On Philosophy

January 12, 2007

Adapting Anselm

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:43 am

There are many features of the natural world that have the attributes once attributed to god. For example, space-time is omnipresent, the big bang was an event in which something “came from” nothing, the entirety of space-time might be considered immutable (taken as a whole), the universe itself is something which nothing is before and nothing is after, and we exist only via physical laws, without which there would be chaos or nothing. Might it be possible then to adapt reasoning about a “god” who has these qualities to be about the natural universe? By this I don’t mean to show that the universe has supernatural powers, or is benevolent, or cares about us in any way; I have no intention of making the natural world an object of religion. Instead I am curious if some of the proofs about god, suitably revised, might be instead adapted to prove some of the various assumptions that we make about the universe (such that nothing came before it), which are currently based on observation on not on logic. Admittedly conclusions based on observations are probably more trustworthy, but I never said I was trying to make progress in science.

Today I am going to modify Anselm’s one-over-many principle (modify it to be a true principle hopefully), and from it argue that everything is “material”. Anselm’s original one-over-many principle states that if there are things that have some property then there must be some one being that is responsible for that property. Anselm then goes on to argue from this that there must be some one supremely good being that is responsible for all good. Clearly this principle, thus stated is ridiculous. We could go on to argue that because there are many triangles there must be one supreme triangle that they are all triangular in virtue of. And that for squares there is some supreme square, ect. And if we were to continue on this line of thought we would have to conclude that there were many supreme beings, or none (there can’t be just one, since nothing is both a triangle and a square). Anselm’s derivation of the principle is more interesting. In modern terms we might cast what he says in terms of reasons, which would be to say that if something has a property there must be a reason we claim it to have that property. In these terms we might restate the one-over-many principle as follows: if there are many things that share some property then there must be some one reason that causes us to say that they all have that property. (Anselm didn’t arrive at this version because he confused reasons with causes, and he thought that causes must be beings. This is obviously problematic, as reasons are usually not thought of as beings, and are often separate from causes.) Thus if we were considering goodness we might conclude that there was some one reason that motivates us to say that something is good. Now you might argue that one horse is good because it is strong, and another because it is swift, but Anselm addresses this by stating that your real reason for saying the horse is good is because it is useful (one reason), and that swift and strong are just different ways of being useful. Obviously this version of the principle no longer proves the existence of supreme beings, or any kind of beings, but that is probably for the best.

Let us then turn this version of the one-over-many principle to existence. What is the reason that we say something exists? I would argue that this reason is that we say some thing exists is that we can, in principle, observe the effects of that thing. In simple cases of direct observation this means only that the object is causing light to hit our eyes, or causing pressure to be exerted on our hands. In indirect cases it might be because it has had such an effect on someone else, or on some instrument, causing them to inform us about it. Why would we say that anything else exists? Perhaps a theory of ours requires it, requires that some object exist which can’t have any effect on the world. But if that is the case we should simplify our theory by eliminating this object. After all it can’t have any effect on the world, so our theory would become no less accurate. We might also worry about logical or constructed objects, such as the number seven. But when we say the number seven exists we don’t mean the same thing as when we say that a table exists. Such objects “exist” only in our minds (or at least that is the simple explanation). Accepting this as our one reason would imply that everything that exist has an effect on the world (obviously). And this in turn implies that all the objects that exist can be studied scientifically (since we can measure their effects), which in turn implies that everything that exists is “material”.

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