Conee on the Ontological Argument
January 9, 2014 — 19:37

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 1

According to Leibniz, any answer to the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ must bottom out in “a necessary being, which carries the reason for its existence within itself, otherwise we still would not have a sufficient reason at which we can stop” (Principles of Nature and Grace, sect. 8, tr. Woolhouse and Francks). The coherence of such a being has, however, been questioned. What would it be for a being to ‘carry the reason for its existence within itself?’ What kind of impossibility could there be in the supposition that some particular being does not exist? Earl Conee’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence is devoted to arguing that no broadly Anselmian argument for the impossibility of the non-existence of God can succeed. Its relevance to the theme of the volume is not spelled out, but I take it that the above issues are in the background: Anselm’s argument purports to derive a contradiction from the supposition that there is no God. If the argument succeeded, it would thus amount to a defense of the existence of a necessary being, just the sort of regress-stopping being wanted for certain answers to the puzzle of existence.

Recall that Anselm’s general strategy is to argue that the Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) must exist because existence is greater than non-existence. If the GCB did not exist, then it would be possible to conceive of a being, GCB+, who was just like GCB except that GCB+ exists. This would make GCB+ greater than GCB, but of course it is by definition impossible to conceive a being greater than GCB, so the supposition that GCB does not exist yields a contradiction.

According to Conee, the mistake in the argument is a confusion between the level of greatness a being must have in order to satisfy a certain conception and the level of greatness a being satisfying a particular concept actually has. Thus the concept unicorn requires more greatness than the concept horse, but the things satisfying the concept horse are greater than the things satisfying the concept unicorn because the latter are merely imaginary. When we conceive of a GCB, this conception requires more greatness than any other possible conception, but it does not follow from this that some other conception is not satisfied by greater things, if the latter conception (e.g., horse) has real instances and the GCB is merely imaginary.

Conee’s objection is reminiscent of two memorable remarks of Kant’s on this topic:

To posit a triangle and cancel its three angles is contradictory; but to cancel the triangle together with its three angles is not a contradiction (A594/B622).

A hundred actual dollars do not contain the least bit more than a hundred [merely] possible ones (A599/B627).

The general idea here is sometimes called the ‘conditionalizing strategy.’ The idea is that the concept or definition of a GCB tells us what has to be true of something in order for it to be a GCB. Even if we build existence into the concept or definition, the only result we get is that in order for anything to be a GCB, that thing must exist, but this is totally uninteresting, since it is also true that in order for anything to be a triangle, that thing must exist.

What Conee wants to show is that ‘an optimal version of Anselm’s argument’ falls to this sort of objection. In order to count as a ‘version of Anselm’s argument’ Conee says, an argument must proceed from the conception of a GCB to the absurdity of denying the GCB’s existing via the assumption that “existence mak[es] a positive difference toward … greatness” (115-116). Thus, although Conee talks in the notes about the prospects for an argument that talks about necessary existence, he does not address modal ontological arguments in detail.

Can an argument which is Anselmian in this sense escape the conditionalizing strategy? With the help of some controversial assumptions, I think it can. Here is an argument that the Fool cannot coherently say (affirm) in his heart that there is no God:

  1. If one cannot coherently conceive of x as F, then one cannot coherently affirm that x is F.
  2. Beings conceived of as real are conceived of as being greater than beings conceived of as merely imaginary/fictional.
  3. It is possible to conceive of a GCB as real.
  4. Therefore,

  5. One cannot coherently conceive of a GCB as merely imaginary/fictional. (If one did, then either one would conceive the GCB as both real and merely imaginary/fictional, which is a contradiction, or else it would be possible to conceive of a being greater than the GCB, namely, a real being that is just like the GCB.)
  6. Therefore,

  7. One cannot coherently affirm that a GCB is merely imaginary/fictional.

Conee discusses Meinongian and anti-Meinongian versions of the argument, but I think this version, which appeals to imaginary/fictional objects, but not non-existent objects, is more faithful to Anselm, since Anselm talks about ‘existing in the understanding.’ Presumably objects that exist in the understanding exist.

What the Fool denies, on this reading, is that God is real. He thinks that God is a mere fiction, an imaginary being. (Atheists cannot very well deny that there is a character called ‘God’ in a great many stories.) This helps the argument to escape Hume’s objection that whenever we conceive of anything we always conceive of it as existing, for there seems to be a significant difference between how I conceive of Abraham Lincoln and how I conceive of Sherlock Holmes: I conceive of Lincoln as a real historical person, and Holmes as a fictional character. It is plausible to suppose that this is really part of the content of my conception.

I see two main weaknesses for this argument. First, one could question whether, by conceiving of something as real, we actually conceive of it as being greater than if we conceive of it as merely fictional/imaginary. Perhaps unicorns are still conceived as greater than horses, even when I explicitly include the fictionality of unicorns in my conception. Second, there are tricky issues here about the very nature of fictions. For instance, according to the fiction about Holmes, Holmes is a real (i.e. non-fictional) detective. Now, perhaps the right thing to say about this is that, when engaging imaginatively with the fiction, the reader conceives of Holmes as real, but the reader (who knows she is reading fiction) does not affirm this conception. The conception she affirms is the conception of Holmes as fictional.

These are tricky issues. In any event, the argument I have given is, I submit, superior to the one Conee calls the ‘Optimal Anselmian Argument,’ at least in the sense that it is harder to see what’s wrong with mine.

(Cross-posted at

  • Cres

    “at least in the sense that it is harder to see what’s wrong with mine”

    A sophistic way to judge the merit of an argument, no? (Although perhaps the correct one to use in the context of ontological arguments!)

    January 21, 2014 — 12:15
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