Saint Anselm's Ontological Argument vs. David Hume
David Hume ponders the question of god’s existence in his essay “Why Does God Let People Suffer?”, suggesting that it is patently impossible for an omni benevolent god to allow such a great amount of suffering on earth. Saint Anselm’s “Ontological Argument” makes the claim that only a “fool’s misunderstanding” of the god concept will account for such a disbelief in god. Assumptions and direct contradictions from both pieces, though, only proves further that god’s existence is either unfathomable or impossible to prove. Human perception and experience gives us no basis for a belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, omni benevolent, or omnipresent god, but the possibility of lacking the knowledge needed to understand god’s design of the world does leave open the possibility of his existence. Therefore, although this possibility exists, humans do not know and will never be able to know whether or not god exists for sure.
Anselm’s argument about what “a fool hath said in his heart” presupposes the conclusion that he intends to arrive at. The lord, who he intends to prove the existence of, gives “understanding to faith”, a faith he already has. This is made clear in the very first sentence, and Anselm shows his argument’s circular assumption by saying that “what I formerly believed by thy bounty, I now understand by thine illumination”. One cannot set out to objectively prove the existence of something they already believe in. One would only subconsciously seek to strengthen their own beliefs in their supposed search for truth rather than weigh all arguments equally.
David Hume assumes that the terms “good” and “bad” are an objective truth, which cannot be taken for granted in this instance. Hume presupposes that all suffering is bad, preventable, and will be seen as bad by all people (and the “all powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity”). Yet, without a prescribed set of morals or values, there would be no “good” or “bad”, simply “survival”. Animals do not perceive good or bad, they run on simple instinct. Hume inadvertently comments on the natural world, where morals are nonexistent, using it as an argument for the possibility of “the Business of Life without any pain”. Where humans feel both pleasure and pain, at opposite ends of a moral spectrum, Hume notes that animals, “instead of Pain, they might feel a Diminution of Pleasure.” But “neither action nor character is moral at all unless there is something mental in it”, therefore, our mental cognition forces morals upon us. Some judgments of “good” or “bad” can be subjective, when a human action or idea lacks a mental aspect.
One of Hume’s core arguments is based on the assumption that we would be able to understand an omniscient god’s purpose for the world, and in turn we would be able to see that there is unnecessary suffering and be justified in wondering wonder why such an omniscient god would allow such anguish. Within the limited scope of human knowledge, though, there would be no way for use to determine what god’s ultimate plan is, and furthermore be able to judge whether that plan is good or bad, considering god’s omniscience and omnipotence. If such a being existed, his knowledge would have to go far above and beyond our reasoning skills. Our judgments of an omniscient, omnipotent god’s purpose for suffering and anguish in the world cannot be based upon mankind’s own limited view of the cause of suffering. If we are not able to know god’s plan or design behind all suffering and pain in the world, then we cannot wonder why such a god would not eradicate all suffering. In addition, without some sort of suffering to oppose pleasure, there would be no way in the human experience to know that “good” is actually good, since there would be no comparison or gauge for what we know to be good. Mankind “has to take evil with good or give up good with evil.”
Saint Anselm’s core argument for the existence of a “being than which no greater can be conceived” (BNGC) is invalid when considering the implications behind an “ideal”, which the BNGC would have to be. Anselm claims that, since we can perceive nothing greater, god has a “necessary existence”, which constitutes his perfection. An ideal and perfection alone do not give us a basis or firm proof for such a being to exist. As far as humans know, and in all that we know, an ideal can exist only in the mind. A BNGC “can at most be thought, but in-itself-being cannot enter into perception at all”. One would think that this perfect being (“god”) would give us a mental capacity or ability to perceive that there is even the possibility that a perfect being can exist in reality. But since such a god hasn’t given us even a capacity to conceive that perfection can exist in reality, then our current perceptions and realm of knowledge does not allow for the existence of god.
“Greater” is a purely human characteristic or judgment, something that could hardly be applied to god, yet Anselm claims that this being holds the attribute of being “greater” than all else. The only possible way for such a being to exist is to intellectualize a perfect being, an ideal, and in turn, this being “will be greater if it exists than if it does not exist”. The possibility, though that god’s existence is simply beyond our comprehension still exists. We may be able to intellectualize him and understand the concept of god‘s existence, but we cannot understand god himself if he did exist in reality. As much as we understand the concept, his existence may still be beyond our comprehension. It is possible that “He is, in His very nature, unconceptualizable sic, that His Mystery and incomprehensibility are absolute attributes of Him.” This forms a kind of common ground between Hume and Anselm: since we do not have the mental capacity to understand him if he did exist, but conceiving the concept may be implausible, then we cannot know either way whether god does exist.
Evil is a problem addressed more by Hume than Anselm, but Anselm’s statement about something that is the “greatest” must beg the antecedent. What about something that is the worst, such as the devil? Greatness, which has been established as subjective, now has a rival. Two things that exactly oppose each other, at the opposite ends of the spectrum (one the BNGC and one “that which nothing lesser can be conceived”), can almost be seen as the same being. Anselm argued “for the necessary existence of ‘God’, via the assumption that ‘God’ is the creator of the universe”, therefore, everything came from and will go to god, including that of evil and the devil. This would answer Hume’s question “Why Does God Let People Suffer?”: people suffer because of evil, and in god’s great plan, this evil must serve some purpose because he himself created it.
If suffering is so important and will serve its purpose through god’s plan, one would think he would be able to at least reduce suffering, or in the very least, prevent the suffering of children, who have done nothing through free will to deserve it. The needless suffering, and that of children, seems to be simply too high a price to be paid for such final harmony, especially when considering the amount of time and effort humans spend trying to cure the world of suffering. Couldn’t a little less suffering could be doled out to serve this high and mighty plan? Yet there is no evidence that any suffering has been withheld when looking at the course of human history, which would point to the conclusion that there is no god, or if there is, he is either not omnipotent or not omni benevolent.
Saint Anselm and David Hume make cases for and against the existence of god that may be invalid after close scrutiny, in turn only providing proof that we cannot know whether god exists at all. If he does exist, he has not given us the capacity nor any reason to believe in him. If he does not exist, then through virus-like memes and the dismissal of atheistic ideas which cause cognitive dissonance, the idea of god has propagated itself among cultures with a need for a belief in god. Based merely on current, empirical knowledge, and barring further understanding, there is no reason to believe in the existence of god. But since we could not know what future understanding may bring, and we may not currently posses the ability to understand god fully, we cannot know for sure whether god does exist.
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