Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Anselm on Divine Attributes (Notes:64)

On the basis of the ontological argument, what else can we know about God? According to Anselm, a whole host of ideas as they relate to goodness and justice and the like; and yet, this knowledge about God’s divine attributes leads to seemingly contradictory ideas (God being just, as an example, yet still retaining unlimited power; if God can’t lie, therefore, but he still has unlimited power, then he can lie.). So, if one of God’s attributes contradicts another, then is it not likely that God’s very existence is in doubt? Would He not be akin to a round square? If so, then Anselm’s task is to defend the consistency of the divine attributes.

What does the ontological argument tell us about God other than the divine attributes? Well, since we know that God is that which nothing greater can be thought, we know that God is greater to be than not to be: so, what does God need to be in order to be that which nothing greater can be thought?
From this basic principal, Anselm derives a great deal of information about God, such as what philosophers call ‘Oscaity’, or, the Latin ‘Osay’, or ‘himself’. So, when this is applied to God, it is meant to indicate that God exists from himself, not dependent on anyone else for his existence. How do we know this? Let’s go back to the ontological argument and presume that God does not possess Oscaity; this would mean that God is dependent on something other than Himself in order to be what he is. But if God is dependent on something other than Himself in order to be Himself, then we can think of something greater than God. Namely, a being which is not dependent on anything else. But we can’t think of anything greater than God because God is that which nothing greater can be thought. Therefore, God must possess Oscaity.

Secondly, God is characterized by the flip-side of Oscaity. God is characterized by what professor Williams dubs “Ultimacy”, for lack of a better word. This is used to indicate that everything depends on God in order to be what it is, that God is the ultimate explanation for everything other than Himself. Meaning, everything depends on God to exists, to be what it is, to continue to exist, and so forth.

God has unlimited power; if we can think of a God with limited power than we can think of a being greater than God. So God can’t be limited in power because he is a being which no greater can be thought. Similarly, God is unlimited in knowledge and is omniscient. God is just, merciful, truthful, and on and on. And so, the ontological argument here works as a sort of divine attribute generating machine.

But, this single argument cannot do all of this by itself. The argument allows us to say that God is greater or better to be than not to be, but how to identify which characteristics those are? In some cases, Anselm appeals to fundamental judgements on value, arguments which bring out the Platonic and Augustinian character of Anselm’s thinking. In other cases, though, Anselm provides individual arguments on the given characteristic and why it is better to possess such a characteristic than not possess it. 

To demonstrate Anselm’s method, Williams goes into a discussion of three of Anselm’s arguments. The first is God’s impassibility, the second is God’s Eternity, while the third is God’s simplicity.
With impassibility, for example, God is invulnerable to suffering. Nothing is able to act upon God, God simply acts. God does not, therefore, feel any emotions; emotions are states which one undergoes and things which happen to you rather than actions which one performs. Anselm does not actually argue why he feels that impassibility is better to be than not to be as he feels it should be obvious why it is. Why it is obvious to him is because of his shaping from the Platonic-Augustinian tradition which harkens back to the idea that the best of things are stable, uniform, and unchanging. 

Since Augustine took it over wholesale from the Platonists, which, in part, extend this argument to the eternal. Plato’s definition of time as a moving image of eternity, of a shadowy reflection of the ‘really real’, something Augustine and others would push to extend as temporal beings expressing their existence as piecemeal; a stable creature, therefore, would be stable and unchanging, one whose existence is not always slipping away from them into nothingness. Therefore, if God is to be nothing which nothing greater can be thought, he must be outside time itself. If God were in time, he would have parts, which is a problem since something which is composed of parts depends on those parts in order to exist, so because God possesses Oscaity, God depends only on himself, not his parts. 

Therefore, God cannot be a composite. The belief that God has no parts is called the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity and was seen in Boethius’s argument that God is not merely the source of goodness, but of goodness itself. Here, Anselm is connecting simplicity to eternity—whatever is in time has parts, God has no parts, therefore, God has no parts. He is eternal. So, of all the attributes generated by this doctrine of divine simplicity, none are different, rather, they are all God himself; it is only humanity’s limited comprehension which forces a distinction between these attributes. So, God is wholly one.

Are these listed attributes consistent with one another? They must be for if they turn out to be inconsistent, then God turns out to be impossible. It does certainly seem like there is contradictory pairs of attributes on Anselm’s list. To look at a few: (1) Mercy and Impassibility, (2) Justice and omnipotence, (3) Justice and Mercy. To get a fuller understanding of Anselm’s understanding of God and his divine attributes, let’s take a look at these apparent contradictions.

As Anselm notes, Mercy seems to imply feeling compassion. But impassibility implies feeling nothing. How can God be merciful if God does not experience any emotions? Anselm explains that we must differentiate between the effect of mercy and the emotion of mercy. When God acts mercifully, God does not feel the emotion of mercy, that which is regulated to us by the effect of his action, so what we feel God is merciful, but according to what God feels, he is not merciful because he does not experience any emotions of compassion for those whom he helps.

Concerning the apparent conflict between justice and omnipotence, it seems that there is things which God cannot do; for, if God is perfectly just, as Anselm argued, he cannot lie or break a promise—how can he able to lie and not able to lie? Anselm explains that omnipotence does not actually mean the ability to do everything. Instead, it means the possession of unlimited power; the so-called ability or power to lie is not really a power, it is a kind of weakness, but in being omnipotent, God has no weaknesses. So God cannot lie precisely because he is omnipotent. Therefore, God’s omnipotence guarantees his justice and his justice guarantees his omnipotence. (This also answers the so-called ‘Stone Argument’ which I will not go into detail here.)

But, of the three apparent contradictions, that which exists between God’s mercy and Justice, this one has no easy resolution.

If God is just, then he will surely punish the wicked as they deserve. But, if God is merciful, he spares the wicked and does not punish them as they deserve. How then can God be both merciful and just? Anselm attempts to resolve this contradiction by appealing to God’s goodness; that God, in other words, must be so good that it is impossible to even think of a being that must be better than God. God’s unsurpassable goodness extends to both the wicked and the good. He chooses to show his goodness, in one manner, by choosing to punish them, while another way to exercise his good is to spare them from punishment. So, if God is to be an unsurpassable good, then he must show His goodness in both ways when dealing with the wicked, in choosing to punish them as well as not punish them, so that both aspects of his goodness may be revealed. Anselm wishes to show, however, that God’s justice requires him to show mercy, and not simply be good.

This argument is like the following: we have thus far thought of God’s justice in relation to sinners. In this conception, it is required that God punish them. But God, Anselm reminds us, is so just that we cannot even imagine a being who would be more just, and so God’s justice must have the widest possible scope; one aspect of this justice includes God itself. It is God’s justice to himself that requires him to exercise his supreme goodness in sparing the wicked. In other words, God owes it to himself to exercise mercy by sparring the sinners. Even so, however, there is a bit of mystery in that we do not know why God spares some sinners and condemns others.

These techniques display the dialectic at work. Anselm solves a problem by distinguishing two different senses of an expression. By his noting of two different ways which a statement might be true. God is merciful in the sense that he helps those who are suffering; but he is not merciful in the sense that he does not feel any emotion of compassion; omnipotence does not mean the ability to do everything, rather, it means the possession of unlimited power. This attention to the meaning of language is characteristic of the dialectic and Anselm uses it frequently.

This usage of dialectic goes hand-in-hand with Anselm’s other defining characteristic, that of his exploration of faith. Since Anselm is convinced that Christian teaching is rational, and since we are rational beings, we can use the technique of reason to understand, defend, and clarify Christian teaching. To Anselm, mystery and the supposed incomprehensibility of God is not an attractive idea. Same for ineffable. This stance has made Anselm’s ideas, specifically, that of God as that which nothing greater can be thought, still fashionable today among religious thinkers.