An ontological argument for our existence

July 22, 2014 § 33 Comments

[31] Seeing, saith he, I have once begun, I will speak to my Lord. What if twenty be found there? He said: I will not destroy it for the sake of twenty. [32] I beseech thee, saith he, be not angry, Lord, if I speak yet once more: What if ten should be found there? And he said: I will not destroy it for the sake of ten. – Genesis 18:31-32

St. Anselm famously argued that God must exist because existence is more perfect than nonexistence.  Very roughly speaking, and without pretending to really do the argument justice, God is by definition the most perfect being that can possibly be conceived; if He didn’t exist then He wouldn’t be perfect; therefore He must exist.

Whatever one thinks of that as an argument for the existence of God, it is interesting to reflect on our existence in the light of Anselm’s argument. It is better for myself and all the people and things that I love to exist than for them to not exist. The fact that my personal existence is logically contingent upon all sorts of evil and suffering doesn’t change the basic fact that existence is better than nonexistence.

An infinitely loving, infinitely good, infinitely powerful God cannot do “everything” when the referent of the term “everything” includes “things” that are rationally inconceivable. Strictly speaking, rationally inconceivable “things” are not really things. An omnipotent God cannot lock Himself into a box from which He cannot escape without ceasing to be omnipotent: the “box from which an omnipotent God cannot escape” is not a “thing”, because it is not even a rationally coherent idea.

I’ve known several young men who have born terrible suffering. One young man is quadraplegic because of a botched delivery. He just graduated from high school. His parents’ marriage broke up over the stress years ago.

Another young man with terrible physical deformities used to come to our house for birthday parties years ago. He had to carry around an oxygen tank and was physically very limited. He loved sports despite his own limitations, and he had an indomitable spirit: rarely have I seen such fierce and determined joy in a human being. He died when he was twelve years old.

I know several others too: a young man confined to a wheelchair who cannot talk and who suffers dangerous siezures; a relative is eighteen and autistic, and cannot cross the street by himself. I won’t get into ‘closer to home’ examples, because they pale to nothingness in comparison to the crosses I have watched others bear and accept: not just the ‘victims’ of these maladies and tragedies themselves, but the parents and families whose hearts break at what their loved ones endure, and the limitations they face.

God watched as His only begotten son was tortured to death. This was literally for our sake in ways so comprehensive that most people – most Christians – can’t begin to appreciate it, I think.

The existence of suffering and evil is not an argument against God’s omnipotent power and infinite goodness. It is an argument in favor of those attributes. A more selfish God would not have made this blasphemous world. But as bad as we are, and as awful as the suffering in this world is, it is better for us all to exist than to not exist. In this world there is plentiful bad news; but there is also Good News. Those who would prefer Nothing over all that we are, all that we know, and all that we love, may eventually get the Nothing they crave. But not at the cost of any bit of good which can be saved.

UPDATE: Added epigraph.

UPDATE 2:

§ 33 Responses to An ontological argument for our existence

  • Andrew E. says:

    Charlton’s argument is not one of existence versus non-existence. But one of our current existence with such horrible extremes of suffering that a loving Father would spare His children if He could versus an existence with less extremes of suffering that still allows our experience of physical incarnation to accomplish what needs to be accomplished for our salvation.

  • Zippy says:

    Folks may not acknowledge that the argument is between existence and nonexistence, but that is because they are stealing metaphysical bases: they assume incoherently that I could exist – the real me, as I actually am right now – in some meaningful sense without all of the logically and ontologically necessary precedents.

  • CJ says:

    But as bad as we are, and as awful as the suffering in this world is, it is better for us all to exist than to not exist.

    they assume incoherently that I could exist – the real me, as I actually am right now – in some meaningful sense without all of the logically and ontologically necessary precedents.

    This is pretty much how I cope with the problem of evil. God determined that this world with all it entails is better than whatever alternatives there might be. Disagree? Show me your good-‘n-evil meter and then tell me why I should trust it over His.

  • Andrew E. says:

    Zippy, so again it sounds like your answer to the grieving friend would be that bad things happen because it couldn’t have happened any other way. Not very comforting.

    Whereas, someone from Charlton’s pov could say to his friend that God can’t prevent some things because He is not omnipotent but He is all-loving and He heals all wounds.

  • CJ says:

    Zippy, so again it sounds like your answer to the grieving friend would be that bad things happen because it couldn’t have happened any other way. Not very comforting.

    Whereas, someone from Charlton’s pov could say to his friend that God can’t prevent some things because He is not omnipotent but He is all-loving and He heals all wounds.

    Truth isn’t determined by what’s most comforting. And someone who believes as Zippy does could still say that God is all-loving and that he works all things together for the good of those who love him. The Good News isn’t that God is going to make sure you avoid pain, but that for those in Christ, the pain is ultimately redemptive and not destructive.

  • Zippy says:

    Also when Andrew E says “comforting” he apparently means “comforting immediately right here and now”.

    And that is true enough. This isn’t the conversation to have with someone screaming in pain, or watching a friend or loved one die.

    In the midst of terrible suffering, intellectual reason isn’t particularly comforting – a point I reiterate whenever this subject comes up. Understanding why suffering actually implies an infinitely good omnipotent God who will ultimately make all thing new may be a small immediate comfort to certain kinds of people, but in the boots-on-the-ground lived human experience it has very little emotional appeal even to theology nerds.

    It is nonetheless correct. Asserting the incompatibility of an omnipotent perfectly good God with the suffering we see and experience is in fact either incoherent, or it asserts that nonexistence is better than existence.

    And when they look back on it from the Beatific Vision, they will have infinite comfort for their suffering.

  • Zippy says:

    Also, there is a sense in which this actually can be very comforting in the here-and-now: and that is when one has understood and accepted the truth when things are going pretty well. When we internalize the truth during good times it can actually be quite comforting during bad times.

    But again, the point here isn’t to address what is comforting. The point is to address what is true.

  • CJ says:

    In the midst of terrible suffering, intellectual reason isn’t particularly comforting –

    This is an important point that shouldn’t be overlooked. Someone grieving over a dead child isn’t going to be comforted any more by “Well God did his best, but He can only do so much” than by Romans 8:28.

  • Zippy says:

    CJ:
    I have a gut feeling that part of the teleological comfort for the suffering will be to get to see and fully experience everything good – including this-worldly goods, which are in fact good – for which our own suffering was logically and ontologically precedent. The Nazi holocaust is logically and ontologically precedent to my own existence, so those who suffered it will get to fully experience everything good that I (and everyone else for whom this is true[*]) ever experience, to fully partake in the Good the creation of which their suffering was logically necessary.

    But that is just a gut feeling.

    [*] We are, as far as we know, radically contingent beings. Change the lives of our parents in any way whatsoever by a fraction of a second at any time before our conception and we wouldn’t be here. Someone else might be here; but not us.

  • This is similar to one of my objections to the argument from evil: they always assume that an all-good God would be obligated to create only the most good world. But doesn’t it seem just as likely that an all-good God would be obligated to create *all* good worlds (or even all goods, implying worlds that are net-evil but still contain some good somewhere)?

  • Zippy says:

    Jaskologist:
    IIRC Voltaire ridiculed Leibnitz for suggesting that this is the best of all possible worlds. But it is certainly the best of all possible worlds for Voltaire, because it is the only world that brings Voltaire into existence.

    I wonder who is laughing now.

  • Peter Blood says:

    … they assume incoherently that I could exist – the real me, as I actually am right now – in some meaningful sense without all of the logically and ontologically necessary precedents.

    I personally would not exist if not for Adolf Hitler and something colossally foolish that he did. So, is it blasphemous of me to be glad Adolf Hitler existed and did what he did?

  • Zippy says:

    Peter Blood:
    “Glad” is an emotional state. I don’t usually comment much about emotional states, because as a commenter recently observed I am not a poet.

    That said, I would think that understanding how existentially bound up we are with horrific evil would result in greater gratitude for our redemption. If I were God, so to speak, it is hard to imagine tolerating it.

  • CJ says:

    There was an episode of the “new” Twilight Zone from the 80’s where a career woman struggles with the decision to relocate overseas. She meets the son that would be born if she chooses not to relocate. They spend a day together and have a great time. As the day is ending he tells her that if she goes, she may have a son and even give him the same name, but it won’t be him. In the end she goes anyway because feminism, and he fades from existence.

    God on the other hand was willing to endure one of the most excruciating deaths invented by men to ensure our not just our redemption, but our very existence. So yeah. All-loving.

  • Peter Blood says:

    Yes, I see, I may have been getting carried away by the potential shock value of this in talking with leftists…. The understanding, though, of my own existence as contingent on many preceding evils, and how this changes the “problem of evil”, is like a bolt out of the blue. It will take weeks, months, to digest.

  • jf12 says:

    The book of 1 Peter gives the best explication of the purpose of suffering – Christians are *called* to suffer, for unity with Christ.

  • Andrew E. says:

    The book of 1 Peter gives the best explication of the purpose of suffering – Christians are *called* to suffer, for unity with Christ.

    Now that is a bolt out of the blue–as an answer to the problem of pain and suffering.

  • Zippy says:

    Andrew E:

    Now that is a bolt out of the blue–as an answer to the problem of pain and suffering.

    Indeed. They are interrelated too, as we might expect: Christ as truly and fully man participates in our radical contingency. That is why Mary, through her fiat, is God-Bearer (Theotokos) and Mediatrix of all Graces.

    Suffering doesn’t undermine God’s love, power, and mercy: it reveals His love, power, and mercy.

  • Gavrila says:

    because as a commenter recently observed I am not a poet

    I apologise if I sounded insulting. I encouraged another prominent blogger (who I won’t name) to switch from blogging to writing plays. He was not impressed.

    Some writers of bygone ages might’ve blogged if they had the tech – e.g. Pascal, Lichtenberg.

    As to the thread topic, I think suffering can aid humility (by puncturing pride) and build resilience. Though people who wish for bad things from which good will come (e.g. neoreactionaries who long for societal collapse) are halfway to Leninism.

  • jf12 says:

    James 5:11 is very on-topic too.

    When I was coming up, my pastor’s main teaching about suffering was as a necessary evil, and secondarily “It’ll feel better when it quits hurting.” But that childish, relative, understanding is annihilated by Paul’s glorying in his infirmities.

  • Bonald says:

    I’m not sure I buy the metaphysical premises involved in “me in a world without Hitler wouldn’t be me”, since it seems to suppose Leibnitz’ view that we have no accidental properties. If I could not be other than I am while still being the same person, would that mean that I have no free will? Or, rather, the organism with which I identify could have chosen differently, but I could not have chosen differently, because if I had, it would no longer have been me.

  • Zippy says:

    Bonald:
    This doesn’t require that we have no accidental properties whatsoever. It just requires that our radical contingency, and perhaps some of the features of our radical contingency (genetics, parents, origin at a particular place and time, etc), are essential to being our actual selves.

    Someone might argue that we are eternal androgynous disembodied gods ourselves, I suppose, and that things like being embodied creatures with features like sex, etc are all accidents. That might escape logical contradiction; but at the very least it requires a non-Christian metaphysic so it cannot be the foundation of an argument against the existence and features of God as Christians understand Him.

  • vetdoctor says:

    As you discuss this I keep looking for a reference to a concept that I just learned at Just Thomism. Apparently, Aquinas did not accept the “evil is the result of free will” argument but, rather said something like this:

    God is so good that He wanted to see all kinds of good. A special kind of good that he created with the Universe was a temporary good that brings out another good. For example, the tomato plant in front of my house has pretty flowers. They will, of course, shortly disappear but out of the flowers will come fresh tomatoes. They, in turn, will quickly disappear on my table and become nutrition for my tired bones.

    This temporary good is why there is death and destruction. I will allow others to clarify or correct my explanation.

  • vetdoctor says:

    On another note, I found “Bread or Stone” by Ronald Knox a deep meditation (actually a series of short sermons) on the Will of God, prayer and suffering.

    https://archive.org/details/breadorstonefour00knoxuoft

  • Zippy says:

    Gavrila:

    I apologise if I sounded insulting.

    Hah! Not at all. If anything you flatter me by suggesting that I have skills which have yet to manifest themselves despite my advancing age.

  • InTheProcess says:

    “For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us.
    For the expectation of the creature waiteth for the revelation of the sons of God.
    For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him that made it subject, in hope:
    Because the creature also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.
    For we know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now.
    And not only it, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body.
    For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen, is not hope. For what a man seeth, why doth he hope for?
    But if we hope for that which we see not, we wait for it with patience.” Rom 8

  • Zippy says:

    vetdoctor:
    Apparently Mgr Knox is trying to tell me something, because he keeps sending commenters to me to tell me about him, hah!

  • jf12 says:

    As it turns out, there is only one *scientific* alternative to the viewpoint that reality is as it appears, i.e. what Zippy correctly emphasizes as radically contingent.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superdeterminism

  • I am fascinated by the ontological arguments. Thank you for a wonderful piece. I would just comment on the first paragraph.

    A minor detail: The version you presented is Cartesian not Anselmian. Rene Descartes presented his own version based on perfection. Leibniz took it and formed his own, as many in future to present do.

    Anselmian ontological argument is based not God’s perfection but God’s maximal greatness. Anselm case could be simply stated as that which nothing greater could be conceived cannot exist only in our minds(both the Fool’s and Anselm’s) since we can conceive of a greater being that exists in our mind and in reality. A being that exists both in mind and in reality has causal power both in mind and beyond, thus greater than the greatest conceivable being. For Anselm it was absurd that there is a being greater than the greatest being, thus God, if is the greatest conceivable being, must necessarily exist.

    I am not in favor of Cartesian, perfection version. It is not because I think Immanuel Kant’s objection, viz., existence in not a real predicate, thus cannot be a perfection, since even if existence is not a predicate, necessary existence is. Moreover necessary existence seems to be clearly a perfection. Another weakness to Kantian objection is that , even if true, does not address nor affect Anselmian version. By long shot prima facie affect Cartesian. I like Cartesian less because it is not faithful to Anselmian one.

  • Zippy says:

    Prayson Daniel:
    I enjoyed reading your presentation of Anselm’s argument at your site. I thought it was very well expressed.

  • […] the “reasons for evil” I’ve read, only Zippy’s avoids justifying the unjust by appealing to the goodness of this world. […]

  • […] the detriment of mutually exclusive real potentialities. That God “permits” the world as it is actively precludes infinite different potential ways the world really might have […]

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