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Wednesday
Jun152011

Christendom

The Christian philosophers of the medieval period where similar, I think, to the tech whizzes that we find today in the Silicon Valley and in the Boston area. They were smart young people on the move, in possession of sharp new tools for rearranging reality, and eager to use those tools in any way that they could and found interesting and challenging.

What do I mean? Gradually, as Western Europe emerged from the political disruptions, deurbanization, population loss and cultural disintegration that accompanied the slow, gradual and piecemeal disappearance of the relatively unified Roman imperial world, people began, - they had never wholly stopped - acquiring the skills and knowledge that were passed on from that vanishing world. Most important, perhaps, they preserved and began to disseminate the skills of reading and writing Latin, one of the linguae franca of the old Empire. (Demotic Greek was the other.)

And with these skills came knowledge of certain practices - the exercise of logic, the construction and defense of arguments, which the ancients had developed to an extraordinarily high degree. 

But this enthusiasm has to be imbedded in the truth that these writers - certainly, Anselm - were profoundly committed believers, and in a God whose presence and intensity it is difficult to understand today. God was at the center of Anselm's thought and life; he lived and breathed God.

His arguments are based on this relationship. Anselm writes that understanding emerges from belief, at least in his case. But his arguments, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy attests, are not meant only for those who already have faith. They are meant to be free standing - born in faith but able to stand on their own, because for Anselm, human reason, despite sin, is still powerful enough to make convincing arguments for divine existence all on its own. Thus, reason could lead to belief, if one were unlucky enough to be born without the gift of belief. 

Anselm's argument is called the ontological proof for the existence of God. The word 'ontological' can cause unease in most people. Let's break it down. It comes from a conflation of three Greek terms: "ontos" means being or existence; "logos" means story about, account of, the lowdown on; "-ical" means about or pertaining to. Putting all the bits together we get "something pertaining to the understanding of existence".

How does this apply to an argument for the existence of God? The name was not used until1781, 672 years after Anselm's death, by the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He produced the most famous attempt at refuting the argument, and he called it the ontological argument because in it Anselm uses what we understand about God's being as the only basis for arguing for His existence. Thus the proof rests completely on an analysis of our account or story of God's mode of existence, and on nothing else - no facts, no experiences, no evidence at except that yielded by the idea we have of the being of God.

How does this work?

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