Hierarchy in proofs of the existence of God

Yesterday was my last class session for Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology. Our final reading included Locke’s variation (from the Essay) on the proof of the existence of God, which has naturally been a recurring theme in the course. He emphasizes throughout that God must be an intellectual being, because it’s inconceivable that matter could produce intellect — and an intuition struck me: is there a proof of the existence of God that doesn’t rely in some way upon mind-body dualism?

I threw the question out to both sections, and some interesting conclusions emerged. First, in none of the other proofs we discussed — Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes — was mind-body dualism so obviously crucial as in Locke’s. Yet it does seem that belief in some kind of spiritual reality is necessary for infinite-regress-prevention proofs (like some of Aquinas’s Five Ways) to be proving God rather than, for example, the Big Bang. The end of all his proofs is “And this, everyone agrees, is God” — but it’s ultimately mind-body dualism that makes it seem intuitively obvious that the first cause or prime mover can’t be material.

Second, and more essentially, it seems that all the classical proofs depend more broadly on ontological hierarchy, of which mind-body dualism is a decisive piece. God can be purely spiritual and yet produce matter because the spiritual is above the material and can therefore produce it, while the opposite could never be the case. And while Anselm’s proof may seem immune to this, he isn’t sheerly trying to prove the “existence” of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought — he’s trying to prove that that thing is God, in the familiar and traditional sense. The definition isn’t just a clever move to be able to deduce existence, but to be able to simultaneously deduce everything else we know about God — and that depends on an ontological hierarchy providing “objective” standards for what’s greater.

This reliance on mind-body dualism and ontological hierarchy, more than any logical missteps in the proofs, may account for why they are so unconvincing to most people today.

The calming effect of the ontological argument

I’m currently reading through all the texts I’ll be teaching this fall, and yesterday’s text was Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. I always find Descartes to be a relaxing and enjoyable read, and the same holds for Anselm as well, whose Proslogion is on the docket for today. Whatever one might think of the value of the ontological argument for the existence of God, then, I think it’s indisputable that it is conducive to a very readable and calming writing style.

In other Descartes-related news, I was struck, as always, by how unconvincing and confusing the wax analogy is — but thankfully, John Holbo has done some research into the weird reasons Descartes wanted to use it. (You can probably skip down to the heading “The Wax and the World,” and skim much else besides, given his verbose and digressive writing style.)

Descartes and Anselm

I’m reading some Descartes today, and I notice that he has a very calming effect. Even when he’s making what are, on the face of it, outrageous claims for his philosophy, he strikes one as humble and level-headed. This is very similar to Anselm, in my experience. Also, Descartes and Anselm share an emphasis on the pleasure to be derived from speculative thought.

Perhaps there’s something about arriving at the ontological proof of the existence of God that makes one easy-going and pleasant to be around (or at least read).


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