The Ontological Argument, a critique from a Thomistic perspective
by J. Anthony Gaughan (Kingdom Books, €15.00)
In this book, Fr Tony Gaughan has undertaken a careful and thorough reflection on what Patrick Masterson, President Emeritus of UCD, describes in his foreword as “one of philosophy’s perennial and still fascinating preoccupations”.
Generations of philosophers, theologians and students experienced something of that fascination with what seemed to be a surprisingly simple way of proving the existence of God.
Nevertheless, there remained an underlying feeling that this ‘proof’ could not quite achieve the goal that St Anselm, who formulated the Argument, hoped it would be: “A single argument that needed nothing but itself alone for proof, that would itself be enough to prove that God really exists…”
The book explores these doubts and relates the many objections that were raised, firstly by Gaunilon, a Benedictine monk, and also by St Thomas Aquinas.
Prof. Patrick Masterson rightly describes the discussion of Anselm’s argument as “perennial”. It continues today and presents possibilities for viewing the question from a fresh perspective. Cardinal Walter Kasper, for instance, remarked: “Augustine had already characterised God as that than which there is nothing greater, quo nihil superius. We can, to be sure, know God only in the light of the truth which is God himself and is present in the soul.
“Knowledge of God therefore presupposes illumination by the truth which is God and is present in the soul. In the Proslogion, Anselm relates this idea to the image of God in the interior of man where the reality of God directly manifests itself.
“The Ontological Argument is meant to give expression to this ontological connection.
This seems to suggest that Anselm’s argument should not be seen as seeking to establish a proof for the existence of God based on a rather detached definition of the being, whose existence he is seeking to prove. Many of the critiques of Anselm’s argument come down to saying that the argument would work only for someone who already knows that God exists.
The Fifth Lateran Council taught “every spiritual soul is created immediately by God”. Pope Benedict describes that event where each human soul is individually brought into existence by God as our original memory.
We have indeed, from the very beginning, been aware of the presence of God in our thinking about truth and goodness.
“This means,” Pope Benedict said, “that the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon of conscience (the level of fundamental reality and truth) consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true…has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within (the human being), who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, (our being) resonates with some things and clashes with others.
We can treat it as a problem…or it can be treated as a mystery which we cannot lay out in front of us as an object or objects to be analysed from a distance”
“This anamnesis (memory) of the origin,” Benedict continued, “which results from the godlike constitution of our being is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is so to speak an inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears its echo from within. [The reader] says: ‘That’s it! That is what my nature points to and seeks.’”
Anselm died in 1109 whereas the Fifth Lateran Council occurred in the 16th Century, but it might be interesting how that might have affected Anselm’s thinking.
Some other ideas in theology and philosophy might also lead to fruitful approaches to the question.
Gabriel Marcel pointed out that there are two possible ways of approaching a question. We can treat it as a problem – as a problem which we lay out in front of us to be examined, analysed, taken apart and its constituent parts examined, or it can be treated as a mystery which we cannot lay out in front of us as an object or objects to be analysed from a distance.
Faced with mystery we recognise that we are part of the mystery ourselves. Might it be argued that in the Ontological Argument, Anselm was thinking of the question of God’s existence as a problem when, in fact, it is the ultimate mystery – the ultimate question in which we are fundamentally involved?
Anselm wrote a brilliant argument in the philosophical tradition of which he was a master, but his approach perhaps falls more into the problem category than into reflection on the mystery.
In our time – and in many ways it is a loss – we are tempted to be problem solvers rather than explorers of mystery.
On the other hand, one might argue that the philosophical and religious thinking and the experience of the world around us will raise new questions and new opportunities to see new perspectives on many issues, not least the perennial preoccupation with the argument of St Anselm.
The perennial investigation of the Ontological Argument will continue and it will, inevitably be influenced by the ever-changing cultural context which means, as St John Paul said during his visit to Ireland, that every new generation is a new continent to be won for Christ.
During the new generations that lie ahead there will no doubt be some who will be drawn to the fascinating and frustrating Ontological Argument.
They would be well advised to begin by reading Fr Gaughan’s book which will provide them with an excellent account of ‘the story so far’ of the perennially intriguing Ontological argument.
Before his episcopal appointments, Donal Murray, who holds a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum in Rome, lectured on theology in Mater Dei, Clonliffe and UCD.