on the linking of the ontological and cosmological arguments

various authors have linked the ontological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. usually, they do so to argue that the cosmological argument takes the validity of the ontological as a hidden premise in some fashion, and thus they cut short the full examination of the cosmological argument.

but we should be suspicious of this link, if for no other reason than the position of saint Thomas Aquinas. he did not accept the validity of the ontological argument, and yet the cosmological argument formed the basis of his natural theology. we should therefore not accept such a putative link between the two before a more serious examination of the issues involved.

the link supposedly involves the presence in both arguments of a term like necessary being, and then concludes (erroneously) that since both arguments are using the same term about the same being, therefore they are using that term in a univocal sense. i seek to show that in fact both arguments are using not the term in the same way. further, i seek to show that even if someone still believes both arguments are really using the term univocally, the putative link still does not appear.

presentations of the ontological argument and the cosmological argument vary widely. i could not hope here to give a fair treatment of the different formulations and all that they involve. i will try to express the arguments in a way which most directly involves the supposed link. this is the most charitable method to proceed for the present purpose. of course a different tack would be necessary if i were interested in examining the validity and probative value of the arguments in themselves.

the ontological argument roughly argues as follows. i have a concept of a greatest possible being. i have no reason to suppose that this concept is inconsistent (the way the greatest possible integer is inconsistent). this being has a sort of partial existence, at least, given by my thought about it. but to exist in reality is greater than to exist in thought, and therefore if the object of my thought does not exist in reality, it is not the greatest possible being. (yes, Kant and others after him wonder if something really is greater for existing in reality than only in thought. this is irrelevant to the present purpose.) because the existence of this being can be deduced wholly a priori, it must exist necessarily—in the same way that a logical truth is necessary. it not possible for it not to exist.

the cosmological argument is quite different. it notes that some contingent things exist. to exist contingently is to exist because of something else—such that if that other thing did not exist, the present object would not. from the principle of sufficient reason, the cosmological argument concludes that there must exist something which is not contingent—a necessary object, not dependent on anything else. but this argument is a posteriori, because it requires as a premise the experience in the world of at least one contingent thing.

some authors have claimed that the cosmological argument is in some way based upon the ontological argument. William J. Abraham says this is because the end point of the cosmological argument is a necessary being specifically something which contain[s] within itself the reason for its existence and then he explicitly links this with Copleston's definition of a necessary being: a being the essence of which is to exist. but if that definition is meaningful, says Abraham, then we are back to the the essential ingredients of the ontological argument with all its attendant problems. (an introduction to the philosophy of religion, p. 31f)

Richard M. Gale begins his discussion of the cosmological argument saying that it must ultimately terminate with a self-explaining explainer, in which a self-explaining being is one whose existence is entailed by its nature or essence, that is, one for whom there is a successful ontological argument. ( on the nature and existence of God, p. 238)

he continues, why screw around with the cosmological argument? why not go right for the jugular and give this ontological argument? and refers to Kant. sadly, Gale gives no reference, but perhaps he is pointing to a606f of the critique of pure reason. Kant's text is a tad obscure here (mirabile lectu) but his point seems to be the following. the cosmological argument terminates in a necessary being. but this is really quite useless, because we know nothing of its properties. to learn its properties, we have to make the further assumption, that:

...the concept of the highest reality is completely adequate to the concept of absolute necessity of existence; that is, that the latter can be inferred from the former. now this is the proposition maintained by the ontological proof....for absolute necessity is an existence derived determined from mere concepts. if i say, the concept of the ens realissimum [the object of the ontological argument] is a concept, and indeed the only concept, which is appropriate and adequate to necessary existence, i must also admit that necessary existence can be inferred from this concept. thus the so-called cosmological proof really owes any cogency which it may have to the ontological proof from mere concepts.

Kant has happily explored the issue much better than the later writers. Gale and Abraham are hampered by the use of necessary in two difference senses at once and by the lack of separate terms to describe the objects of the two arguments in question.

Abraham says that the cosmological argument yields a necessary being. and the ontological argument, if it works, yields a necessary being too. and therefore, says Abraham, if the ontological argument doesn't work, the cosmological argument cannot either. but this is a combination of two non sequitors. first, the fact that one proof of a thing doesn't work does not mean that other proofs do not. this is equally true of logically necessary propositions as of contingent things. the only possibility here is if Abraham is asserting that the concept of necessary existence is itself inconsistent. but that would seem to be a very questionable proposition; certainly he never defends it.

Gale presents a different attempt at proof of the link. Gale is correct, in some sense, that the necessary object of the cosmological argument, containing its own reason for existence as it does, must have some ontological argument available. but the mere fact that the particular ontological arguments humans have presented might fail does not mean that all such must fail. one must show that ontological arguments must fail in principle for this to be so. and this is what Kant attempts to do. But Kant's arguments for an in-principle rejection of any ontological argument are highly questionable, and depend on the details of his specious divisions of analytic and synthetic propositions. (in fact, this very argument of Kant's at a598 is inconsistent with a6-7 where he sets out his theory.)

but Kant also presents a quite different method of linking the two, one essentially similar to Gale. the quote above has the key parts. the necessary being presupposes that it can be inferred from mere concepts. if this being is the object of the cosmological arguments, then it can be inferred from mere concepts, and therefore is already known to exist from those arguments, without any cosmological proof at all.

but again, i repeat the objection to Gale. to assert that an argument exists for something is not to provide the argument, nor even to assert that the argument could be provided. mathematicians (at least mainstream non-bozo mathematicians) are quite happy with non-constructive proofs of existence, and we really have something quite similar here. in fact, Godel demonstrated that there are cases in mathematics where we can deal with propositions about whether arguments exist entirely separately from the presentation of the arguments themselves.

we are led, it would seem, to suppose that the logically necessary being might be such, but without us being able to present the logical proof. there is no reason to reject such a situation out of hand. the necessary being contain within itself the reason for its existence, but we are simply not adequate to the task of identifying that reason itself.

perhaps an example from everyday life of this sort of thing will suffice. my sister's elder son is on the verge of three years old, and is learning to do simple additions by figuring them out—not by rote, but by calculation. by watching him I can conclude that there is a process in his head for doing the addition. but the task of identifying what that internal process is, exactly, is vastly more difficult, and involves completely unsolved problems of neurobiology.

and this is exactly the situation saint Thomas Aquinas notes in his rejection of the ontological argument:

a thing can be self-evident in either of two ways; on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not so to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us. a proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, as man is an animal, for animal is contained in the essence of man. if, therefore, the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all.... if, however, there are some to whom the essence of the predicate and subject is unknown, the proposition will be self-evident in itself, but not to those who do not know the meaning of the predicate and subject of the proposition.... therefore i say that this proposition, God exists, of itself is self-evident, for the predicate is the same as the subject.... now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature—namely, by their effects. (st, i.2.1)
and this seems to dispense of Gale, Kant, and Abraham.

one final note. it seems to me that the ontological argument is not, in point of fact, a proof of mere logic. it requires as a premise i have a concept of a being greater than that which can exist. my concept is something of which i am aware. this is a concept as an object in a proof, not just a component. the concept is thus elevated to a thing of which i am aware. Descartes' first argument in the meditations takes note specifically of its presence and asks for its origin, and then proceeds to give a complex version of the ontological argument. it is therefore incorrect to characterize the ontological argument as a necessary being even in the logical sense; its existence follows not from indubitable premises, but from the observation i have of a certain concept in my mind.

things i wrote for my b.a.