Why Does Anselm's Ontological Argument Haunt Us?
On How It Threatens Everything
God is the greatest of all possible beings, and a great possible being which exists is greater than one which doesn’t; therefore, God exists. There you go! How do you feel? Well, if you don’t feel convinced, then you aren’t thinking about the God to which this proof refers; if you are convinced, that might just mean you already believed in God. And so Anselm’s legendary argument haunts us…
There are a million responses to the Ontological Argument, and I will not address them all here, though more of my thoughts on Anselm can be found in Pensées of a Professor (Anselm is a diamond which can be viewed from many sides). Rather, I will leave it to readers to explore the depths of Anselm on their own: from my familiarity with “The Great Discussion,” I will only attempt to offer a small contribution with Epistemological (and thus Ontological) relevance, though if it proves foolish, please discard it. I want to explore “the haunting of Anselm,” our inability to totally shake the Ontological Argument. Whenever we think we’ve escaped it with a reading of Kant or Bertrand Russel, we find it floating around in our minds again, always waiting to be reexamined. And so we do, find it convincing, and then go about our day, only to find ourselves reconsidering the argument a month later. And so we do, find it unconvincing, and then go about our day, only to find ourselves reconsidering the argument months later. And so we go about our lives.
“The Ontological Argument” is epistemologically significant beyond theology in helping unveil that “the true isn’t the rational.” Why is that? Because unless we are thinking about a God who is real, we aren’t thinking about God, and that means the only God we can think about disproving is an entity we mislabel as “God.” And yet this would only prove that we cannot disprove God “in thought”: it would not prove that God can be experienced in the world. Funny enough, God by definition cannot be experienced, so the inability to experience God would not disprove God, only an entity we mislabel “God.” Thus, “a proof of God” is indeed established by Anselm, though that doesn’t mean God’s Existence has been proved (which is arguably something else we should expect, seeing as God may want a relationship, which requires freedom — if God wants freedom, “a proof” is the best we can hope for, not “a forceful proving”).
Anselm suggests that belief in God is “an internally consistent system,” which is to say that there are no essential contradictions in (some forms of) Theism, and yet it could still be the case that God cannot be experienced (which means there is a “way” God doesn’t exist, even if we cannot say that God “doesn’t exist at all”). This in turn unveils that there are “internally consistent systems,” which means that rationality is always organized, orientated, and systemized according to a belief in what is true. If we believe God exists, then x is rational; if we don’t believe God exists, then x is irrational. And from “a belief in what is true,” we organize and construct a system of rational parts, all of which inform and construct one another.
Why does the Ontological Argument unveil this? Because it shows that we cannot think of God unless we think of God as real, which radically transforms how we think of God. It means we cannot think of God except from our knees (as I recall Karl Barth basically arguing), which is to say only with full ascent to God’s existence. This means God can only be disproven from within belief of God, but of course this poses a problem: if we believe x is true, we cannot go about disproving it without ceasing to believe x is true, which means we cannot disprove it. This means we have to “semi-believe” x is true to go about disproving it, and though I think this can work with finite premises like, “That sink is broke” or “Mom is nice,” I don’t know if it’s possible with God (and similar infinite entities). If we “semi-think” God exists, then we are not thinking about God, for God doesn’t “semi-exist.” And to think, “That sink is broke,” in order to tinker with it and find out it isn’t broke doesn’t question at all the existence of the sink itself. We can “semi-think” something about the sink precisely because it doesn’t “semi-exist” but fully does so. When it comes to God though, since God cannot be experienced, we have to think God is real to be “toward” God at all. Otherwise, we are not treating the concept with the existence it entails in its definition, and thus we are not treating the concept.
If we are understanding the world, we are doing so through a mode of understanding. Anselm understood that the “nonrational” choice of our “mode” shaped what we understood through that mode, that “understanding” could never be “autonomous” and “free from being ‘moded’ ” (to blend “mode” and “mold”). This point has widespread implications, and it should not be thought that Anselm is only critiquing Atheists: Apologetic Thinkers, for example, who “stand” ultimately defend a God who isn’t real, just as much as “standing” Atheist oppose a nonexistent God (which of course makes Atheism seem on the right track).
Rationality is always “conditioned” by nonrationality, and where a people do not “share a rationality,” it will be very hard for them to be intelligible to one another. As discussed in “Geometry, Astronomy, and Platonic Forms As Ordering Principles” by O.G. Rose, we could say that a people must “share forms” to “share intelligibility,” which means they must operate according to similar “modes,” “truths,” “nonrationalities,” and the like — all of which we can capture in the term “form” (at least here). This would mean that a society will struggle to function if everyone isn’t “on their knees,” per se, or all “standing up”: if there is a mixture of people “on their knees,” “standing up,” “jumping,” “walking,” etc., then “shared intelligibility” will prove difficult, which will cause incredible “existential anxiety” (as discussed in Belonging Again by O.G. Rose regarding “the loss of givens”). We tend to think that it’s okay if some people are “walking” while others “kneel,” because we tend to believe that “rationality” is all we need for “shared intelligibility” and social operation, but this is the terrible mistake of believing in the possibility of “autonomous rationality.” Rationality can never override “modes” which make rationality possible, which is to say rationality can never replace “nonrationality.” But rationality can try, causing effacement and totalitarianism.
Considering this, ignoring Anselm is practically consequential: we for too long have considered speculative or abstract thought “impractical,” failing to appreciate that “abstract thought” is the only way to even begin approaching “the nonrationality” or “mode” which organizes our rationality (which must be labeled “abstract” by rationality, for it is thought which tries to “abstract itself” from rationality and its reach to “get behind it” and understand what makes rationality possible). Rationality “rationally” sees itself as “the ground of its own possibility,” so “thinking nonrationally” is automatically “abstract” and “impractical.” But this is a trick of rationality, an act of self-deception which can cause pathology and neurosis, as indeed it has, evident with “The Meaning Crisis.”
Why do we hate admitting that “autonomous rationality” is impossible? Why do we hate accepting “nonrationality?” Many reasons, but to offer one, it means we must accept “preset givens” and systems of values, both of which can oppress and cause “the banality of evil” (as described in Belonging Again). If there is “a right and wrong,” people could be oppressed, and since the foundation of that value system will be “nonrational,” it will be very hard for rationality to stop: it will almost be “practically invincible” (like belief in God, precisely for reasons Anselm describes). This is a terrifying possible, but if there is “no right and wrong,” people will still employ such values and not be allowed to admit they are, causing pathology. Values can oppress, so to avoid oppression, we search for a “view from nowhere” that ends up turning the world into “a problem of something.” To seek “a view from nowhere” turns the world into a nowhere we then try to view and see nothing. But the only alternative is to risk creating a “practically invincible” force of oppression, which suggest how Anselm instructs us to “fall to our knees” and suffer “the conflict of mind.”
Now, to address a valid critique of Anselm: though we cannot think God unless we think of God as existing, it does not follow that God can be experienced relative to any possible dimensionality (such as in Eternity or the Infinite). In Chapter 2, Anselm tells us ‘there is no doubt that something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality,’ but I’m not sure if we can say for sure that this is “reality as we understand it” or “reality as we experience it.” Perhaps we indeed cannot think of reality as not including God, and thus must treat reality “as if” God is part of it somehow, but it is still possible that how we must be “toward reality” and “how existence is in itself” are not the same.
Anselm works to establish God as “logically consistent and necessary,” similarly to the mathematics of “2 + 2 = 4,” and as “only a fool says in his heart” that “2 + 2 = 5,” so on similar grounds Anselm would have us understand that only a fool says “God doesn’t exist.” There’s truth to this, but it’s also true that mathematics might be constructed versus discovered (God could be “a perfectly constructed concept” that is entirely “coherent” and yet doesn’t “correspond”). Still, that’s a big move Anselm makes, and it means we cannot “outright” dismiss “God”: there’s “good reason” to really consider God, and Anselm argues this can only really be done from our knees. And once he gets us there, “the proof” is done: we’re bowed.
We can’t think “a God who isn’t real,” but that easily just means there is a difference between “thought” and “experience,” a gap and divide which cannot be crossed. And thus “true” and “rational” are different, which means “the true isn’t the rational.” Yes, they are always linked and informing one another, but the categories are not equivalent. We can be rational about what is true, and we determine rationality according to truth, but we cannot say “true” and “rational” are the same. “Ideas are not experiences.”
Because the true isn’t the rational, but rather what we believe is true determines what we think is rational, how in the world do we decide what we will believe is true? It can’t be with just rationality, because rationality comes after the ascent to a truth. And so we find ourselves facing Kierkegaard and the unavoidability of some “leap of faith” according to some standard of decision we cannot claim is necessarily rational and yet may all the same be right. We are stuck operating with “nonrationality,” which Benjamin Fondane and Game Theory teach us is necessary, but that does not make the choice any easier. The choice is existentially terrifying, for we cannot outsource responsibility for the choice to “what was rational.” The choice is radically ours. The Real.
We are either in “an internally consistent system” or we are not: there is no halfway. But if we’re in a system, then it filters our experience in a manner that gives us “reason to think” we should stay in the system: our “rationality” is “captured” (Deleuze), for good and for bad. Rationality is always filtered, per se, by a truth, and that doesn’t mean it is wrong, but it does mean that the “choice” of what “internally consistent system” we step into is a huge choice (to think Kierkegaard). What if we’re deceived? What if we brainwashed ourselves? And doesn’t this mean “a risk of brainwashing” is unavoidable? And if we’re brainwashed, won’t we be brainwashed out of the ability to recognize that brainwashing occurred? And so the existential anxiety runs in. The Real. “The Pynchon Risk.” Made In Abyss. And how in the world do we make that choice if rationality occurs in a truth? According to what are choices made “between” “internally consistent systems?” For me, this is one of the most profound questions of all and gets us into topics of beauty, “intrinsic motivation,” emotion, and the like — topics explored throughout O.G. Rose.
Anselm would have us understand that Thomas Nagel is right, that “there is no view from nowhere,” that we are always “viewing from somewhere,” and the choice of which “somewhere we view from” cannot be understood as “purely rational” (or “autonomously rational,” to allude to David Hume). “Nonrationality” must play a role, but if it does, we are stuck with Kierkegaard and all his terror. Anselm wants us to know that we cannot disprove God except from our knees, and yet whatever God we disprove will not be a God who exists. We will never have reason to leave our knees. Does this prove God or prove we are stuck (Schrödinger-esq)? Anselm would have us realize that we are only “thinking about God,” not “contemplating God,” unless we are on our knees, from which will never have reason to leave. And I would argue this description describes general ascents to truths and worldviews. Atheism falls into Anselm’s logic just as much as does Theism, which suggests that, if Anselm’s argument fails, it fails because it applies to everyone. “The Ontological Argument” applies to all ontologies.
Anselm talks about God residing in ‘unapproachable light,’ but all “truth” resides in something like that, actually, because “certainty” is impossible (only “confidence,” as discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose). We cannot ever be certain that what we believe is true (even if it is), which means we can “never approach” a final resting place. That “final place” must always be out of reach, which means we will always have reason to “stay on our knees,” per se, which is to say we will always have reason to keep ascribing to whatever truth to which we have chosen to “nonrationally” ascribe. No one can ever gain “certainty,” and so we will not gain “certainty” by leaving our knees and falling to our knees in a different spot. So why move? Indeed, why move.
As stressed throughout The True Isn’t the Rational, a (false) belief in the possibility of “rationality from nowhere” (which perhaps Descartes contributed to) has helped turn “the world into a big nowhere,” per se, a place without direction, definition, or character (which is to say there is a “Meaning Crisis,” as discussed by John Vervaeke). This brings to mind the arguments of Adorno and Horkheimer on how the Enlightenment contributed to the totalitarianism of the 20th century and suggests that “getting on our knees” would have helped us avoid those horrible errors. But that means we could have avoided the violence of the 20th century by accepting the unavoidability of risking brainwashing. Of Pynchon Risks. Of Made In Abyss. Is suffering “the conflict of mind” the only way to avoid hell?
It is our only chance, yes, but the existential anxiety of it could make totalitarianism appealing, as discussed in Belonging Again. And this is us.
“The Ontological Argument” highlights the radical role of raw choice, meaning Anselm unveils the radical inescapability of Kierkegaard, and Kierkegaard’s demands on us are indeed haunting. Anselm unveils that we have to choose something without any support or “ground” at all, and once we make that choice, our experience of the world will be filtered in a way that we cannot escape. This is perhaps clear to us Moderns who view religion as brainwashing, but what Anselm argues applies just as well to most if not all ideologies and worldviews. We cannot disprove the value of freedom except from a place of believing in freedom; we cannot prove the value of justice except from a place of trying to disprove it, the very act of which would make it seem like justice didn’t exist (for look at all the injustice we caused); and so on. We cannot escape some degree of “participatory knowledge,” to allude to Michael Polanyi’s “personal knowledge,” which is to say that we cannot help but create knowledge which confirms x in the act of believing x, which we must do to prove or disprove x. Whichever road we choose, we in the act of walking it create reasons (even objective reasons) for why choosing it was wise. We cannot choose a way of life without making it seem like life itself (and knowing this will cause “a conflict of mind”).
“A conflict of mind” is when “epistemic responsibility” comes in conflict with “epistemic possibility,” and it feels epistemologically irresponsible to choose “a way of life” knowing that this very choice will filter our experience to make the choice seem right. But it is “epistemologically impossible” for us not to take this risk, and so we must make a choice that, if the wrong choice, we may never know is wrong, but at least that means we also cannot know it is the wrong choice (we are spared “too much reality” it seems, alluding to Eliot). Still, we are haunted with uncertainty, the uncertainty like how we aren’t sure if Anselm is right or wrong. And indeed, “the reality of the conflict of mind” is arguably haunting, for the implications of it are massive and yet inescapable, so much so that we might not want to consider it. But we must, for it is the way of things, as Anselm unveils.
Fortunately, Anselm explores “the ways of thinking” in the realm of theology, and it is easy for us Moderns to ignore theology (theology has lost its “stickiness,” per se, as discussed in “Compelling” by O.G. Rose). Ignoring Anselm is our best bet, but he still lurks in the background, haunting us. It always feels like there is something we missed, and indeed, we missed how our “view of the world” is actually a worldview resulting from an ultimately groundless “leap of faith.” And that’s haunting, a nagging feeling that we have done something epistemically irresponsible yet necessary. Perhaps Anselm knew he was haunting, hence his efforts to comfort us with a Holy Ghost, a Ghost offered to us this very day.