Few things are more arid and unenlightening than the various proofs and disproofs of the existence of God. All logical statements are bounded by assumptions, and when it comes to these kinds of proofs everything begins (and thus ends) with an enormous assumption all wrapped up in the word “God.” In 1078, Anselm of Canterbury published the famous ontological proof that has mesmerized generations of later philosophers. It is also a proof that has condemned countless generations of undergraduates to agonizing dissections. When Aquinas sensibly rejected Anselm’s argument on the ground that humans cannot know anything about the nature of “God,” that should have put an end to the matter. But it didn’t and neither did Hume’s even more sensible critique. There are still philosopher-theologians, such as Notre Dame’s Alvin Plantinga, who continue to wrestle with these absurdities.
Having been forced (by curriculum rather than choice) to contend with these arguments, I long ago dismissed Anselm’s proof and progeny as fruitless speculation. But I just read something, in my long overdue traverse through the brilliance of Peter Gay’s Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966), that sheds some sympathetic light on Anselm’s project:
Anselm made it plain that his famous proof for the existence of God…was not designed to demonstrate God to unbelievers or to strengthen the faith of waverers. [F]aith imposed on the believer the obligation to strive within his limited means to understand what he believes. True faith is a kind of love, the highest kind of love, and a true lover does not love ignorantly: like other medieval philosophers, Anselm accepted Aristotle’s claim that man naturally strives for knowledge. The career of the thoughtful Christian, therefore, is a pilgrimage…”a faith in search of understanding.” Anselm’s dialectic, therefore, may be rationalist in form, but it is mystical in essence (231).
While none of this renders Anselm’s proof compelling or acceptable, it does make it understandable.
All these proofs bring me to another point, which I want to emphasize may not be palatable for some and is potentially offensive. For some time I’ve been sitting on a NSFW site that is both fascinating and bizarre. If you may be offended by pictures of naked women jarringly juxtaposed with philosophical ruminations, do not follow this link to Willis Domingo. I have no idea who this person is and after doing some sleuthing in philosophical forums where his de Sade like site has been discussed, no one else seems to know either.
In his “Religion and Godot” section, Domingo addresses Anselm’s proof in a way that is, um, both learned and libertine. I can’t speak to his tastes. Also in that section, Domingo dismantles Plantinga’s pabulum in ways that are richly deserved. The “Alvin Plantinga Saves Your Soul” entry is particularly precious. I haven’t provided direct links in the interest of being non-lurid.
Who is Willis Domingo? His bio simply states: “Willis Domingo has all the usual degrees. In 2005 he became the Transcendental Ego.”
I’m not sure what to make of Domingo or his site. He has some very good, if strangely and perhaps offensively presented, arguments.