Friday, 30 November 2007

Does Anselm Beg the Question?

William Rowe (bless his heart) has been arguing for three decades that Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) begs the question in his famous ontological argument for the existence of God. For two decades, I have been denying it.

Anselm claims that the following four propositions are inconsistent:

1. For all objects x, if x exists only in the understanding and x might have existed in reality, then x might have been greater than x is. (Let us call this “the greatmaking principle.”)

2. God exists only in the understanding.

3. God might have existed in reality.

4. God is the object than which no greater is possible. (This is the definition of “God.”)

If Anselm is correct that these propositions are inconsistent, then everyone, including Anselm, Rowe, you, and me, must reject at least one of them. Since Anselm accepts 1, 3, and 4, he rejects 2, from which he infers that God exists in reality as well as in the understanding. That, then, is Anselm’s ontological argument: Propositions 1, 3, and 4 are true; therefore, given the inconsistency of the set, proposition 2 is false.

Rowe never tells us which proposition he rejects (although it’s clear it’s not 2). Instead, he claims that Anselm begs the question. According to Rowe, given the truth of propositions 1 and 4 (Rowe concedes 4 for the sake of argument), in order for someone to know that 3 is true, he or she must know that 2 is false. In other words, given the greatmaking principle and Anselm’s definition of “God,” in order to know that God possibly exists, one must know that God exists. Since Anselm’s avowed purpose in making the argument is to establish that God exists, Anselm begs the question. He assumes the very thing he set out to prove!

I argue as follows:

1. If Rowe’s understanding of begging the question is correct, then all valid arguments beg the question.

2. Not all valid arguments beg the question.


3. Rowe’s understanding of begging the question is incorrect (from 1 and 2, modus tollens).


4. Rowe has not shown that Anselm begs the question (from 3).

Consider the following syllogism:

1. All M is P.

2. All S is M.


3. All S is P.

Students of logic will recognize this as the Barbara syllogism (AAA-1), which is valid. Let’s apply Rowe’s conception of begging the question to it. Given 1, in order to know 2, one must know 3. In better English, we get this: Given 1, if 2 is true, then 3 is true. By exportation, we get: If 1 and 2 are true, then 3 is true. But that just restates the argument! The argument says that the truth of 1 and 2 guarantees (is a sufficient condition of) the truth of 3. Far from showing that the argument is fallacious, Rowe has merely restated it.

What I just did with the Barbara syllogism can be done with any other valid argument. So on Rowe’s understanding of begging the question, all valid arguments beg the question. Since this is not so, Rowe’s understanding of begging the question is incorrect; and since it’s incorrect, he has not shown, as he thinks he has, that Anselm begs the question. He has merely restated Anselm’s argument.

You might wonder where Rowe says what I say he says, namely: “given the greatmaking principle, in order to know that God possibly exists, one must know that God exists.” On page 50 of the fourth edition of his book Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction (2007), he writes (all boldface type is mine):

Therefore, given (1) Anselm’s concept of God, (2) his principle that existence is a great-making quality, and (3) the premise that God, as conceived by Anselm, is a possible thing, it really does follow that Anselm’s God actually exists.

On page 51, he writes:

Therefore, if we allow Anselm his concept of God and his principle that existence is a great-making quality, then in granting that God, as Anselm conceives of him, is a possible being, we will be granting much more than that his concept of God is not contradictory. We will be granting, for example, that some existing thing is as perfect as it can be. For the plain fact is that Anselm’s God is a possible thing only if some existing thing is as perfect as it can be. (Italics in original.)

The other day, Rowe sent me a draft of his essay “Alvin Plantinga on the Ontological Argument.” On page 2 of this essay, he writes:

What then do we have to know if we are to know that Anselm’s God is in fact a possible being? If we grant that existence in reality is a great-making property, we have to know the very thing that Anselm proposes to prove: that among the beings that actually exist there is one that is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. (Italics omitted.)

I would agree with Rowe that Anselm begs the question if, in order for someone to know that proposition 3 of Anselm’s argument is true, he or she must know that 2 is false. But Rowe is saying that in order for someone to know both 1 and 3, he or she must know that 2 is false. But that, together with 4 (the definition of “God”) is Anselm’s argument! It is as if Rowe had said, of the Barbara syllogism, that, given 1, one can’t know 2 without knowing 3. Exactly! But far from making the syllogism fallacious, that merely restates it.

Twenty Years Ago

11-30-87 Monday. The Arizona Wildcats stunned the basketball world this evening by defeating third-ranked Syracuse [the Orangemen] and winning the Great Alaska Shootout. The Wildcats not only won, but won handily, 80-69. Syracuse was the preseason favorite in at least one poll, in large part because of last [sic; should be "the previous"] year’s strong showing in the NCAA tournament. So now the Wildcats are 4-0, counting the exhibition victory over the Russians. When they beat the Russians, I recall thinking that the team was solid. Then came the annihilation of Duquesne [the Dukes]. At this point I wasn’t sure whether we were very good or Duquesne was very bad. After beating Michigan [the Wolverines], I was sure we were very good. Now, after beating Michigan and Syracuse in three days, there’s no question about it. This team is formidable. The scoring attack, led by Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Craig McMillan, Anthony Cook, and Tom Tolbert, is balanced; the defense is solid; and the three-point and free-throw shooting is good. Wow. It’s going to be a great fall and winter in the Old Pueblo. The Wildcats should be ranked in the top ten this week. [The Wildcats made it to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, losing to the Oklahoma Sooners in the semifinals. Sean Elliott played 12 seasons in the National Basketball Association. Steve Kerr played 15 seasons. Anthony Cook played four seasons. Tom Tolbert played seven seasons.]

. . . 

The topic of discussion in this evening’s [Introduction to Philosophy] class was warfare. Specifically, we read and discussed Thomas Nagel’s “War and Massacre”. As expected, the students found it interesting, though, like me, a bit odd. We’re not used to applying moral principles to things like warfare and massacre. But Nagel is right; there’s no reason why moral principles cannot and should not be applied to all forms of human behavior. We’re moral agents. We’re responsible for what we do and should develop principles of thought and action to guide us. Nagel’s particular claim is that hostility is an interpersonal relation, and, like all interpersonal relations, is governed by certain rules. For instance, hostility must be directed at its proper target, not at innocent persons. This immediately constrains war participants, for it precludes [sic; should be "prevents"] them from killing noncombatants. Nagel also argues that there are constraints on the types of warfare in which one can engage. All in all, it was a fascinating topic. Perhaps some day I’ll delve further into the literature. As I pointed out to the students, there’s a growing and sophisticated body of work on the ethics of warfare and the logic of nuclear deterrence. [Since 26 May 2004 (a period of three and a half years), I've operated a blog (weblog) entitled "The Ethics of War."]


According to this story, which was sent to me by my cheesehead buddy Will Nehs, Pope Benedict XVI blames atheism for the atrocities of the 20th century. I think he’s cutting things in the wrong place. It wasn’t atheism; it was consequentialism. Christians, as such, are deontologists. (So are Jews.) Consequentialists believe that the end justifies the means. Deontologists deny it. To a consequentialist, there is no type of act that is intrinsically wrong. If an act is wrong, it is because of its extrinsic properties (specifically, its consequences). To a deontologist, there are types of act, such as lying, torturing, committing adultery, cheating, stealing, and directly killing innocent human beings, that are intrinsically wrong, i.e., wrong in and of themselves, independently of their consequences. That the moral monsters of the 20th century, such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot, were atheists is an accident. It was their consequentialism that motivated—and, in their view, justified—their atrocities. (By the way, I’m writing an essay entitled “The Horrors of Consequentialism” in which I make this case. If you’re nice to me, I’ll let you read it when I’m done.)

The Seventies

Joe Queenan is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. Here is his review of a new book about the 1970s. I was 12 years old when the 1970s opened (on 1 January 1970) and 22 when they closed (on 31 December 1979), so these were my formative years. In case you’re wondering, yes, I streaked. I would tell you the full story, but it would tend to incriminate me. I also wore bell-bottom jeans, complained about gas prices, watched Billie Jean King stomp the shit out of Bobby Riggs, and, at the tender age of 19, voted for Gerald Ford. I hope the author of the book under review discussed Frampton Comes Alive! and Boston, both of which were released in 1976. No history of the 1970s could be complete without a discussion (indeed, a celebration) of these classic albums. Here is my favorite passage from the review:

In “The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies,” Thomas Hine, the widely published design critic and author of “Populuxe,” has adopted a cautious, sensible approach to re-evaluating our most maligned decade. Rather than speciously contending that the 1970s were a great period in American history—the way pop historians like to argue that the Huns and the Vandals were classy chaps victimized by negative Roman spin, or that Phil Collins rocks—Hine simply suggests that the ’70s were not as bad as most people think. Conceding that the ’70s were characterized by bad hair, bad clothes, bad music, bad design, bad books, bad politics, bad economics, bad carpeting, bad fabrics and a lot of bad ideas, he reminds us that the decade was nonetheless the spawning ground for many of the attitudes and values that define our society today.

I love this kind of writing. I had tears streaming down my face by the time I finished reading the review.


Read this New York Times blog post and the comments that follow. I realize it’s not a representative sample of Americans, but the overwhelming majority of commenters are vicious. What is it about Clarence Thomas that enrages people? Is it that he has a mind of his own? Many progressives seem to think that skin color determines one’s beliefs and values. But why should this be? White people have different beliefs and values; why can’t black people have different beliefs and values?


Here is Peggy Noonan’s latest column. Here is Peg Kaplan’s latest post. (Note that even Peg gets testy with uncharitable readers!)

All Fred, All the Time

Kimberley Strassel wants Fred Thompson to be more entertaining, outgoing, and rambunctious. Let Fred be Fred!

Best of the Web Today



Someone finally posted the video of Frenchman Sandy Casar hitting a dog during the 2007 Tour de France. Casar and his breakaway companions were flying down the road at 30 miles per hour when the dog wandered into their path. Casar and another rider went down hard. Casar remounted his bike, caught the other two riders, and went on to win the stage. It was a magnificent piece of riding. The dog, so far as I know, survived the crash, perhaps because he or she was struck in the neck rather than the torso. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean.


If this isn’t the best album ever made, then I’m not God.

Addendum: You don’t deserve it, but I’m going to let you listen to one of the songs.


Megan is having a bad day.


My family had dogs when I lived at home (through August 1979), but I didn’t have a dog of my own until January 1993, when I brought two-month-old Sophie home from Red Oak, Texas. She was born in a horse barn, the offspring of an English Springer Spaniel and a Brittany Spaniel. Sophie is 15 years old today. I wish I could say that her health is good, but I can’t. She has had a sore leg for several years and has to hobble to get around. She stopped taking walks with Shelbie and me two or three years ago. Her appetite is good, and she still has a nose for treats, but she’s been losing weight. She spends most of her time sleeping. I suspect she’d ask me to put her to death if she could, but I can’t do it. I always thought I could, but I can’t.

A Year Ago



I like Oklahoma in tomorrow’s Big 12 Championship game against top-ranked Missouri. You? If Oklahoma wins, the BCS Championship game in early January will feature West Virginia (11-1) and Ohio State (11-1). So much for the vaunted superiority of the SEC. (Yes, I’m assuming that West Virginia will beat Pittsburgh.)

Thomas Nagel on Moderate Deontology

One can be against the worst abuses—torture, summary execution or imprisonment, religious or racial persecution, censorship of political criticism—for various reasons: Their wrongness is morally overdetermined. But what does it mean to object to these common horrors as violations of universal human rights? I believe it has two implications. First, it means that these are forms of treatment to which no one should be subjected—that every person, everywhere, is wronged if maltreated in these ways. Second, that the wrongness is not a function of the balance of costs and benefits in this case—that while in some cases a right may justifiably be overridden by a sufficiently high threshold of costs, below that threshold its status as a right is insensitive to differences in the cost-benefit balance of respecting it in each particular case. Rights are universal protections of every individual against being justifiably used or sacrificed in certain ways for purposes worthy or unworthy.

(Thomas Nagel, “Personal Rights and Public Space,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 24 [spring 1995]: 83-107, at 84-5)