A Steak Than Which None Greater Can Be Conceived?

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There is something odd about the definition of God as a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

I’ll be the first to admit that philosophers are an odd bunch of people. We love arguments—discussions that float free from empirical facts, and definitions. In this way, we are not much different from mathematicians. The philosopher’s laboratory, as well as the mathematician’s, is the mind and I can’t communicate to you how relaxing and refreshing are the days where I have nothing to do but light a pipe, pour a bourbon, read a good philosophical text, and spend hours inside my head trying to figure out what it all means. Now my students tell me this is their vision of purgatory or worse, but I’ll leave that discussion to another occasion.

Regardless of your individual proclivities to self-reflection, this type of meditation on ideas has been productively put to use in Christian contexts. For instance, if I start thinking about God, what sorts of things do I start thinking about? What is the concept of God? How do I define God?

The good Lutheran answer is that we don’t spend a lot of time talking about God, but that Jesus Christ is our most familiar representation of God. However, this does not negate that we know about God the Father as somehow related to yet distinct from God the Son. So how do I conceptually make sense of God the Father?

Would not God be something like a supremely great being? I mean, if I had to define God apart from the historical person and work of Christ, would it not make sense to say something like God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived? Furthermore, isn’t it likely that if I went to the street and did a few surveys on the common person’s conception of God that they would not reject the idea of a greatest being? I don’t know, because I have not personally spent too much time worrying about the separation of God the Father from God the Son, nor have I taken to the streets looking for a common definition of God.

Yet, there is something odd about the definition of God as a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived. What follows from being the greatest? I mean my mind can whip up a pretty mean representation of a perfect mouthwatering steak, medium rare with butter AND blue cheese slathered all over the place. However, this idea will always be inferior to the actual steak in all its culinary glory sitting in front of me. This suggests that the actual existence of the steak is greater than my idea of the steak. It is somehow more real, more true, more perfect. Thus, existence in reality is always greater than existence in my mind.

But, then it seems to follow that if I have the idea of a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived, it must have the property of existence. This is due to the fact that any simple idea in the mind will be less great than an idea that has existence in physical reality. Therefore, if the idea of God is something that than which nothing greater can be conceived, then God must exist in reality or God would not be that than which nothing greater could be conceived!

In philosophy we call that a contradiction and contradictions are to be avoided at all costs if we do not wish to devolve into utter foolishness. After all, claiming that something is and is not the case at the same time is a mark of insanity. Therefore, if you hold to the idea that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, then God must exist in reality if you are to avoid contradiction.

Welcome to the Ontological Argument, an argument that dates back, at least, to the second millennium with St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109). This argument distinguishes itself from my last post about the Cosmological Argument insofar as it has nothing to do with a physical world and everything to do with how we define God in our minds. Much like a mathematician committing to a set of axioms and then developing an entire framework of understanding (think Euclidean geometry), the ontological begins with a simple definition (an axiom) and than deduces the actual existence of God. The “movement” or flow of argumentation is from mind to world NOT from world to mind (e.g., cosmological arguments).

Now, if this sounds a bit odd to you, that God’s actual existence can be deduced via an idea of God in your mind, you are not alone. This form of argumentation is not without its drawbacks. Regardless, if this discussion tickles the philosophical synapses in your brain, then join me on the 1517 Thinking Fellows podcast to learn more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.