… or at least the beginnings of a plan. It’s the job that never gets started that takes longest to finish, as someone wise once said, and it’s definitely true in my case. Getting the plan, getting things ordered enough to start, is always the hardest part of my project. But I have a basic scheme that’s now been approved (in the abstract at least!) by two members of my committee, including my adviser.
For those of you who don’t speak my shorthand:
Part I: I’ll be walking through the version of the ontological argument Anselm develops in Proslogion 2 + 3. This is a famous argument that God has to exist, and not just be a thought bumping around inside our head. (Gideon Rosen has a decent overview, and while his interpretation isn’t mine, it’s as good a place to start as any.) Basically I’ll explain the argument and show why some of the more popular criticisms (Kant + Frege, mostly) don’t apply to Anselm’s version of the argument. The rest of the dissertation really focuses in on the first part of the argument: can I say anything about God, including “God doesn’t exist,” if God doesn’t exist in my understanding?
Part II: Here I’ll basically be building up an account of what it means for something to “exist in the understanding.” This is particularly tricksy for Anselm with God, because Anselm also says God is so great we can’t understand Him completely. I’ll be talking both about the special case of God but also looking at things more generally. In what sense do things like Bilbo Baggins and Santa Clause exist, are real, etc.? This is key to the ontological argument, because Anselm says that when we understand language about God what we understand exists in our understanding. Just what the heck does that mean, and how do these objects tell us anything about the actual world beyond our minds?
Part III: Then it’s time to talk about language. Anselm wants to say that, when you hear someone use a certain word you can’t understand what they mean unless it somehow “exists” in your mind. So I’ll explain why and evaluate this position critically. Can the atheist use the word God without letting God exist in his mind? A big issue here is a distinction people working in this area of philosophy want to draw between parasitic and constitutive language. Think of it this way: if you asked an adult where Santa Claus lived they would say the North Pole because they know the language. They don’t think a fat guy in a red velvet suit literally has a home at the North Pole. But if you asked a little kid they might answer not because they knew the legends but because they thought they were literally, factually true. I’ll go into this distinction, whether it’s a good one, and how it affects the argument.
At the end of this chapter I’ll take a position on the argument. Of course you never really know what position you’ll take until you’ve done the research and thought things through. But I’m leaning toward saying: yes, Anselm’s argument works to convince some atheists but only if they are thinking about God in a specific way (which most, but not all, atheists today avoid). I may completely change my mind by the time I get to this point, though.
Part IV: Here I’ll look at the importance of what I’ve been talking about beyond “Does the ontological argument as formulated by Anselm prove God exists in reality?”. There are two main “big picture” questions. First, can we say anything about God that’s literally true? Anselm looks at things a bit differently from contemporary philosophers and theologians, so I’ll talk about how his ideas would impact their debate. Second, there’s the question of whether we can properly believe something that we do not completely understand. This is a big issue with the new atheists but also their philosophical forefathers. Can I believe in something I can’t prove or even completely understand? Anselm seems to think belief comes first, at least here, ans the closest we get to justification comes from thinking about that ungrounded belief – and even then, we shouldn’t hope to really completely understand it. So I’ll also try to set up how his whole approach of “faith seeking understanding” (or fides quaerens intellectum – the phrase I took this blog’s name from) fits into that whole picture, if at all.
Anyway. If you get nothing else from this post, know this: not only do I have a rough plan that’s getting better, but I have more and more of the people I need to work with on board with me doing the project I’m interested in. I’ve written up some of the details for folks who like thinking about this. But even if you don’t understand the philosophy and aren’t interested in learning more, just be happy for me. This is good news in a major kind of way.
P.S. – Normally I’m a bit shy about putting preliminary work online because there’s always a concern that someone might steal your idea. But here the real devil is in the details. If anyone wants to write a comprehensive essay on (say) what Anselm means by esse in intellectu I’d be more than happy to cite it as a source and show why I (dis)agree.