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.