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The Ontological Argument – Does the Greatest Imaginable Being Exist?

Romanelli -The Meeting of the Countess Matilda and Anselm of Canterbury in the Presence of Pope Urban II – Wikipedia

Ontology is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of being. Questions posed by ontology include what kind of entities exist and how they might relate or be hierarchically structured.

What we call the ontological argument sounds rather daunting. But it is just a theological position that tries to prove the existence of the greatest being of all, namely God.

Several ontological arguments can be found. The most famous was devised by St. Anselm of Canterbury.

St. Anselm describes God in his Proslogion II as “aliquid quo nihil majus cogitari possit” (that than which nothing greater can be conceived). For Anselm, such a being cannot merely live in the “imagination” or “understanding” but must fully exist.¹ Because the greatest conceivable being must exist in all of reality and not just in the mind, God is the greatest conceivable being which by necessity exists.

St. Thomas Aquinas rejected this argument on rational grounds, although Aquinas being a cornerstone of Catholic theology did believe in God.

English: Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and ...

Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and René Descartes (right). Detail from Pierre Louis Dumesnil. Museo nacional de Versailles – Wikipedia

For those unfamiliar with philosophy and theology, this happens quite often. One can believe in something but find shortcomings in a particular argument for its existence or truthfulness.²

The philosopher René Descartes forwarded an outlook similar to Anselm’s. Descartes begins with a method of doubt.³ After coming to the conclusion, “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am), his next question is: “how do I know that the outside world truly exists?”4

Thomas Leahey notes that Descartes was not the first to look at things this way.

St. Augustine [354–430 CE] had said, “If I am deceived, I exist,” and Parmenides [515-445 BCE] had said, “For it is the same thing to think and to be.”5

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, after Frans Hals c. 1648 -Wikipedia

Descartes’ answer to the question of whether or not the outside world exists involves God.

For Descartes, God exists by necessity. God must exist to be perfect. A perfect God also by necessity is good. And a good God would not deceive his creatures into believing in an outside world if such a thing did not exist.

But not only that. Descartes believed that his reasoning about the existence of a good God necessarily originated from beyond himself, like some kind of small revelation.6

¹ See

² For example, I believe in the efficacy of the Eucharist but do not agree that its benefits arise solely from the fact that the sacrament is a social gathering. For me, spiritual elements must be included in an explanation.

³ Some see this as a sham, saying Descartes believed all along. A similar critique arises with Plato who, some contend, pretends through Socrates to start asking questions from scratch when really he is guiding his argument toward foregone conclusions—that is, the doctrine of the Forms.

4 This is similar to solipsism.

5 Link broken since last revision. 😦

6 Leibniz challenged Descartes on his views about God. See



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Reductio ad absurdum – An old school way of saying “take the flipside” or “take it to the limit”

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Reductio ad absurdum [Latin: “reduce to the absurd”] is a method of argumentation said to

  • prove a statement to be true by demonstrating the contradiction, absurdity and therefore impossibility that would result if it were untrue


  • prove a statement to be false by taking its assertions and implications to their logical endpoint

Example for the first type of reductio ad absurdum

English: Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and ...

Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and René Descartes (right). Detail from René Descartes i samtal med Sveriges drottning, Kristina. Pierre Louis Dumesnil. Museo nacional de Versailles. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Consider the French philosopher René Descartes famous line, I think, therefore I am.

And its falsification: I think, therefore I am not.

Here one can ask: If a person thinks that she or he does not exist, who is doing the thinking?

By falsifying the original statement, the ensuing absurdity apparently proves the original statement to be true.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung uses a form of reductio ad absurdum to try to refute the Buddhist notion of no-self; that is, the Buddhist idea that individuality is an illusion. Jung asks: Who experiences the bliss of Nirvana if no self is present to experience it?

This might seem clever and amusing but Buddhists could reply that the center of consciousness merely shifts from illusory individualism to actual totality.¹

Example for the second type of reductio ad absurdum

Crime Time

Crime Time (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the argument, sometimes heard today, that it’s okay to do crime because everyone is a sinner and the whole world is corrupt.

If one takes that to its logical conclusion we get:

It’s not okay to do crime because if the whole world didn’t resist sin, corruption and crime we’d have violent, lawless chaos.

¹ This stance is not accepted by those who believe that individual souls have a relationship with the godhead.

Related » Anatman, Theism

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Discourse on Method
Discourse on Method by René Descartes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditionally, the term discourse was applied to any kind of serious treatise or homily that was used for educational or pastoral purposes. A good example of the older usage of discourse can be found in Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (1637).¹

But with the rise of postmodernism, the idea of discourse underwent something of a revolution. Instead of representing the “last word” on a given topic, discourses now became socially relative truth claims. And rather than being perceived as originating from some great authority on high, to be received by a passive audience, the new idea of discourse is far more intersubjective. That is, in the grand scheme of things, one truth claim is about as good as another.

The poststructuralist thinker Michel Foucault popularized the idea of discourse as an essentially political utterance. The key for Foucault is that discourse (as relative instead of absolute truth) always occurs within a relational matrix of social power. For Foucault, a given discourse actually creates a specific truth. This truth is relative to the network from which it emerges. In postmodernism, which includes but also extends to thinkers other than Foucault, discourses may be vocal, written or gestural.

The Foucauldian understanding of discourse also includes institutionalized practices (e.g. the school system) or even architectural statements connoting a certain truth claim about a given group or society (e.g. 1 WTC, Burj Khalifa, CN Tower, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Taj Mahal).

In addition, Foucault maintains that different discourses may take similar forms. For instance, political and economic discourses of the 18th and 19th centuries embrace discursive styles reflecting the scientific belief in evolution.

Medication pills blister 2

Medication pills blister 2 (Photo credit: hitthatswitch)

In the 21st century, giving a discourse a scientific look and feel may enhance its social legitimacy, appeal to the masses, and therefore have real effects. This is perhaps most obvious in TV ads, where products are often endorsed by actors portraying scientists, doctors and nurses. Dressing up ads in the garb of science is one form of scientism.

Interestingly, some contend that all of science (and not just cheesy ads) is really just another kind of mythmaking. These critics argue that science is always biased at some level, has degrees of institutionalized corruption, and reflects some kind of culturally relative paradigm (way of seeing the world).

From this perspective, science is a kind of temporary fiction. Its method does generate practical and helpful results. But some argue that scientists should better recognize their limits and not make overblown truth claims based on the visible successes of the scientific method. After all, this method is, to put it simply, one that tests hypotheses. And any hypothesis is always subject to falsification—if not today, perhaps tomorrow. So technologies usually improve, as does our grasp of ourselves and the world around us.

Related Posts » Counter-Discourse, Poststructuralism

¹ This historical introduction is derived from David Macey’s The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, 2000, pp. 100-101.

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René Descartes

Descartes Coffee, Chicago: Larry Miller

Descartes Coffee, Chicago: Larry Miller via Flickr

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French lawyer, philosopher and mathematician often hailed as the father of modern philosophy.

While serving in the Bavarian army he devised an ambitious scheme for unifying truth with a rational model based on mathematics, physics, morality and medicine.

As a philosopher, Descartes questioned so many issues that he’s known for his ‘method of doubt,’ outlined in Discours de la Méthode (1637), the Meditationes de prima Philosophia (1641) and the Principia Philosophiae (1644).

Descartes made a fundamental distinction between mind and matter, the latter to include the body. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle said, somewhat pejoratively, that for Descartes the mind is like a “ghost in the machine,” the machine representing the body.

Descartes is probably best known for arguing that the very act of thinking proves one’s existence: cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). His next question, not unlike that of solipsism, was: “how do I know that the outside world truly exists?”

He was not the first to look at things this way. Thomas Leahey notes that

St. Augustine [354–430 CE] had said, “If I am deceived, I exist,” and Parmenides [515-445 BCE] had said, “For it is the same thing to think and to be.”¹

Descartes’ answer to the problem of truth seeming to be only inside oneself (that is, truth as entirely subjective) involved God. For Descartes, God exists by necessity. God must exist in order to be perfect. A perfect God also by necessity is Good. And a God that is Good would not deceive his creatures into believing in an outside world if no such thing existed.

Often lampooned by contemporary professors for saying the pineal gland mediates among body, mind and soul, we’d do well to remember that,  given the medical knowledge of his day, this was an innovative and arguably rational attempt on the part of Descartes to explain the relation between body and spirit.

In mathematics Descartes developed algebra and contributed to major innovations in geometry.

¹Leahey, Thomas H. A History of Psychology, Prentice Hall, 1980, p. 92.

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Ghost in the Machine

ghost in the machine

Image by jima via Flickr

Ghost in the Machine is a phrase coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle to pejoratively describe René Descartes‘ view of the mind in relation to the body.

The phrase has been used by Arthur Koester as a book title and also by the pop music group The Police as an album title.

More recently it’s been used by those interested in artificial intelligence (AI), specifically by those wondering if machines may possess consciousness.

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Elizabeth Nourse, Meditation via Wikipedia

Meditation is a term with a wide variety of meanings, each relating to a particular approach influenced by a given psychological, religious, philosophical or spiritual belief system.

So when someone says, “I meditate,” it can mean almost anything. The late rapper Guru (1961 – 2010) for instance, once said in “Living in this World”:

I’m growin’ tired of the trickery
And the misery, it’s makin’ me kinda sick you see
But now I meditate, so I can get it straight
My thoughts penetrate, so I control my fate.¹

For René Descartes, meditation involved thinking, as evident in the title of his Meditations on First Philosophy, a philosophical method of doubt containing six meditations, and the famous line “cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am,” originally “Je pense, donc je suis”). Descartes’ meditations, however, did not preclude the idea of faith because it was his belief in God’s goodness that bailed him out of some of the sticky philosophical problems that he got himself into.

Meditation also refers to some kind of practice leading to experiential peace or an enhanced perspective on life, for here and perhaps the hereafter. This kind of meditation may involve bodily movement (e.g. Tai chi), postures (e.g. hatha yoga) or stillness; and it may or may not require a religious component.

Clinical psychology studies found that meditators report similar feelings of stillness, peace and oneness when repeating a mantra with or without religious connotations. Apparently any monosyllabic word (e.g. “tin, tap”) produces the same empirical results as a religious word (e.g. AUM).

But before we get too excited about these results we’d do well to remember that research scientists observe from the outside and have no reliable way of ascertaining the quality and character of subjects’ internal experience. Subjects may report experiences with similar sounding words but those words may point to radically different forms of consciousness and perhaps numinosity.

While some researchers have tried to pin down specific brainwave activity to precise meditational states, the same theoretical limitations arise.

Alpha wave activity is associated with relaxation and is thought to be a beneficial state. In fact alpha activity has been observed in a number of different forms of meditation. The remarkable thing, however, is that as the meditators signalled that they had entered into the state of mental silence, or “thoughtless awareness”, another form of brain wave activity emerged which involved “theta waves” focused specifically in the front and top of the brain in the midline (Knowledge of Reality Magazine, Issue 21, 1996-2006).

Clinical studies point out that religious belief has little effect on empirical results–that is, scientists see more or less the same brain activity regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs. But that’s about all they can say. Any scientist who then suggests that this finding proves all religious experience is qualitatively the same is stepping out of science and into the realm of speculation.

In Christian mysticism, meditation is generally regarded as a less elevated prerequisite for contemplation. As Evelyn Underhill puts it in Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (1914):

Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character (p. 46).

The strength of this definition is that it doesn’t advocate a ‘this or that’ scenario, as so many fundamentalists and conservatives tend to depict the world and religious practice. Instead, it represents a developmental approach where a seeker proceeds through meditation to eventually encounter contemplation. And one likely moves back and forth between the two in varying degrees during a lifetime.

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¹ Guru, “Living in this World,” Jazzmatazz Volume II.

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