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Part 11: An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle and St. Anselm
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-06-04 11:57:40
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St. Anselm of Canterbury: Good morning Professor Aristotle. I’d like to join the conversation on the existence of God by presenting the Ontological Argument for which I am rather famous.

Aristotle: We’d be honored bishop Anselm. Your reputation precedes you. If I remember correctly, you are a Benedictine monk, a doctor of the Church (11th century), born in Aosta, Italy, who became archbishop of Canterbury and is considered to be the father of medieval scholasticism.

Anselm: indeed, but we ought to grant some credit to the philosophers who greatly influenced me.

Aristotle: and who might those be?

Anselm: well, there is Augustine of Hippo, Don Scotus, who were neo-Platonists, and then, believe it or not, there is yourself.

Aristotle: really? How is that?

Anselm: well you influenced me with your rationalist, less mystical, way of thinking. I should also mention Boethius (of The Consolations of Philosophy fame).

Aristotle: so what you are saying is that, non unlike St. Thomas Aquinas, you also investigated the relationship between reason and revealed truth.

Anselm: yes, in some way I preceded Aquinas.  

Aristotle: Very interesting indeed. But to come to our subject at hand, why do you call your argument the Ontological argument?

Anselm: because, as you well know, ontology has something to do with existence, what really exists. It has to do with the idea that God is perfect by definition.

Aristotle: but that seems to assume that God already exists. Most atheists and agnostics do not make that assumption.

Anselm: Not really. One does not have to believe that God exists in order to accept a proposed definition for God. Unicorns have one horn by definition but that does not mean that they exist. Truths by definition do not depend on existence.

Aristotle: this is similar then to my definition that one cannot think of a higher or loftier idea than that of God. He would have to possess infinite and perfect knowledge. Short of that he would not be God, by definition.

Anselm: Indeed it is. It is a rationalist’s argument as long as one keeps in mind that there are no infinite natural things here on earth, but there are infinite unchanging transcendent things. Plato called them the Forms.

Aristotle: but as you well know, I did not agree with Plato on that.

Anselm: I know, I know. But let me proceed. Consider please an imaginary being that has perfect knowledge, goodness and power, but does not exist. Non existence would obviously be defect in that being. Now, if God is by definition is perfect, then God cannot be just an imaginary idea. By definition God has to exist in reality and not only in one’s imagination.

Aristotle: I am not sure that the idea that something that exists is more perfect than something that does not exist make much rational sense. It sounds a bit circular.

Anselm: let me try another tack. If you affirmed that you have a female brother, this is false by definition because part of the definition of “brother” is that such a person is male. If somebody is female she couldn’t be anybody’s brother. Correct?

Aristotle: correct.

Anselm: can we then not agree that part of the definition of the word “God” is that it is the most perfect thing conceivable? You yourself said something like that when you postulated the First Cause and the Unmovable Mover.

Aristotle: Indeed I did.

Anselm: so, if one says that God has imperfect knowledge, that would have to be false by definition; right?

Aristotle: indeed.

Anselm: but if somebody affirms that “God does not exist” this is attributing a characteristic that is less than perfect, so that it has to be a false definition.

Aristotle: right, but nothing exists by mere definition. I have many ideal things that exist in my imagination but they exist nowhere on earth, as even Plato would acknowledge. We all feel deprived and frustrated because things in this world don’t seem to be ideal or perfect as we imagine them. Can you mention one city on earth where the ideals of the Republic of Plato have been perfectly fulfilled. I believe you call that imaginary city an Utopia, nowadays. By definition, anything ideal would have to exist in reality, not just in one’s imagination. That’s the just of your argument about God as the ultimate ideal. The fact that you can imagine something does not mean that it exists.

Anselm: It is not the same thing. It is in God’s very nature to exist, but it is not in the nature of a unicorn or a pink elephant to exist, albeit one has to consider the concept of perfectibility which does not mean that anything on earth is perfect.

Aristostle: this is an intriguing argument but I must say that I find it rather weird. It would seem important to religion, but I continue to harbor doubts as to its rationality.

Anselm: well, I acknowledge that it is not as popular as your First Cause argument which many people, even those who have never taken a philosophy course, have heard sometime in their life. And perhaps precious few people have been converted into believers by this argument, but I think it is still worth presenting it. If it is right, then it logically proves the existence of God.

Aristotle: but perhaps it is worth considering, dear Anselm, that indeed precious few people have been convinced by rational arguments devised by philosophers on the existence of God. Even Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God have convinced few people who were not already believers. I suspect they are not even that important for believers who believe not because of empirical or logical evidence, but because of faith. Did you yourself become convinced of the existence of God and decide to become a monk because of the ontological argument?

Anselm: not really. I thought of the argument to be able to discuss the existence of God with non believers, not with believers who already believe by faith.

Aristotle: well then, you have practically admitted that our philosophical arguments simply prove the god of the philosophers: the god that issues from the human mind, the god  who is not the transcendent providential God of the believer and as such it becomes an idolatry when such a god, a product of the human mind, is worshipped and sacrificed to. So, ultimately we philosophers have no real rational arguments that may actually be convincing to someone as the basis for the religious believer’s belief. Perhaps Nietzsche had it on target when he announced that God is dead. Who needs that kind of god?

Anselm: you have a point there, my friend. I’ll have to think on it for a while. Good day professor Aristotle.

Aristotle: Good day Anselm.  

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