The Necessary God

When he was asked why he agreed to work at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Albert Einstein is said to have replied in his amiable way, “So that I can have lunch with Kurt Gödel.”

It’s pleasant to imagine that meal, before Princeton became the urban tribute to ambition and avarice that it now appears to be: the rolling hills of the Piedmont, dairy farms and peach orchards here and there, the quiet Gothic facades of the divinity school, and the greatest living physicist sitting at table with the greatest living mathematician, the one Jewish and mystical, the other a German raised as a free-thinker but a daily reader of the Bible, and both men enthralled by the beauty and the mystery of being.

I’ve been thinking about those two lately, because Gödel left among his papers a fourteen-point proof of the existence of God, a mathematical elaboration of Saint Anselm’s famous demonstration in the Proslogion, nine hundred years before.

Our students have just read the Proslogion, and my colleagues and I have taken a fruitful approach to the work, one that Gödel would approve, although I am sure he would want us to proceed further.

Anselm is at pains to define terms. What does the Psalmist’s fool mean when he says in his heart, “There is no God”?

Here the so-called New Atheists fail, at the first and easiest step. They betray their ignorance of terms. If you blather about a “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” as if that, if it existed, would possess the plenitude of being that Anselm and Gödel, along with all Christian and Jewish thinkers, attribute to God, then you do not know what we are talking about. Your imagination is beside the point.

If you point to the gallery of “gods” that people have worshiped, as if we believed that you could hit on the correct one by drawing the right card in a deity-lottery, then again you do not know what we are talking about.

You have mistaken the concept of God – as Anselm puts it, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” – with this or that partial or distorted human apprehension of God, or with this or that figment of the imagination.

In His essence, God is utterly beyond imagining. That is the heart of His revelation to the Hebrews, that they were not to make any graven image of Him. It is one with His revelation to Moses from the burning bush, that His name is no name but I AM – I am He whose essence it is to exist.

So when we ask, “Does God exist?,” we are not asking the same sort of question as when we ask, “Does a supremely beautiful island in the South Seas exist?” That is because every object of our imagination or of our perception is a contingent being. It cannot meet Anselm’s definition of the term “God,” “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

Anselm (Canterbury Cathedral)
Anselm (Canterbury Cathedral)

We are not asking about possibilities, but about whether it is necessary that a necessary being exist. (In this regard Anselm’s demonstration resembles one of Aquinas’ famous “five ways.”)

Anselm’s next step is to assert that it is greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in the mind. We might put it this way. Anything that exists merely in the mind exists contingently. If it were not for someone imagining it, it would not exist at all.

The melancholy prince of Denmark arose in the mind of Shakespeare, who wrote his play and caused varieties of his initial conception to exist similarly in the minds of directors and actors and playgoers from his time unto ours. Its existence is also merely ideational. An imaginary meal is not as nutritious as the steak sandwich on the plate in front of me.

Now, if “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” exists merely contingently, depending upon circumstances, or merely as an idea, like Hamlet, then it cannot be “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” We have contradicted ourselves.

The form of Anselm’s demonstration is familiar to mathematicians. It is the form of the kinds of proofs that Gödel employed when he did his work on the necessary incompleteness of mathematical systems. Assume the negative, show that that results in self-contradiction, and conclude that the negative cannot be true. Therefore the positive is true.

If God exists, He cannot exist contingently. We may say, “I don’t know whether God exists,” but that describes a psychological state and not a logical conclusion. It is equivalent, says Anselm, to confessing a fogginess in the mind, or a confusion as to the meaning of the term “God.”

If God depended for His existence upon certain material conditions, He would not possess His being in and from Himself. He would receive it from something more fundamental. But that is a contradiction in terms, like asserting that the existence of a necessary Being depends upon the existence of contingent beings, beings that may or may not happen to exist.

So either God exists necessarily, or He necessarily does not exist. But the second alternative is absurd. There is nothing self-contradictory about asserting a necessary Being. Even the atheist does not say it is impossible that a necessary Being exists. At most he says it is not necessary to make the assertion, that it adds nothing to what we know about the world.

He is dead wrong about that, but it is not to Anselm’s point. Once we admit the possibility of the existence of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” we admit its necessity. The middle, the might or might-not, is nonsense.

I don’t know what the demonstration will have done for my students. Logic is one thing, and psycho-logic another. I hope it will have at least punctured the swollen belly of a most ill educated dragon. Gödel would approve.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.