Kant’s Critique of the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

Ironically the most notable critique of the Ontological Argument for God’s Existence comes from a theist. For Kant the argument represents a categorical error of sorts. Kant’s criticism calls “existence” into question. Kant refuted the way in which “existence” was used by Anselm in the form of a real predicate that contributed to the existence of a being. Recall, for Anselm the argument was made that a being that existed in mind only was inferior to a being that existed in mind and reality. Thus Anselm’s argument required for “existence” to be a real predicate.

Allow me to attempt at an illustration. On my desk before me sits a mug of Kona coffee that I find to have a slight to moderate floral aromatic with a fruity character. However, I can recall waking up this morning thinking about a cup of Kona coffee with these same qualities the exception being existence of course because it is only conceived of in my mind. The question is, would the former coffee be superior to the latter because it has one more quality that the latter coffee doesn’t have, namely “existence”? In other words, can we treat qualities such as “floral aromatics” and “fruity character” the same way we treat “existence” as if it is a real predicate? Kant says we kant.

Being is evidently not a real predicate, that is, a conception of something which is added to the conception of some other thing.2

“Being is not a real predicate.” In the same way that existence adds nothing to the qualities of my coffee, so does existence add no other qualities to God. Rather what Kant would say is that the concept of existence is now being exemplified in my coffee or God. If being is not a real predicate, then Anselm’s argument is negated. At least that is what Kant is maintaining. There have been refutations of Anselm’s claim and some who even defend the idea that existence IS a real predicate. This however is a brief explanation of Kant’s argument and any further arguments might be forthcoming.


1 Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western philosophy. His contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have had a profound impact on almost every philosophical movement that followed him.

2 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. By J.M.D. Meiklejohn, in: Great Books in the Western World, vol. 42, Robert Maynard Hutchins edition in chief, Chicago, London, Toronto, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952, Transcendental Doctrine of Elements,pp.181.

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part IV The Argument From Design

Right from the beginning I will have to disagree with Russell on what the design argument is. He writes,

“You all know the argument from design: everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design.”

In my studies what Russell has described here is the “anthropic principle.” When we look at the term “anthropic” we see the Greek word anthropos which means humans. Hence the “anthropic principle” simply states that the universe was created in such a way to sustain human life. This is different from the design argument as I understand it. The design argument typically follows the line of argument such as:

  1. The universe exhibits empirical property
  2. This empirical property demonstrates strong evidence of design
  3. If the universe exhibits design it must have a designer

I only mention this point of distinction because these two arguments have conflicting ends in that one seeks to demonstrate that the universe was made for man while the other seeks to demonstrate the existence of God.

Russell’s refutation seems to come in two parts. The first part sounds like the argument from evil and the second part is a scientific argument from the law of entropy. For his first refutation Russell says,

“When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience has been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku-Klux-Klan or the Fascists?”

Basically this refutation states,

  1. If God exists He would be omnipotent and omniscient
  2. If God created this world it would exhibit His omnipotence and omniscience
  3. The world has defects
  4. Therefore, it could not have been created by an omnipotent and omniscient God

In-bedded within this refutation is a false dilemma. The dilemma is this, the argument asserts that either this world exhibits God’s omnipotence and omniscience or God does not exist. What makes this dilemma false is that these are not the only two available options. Consider the possibility that creating a world that consistently reflects His omnipotence and omniscience would violate a different aspect of His character, like justice for example. It could be the case that by allowing the defects, that God does in the world, that He is actuality keeping His justice and by doing so He keeps His omnipotence and omniscience. Such a proposition negates the dilemma created by Russell.

Russell does make a good point when he says,

“Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system.”

The refutation is, if the world was made to sustain life why doesn’t it? Here again we run into the problem that Russell is attacking the anthropic principle not the design argument. The design argument states that the universe exhibits design therefore it must have had a designer. Perhaps as a critique against the anthropic principle Russell might be on to something, but as a refutation of design argument he has missed the point.

Does Russell have a point here? I would say no because he has failed to address the design argument. The design argument is one of the proofs for the existence of God; however, the purpose of his paper is to explain why he isn’t a Christian. I’m assuming he means to refute Christianity by refuting God’s existence. Herein lies the real problem. Arguments for the existence of God only seem to deal with an “abstract concept god” and in doing so  fails to deal with the personal triune God of the Bible who is described in terms of basicality1 such as “the alpha and omega”. If God is properly basic as I am suggesting that He is, it won’t be enough to refute the classical arguments for His existence; rather Russell would have to refute the ontological merits for Christianity.


1. For an explanation of “basicality” look at Warrant And Proper Function by Alvin Plantinga.

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part II First Cause Argument

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part II First Cause Argument

In the last post I discussed Russell’s definition of what it means to be Christian. You can read Russell’s presentation here. In this post I will discuss Russell’s first reason for not being a Christian, the First Cause Argument. There are different variations of the argument and Russell provides yet another variation. However Russell’s understanding of the argument can be framed this way:

  1. Everything we see in the world has a cause
  2. Each cause regresses back to a first cause
  3. The first cause is God

Russell’s response to the argument is:

  1. If everything must have a cause then god must have a cause
  2. If god had a cause then he cannot be the first or uncaused cause

The problem that comes up is found in premise one of the response. If everything has a cause “then God must have a cause”. The First Cause Argument never articulates or alludes to by implication a God that is caused. In other forms of the argument premise one is read “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. Notice the use of the term “exist”. In classical theism “existence” is never used of God because “existence” in its classical understanding assumes contingency. Only contingent things can “exist”. God is not contingent thus He at no time ever existed. In classical theism we believe in God’s Being or reality but not His “existence” because He is not contingent.  If God required a cause His Being would be contingent upon that cause and He would lose His God like quality since God cannot be contingent upon anything. In premise one of the argument Russell restricts causation to only those things seen in the world. Because of God’s non-metaphysical nature He can’t be grouped among those things that we see in the world, and therefore causation can’t be a necessary attribute of His Being. This is a categorical error that I believe to be of significant proportion.

However, to Russell’s credit, he is speaking from a naturalistic perspective. Arguments can be made that such a restricted perspective-like naturalism- does not reflect adequately on the whole reality of human experience, a discussion for another post. Suffice it to say, from his naturalistic assumption Russell is being consistent with his naturalism. If one begins his interpretation of reality with a naturalistic foundation as Russell does in his response, then all facts of his experience will be based upon that naturalistic assumption including causation when it comes to God. Notice how different Russell’s response is from the First Cause Argument he sites. The argument begins with temporal earthly “existent” or contingent things that owe their contingent existence to the “non-existent” or non-contingent universal first cause. However, Russell’s response assumes God is part of the temporal “existent” or contingent world. I think this demonstrates Russell’s inability to deal with the argument at had. His pre-commitment to naturalism cannot reflect adequately on the argument from First Cause.

For this reason I tend not to use the argument of First Cause outside of a Christian context that can make sense out of universal first causes. Even more problematic is that the First Cause Argument does not argue for a God who is triune, but rather a general first cause, what ever that might be. I think this approach misses the point. Purpose of teaching about God is not to teach an abstract form of God as a universal first cause but to teach Him as He is in His full triune Being. In any case I would say Russell’s first reason for not being a Christian is insufficiently articulated and should be reconfigured or rejected.

John Calvin on the Knowledge of God

The previous post-debate between Brunner and Barth-raised the question of John Calvin’s teaching on the knowledge of God. It is a fundamental question that we all raise but also seems to be confused on occasion. Calvin teaches that there are three fundamental aspects when it comes to the knowledge of God: the Sensus Divinitatis (SD) (“sense of the divine in man” or internal knowledge), external Knowledge of God, and knowledge of God the Redeemer.

For Calvin SD amounts to a universal belief in God the Creator. In regards to SD Calvin gives us the following reasons: (1) Observation shows us that all men demonstrate belief in God. (2) The various expressions of religious worship throughout the world seem to indicate a genuine appeal to a conception of deity or ultimate authority (3) Even those who object to God have a conception of Him that they are objecting to. Such a conception of God renders all men without excuse before God their Creator. Therefore, this natural conception of God that is held by all is related to theological and moral knowledge (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 3)

Calvin also taught that an external knowledge of God can be seen in the physical world. This is similar to what Paul says when writes  “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1 ). Calvin does not offer a syllogistic argument for God’s existence in his discussion of the external knowledge of God. But he does teach that God’s attributes such as power and wisdom are revealed in creation (Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 5).

For Calvin, knowledge of God is distinguished from knowledge of God the Redeemer. The key distinguishing factor between these is the former is arrived at through natural revelation (external) while the latter through special revelation by the Holy Spirit (internal).

The key take away is the three part aspect to the knowledge of God SD, external, and knowledge of God the redeemer. Understanding how it is that we come to know God will help us understand how it is that we are to do as Christ explained in the Great Commission “make disciples”. Relying solely on external as some tend to do is insufficient. It is when we realize that the work of making disciples is completely God’s work then we can rely on God’s appointed means, the Gospel which is the power unto salvation, and the Holy Spirit the reveal-er of Gospel truth.

Brunner vs. Barth: The Natural Knowledge of God

 

It was the 1930s when Swiss theologian Emil Brunner published his little book entitled Natur und Gnade (Nature and Grace).  In this treatise, Brunner argues that in the theology of his “mentor” John Calvin (1) the imago Dei (image of God) in man formed the contact for the gospel and (2) God’s revelation in nature can be seen through the lense of Scripture.

“Calvin considers this remnant of the imago Dei to be of great importance.  One might almost say that it is one of the pillars supporting his theology, for he identifies it with nothing less than the entire human, rational nature, the immortal soul, the capacity for culture, the conscience, responsibility, the relation with God, which -though not redemptive-exists even in sin, language, the whole of cultural life.”
Brunner’s book was met with a harsh and enfatic NEIN!  the title of Karl Barth’s treatise. In this work Barth set out to refute Brunner.  Part of the reason for the aggressive tone in Barth’s response was due to the pro-Nazi use of natural theology.  Barth argued (1) the fall of man had so besmirched the image of God that our natural knowledge of God is idolatry and superstition at best and (2) natural revelation serves only to render man guilty before God without excuse.  (3)  For Barth, there is no knowledge of God the creator outside of a knowledge of God the Savior.
“The possibility of a real knowledge by natural man of the true God, derived from creation, is, according to Calvin, a possibility in principle, but not in fact, not a possibility to be realized by us.  One might call it an objective possibility, created by God, but not a subjective possibility, open to man.  Between what is possible in principle and what is possible in fact there inexorably lies the fall.  Hence this possibility can only be discussed hypothetically”
What do you think?

Beyond the Control of God?: Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects

For theistically-minded philosophers, the problem of God and abstract objects has been heating up. The problem is motivated by an inconsistent triad of propositions, nicely formulated by Greg Welty:

1. Abstract objects (AOs) exist.

2. If AOs exist, they are dependent on God.

3. If AOs exist, they are independent of God. (81)

The first proposition is motivated by well-known arguments for the existence of abstract objects. The second is motivated by the theistic doctrines of creation and divine aseity: everything other than God must be created by God or depend on God. The third proposition is motivated by considerations suggesting that AOs, if they exist, are not the sorts of things that could be created or could depend on anything for their existence. Paul Gould’s edited book updates the state of play, and can serve as an excellent introduction to the debate for those of us who have not been following it closely. After Gould’s introduction, there are six major contributions, each followed by critiques from each of the other contributors and a final rejoinder from the main author of the section. We have “God and Propositions,” by Keith Yandell, “Modified Theistic Activism,” by Paul M. Gould and Richard Brian Davis; “Theistic Conceptual Realism,” by Greg Welty; “Anti-Platonism,” by William Lane Craig; “God with or without Abstract Objects,” by Scott A. Shalkowski, and “Abstract Objects? Who Cares!” by Graham Oppy.

Beyond the Control of God?: Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects