Posted by: Ascentury | Monday, 19 May 2008

The analogy of being

In the eleventh century, the medieval monk St. Anselm introduced the analogia entis, the analogy of being or ontological argument, as an attempt to prove the existence of God a priori, in a vacuum, with no reference to the outside world, divine revelation, the Holy Ghost, or anything else. He presents it in chapters two through four of his Proslogion. It’s actually two closely related arguments. The core of his first argument runs as follows:

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Hence … something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived… . And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Understandably, the ontological argument has fired centuries of controversy. I once remarked to a friend of mine (Jeff at The Pilgrim) that I found the analogia entis to be neither compelling nor damnable, but rather irrelevant; my current discussion of it shows that the last position, at least, has been revised. In part, my interest in Anselm’s analogia entis stems from a recent re-reading of the writings of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, as I am sure every LDS philosophy major ever coined has noticed. We find there written:

If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them….

Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; and there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it.

Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.

And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.

–Abr. 3:16-19 [gnolaum is a Hebrew transliteration signifying eternal]

It’s almost as if God Himself were using the ontological argument—or something strikingly similar—to explain his existence. I’ll base my brief critique of Anselm on these premises, knowing that others have thought much longer and harder about the analogia entis than I have.

The logic in Anselm’s first argument runs roughly as follows:

1) Anything that really exists is greater than anything that possibly exists.

2) There is a greatest conceivable being.

3) The reality of this greatest conceivable being is greater therefore than the mere possibility; ergo He exists, and is God.

The logic presented by the Lord to Abraham condenses to:

1) “If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them.”

2) “I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.”

Statement 1 is assertive: a schema exists that if one thing is greater than another, there is a third thing greater than both. This becomes a synthetic rule by which to construct an understanding of the universe, at least for the purposes of the Abrahamic account of the Creation which ensues. The nested spheres of being one can imagine are reminiscent of Dante or the medieval astronomers.

Yet in the same breath, almost, as the canon is spoken, the Lord declares a capstone to the endless tower He just built—that He, being God, is the greatest.

Transcendental mathematics offers a way to understand the Lord’s seemingly contradictory statements. It is as if the Lord were ∞, infinity, and other beings the integers. Again, nothing earth-shattering here, but merely a reminder that God is separated from us by a mighty chasm. However, we’ve shifted gears to talking about two paradigms simultaneously: the simple set of counting numbers, where 1 and 2 exist and 3 exists above them, and infinity, where ∞ still equals ∞ + 1, and all other relations fade into insignificance. I suppose it’s only fair to point out that the idea of infinity in mathematics has probably stirred as much controversy as the ontological proof of God. (As an interesting aside, Kurt Gödel, of incompleteness theorem fame, formulated St. Anselm’s proof mathematically.)

It seems to me that the very manner in which the Lord uses his second statement above precludes any resort to the ontological argument by Latter-day Saints. * The seeming contradiction, that (∞ + 1) = ∞, stands in direct opposition to Anselm’s last claim that the greatest conceivable being (∞) has a greater, the reality of such a being (∞ + 1, or ∞ × ∞, or whatever one wishes to write; it still equals ∞). I interpret Anselm’s claim that such a being “exists both in the understanding and in reality” to mean that the conception of God and the reality are one and the same; after my recent reading of Kant I have to reject this claim as absurd. (We haven’t, of course, even addressed what is meant by “greatness”; there is fertile ground for discussion here.)

In a reading of the Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s work a few months ago, I wrote the following observation, the kernel of my inspiration: It is a very different thing to know that God is the greatest of all and to suppose that he is God because there must be a greatest. This seems to me to be kind of a survival of the metaphysically-fittest, cosmological fascism; while it is true that there is a greatest and He is God (as in Abraham), it is not a logical a priori deduction (as in Anselm), but an observation on the hierarchy (literally holy order) of the universe.

I just don’t think the game is simple enough that mere logic will allow us to satisfy ourselves that God exists. It’s never been sufficient, but only a toy, like Pascal’s wager, when unaccompanied by the stringent requirements and revelations of spirituality, mysticism, and communion with the Divine. God requires faith, and there is no substitute for that Angst-ful sacrifice.


* The Lectures on Faith (2:33), however, seem to follow a line of argument similar to the early portion of Anselm’s other argument, in that Sidney Rigdon claims that the idea of God was present to God’s children by direct testimony–or, in other words, that we contemplate the concept of God by virtue of His existence, a more compelling thought in my mind.

† Although there are provisions in transcendental mathematics for operations on infinity, ∞ or א; those go beyond my discussion here. In any case, I doubt that we as humans are prepared to talk about whether the transition from possibility to reality is equivalent to ∞ or anything else.

In any case, the ontological argument is complex enough that I have to read the whole post three times to pick up the train of my thought (and St. Anselm’s) again. It’s confusing enough, so I welcome criticisms of my deductions herein, as I try to refine my understanding of these complex arguments.



  1. He sounds as if he is building on Plato’s cave and shadows analogy.

  2. Clifford–

    That does raise the interesting question of how ideal “Forms” play into material reality. In the Platonic sense however, wouldn’t the realization of such a god necessarily be a crude approximation of the actual Form, as instances of an archetype never meet the full Platonic ideal? Just a thought–it’s certainly evocative of an ideal, subjective realm interacting with an external reality.

    Of course, in another sense the personal God with whom we interact regularly is a sort of crude approximation we utilize–the shadow, if you will–of the fully-realized (or should I just say REALized) divinity.

    Thanks for bringing up the analogy. Plato’s ripe for comparisons here.

  3. […] The analogy of being. It is a very different thing to know that God is the greatest of all and to suppose that he is God because there must be a greatest. […]

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