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

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    As always, you go straight to the heart of the matter, sir. This is truly amazing and inspiring. I try to never miss anything you write. And, this one is mind-blowing in scope and detail and thought and logic and…basically, faith. I will think on this for quite a long time. Thank you.

  • FreemenRtrue

    I do not know if today’s anti-theists will admit the possibility that God exists. They are blindly committed to a Darwinian notion of a strictly material world that just appeared out of the Big Bang. I have often had the spaghetti monster thing thrown at me – think it came from Dawkins – a very flawed thinker.

    • RainingAgain

      Dawkins seems to be beginning to doubt himself.

    • Tony

      Yeah, they are not very clear thinkers. I am not asking them to admit a possibility. I am demanding that they assert and defend the NECESSITY of NON-EXISTENCE. Once I demonstrate that PROBABILITY does not and cannot logically enter into the matter, we are left with necessities. I can affirm the necessity of the existence of necessary being, as Anselm and Aquinas and Goedel do. I can defend that. Let them try even to CONCEIVE the converse. It is, after all, difficult even to conceive how one can NECESSARILY believe that NECESSARY being cannot possibly exist.

  • grump

    The real question is not whether God exists, but Which God exists.

    • Craig Payne

      I would go back and re-read the article. If God is the Supreme Being, with no potential for improvement and no possibility for further perfection, there can only be One.

      • Frese

        Yes, the ‘Supreme Being’. But that tells us nothing beyond a vague ‘being’ that is beyond imagining. The question is ‘which’ god – the Triune god, Allah? I read the article and see the author of course calling this Thing the God pf the Hebrews, but he seems to have left put that part of the argument. Why not the god of the Muslims?

        • RainingAgain

          Allah contradicts himself in the Koran. The Being “…than which nothing greater can be conceived” could not possess such a limitation.

          • FreseGuest

            And I could say that non-contradiction is a limitation that a limitless being could not have. But then you would start to see what a silly word game it all is.

            And I will point out any number of contradictions in the Bible.

            And you will reply that they are not actual contradictions, and I, as an unbeliever are merely misinterpreting it.

            And the Muslim will reply that Allah does not contradict himself in the Koran, and you, as an unbeliever are merely misinterpreting it.

            And I will point out that this abstract Supreme Being of the Theologians doesn’t exactly square with the Biblical account of the God that walked in the Garden of Eden, and whose hind parts may be seen, but not his face.

            And you will explain that those parts are merely allegory.

            And so on.

            And even if there is a Supreme Being, there’s no saying it’s the God of any of the existing religions. There is nothing to get us from this Necessary Being to Jesus-Yahweh.

            And you will reply faith is the answer, and I will say then we shouldn’t have bothered will all this logic chopping in the first place.

          • Craig Payne

            I think when you say “logic chopping,” what you mean is “logic.”

          • Tony

            In this regard I recall the story that a dear friend of mine used to tell. He passed away a few years ago, but was for a long time my mentor at Providence College. His father was an avid anti-clerical unbelieving Hoover-hating Italian liberal, such as you’d often get up here in Rhode Island, for some obvious reasons. He would throw his shoe at the television every time the elderly Hoover showed up on it. He also had complete scorn for priests, which he passed along to his son, ridiculing the simplicity and the foolishness of their beliefs.

            Then his son went to Providence College, which at that time required six courses in philosophy and six in theology, and there my friend, who was an absolutely brilliant and sensible man, encountered the work of Thomas Aquinas. And he was confused. It exhibited a breathtaking depth and breadth of intellect, a relentless logic, a longing above all for clarity and precision. So he was confused. “Pop,” he said to his father, “what do you make of this?”

            “Oh,” said the father, “that theology stuff — that’s all beyond me. I don’t understand a bit of it!”

            “But Pop, you said …”

            My friend ended up becoming the most faithful of Roman Catholics. I do believe that he eventually persuaded his father to be reconciled to the Church.

            See, our opponents accuse us of being stupid. Then when we bring out the heavy artillery, they say that we are being over-intellectual. They accuse us of reading “fairy tales.” Then when we show that we do not read fairy tales, and that the Fathers of the Church 1700 years ago were not reading fairy tales, and that the rabbis among the Jews 2400 years ago were not, they grouch and DEMAND that we read Scripture naively. In this way they are like modern fundamentalists.

          • Philippa Dolores

            The young are in need of intellectual shepherding. I wish my CCD teachers had been conversant with the Ontological argument; I would have been receptive to it when I was in sixth grade. Instead, all they could do was dodge my questions and point me to the circa 1970 textbook which characterized Jesus as a guy who merely wanted everyone to be nice and get along. When I was in high school, I played devil’s advocate, criticizing the Church while secretly hoping that someone would have the heart to defend her. No one would, in the intellectually serious way I sought, so it should be no surprise that I lapsed in college. James Joyce’ A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man got me interested in Aquinas, and so I “learnt from the truth of some stray legend or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy, things that I might have learnt from my catechism—if I had ever learnt it.” When I met the theology faculty of the Catholic prep school where my husband taught, it was the final twitch upon the thread – these men were some of the most thoughtful and well-read I had ever met, and they had studied at places like Christendom and St. John’s. I have returned to the Church, and, at 26, I am starting to understand my faith for the first time. This should not be true of a person who attended Mass every week and was confirmed!

          • Tony

            Please read the article again carefully. As soon as you say “there’s no saying it’s the God of any of the existing religions,” you have fallen into the error of assuming that God is a contingent being; that God could be this God or that God. That is illogical; it involves a reduction of God to Mister Apollo, and we are not here talking about Mister Apollo. Now, perhaps you meant that no earthly religion has a proper understanding of God; that some approach to that understanding nearer than others do. If you mean that, then at least we can get somewhere. But then you have to take seriously the theology of those people who say that God has revealed Himself to be self-subsisting Being, the One whose essence it is to exist. (That there can be no plurality of such involves another demonstration, not difficult.) And this is precisely what is revealed, even to the semi-barbaric Hebrews 1400 years before Christ, and is preserved in various forms in the Old Testament. Think of how remarkable the Old Testament is, in this crucial regard. There is no theogony — everywhere else in the world, gods come into being. There is no folding of God into creation; everywhere else in the world, that is what you get. There is no reduction of God to human shape: that is why the Hebrews were forbidden to make graven images. Metaphorical language for describing God is held to an astonishingly bare minimum. Something else is going on here — something that confirms what is true in the many wild surmises of man, yet also something that is literally beyond human imagination. It bears attention.

          • FreemenRtrue

            I recall being stunned a bit the first time I read “I am Who am”‘. I was just a rustic ragamuffin in Catholic school, but even then that declaration hit me like a ton of bricks. Some things just ring true.

          • Harry

            Yes, the ancient, “semi-barbaric” Hebrews’ notion of God, with the Hebrew Scriptures having Him identifying Himself as “I AM WHO AM,” has a refinement and sophistication that the Hebrews didn’t possess themselves — it wasn’t theirs to inject into their religious thought; it surpassed by far the religious thought of their contemporaries. Where did it come from? God, maybe? ;o)

          • Guester

            You’re right, the ancient Hebrews didn’t have the sophistication. That came from later generations and theologians who retroactively imposed the idea on early myths. Yahweh existed along with El and Baal at one time

          • Harry

            You need to read Kenneth Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament.

          • Guester

            There is no reduction of God to human shape:

            Ah but there is. There is the God that walks in the garden, and who says his hind parts may be seen but not his face. Theologians have relegated this to metaphor or allegory to fit later ideas of god, but it is there.
            But of course there’s no arguing this kind of thing. How could it be proved one way or another

          • RainingAgain

            We’ll find out eventually, won’t we, or not? This question is perhaps one of those non-axiomatic statements that are indefinable within the confines of the mathematical set that is the universe. Therefore one accepts what I consider to be Revelation from without or one doesn’t; or one doesn’t make one’s mind up one way or another.

          • John II

            If you take delight in your aggressive (and, I hope, youthful) skepticism, far be it from me to spoil your fun.

            On the other hand, if you’re flirting with a useless and unnecessary despair, I suppose I should respond. Trouble is, I don’t even know where to start.

            Let’s see . . . try sampling the second chapter of Ronald Knox’s Hidden Stream (“Does Proof Matter?”).

            If you’re interested. But maybe you aren’t.

          • FreemenRtrue

            Avery human statement – great observation.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      God grump may be relative to your perception that is within the confines of your understanding otherwise as a reality transcends any comprehension.

  • Mark Millward

    Anthony Esolen you truly have got to the essential heart of the matter in this sublime column! I relish reading pithy, cogent expositions on the nature of Ultimate Truth and I have to say that your article gets there extremely fully and extremely fast. This is essential in the era of the two minute sound-bite and you have done your students a great service. Bravo! I will read it with my sons, hopefully this evening. They are no strangers to these arguments, having been taken through Ed Feser’s work and the work of others such as William Lane Craig on a number of occasions. However, repetition never hurts and they will appreciate the brevity and lucidity of your presentation. Your final sentence is the heart of the matter as regards the willingness of any reader to accept the evident truth you present. Sadly the psycho – logical barriers we humans erect can be extraordinarily impervious to Truth, but fortunately Grace can still break through when the modern conception of reality (absent the illumination of Truth) is finally revealed as the bitter fruit it truly is!

  • Quo Vadis

    Those who do not believe in God can easily accept the Big Bang Theory and the concept the something came from nothing, always was, and then decided to blow up.

    Which is more ridiculous: The belief in God or that spec ?

  • Murray

    Anselm’s Ontological Argument is interesting, because it seems to modern people like a sleight of hand, like imagining God into existence. I remember a TV miniseries of my youth (Brides of Christ) in which one of the young novices complains that Anselm’s proof is “just playing with words”. Similarly, Richard Dawkins, after Kant, cries that “existence is not a predicate”; we cannot just assign the property of existence to God. Thomist philosopher Ed Feser responds that the Kant/Dawkins objection is the result of a confusion between what the Scholastics called nominal definitions, which explain the meaning of a word, and real definitions, which explain the “nature or essence of the objective reality a word refers to.” Anselm is concerned with the latter.

    Responding to the monk Gaulino, who objected to Anselm with the parodic “greatest island” argument to which Dr Esolen refers, Anselm clarified in a useful fashion (I crib here from the Skandalon webpage on this topic):

    1. Either God exists or He does not exist
    2. If God exists, God’s existence must be necessary
    3. If God does not exist, then his existence is logically impossible
    4. God is not a logically impossible thing
    5. Therefore, God’s existence is necessary
    6.Therefore, God exists

    This argument proceeds by elimination: The first premise is straightforward. Second, if God exists, he is not contingent. Third, the only things that can fail to exist are either contingent things (rocks, human beings or Flying Spaghetti Monsters) or logically impossible things (square circles or married bachelors). But we know from 2 that God is not contingent, so if he is to not exist, he must be logically impossible. But he is not logically impossible; that is, there is no logical contradiction in the notion of God. Therefore, God exists.

    The clearest (if not the only) approach for someone seeking to refute this argument would be to attack 4: to prove that God is logically impossible. And indeed, this is a pretty common line of attack for the New Atheists, but they have not notably succeeded in making their case. At best (for the atheists), it forces them to fight on level ground with theists, where they cannot deploy their preferred tactics of mockery and off-hand dismissal. At worst, they lose.

    • Dave Fladlien

      This is a fun set of concepts that you have put forth, and I think I’ll probably end up borrowing from it. But your last paragraph doesn’t match my experience. What I usually get from real atheists isn’t that God is impossible, the atheists I’ve encountered usually will grant me the possibility, they just don’t think He does exist, because their concept of probability given an infinite number of opportunities explains everything adequately.

      To the atheists I’ve talked with, given enough time, what we know as physical reality will just happen. They may get stuck at “where did the very first element or action come from”, but they have ways around that too. They then contend that there *could* be a God, but it just doesn’t seem at all indicated, and there are so many reasons to think there isn’t a God that it seems odd that a God who exists would present so much contrary evidence.

      In my life, though, these folks aren’t really much of a problem. The sincere ones, at least, are confident that there probably isn’t a God, but it doesn’t cost them anything if I want to believe in one, so fine. Only if I were to try to force them to do or refrain from doing what they decide is “right” would they have a problem with me, as would anyone else. The problem I encounter is with the militant secularists, who want to remove any concept of God from the earth. Unlike most atheists, these secularists are determined to tell me what I can or can’t do; then it is they who are trampling my rights.

      • Tony

        Right there, though, they betray their philosophical naivete. They don’t know what they are talking about. They are stuck with thinking of God as Mister Apollo, a creature in the universe. Here are the problems with their attempted evasion:

        1. We can have, by definition, no evidence of any universe but ours. If they want to posit another universe, they have to give up pretending to be empiricists. They are then on our turf.

        2. The presence of another universe, or an infinite number of universes, does not alter anything, any more than does the existence of another star, or an infinite number of stars. We now have more to explain, not less.

        3. You cannot bring probability into the argument. That is my point about excluding the middle. If God can probably exist, that means that there exists some set of laws L, by which God might or might not happen to be; but then God’s existence is contingent — and so he is not God. He is some Big Thing or Other. The question of God does not admit of probabilities, unless we are speaking psychologically rather than logically. I can only judge probabilities if I have a number of experiences in which the event E, which is dependent, happens or does not happen. E is not God.

        4. There can be no “contrary evidence,” because we do not know what we are judging. I can say there is “contrary evidence” against there having been a snowstorm in Plainville last week, because I have experiences of snowstorms and their wake. But we do not have experiences of any universe but ours, and as I said above, it is absurd to believe that God can exist for universe A but not for universe B. We would not then be talking about God, but about some lesser thing.

        5. They really must confront the truth, articulated relentlessly by Lucretius of all people, that nothing comes from nothing. Contingent existence must ultimately come from necessary existence: then to go on and ask where God came from is to misunderstand the question.

        But of course, to believe in God changes everything.

        • RainingAgain

          Belief is certainly less mind-boggling!

        • Dave Fladlien

          Interesting. I’m going to have to think more about this. Usually I just pretty much pass up the probability debate for the same reason that I once gave up on a debate with a solipsist, namely that I just couldn’t establish any point at all with him. It turns into a circular repetition where each of us keeps stating our position again and again but we never resolve anything.

          You’ve given me some new approaches to consider here, since the really problematic atheists to argue with are often intellectuals who can handle the theoretical aspects of this kind of debate. And I may need them soon, the way the next part of my life is shaping up.

          Thanks for taking the effort to write this. Debating this question is something where I need to do better.

    • Dave

      I probably need a little help here. It seems to me that the whole argument revolves around (2), the claim that if God exists, God’s existence must be necessary. This is true upon acceptance that God is that greater than which nothing can be conceived (as Anselm argued) (which I accept, both as a matter of dogma and also as a matter of natural theology, which does not require dogma). I do think, however, that (2) contains an undemonstrated argument and that the passage from 2 to 4 is not altogether clear. Further, the entire argument as summarized above does not get us to creation ex nihilo, I think, as it does not posit a God that is separate from creation: how is the Judeo-Christian God (even before we get to the Trinity), distinct from the Creator of, say, Native American spirituality? One possible answer is that a necessary Being cannot be an essential part of a contingent creation, much as like the painter is not contained within the painting, and I think Tony’s answer points to this. But still, from a strictly philosophical basis, we are back to Dr. Kainz’s argument, “nothing comes from nothing,” which is why the philosophies (and theologies) of non-monotheistic religions always posit that the universe is eternal. No matter how one slices it, the gift of faith is required to see that the Creator is wholly distinct from and independent of his Creation, which is wholly contingent and which adds nothing to the Creator’s infinity of everything. This is what made the Judaic contribution to world thought so novel and so provocative, and why, whether as straightforward Judaism or Judeo-Christian thought, it still does. Can anyone help with this analysis?

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        If it relates to your thought the existence of the universe cannot be determined insofar as time. The reason is there is no coordinate to which the beginning of the universe can be measured. Time is a relative measurement of movement always in relation to something else by which it can be measured and God cannot be that coordinate. Thus it is not a question of when the universe was created but rather that it was created. Aquinas never resolved the related question of an eternal universe.

      • Tony

        There is a difference between “perpetual” and “eternal.” Thomas did not believe that you could prove, rationally, that the universe had a beginning in time, or that time had a beginning. Avicenna did believe it … And it seems to be true that time is a feature of our universe, and that there was a beginning. The everlastingness of a universe backwards and forwards in “time” does not alter the case, as far as Thomas was concerned. The First Cause must not be thought of as the First Domino, but rather as the Prime Cause, the fundamental reality. Increasing the objects in the universe to the countably infinite does not change things, though it makes you have to toss in an extra lemma or two before you reach the same proof. God could have created a universe that stretched infinitely far backwards and infinitely far forwards in “time” — there is nothing self-contradictory about that. “Time” is a created thing, and not the backdrop for existence. But Augustine knew that and writes about it frequently.

        • Dave

          This is helpful, especially not to equate the First Cause to the First Domino.
          The First Cause created the First Domino and moved it, and that, I suppose, is when we can posit the beginning of time. The reference to Avicenna is helpful, too, because Muslims reject the Incarnation precisely on the premise that the painter cannot become an essential part of the painting. Divine revelation tells us otherwise, of course, though I have to equivocate on the terms a bit: a painting is static, a piece of music is not — as life itself is not — and there is no reason why the Creator of music cannot become the master musician in his own composition.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Prof Esolen since you recently gave me an example of real humility the existence of which i lack I will rely on the virtue of magnanimity in response to your argument, which I magnanimously admit has faith value. The difficulty with Anselm’s prop. is it remains conceptual. We cannot infer causality from thought [concept]. Pesky Hume will argue that causality is also conceptual since our idea is based on repetition of events not identifiable fact. But Hume’s refutation does not address the reality of things coming into being. Something happens that reason references to other conditions. Thus Aquinas will say that contingent being does not possess its own cause for existence. Aside from his 5 ways Aquinas’ best proof is in Essence and Existence. There he posits proof in reference to qualities of things. Remove some qualities we still have something remove all we have nothing. Qualities then are not the cause of something but belong to its essence. Man is not the principle of his own being. First Principle of existence of all things is God. The next step is faith. Anselm’s prop. refers to “plenitude” , mathematical infinity because it is impossible for the intellect to contain the Infinite. My sense is Godel’s contradiction argument refers to numerical contradiction that takes us nowhere except to another possible. Nice try.

  • The sad part is that the existence of the New Athiests is predictible and predicated by a culture that has lost Christianity. It all seems to have started with the sexual revolution.

    • FreemenRtrue

      The sexual revolution is an expression of materialism?

      • Tony

        It’s an interesting connection to make. If the materialist is consistent — and we must thank God in His mercy that very few materialists are so — then ideas about good and evil, or the beautiful and the ugly, must be demoted to the status of mere social constructs or individual reactions, fundamentally irrational even if they might be socially useful. But that blows open the barn door and lets all the animals out.

        • FreemenRtrue

          Aren’t they all out?

      • Of course it is. Especially the part where you can have all the sex and material goods you want and never have to share it with the children you contracepted and aborted out of existance.

        • FreemenRtrue

          And materialism was birthed by Darwin, Marx,……?

          • And their first order was that men should act as animals and the family be destroyed, because of course, men are animals under evolution.

  • Howard Kainz

    Anselm in his Monologion even points out that the idea of “creation from nothingness” is faulty. There never was nothingness and never will be. We get the idea of nothingness from the fact that everything we experience (including ourselves) has a starting point. But the ultimate “starting point” could not have been nothingness. Anselm writes: “Everything
    that is, is either through something or through nothing. But nothing
    comes from nothing. For it is altogether inconceivable that anything
    should be unless through something. Whatever is, then, is not except
    through something. . . .The essence of all things that are, except the
    highest essence, is made by that highest essence, and does not derive
    from material. . . .Whatever is created is created from something.”

    • winslow

      The whole point of creation is God creating the universe from nothing. It’s dogma.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      You’re right Howard that there must be Pure Act [God] as the cause of existence of things do not possess their own act of existence since what they are does not posit their act of being. However God in creating things did not reproduce his own Being. His creative act brought into existence that which did not formally exist in any manner whatsoever.

    • RainingAgain

      God created us from nothing, we are still nothing and we possess that existence that we have through Him.

  • Gsimjohnston

    I’m putting this on my Kindle so that I can properly absorb it. I’ve always thought Kant’s refutation of Anselm was the last word, but now I have to think about that. Didn’t Aquinas reject the ontological argument?

    • Howard Kainz

      Yes, Aquinas rejected the ontological argument, but after Kant’s refutation G.W.F. Hegel in his lectures on the philosophy of religion revised Anselm’s proof, and considers it the most solid proof. One of my graduate students, Patricia Calton, developed Hegel’s proof in her book,

      Hegel’s Metaphysics of God: The Ontological Proof As the Development of a Trinitarian Divine Ontology.

    • Tony

      Yes, he did, sort of. The argument was not to his taste, though, because it is quasi-mathematical — Platonic, you might say — and not Aristotelian. But I believe that you can draw connections between Anselm’s argument and Thomas’s argument from necessary and contingent being. Goedel seems to have done something like that, but rather from the notion of possible universes. My guess is that Kant, for all his brilliance, did not read Anselm closely, and probably did not read Thomas at all.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Tony there is no substantive connection between Ans and Aquinas regards necessary and contingent because in Aquinas it is in rel to the principle being while in Ans it is idea, between Idealism and Phi of Existence.

      • John II

        Good guess, if my recollection is correct (from Maritain, I believe) that German/Prussian university training in philosophy during the 18th and 19th centuries glossed over all medieval philosophy with a standard short handbook of conceptual overview.

        The Teutonic biggies from Kant to Nietzsche apparently had no intimate knowledge of Anselm or Aquinas. Outside the Catholic intellectual tradition, though, a new and serious interest in medieval philosophy sprouted right here in America with the difficult 19th-century “pragmatic” philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce.

  • Tony

    In response to a couple of comments below:

    Some of the New Atheists may utter the words, “It is impossible that God should exist,” but I contend that they are speaking rhetorically or psychologically. But this argument is neither rhetorical nor psychological. Imagine for example a “universe” consisting of two bodies, A and B, that regularly draw close to one another, strike one another, then move apart, till they reach a certain distance, and repeat the process over and over, ad infinitum. Now then — you can say that you do not need the concept of God to explain fully what is going on here; that is not exactly true, but it is not really to the point. The point is rather that it makes no sense to say that it is absolutely impossible that God should have created this universe, merely because you happen to know all there is about the motion of the bodies therein. Recall — we are not saying here that you cannot say that you do not NEED the concept of God. We are saying that YOU have to say that the existence of God is IMPOSSIBLE, that His non-existence is NECESSARY. And I have no idea how anyone can affirm that — on what grounds can one possibly affirm the necessary non-existence of necessary being? Because that is what you have to affirm. You have to do more than deny the necessity of necessary being. You have to affirm the necessity of the non-existence of necessary being. That seems to me to involve complete logical breakdown.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      If that is the entire point of your article Tony then I agree you are absolutely correct insofar as the logic of contradiction. The problem I see is moving from that to God’s existence not as the conclusion of a logical syllogism but as the conclusion of reasoned investigation. The human mind discerns distinction between logical conclusion and truth. Existence [God] transcends its logical derivative.

  • jmm1234

    “Anselm’s next step is to assert that it is greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in the mind.” An imaginary disease is better than a real one though.

    • Tony

      You are either jesting or you are not. If you are jesting, then I agree with you!

      If you are not, then by “disease” you either mean to denote a deficiency in the function of some organ or organs in the body, OR the organism attacking the body. For the sake of simplicity, we might as well make that organism a lion.

      Now, the deficiency is a bad thing, but strictly speaking it is not a substance, not an existing thing; it is a privation in a thing. So it does not fall under our analysis, because it does not in itself possess existence.

      The lion, however, is a good thing, even if it is attacking me. It has existence, order, beauty. It is a bad thing for me, under the circumstances. So in this sense the real lion is certainly better than the imaginary lion, although I might wish that in my case he were imaginary and not real.

      • jmm1234

        Does a life killing virus have existence, order, and beauty?

        • Tony

          Yes, I’d say so. Aristotle said the same thing about worms, and other things that disgust us initially, but that are ordered in an amazing way. The virus here is no different from the lion. Yes, it does have existence, order, and beauty. So does the lion. I may wish that the lion were not next to me and hungry, but that makes the lion a bad thing by attendant circumstances, and not a bad thing in itself. The virus is a bad thing by attendant circumstances. We can imagine, for example, the same sort of thing at the very beginning of life, if life came about from patches of reduplicating series of proteins.

          Now, if you are talking not about the virus, but about death, we move to a different form of consideration; we move to the providence of God, and Christ’s victory over death. In general I’m of the opinion that if I were a pagan — and all paganism ends in despair — I would still find this life achingly beautiful, even knowing that it must end.

          • jmm1234

            Interesting. Thanks for the clarification. It appears to me that the argument turns on the definition of “great.” But doesn’t any evaluation of “great” assume the question “great to who” or “great to what.” Can something or someone be great without that context?

          • Tony

            Yes, I’d say that too; we don’t need the who or the what. Let us suppose a universe A, one of incomparable complexity, with whole galaxies in resplendent colors and mathematical patterns; and let us suppose that there is (as yet) no observer in A, no one to say, “This is beautiful.” The addition of the observer doesn’t change the nature of A. It is great and it is beautiful in itself, and the observer discovers that. We do know that people will be drawn to a variety of beautiful things, some people more to paintings than to music, and so forth; but then nobody has the capacity to respond fully to all of the beauty in every existent thing. We’d have to be deities — without lapses in attention, without blind spots, and so forth. Yet the beauty would be there, awaiting discovery.

            God, of course, is the prime beholder of art: “And God saw that it was good.”

          • jmm1234

            Hmmmm…something valuable in and of itself with no relation to a valuer. Does not seem to be logical. I have never heard of, nor can I think of anything or anyone being valuable with no one to value it. Your universe example above may be valuable once there is someone or something to value it. Of course only living beings are capable of valuing.

          • Tony

            The One who values is God. That is, the objective existence of worth implies the One who creates what is to be valued, and endows it with value. Dietrich von Hildebrand, the Catholic philosopher whose voluminous works are finally, all of them, being translated into English, says that “value” is an objective quality. The English word may strike our ears as odd, but I don’t know that there’s a better alternative. But think of the comparative worth of an incidental act of kindness and a great act of heroism. We wouldn’t want to say that the worth of the act of heroism depended upon there being wise people who could evaluate it rightly. Nothing in the nature of the act depends upon the (human) spectators. Milton suggests much the same thing in his poem “Lycidas,” distinguishing between “fame” (the result of human evaluation) and “praise” (God’s recognition of a deed’s inherent worth).

          • jmm1234

            Yes, but what makes the act of heroism great is the actor and recipient, one or both of whom receive value from the act. It wouldn’t be an act of heroism if no one benefited. Heroism (and cowardice) don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a virtue and vice because of the existence of values which necessarily proceed from human benefit or loss.

  • Harry

    The word “nothing,” as I will use it the following remarks, refers to material nothingness, or the absence of space, time matter and energy, all of which, according to many, were brought forth with the Big Bang. The idea that time itself began along with the rest of creation is ancient. Augustine put it this way: “Time … begins rather from the creation, than creation from time.”

    It is self evident that from nothing, nothing comes. Nothingness has no causal powers; were there ever utterly nothing, so it would remain, unless, of course, a reality that transcends space, time, matter and energy exists that caused material “somethingness.”

    So, since it is indisputable that there is something, if the Big Bang brought about “somethingness,” there must be some non-material reality the essence of which is “to be” that caused that to happen. (The alternative, which is taking the very unscientific position that things pop into existence, uncaused, from nothingness, is, to put it charitably, not intellectually satisfying). I didn’t say “there must be some non-material reality that existed eternally,” because for there to be an eternal past there must be time, and “nothing” here includes the absence of time, in the sense that the Big Bang is understood to be the beginning of time itself.

    So, starting with the present and tracing back in time the series of effects and their causes will take us to the singularity that Banged, which is either the reality the essence of which is “to be,” or it isn’t.

    So, what is a singularity?

    If we simply follow the predictions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity for the evolution of a simple expanding, homogeneous universe filled with matter and radiation, then our journey into the past will eventually come to an end – a point in time where we cannot go back any further. At this moment, all the galaxies that we see around us today were compressed into a region of zero volume – to a single point in space. Since density is defined as mass divided by volume, the density was infinite. In Einstein’s theory, matter influences the way that the geometry of space and time is distorted, and at this moment of infinite matter density, the curvature of spacetime was infinite, as well. Within the simple cosmological models based on general relativity, there is no possibility to go to any earlier times than this. Such a boundary of time (or, more generally, of spacetime) is called a singularity (See Einstein Online)

    One has to wonder how anything at all gets into a region of “zero volume,” much less the matter of which countless galaxies consist. A “single point in space,” in terms of geometry, is a location with no size. Yet there can’t be a location without space, which didn’t exist yet. So, saying the Universe was compressed into a “zero volume” singularity which then Banged is exactly the same as saying that the Universe came into being ex nihilo. A singularity, like a “point” in geometry, is only a concept; it cannot then be the reality the essence of which is “to be.” So, what are we left with? A non-material reality that transcends space, time, matter and energy, i.e., God.

    It is interesting that, as Mr. Esolen pointed out, God, by way of identifying Himself, revealed “to Moses from the burning bush, that His name is no name but I AM — I am He whose essence it is to exist.”

    • Mactoul

      Singularity in physics means that the current theory fails and a better theory is required. That is all. The Big Bang theory does not and indeed can not describe the creation of universe from nothing. The creation out of nothing is a metaphysical event and not an empirical event. Physics accounts for the laws of an existing and running universe. Hence, it is not competent to describe coming-to-be of the universe. One could study the writings of Father Jaki on this and related matters.

      • Harry

        If the Universe was indeed created ex nihilo, and with that creation began space and time as well as matter and energy, then it seems to me that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity applied to cosmology does as good a job as is currently possible at describing that event. The Big Bang theory has become the standard model and is supported by corroborating evidence, although it seems to me that the religious/philosophical bias of modern science and academia is revealed by its reluctance to point out, as I did in my post, that a Big Bang beginning of the Universe amounts to the Universe coming into being out of nothingness, where “nothingness” is the absence of space, time, matter and energy. Calling that nothingness a “singularity,” and describing it as a geometric point of no size with the whole Universe packed into it – a point that, by definition, is a location in space – a space that hasn’t come into existence yet, is using the strained language of one who doesn’t want to admit something. Astronomer, physicist, cosmologist and leading NASA scientist Robert Jastrow, in his book God and the Astronomers, while not making the point I am making, helps explains it as he describes the reaction of science to the ever-increasing corroboration of the Big Bang theory:

        For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

        A final thought: I expected that someone might object to my assumption that the non-material reality that must have caused the Big Bang was necessarily one the essence of which is “to be.” I would have responded to that by pointing out that that which exists outside of space, time, matter and energy, that transcends those realities, can’t have a beginning or an end, since such a non-material reality exists outside of time – time which is necessary for there to be beginnings and endings. A reality that can have no beginning or ending is necessarily one the essence of which is “to be.”

        • Ernest Miller


          You write “…the strained language of one who doesn’t want to admit something.” Your words can be used like a lens to examine the veracity of many, many arguments in the general contest of naturalism versus supernaturalism. Properly assessed they will separate the author from the argument and expose prejudice from truth.

          Thanks for the construct.

  • RainingAgain

    If I can recall correctly, which is quite doubtful in matters of this opacity, didn’t Godel assert that no system set beyond simple ones could be defined by the parameters and data contained within itself? Since the entire physical universe is ultimately a purely mathematical entity and comprises what could be described as a complete set, doesn’t Godel’s Theorem seem to indicate that the entire physical universe cannot define itself? Therefore, it is either entirely inexplicable, which seems to contradict reason, or at least implies we can never hope to conclusively satisfy this conundrum, or there is something transcending the universe which possesses the data, so to speak, that defines it. Does that make any kind of sense?

    • Tony

      Yes, I believe so. Goedel proved — proved! — that any system with at least the complexity of arithmetic must be “incomplete,” not closed. So there must exist at least one non-axiomatic statement S, well-defined, which is TRUE in the system, but which cannot be proved by the axioms and the results that flow from them. That is to sever truth from demonstrability. And THAT is a dagger to the heart of positivism.

    • Mactoul

      The physical universe is physical universe. The physical phenomena can be explained using mathematical models but it is absurd to reduce the physical universe to a mathematical entity. It is a confusion of categories.

      • RainingAgain

        I don’t agree. It is mathematical entity, or one could not describe it as a “physical universe”. I don’t think it can be described as a category error. The latter would be to ascribe properties where the do not apply, for example to speak in terms of time and space when discussing an eternal being. Of course, you perhaps can tell us there is a part of the physical universe where mathematics do not apply.

  • Sir Flatulus

    the thing that makes music music or at least makes it great is the pause between notes, when there technically is no music. The absence of the thing is the proof of the thing. And why, by the way, is Richard Dawkins more of an authority on atheism than anyone else is?

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Tony you have a penchant for rattling peoples cages.

  • Mactoul

    Some scholars claim that Exodus 3:14 is better translated as “I will be that I will be”. The Hebrew tenses do not exactly coincide with the English ones. Does that change the metaphysics of I AM?

    • Tony

      It amounts to much the same thing, and either way it helps explain why the Hebrews believed that the Name of God was holy, and not to be uttered. It is not a name like other names: it does not limit. Recall that the first thing that Adam — “the human being” — does in Genesis 2 is to name the creatures, exercising a God-like authority over them, as God had named His creation in Genesis 1. To name God, then, is to see Him as a fellow creature, however great He might be. We see here the kernel of the prophets’ objection to the idols of the nations: they are artificial, and when man submits to them he loses his God-like dominion over them, becoming like “the witless beasts.”

      On the particular translation: LXX has “I AM,” and I assume here that we can trust the Hebrew translators of their own scripture in this regard.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    We cannot prove the existence of anything by logical formula. We can only demonstrate what we already know. God exists is not a logical premise that can be drawn in a conclusion. The premise itself is a fact that transcends logical composition whether it be standard composition or contradiction theory. The latter only proves what is true cannot be contradicted. It cannot prove what that truth is. We can as well replace first premise and conclusion with a anything that fits.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Miss Anscombe points out that St Anslem’s “Si enim vel in solo intellectu est potest cogitari esse et in re quod maius est can be translated in one of two ways

    1. “And surely, that than which no greater can be conceived cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater”’


    2. “And surely, that than which no greater can be conceived cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it is only in the mind, what is greater can be thought to be in reality as well.”

    The second sentence of (1) implies that existence is a predicate of greatness (underlined), in other words, in order to be greatest, one must exist. The second version does not: the second
    sentence of (2) does not imply that existence is a predicate of greatness, merely that something is better if it exists both in the mind and reality.

    (2) gives us

    i. God = [Def.] that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

    ii. That than which nothing greater can be conceived exists at any rate in the intellect of the fool who says no such thing exists.

    iii. If this does exist only in an intellect, what is greater than it can be thought to exist in reality as well.

    iv. Therefore if something than which nothing greater can be conceived is only in the intellect, it is not something than which nothing greater can be conceived.

    v. But this involves a contradiction.

    vi.Therefore that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in reality as well