Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy 10


More on the Ontological Argument—The Fifth Meditation (cont.)

More on the Ontological Argument—The Fifth Meditation (cont.)

§ 1: Kant’s Critique of the Traditional Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

The most famous critique of the Ontological Argument stems from another of the greatest Western philosophers, viz., Immanuel Kant, who lived from 1724 until 1804. His most famous works are the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, the Metaphysics of Moral and the Critique of Judgement. But in an early work entitled “The only possible Ground of Proof for a Demonstration of the Existence of God”1 Kant attacked the very idea of attempting to derive the existence of God from His essence as the supremely perfect being. The argument of this early work was then incorporated2 as a chapter entitled “On the Impossibility of an Ontological Proof of the Existence of God” of the Critique of Pure Reason.3 On pp.160-168 of his book Descartes—An Analytical Introduction Georges Dicker gives a usefully simple and concise account of the version of the argument Kant provides in the Critique of Pure Reason. So as far as secondary references are concerned I would in the first instance direct you to Dicker’s account.

As I indicated last time, the Ontological Argument can be criticised in a number of ways. All criticisms centre, however, around the idea that there is a fundamental logical flaw in the reasoning—as one might expect, given its extremely counterintuitive claim to be deriving the existence of something from its essence, or, as one might also put it, the instantiation of a concept from the internal constitution or character of the concept. Many of these criticisms attempt to locate this flaw in the second premise, namely, that existence is a perfection (or that existence contributes to a thing’s greatness4) although not all of them do: the objection I discussed last time, of which one can see de Kater’s objection as a variant, does not attack either of the premises but merely asserts that insofar as something does follow validly from the argument, it is a merely trivial claim and certainly not anything as substantial as the existence of God. In effect, this objection maintains that the argument involves an equivocation: it confuses a property of the concept of God, namely, that something x satisfies this concept only if x exists, with the character of something x which satisfies the concept as existing.5 In itself this objection seems to me to be decisive—so much so that it is, on the face of it at least, a mere academic exercise considering other objections, particularly those as complex as Kant’s.

Nonetheless, implicit in Kant’s objection are important issues concerning what exactly one says when one asserts the existence, not just of God, but of anything at all. So Kant’s objection is worth discussing for reasons independent of the Ontological Argument. Kant identifies a deep assumption underpinning the second premise of the Ontological Argument, namely, that existence is a property. “The premiss that existence is a perfection rests on this assumption, because a perfection is a particular type of property, namely, one that makes a thing better than it would be without that property.” (Dicker 1993, pp.160-161) In other words, the second premise entails that existence is a property because whatever is a perfection is a property. Consequently, if existence should prove not to be a property, then it follows, by what the Scholastics called modus tollens,6 that existence is not a perfection, i.e., that the second premise is false.

Kant argues that

Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. … The proposition, “God is omnipotent,” contains two concepts, each of which has its object—God and omnipotence. If, now, we take the subject (God) with all its predicates (among which is omnipotence), and say “God is,” or “There is a God,” we attach no new predicate to the concept of God, but only posit the subject itself with all its predicates, and indeed posit it as being an object that stands in relation to my concept. The content of both must be one and the same; nothing can have been added to the concept, which expresses merely what is possible, by my thinking its object (through the expression “it is”) as given absolutely. Otherwise stated, the real contains no more than the merely possible. A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers. … By whatever and by however many predicates we may think a thing—even if we completely determine it—we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that this thing is. (A 598-599/B 626-627)

As Dicker points out, Kant’s objection to the fundamental assumption of the Ontological Argument lies in his first sentence: “Being7 (Sein) is obviously not a real predicate … .” (A 598/B 626) It is important to note exactly what Kant says in this sentence: Being, i.e., the words ‘to exist’ (infinitive), ‘exists’ (third person singular), etc. are not real predicates. So Kant is not making the much stronger, but also much more implausible and even, at least from a strictly grammatical point of view, false claim that these words are not predicates at all. For of course, grammatically speaking at least, these words precisely are predicates (unless, of course, by a predicate one simply means a predicate adjective, like ‘red’ in the phrase ‘is red’).

No, what Kant means is that these words are not real predicates, i.e., predicates which express or articulate a real property of things, in the way in which the predicate ‘is red’ expresses or articulates the real property of being red in colour. Dicker is basically getting at this point when he glosses Kant’s central claim as the thesis that the word ‘exists’ and its cognates are not descriptive predicates. Descriptive predicates are precisely ones which describe a genuine feature of reality, i.e., a genuine property or relation. But predicates such as ‘exists’, ‘is’ (as in “God is”), ‘has existence’, ‘is an existent’, and, by extension, ‘is real’, ‘has reality’, or again, ‘is actual’, ‘has actuality’, etc. are not descriptive; they do not express or articulate any real property or relation. If, however, this is so, then the second premise of the Ontological Argument is false: just as the alleged character of existence as a perfection entails that it is a property, so, too, its alleged character as a perfection entails that the words ‘exists’, etc., are descriptive predicates. Since these words are not descriptive predicates, existence is not a property.

Of course, if words like ‘exists’ are not descriptive predicates, one wants to know what sort of predicate they are. What function does the predicate ‘exists’ play in statements such as the statement that atoms exist? According to Kant, in this kind of statement we ascribe no property to atoms but rather “only posit the subject itself with all its predicates, and indeed posit it as being an object that stands in relation to my concept.” (A 599/B 627) It is not exactly clear what this means but Dicker gives a standard and initially plausible gloss on this: we are not ascribing any property of existence to atoms but merely asserting that the concept of an atom applies to something, or again, that the concept of an atom is non-empty. If this is right, then in statements of existence, we are not talking about entities but about concepts of entities and we are saying that these concepts apply to something.

Many philosophers today accept this view of the function played by the predicate ‘exists’ and its many, diverse equivalents. Yet there are some problems with this account. One problem arises simply because of the way Kant formulates his answers. Kant’s formulation suggests that the answer concerns concepts, i.e., general notions such as atom, tiger, dog, cat, etc. But we often say such things as that George Bush exists and it is perhaps a little strange to talk about my concept of George Bush unless by this is meant simply all the things I know or believe about George Bush. This is one reason why some philosophers who accept Kant’s general point prefer to put it in terms not of concepts but in terms of linguistic terms: to assert or believe that something exists is to assert or believe that the relevant linguistic term applies to something. Thus, to assert or believe that atoms exist is to assert or believe that the meaningful predicate ‘atom’ applies to something, while to assert or believe that George Bush exists is to assert or believe that the name ‘George Bush’ applies to something.

A deeper worry with this account of what the predicate ‘exists’ and its cognate terms accomplish is this: surely to say that a concept or term applies to something is to say that there exists something to which the concept or term applies. So is not Kant’s answer simply a rephrasing of what statements involving these predicates say, rather than a genuine explication of what they accomplish? This worry indicates the need to elaborate a little more extensively what Kant means when he says that ‘exists’ and other such predicates are not descriptive, that is, do not express or articulate any genuine property of things. The idea that existence is not a real predicate, i.e., a predicate which expresses a real property of things, needs to be taken seriously. This does not entail that existence is not a property at all. In fact, by saying that the predicate ‘exists’ expresses the character of a certain concept or term as non-exemplified or non-instantiated, we are attaching a property to something. Only we are not attaching it to a thing, to an object, we are attaching it to the concept of, or a term for, this object. We are saying precisely that this concept or term possesses the property of not having an instance, of being empty.

Yet even though many philosophers accept Kant’s point about what is accomplished by the predicate ‘exists’ and its cognates, some do not. Such philosophers would point out that

properties differ widely from each other (e.g., the property of whiteness and the property of omnipotence). So why couldn’t existence be a property, even if a rather special one? Existence could be a property that such things as the Taj Mahal, Australia and electrons have and such things as Santa Claus, Shangri-la, and gremlins do not have. And “exists” could be a descriptive predicate used to designate this property.8

According to such philosophers, Kant’s account of what the predicate ‘exists’ accomplishes is only one possible view. In order to show that it is the only true view, more argument is needed.

§ 2: A Reason for Accepting Kant’s Account of Existence (or rather, of ‘Exists’)

In his useful book on Descartes Georges Dicker sets out to provide this further argument. More precisely, he sets out to show that Kant’s view is in fact the most plausible one. Dicker takes some pains to point out that the defence he wants to give of Kant’s account is not conclusive; it only makes what he describes as “a reasonable and illustrative case for Kant’s position.”9 He begins by considering the problems one gets into when one regards existence as a real property of things and attempts to account for so-called negative existentials, i.e., denials of existence such as “Santa does not exist,” “There exists no God,” etc. Consider the (clearly true) statement that carnivorous cows do not exist. If we regard the predicate ‘exists’ as attributing the property of existence to something, then we must regard the negation of this predicate, namely, ‘does not exist’ as denying this property to something. But whenever one attributes or denies a property to something, there is that to which the property is attributed or denied. Clearly, a problem is looming here: if the expression ‘there is’ is taken to mean nothing more or less than ‘there exists’, then negative existential statements become impossible. If, in order to deny to carnivorous cows the property of existence I must presuppose that there exist carnivorous cows, I can never ever assert that carnivorous cows or anything else do not exist. This is clearly an absurd result.

As Dicker points out, the early Bertrand Russell and the Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong (1853-1920) tried to preserve the possibility of negative existential statements by refusing to regard the expression ‘there is’ as having the same meaning as ‘there exists’. They drew a distinction between subsistence and existence, whereby the expression ‘there is’ expressed subsistence while the expression ‘there exists’ expressed existence proper.

The basic idea is that anything that can be thought about or talked about must have being, must subsist, even if it does not exist. As applied to our example, the idea is that although carnivorous cows do not exist, they do subsist or have being.10

So properly understood and analysed, the statement that carnivorous cows do not exist states that those subsistent entities which exemplify the concept ‘carnivorous cow’ lack the property of existence. Evidently, all existent entities subsist but not all subsistent entities exist.

Clearly, the idea of distinguishing between subsistence and existence is a strange one. Firstly, what on Earth could subsistence be? If certain entities subsist, where do they subsist? The answer has to be that they do so nowhere, for if, as subsisting,

they were somewhere (i.e., if they were situated in space), then they would exist. But if they are nowhere, what can it mean to say that they “subsist” or “have being”?11

This view of all entities as subsisting while only some actually exist is utterly mysterious.

Secondly and more importantly, there are negative existential statements not only about carnivorous cows, but about logically impossible objects. Thus, the early Russell and Meinong themselves considered how the statement that round squares do not exist were to be properly understood and analysed. And on the view they proposed, one had to say that round squares had the property of subsistence although they could never have the property of existence. In some sense there were round squares even though there such things neither exist nor could exist.

Clearly, one needs some other way of understanding negative existential statements. And here the most obvious thing to say is that when one asserts there to be no such things as carnivorous cows or round squares, one is speaking of the relevant concept or term and denying to it the property of having any instances. One is asserting that the relevant concept or term has no instances. Evidently, we have almost reached Kant’s account of existence. We need, however, to show how this Kantian way of understanding negative existential statements brings with it a commitment to understanding affirmative existential statements in similarly Kantian fashion.

At this point Dicker now indulges in an elaborate and complex argument which you can find at pp.166-167 of his book. But the general point of this argument can be put quite simply. The statement that carnivorous cows exist is the negation of the statement that carnivorous cows do not exist; these two statements are, as one says, contradictories. The one is true if and only if the other is not. So the right way of understanding the statement that carnivorous cows exist will consist in the negation of the right way of understanding the statement that carnivorous cows do not exist. And the right way of understanding this latter is, as we have just seen, to read it as the statement that the concept of a carnivorous cow has not got any instances. The negation of this latter statement is, however, the statement that it is not true that the concept of a carnivorous cow has not got any instances. This yields, given the assumption that if the double negation of a statement (not not S) entails S,12 the statement that the concept of a carnivorous cow has at least one instance. And so we see, in as strict a fashion as one could desire, that to embrace the kind of account of negative existential statements which enables one to avoid the mysteries of subsistence treats affirmative existential statements just as Kant recommends.

© Carleton B. Christensen, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014

  1. Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes. This is the title of the first edition of this work, which appeared in 1763. Two later editions appeared, the second in 1770 and the third in 1783. The second edition had a slightly different title.

  2. And perhaps improves on since in the later work Kant distinguishes more clearly between the claim that existence is not a property and existence is not a predicate. In the later work, Kant insists that existence is no real predicate (kein reales Prädikat), i.e., not a predicate which expresses or corresponds to any real property of that to which it applies. Evidently, this claim does not rule out the thesis that existence, or rather, the word ‘exists’, is a predicate.

  3. As there are two quite different versions of the Critique of Pure Reason, namely, the A-edition of 1781 and the B-edition of 1784, this work is typically cited with reference to both editions. Thus, in the earlier A-edition Kant’s critique of the Ontological Argument occurs at A 592-602; in the later B-edition at B 620-630. English translations invariably contain the paginations of both German editions and the convention is to use these German paginations when citing from the translation. In this way, any reader can find the passage cited, whether he is working from the original or from whatever translation into a foreign language.

  4. See Dicker 1993, p.160.

  5. What is the relation between the kind of objection we find in Caterus and Kant’s criticism? It is certainly possible to regard existence as a property in a strictly formal sense, i.e., to represent existence claims by using the verb “to exist.” When one does this, the verb of course functions as a predicate (as in “Santa exists”) and such predicative form is used to ascribe properties (as in “Santa runs”, which ascribes to Santa the property of running). But to regard existence as a property in this merely formal sense is obviously not to decide the issue of whether existence really is a property. (We see here, I think, why Kant asserts that ‘Being’ is not a real predicate; even though verbs like “to exist” and “to be” are used predicatively to assert existence, this does not decide the issue of whether they are real predicates, i.e., predicates which denote a genuine property.) Even so, whatever stand one takes on this issue, one still confronts Caterus’ kind of objection. So it is, I think, a different and indeed prior objection to Kant’s.

  6. Modus tollens is the inference pattern ‘If p, then q. But not q, therefore not p’. It is so to speak the opposite number to so-called modus ponens, the inference pattern ‘If p, then q. But p, therefore q

  7. The translator Kemp-Smith wrongly encloses ‘Being’ in shudder quotes; none occur in the German.

  8. Dicker 1993, p.163.

  9. Dicker 1993, p.164.

  10. Dicker 1993, p.164.

  11. Dicker 1993, p.165.

  12. It is important to note that some systems of logic, e.g., intuitionist systems, do not permit one to move from not not S to S.