if what Stephen Colbert might call 'logic-iness' sufficed to win the debate.

Michael Llenos said...

The monk Gaunilo said (to refute Anselm) he can use the same argument for a perfect island that is used to prove God's existence.

Meaning, a perfect island exists, because if it didn't, other imperfect islands that do exist would be more perfect than that perfect island, by the very fact that those islands exist and the perfect island doesn't exist. Gaunilo uses this argument by trying to prove that the argument works for everything.

However, since I can still use this argument for proving that God exists, a perfect infinite God would be superior to a perfect island. The reason being only a infinite God can be a First Cause of existence and not a perfect island, meaning: the only perfection is God since anything created is finite and not infinitely perfect. And the perfect and infinitely perfect should mean the same thing.

Plus, if the parts of a perfect island; meaning: trees, grass, dirt and rocks are finite how could its whole be infinite and therefore perfect? Unlike the parts that make up a perfect God: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, which are all perfect.

Some may ask: How can a perfect being create imperfect things? I would reply with this question. Which is greater: a perfect being that can create imperfect things and remain infinitely perfect, or a God that once he makes something imperfect becomes imperfect himself? Obviously, the former is God and not the latter.

And the real genius of the ontological argument is that if you change the definition you are not still talking about the same thing. If you say that God is that which nothing greater can exist, then God must exist both in mind and reality anyway. However, if you say that God is something which something greater can exist, God is no longer implied as an infinite omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent being: which is the only true definition of God.

Don Schneier said...

Kant's contribution to the genre involves a more radical critique of the Medieval arguments than what Hume offers. In general, he proposes that 'God' is fundamentally a Practical idea, not a Theoretical one, so, those various proofs are similarly misguided in their positing God as an object of cognition, either direct or indirect. Instead, according to Kant, the existence of God is required by Morality, i. e. as a rewarder of Virtue, so his proof begins with his Moral principle. The merit of this concept of God is that it accords with the primary role that God plays in popular religion. However, whether or not the proof itself is any sounder that those that it supplants remains open to debate.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But Kant does not offer it asd a proof of the existence of God. Not at all.

Don Schneier said...

He may call it a 'postulate', but that it is a proposition, the postulation of which necessarily follows from the principle of Pure Practical Reason, seems to suggest an implicit proof structure, doesn't it?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, it means that it is something, according to him, that we must suppose to be true in order to act, but for which we can never have a proof. He draws very sharp lines of distinction here and means them to be taken seriously. In the same way, freedom is a postulate, in his terminology, but we cannot know that we are free.

Michael Llenos said...

We can never have a proof? I wonder if what Kant means is that we can never have what Aristotle calls a tekmerion as a proof of God? Tekmerion meaning an absolute proof.

Aristotle gets half of it wrong and half of it right anyhow.

He is correct that one must judge by probability, and not just by absolute fact, and that it would be rediculous if we use probability to see the dangers in front of us on a city street, but do not use probability concerning our ideas of heaven and hell before we experience death.

The part that Aristotle got wrong is that there is no such thing as predicting a tekmerion event. Because we are finite creatures, we can never predict anything as an absolute fact. However, what is mistaken for absolute fact is a judgment based on very high probability. The old saying goes: there is at least one exception to every rule.

By the way, a proof of God that begins with a moral principle (that should be taken seriously) sure sounds like pragmatism. It is a judgment originating from Blaise Pascal's Wager. And if that's how Kant saw that idea he probably got it from Pascal, since William James came after Kant's time.

Don Schneier said...

On the other hand, Kant does present an argument why one "must suppose" that God exists, something along the lines of: 1. One ought to obey the Moral Law; 2. If one does what one ought, then one ought to be rewarded; 3. If one ought to be rewarded, then God ought to exist; 4. If God ought to exist, then one ought to believe that God exists. On my interpretation, the seams that are showing are of his attempt to unify Pure Practical Reason and common Morality, with his classification of the existence of God as a 'postulate' is an attempt to patch over those seams. So, I conceive that argument as Kant's contribution to the genre, regardless of its soundness.