Modal Logic, Ontological Argument, and Shakespeare

The logic of the ontological argument from Thomas Aquinas and Anselm was something that interested me in my college days and law school days.

I think a comment on such an argument could follow as:

“….there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation; but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.” — from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In regards to the David Hume quote and logical series; I like it a lot.

Here is what I think about the Hume proposition regarding inductive reasoning. I think Hume has two problems as a response to the ontological argument. Hume is asking us to use a posteriori logic (logic from experiences), and that is a problem because the ontological argument bases itself on a priori (logic from mere reasoning, not experiences).

He’s likely right that an inductive approach could take us to understand the beginning of the universe. So, it seems that we need to rely on deduction, a priori, and suggesting otherwise is a red herring.

Regarding a priori thought, Hume wrote, “…there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.”

Additionally, I think he is using a blatant red herring for discussing the nature of a benevolent being. The basis of the Anselm ontological argument is the concept of infinity. Anselm writes, “being than which no greater can be conceived” in his Proslogion. It is neither morally good nor morally bad. It in a way just “is” and I think it is right to identify it with the it pronoun. Again, it is for neither religion nor any deist practice.

With this line of reasoning, it seems that Anselm is saying that logically he cannot reason from deism to theism. It seems that is a leap of faith — a leap of faith.

Another note on the ontological argument, I have had discussions about the ontological argument with several friends. It seems that a lot of people who already have the predetermined goal of determining the existence of God use the ontological argument to support it. So, I don’t know if people just use it to support what they already believe. Moreover, I don’t know if there is a way to test it. The logic seems convincing until you consider the logical counter arguments.

In any case, logic itself does not always lend itself to truth.

Indeed, James Franklin Harris wrote: “[D]ifferent versions of the ontological argument, the so-called “modal” versions of the argument, which arguably avoid the part of Anselm’s argument that “treats existence as a predicate,” began to emerge. The [modal logic version] of these forms of defense of the ontological argument has been the most significant development.” What are the implications of this?

Building off of this idea, Charles Hartshorne wrote, “If it [that than which nothing greater can be conceived] can be conceived at all it must exist. For no one who denies or doubts the existence of a being a greater than which is inconceivable, denies or doubts that if it did exist its nonexistence, either in reality or in the understanding, would be impossible. For otherwise it would not be a being a greater than which cannot be conceived. But as to whatever can be conceived but does not exist: if it were to exist its nonexistence either in reality or in the understanding would be possible. Therefore, if a being a greater than which cannot be conceived, can even be conceived, it must exist.”

Interestingly, Iris Murdoch took a different approach writing, “There is no plausible ‘proof’ of the existence of God except some form of the ontological proof, a ‘proof’ incidentally which must now take on an increased importance in theology as a result of the recent ‘de-mythologising’. If considered carefully, however, the ontological proof is seen to be not exactly a proof but rather a clear assertion of faith (it is often admitted to be appropriate only for those already convinced), which could only be confidently be made on a certain amount of experience. This assertion could be put in various ways. The desire for God is certain to receive a response. My conception of God contains the certainty of its own reality. God is an object of love which uniquely excludes doubt and relativism. Such obscure statements would of course receive little sympathy from analytical philosophers, who would divide their content between psychological fact and metaphysical nonsense.”

Perhaps the last word should be left to a 2002 article from the New Yorker:

“Poetic spirit, on the other hand, is timeless and placeless and therefore free. Moreover, action requires an inhibition of consciousness — it requires turning away from other possibilities and, in the moment of decision, blocking off all those mental motions that work against action, such as futility and ambivalence. The will to act, therefore, is a sign not that a man is full of force but that he is empty of human richness. “The exaltation of the will, in Iago,” Bloom writes, “emanates from an ontological lack so great that no human emotion possibly could fill it.” Action, decision, will — all are limited. Bloom’s hero is Hamlet, whom he compares to Nietzsche’s Dionysian man. “Both have once looked truly into the essence of things,” he writes. “They have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things. . . . Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet.””

© Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV



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Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.