Friday, March 02, 2007

Msgr. Robert Sokolowski on St. Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God

St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous proof for the existence of God in his Proslogion is one of the most profound formulations in the history of theology. Indeed, the Dutch theologian Fr. Frans Jozef van Beeck, S.J. declares that “Few arguments in the history of Christian thought have provoked so much commentary and have so captivated the philosophical imagination of the West as Anselm’s ontological argument."[1] It spawns from St. Anselm’s experience of that ultimate problem common to all humanity: The sense that God is present and pervasive in the world around us yet still so out of reach and hard to grasp. Domine, si hic non es, ubi te quaeram absentem? Si autem ubique es, cur non video praesentem? Lord, if you are not here, where shall I seek you, being absent? But if you are everywhere, why do I not see you present?"[2] In thinking about this God, St. Anselm is ultimately lead to conclude that God is “aliquid quo nihil, maius cogitari posit; something than which nothing greater can be thought.” But, the profundity of his argument is not only in its ability to acknowledge and answer ultimate questions. It is also very much present in the inner enlightenment from which the argument was make.[3] There is a depth and thoroughness that cannot be fully grasped with only a single read or study. Indeed St. Anselm’s proof for the existence of God provides the very stage or horizon for St. Thomas Aquinas’ Quinquae Viae or “Five Ways” of proving the existence of God. Given the above, why is it then that St. Anselm’s proof is so roundly and often criticized for being too terse, too presumptuous, too prohibitive, too biased or even for not proving anything at all?

To answer these questions we will turn to a “master” of the masters: Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, a phenomenologist and professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America. His book, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology[4], will be our guide as we briefly step through St. Anselm’s argument, its implications, its criticisms, and its conclusions. And Sokolowski can help us see in St. Anselm what many of the latter’s critics have overlooked: implicit premises that are what really allow the proof to shine. This is a light that shines on Christian life itself and that shows quod vere sit Deus; that truly God exists.[5]

Sokolowski is a “master of distinctions,” shedding light on ideas and realities by looking at their counterparts or by looking at what they are not. He notes in chapter one, by observing the action of mankind, that we all naturally do this, we all utilize distinctions as we seek to understand the world and everything of and not of it. We understand the living more when we contrast it to what we can know of the nonliving. We understand health more when we contrast it to disease. “Making distinctions is the first step of the exercise of reason” and looking at an object without taking into account its “proper other” only gives us half of our object’s story, half of its “disclosure."[6]

St. Anselm also follows this natural approach. After he describes what God is – “that than which nothing greater can be thought” – he asks “An ergo non est aliqua talis natura; but perhaps there does not exist any such nature,” and mentions the insipiens, the fool, of Psalm 14(13) as asserting that there is no God.[7] Sokolowski observes that “When we wish to think theologically about faith, therefore, we must contrast faith to unbelief; and when we wish to think theologically about God as the object of faith, we must raise the question of the negation of ‘any such nature’ as the God in whom we believe.” Furthermore, “Because of the contrastive nature of reason we cannot think theologically about faith and God without raising the issue of unbelief and the nonexistence of God."[8]

In his argument, St. Anselm turns reason toward faith itself rather than use it within faith as so many before him had done exclusively. He is able to show that faith and reason are not opposed to each other. Faith becomes an object of reason while still maintaining the conviction of fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. Indeed in his preface he reveals an “attempt to establish the existence of God apart from belief in him”:

unum argumentum, quod nullo alio ad se probandum quam se solo indigeret, et solum ad astruendum quod deus vere est… sufficeret; a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone, and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists."[9]

But, because St. Anselm's argument is “encompassed and permeated by worship – he begins by praying for understanding and ends by giving thanks for it"[10] – we are presented with our first critique of this argument: Can he really make his claim apart from faith? But Sokolowski assures us that “The simple thought of ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’ is all that is needed” and can stand on its own.[11]

In chapter two of the Proslogion when St. Anselm moves on to establish quod vere sit Deus; that truly God exists, he makes the distinction between existing in the mind, in solo intellectu, and existing in reality, in re. He goes on to say that “it is greater, maius, to exist both in reality and in the mind than it is to exist merely in the mind."[12] Therefore, God must exist because if he exists only in the mind then he would not be aliquid quo nihil, maius cogitari posit, that than which nothing greater can be thought.

Aside from this explicit premise, we now come to an implicit one that Sokolowski and few others, if any, recognizes. He formulates it as such:

(God plus the world) is not greater than God alone; or:

(God plus any creature) is not greater than God alone.

“The premise implies that God is to be so understood, and the world or creatures are to be so understood, that nothing greater, maius, is achieved if the world or creatures are added to God."[13] This could also be expressed as:

(God plus the world) cannot be conceived as greater than God alone; or:

(God plus any creature) cannot be conceived as greater than God alone.

This premise is valid because it is implied in St. Anselm’s conclusion of “that than which nothing greater can be thought.”

Anselm’s definition of how God is understood is usually taken to mean that no other being, or no other combination of beings, could be conceived as greater than God; but it must also be true that any being or any beings taken together with God cannot be conceived as amounting to something greater than God alone.[14]

Also, parallel to being greater, maius, is being better, melius:

(God plus the world) cannot be conceived as better than God alone; or:

(God plus any creature) cannot be conceived as better than God alone.

Thus, God could be all there is and he would be no less great or good.

In The God of Faith and Reason, Sokolowski has pioneered what he calls the Theology of Disclosure. Briefly, in his own words, this is “the reflective study of how the Christian distinction between God and the world is presented to us.” Again, we are always distinguishing, making distinctions, in our experience, but we cannot experience the distinction between God and the world. This is unlike the pagan understanding of the divine, because the world, the whole, was for them the “final context” and the divine was just as much a part of the world as the creatures. This is a necessary consequence of the uniqueness of God because his existence is understood as being possible and necessary without the world and independent of it. Here we see that the terms of St. Anselm’s argument are uniquely Christian therefore it cannot be lifted from this setting, as we mentioned before. But, again, this does not make his argument any less reasonable.

Let us look more closely at the merits of St. Anselm’s argument in proving quod vere sit Deus; that truly God exists. In chapter nine Sokolowski states:

The issue of “greater” and “better” is defined and examined within this alternative of being in the mind and being in reality; if something exists in reality as well as in the mind, it must be thought to be greater and better than that which is in the mind alone. But the more fundamental question of how the “greater” and “better” between God and the world are to be determined is left unexamined and only implicitly defined.[15]

But, this distinction can still be made and so does not detract from our goal to prove the existence of God. “There is a kind of warrant of existence when a distinction that can be understood is made."[16] Can we say that “the making of the distinction itself somehow establishes for us the existence of God?"[17] Let us look at some other critiques of St. Anselm’s argument.

  1. Sokolowski himself states, in comparing St. Anselm with St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Making the Christian distinction between God and the world is a more elementary activity than carrying out the traditional arguments for the existence of God.” But, while “[St. Anselm’s] argument does not reason from effects to causes, … it brings out the domain within which the movement from effects to causes [in St. Thomas’ five ways] is to take place.”
  2. Because of St. Anselm’s non-Thomistic approach, transcendentalists who rely on St. Thomas, like Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner, will also find issue with it. The transcendental method “turns from things to the subjectivity that desires and knows things."[18] Lonergan states that “Being is completely intelligible… For being is the objective of the detached, disinterested, unrestricted desire to know."[19] Therefore, God exists. But Sokolowski counters that

This approach does not give due recognition to… pagan mythical and philosophical thinking: the simple acceptance of limitation (which may not even be seen as limitation to be transcended) and the acknowledgment of elements of rude unintelligibility that show up along with the reasonableness of things.[20]

  1. Finally, Karl Barth argues that “All that the formula says about this object is, as far as I can see, this one thing, this one negative: nothing greater than it can be imagined… It does not say that God is, nor what he is, but rather, in the form of a prohibition that man can understand, who he is."[21] But, in reply, Sokolowski affirms what we’ve said before:

The name of God is not just a command never to think of anything greater than him; the phrase “that than which nothing greater can be thought” gives us an inkling of what God is, by implying that even if the world or any being were added to him, the result is nothing better or greater than God alone… We restrain our “freedom” of thought, not because of an injunction, but because of an understanding, or at least the glimpse of an understanding.[22]

Barth doesn’t take into account the implicit premises of St. Anselm’s argument that we saw before.

From these criticisms and answers we move to finally answer the question whether St. Anselm’s proof works as a proof. Contrary to popular belief, Sokolowski states that “it seems clear that this proof ought not to be taken as an [inference] from an idea to the existence of a being."[23] This would make the argument seem deceptive and unsatisfying. The real question is if the distinction between God and the world or creation, as seen in our implicit premises above, is “meaningful, thinkable, and possible.” It is about the possibility of God not His Actuality. Ultimately, the disclosure of this possibility “is brought forward, is first rendered, in the life of Christ. It continues to be made visible primarily in the Christian life.” Furthermore, this understanding calls “not only for an intellectual assent or denial but also for a moral response.” This possibility of responding to God is kept alive in the Church and becomes available for others because “there is an element of understanding in it"[24] – The Christian Distinction – which needs to be rendered “again and again, to clarify and contrast it against ever new things with which it might be confused,” i.e. past and future criticisms and controversies.

We have looked at what motivated St. Anselm’s argument for the existence of God and the brilliance with which it stands despite its many critiques. We have been introduced to Sokolowski’s Theology of Disclosure, the meaningfulness of distinctions and of distinguishing, and how these can help us gain new and deeper insight into St. Anselm’s argument. Indeed, Sokolowski finds his art of making distinctions – in order to discover the reality and being of things – implicit in St. Anselm’s argument as he turns reason toward faith like no one had ever done before. St. Augustine said it first when he said “For no soul ever has been able to conceive or ever will be able to conceive anything better than You, the supreme and perfect Good."[25] St. Anselm’s takes up this religious setting, but “Anyone, even the insipiens [our “fool” from Psalm 14(13)], can understand [his] thought when he hears it expressed, and therefore the thought exists in his mind when he understands it."[26] When then saw in St. Anselm’s argument the uniquely Christian distinction between God and the world or creation and we described critiques from St. Thomas Aquinas, Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, Karl Barth and Sokolowski himself. Finally we were able to see that what is offered in St. Anselm’s proof is “the possibility of thinking about God and the world in a certain way and of living the faith that provides, nourishes, and completes this understanding."[27]

[1] Franz Jozef van Beeck, God Encountered: A Contemporary Catholic Systematic Theology, Volume 2/2: The Revelation of the Glory, Part II: One God, Creator of All That Is (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), p. 55.
[2]Chapter 1 of St. Anselm’s Proslogion, translated with introduction and commentary by M.J. Charlesworth (1965; reprinted., Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979).
[3] van Beeck comments that “Anselm regards the understanding he is seeking as a grace – a God-given gift of intellectual enlightenment.” p. 59
[4] Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington: The Catholic University of American Press, 1995)
[5] The title of Chapter 2 of the Proslogion.
[6] Cf. Sokolowski, p. 4
[7] Ps 14(13): 1; 53(52): 1 – “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God”
[8] Sokolowski, p. 5
[9] p. 7
[10] van Beeck, p. 58
[11] Sokolowski, p. 7
[12] p. 7
[13] p. 8
[14] p. 9
[15] p. 106
[16] p. 107
[17] p. 108
[18] p. 112
[19] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1957), p. 672.
[20] p. 109
[21] Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, translated by I.W. Robertson (London: SCM Press, 1960), p. 75, emphasis mine.
[22] Sokolowski, p. 111, emphasis mine.
[23] p. 113
[24] p. 115
[25] St. Augustine, Confessions, translated by F.J. Sheed (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993), seventh book, part four, p. 110.
[26] Sokolowski, p. 7
[27] p. 115

1 comment:

phatcatholic said...

hey, there's a guy from phatmass who is an expert on anselm, so i showed him your paper. here are his comments:

I think its a great article, and I don't disagree with anything up until the very end. Actually, I even agree with the very end. The only point that I would make is that, while it is true that Anselm's argument allows us to make the necessary God/World distinction, that is not [i]all[/i] it does. He is right to point out that it chiefly brings up the question of whether God is [i]possible[/i], however, as Charles Hartshorne has shown, Anselm's argument goes further and argues that if God is possible, then he must exist. This is true because God is being conceived of as a necessary being. A necessary being exists in all "possible worlds" and a possible being exists in at least one "possible world." Therefore, if God is possible, then a necessary being will exist in at least one "possible world," but if this is true and it is a [i]necessary[/i] being existing in one possible world, then it must also exist in every other possible world.

So I would just point out that Anselm's argument is stronger than it is here supposed, because not only does it establish God's possibility, but also his necessity. Fantastic article, tell your bro congrats!