Category Archives: Philosophy

Essence vs. Experience

While both St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas believe they have found the methods which prove God’s existence, each of them come at the problem from unique starting points and apply different methodologies. In this paper I will compare and contrast both of the Saint’s methods and will conclude with how though St. Aquinas’ argument is more convincing than St. Anselm’s, neither are quite strong enough to stand up to close scrutiny.

St. Anselm’s approach to the existence of God can be defined simply with his self-evident ontological argument, God is “that, than which no greater can be conceived” (260). The Saint is making the case for God a priori in that is he deduces from the essence of God God’s actual existence. St. Anselm is arguing how it is possible to argue simply from a properly conceived definition alone. He does not need outside experience, unlike St. Aquinas who we will look at later, other than an ability to think properly: to not be a fool in the weak sense as of someone who cannot understand what words even mean.

As we deconstruct his argument we can assume many great things can be conceived, from fame to fabulous islands laden with treasure (as one of Anselm’s critics, Gaunilo will use as analogy). The question we then ask ourselves is what is greater than all? An island with treasure sounds great, but is there anything that could possibly be greater? For St. Anselm, determining how one thing might be greater than another can be attributed to St. Augustine’s Great Chain of Being. This helpful guide places a hierarchy on all things existing in the universe, from pebbles, to cats, to humans, and finally to God, and the higher up the chain they are the more good (greater) they are than the thing below them. With this hierarchy in mind, St. Anselm shows how it is better for things to exist in reality than just in the imagination, which also counters Gaunillo’s argument of a fantastic, and totally unreal island.

Notice also that St. Anselm is careful to not use the word “greatest” here, rather he just uses “greater”, and this avoids an arrogant assumption that we could possibly know what is greatest of all to be conceived. This then leads us into conception itself because if you think about ever increasing things in how they are greater, eventually you will arrive at the very thing which no greater can be conceived: God. And if you were able to conceive of something greater then that would actually be God. And so St. Anselm is saying that just by thinking about a carefully defined argument we can’t but help arrive at the conclusion that God exists.

St. Aquinas’ approach, on the other hand, can be defined as a posteriori, where he argues from the effects of God as we see them in our everyday world and from there builds his argument up towards God’s existence – a bottom up argument as opposed to St. Anselm’s top down approach. His is a cosmological argument that depends on experience and the senses, unlike St. Anselm’s argument which proves his point by definition alone, and while St. Aquinas offers five proofs in support of his argument, the Argument from Change is the one I will focus on here.

St. Aquinas is arguing that all change is caused by something else, be it a broken window or a barn fire, and some thing must have been the cause whose effects we can now see / sense. If we think logically about these actual experiences (unlike St Anselm who wants us to think carefully about an ontological argument) then we know someone must have thrown a rock or lit a match for either of these objects to have something happen to them, and so those things too have a cause (a vandal, or a pyromaniac for example). St. Aquinas extends this basic common sense thinking to argue that the universe itself, with all the things in it (including windows and barms, vandals and pyromaniacs) must also have a cause for them being in existence which he identifies as a “first mover”, and this “first mover” must therefore ultimately be God.

As we explored in St. Anselm, there is a point in which no greater can be conceived, meaning there is an ultimate point in which we can stop and say we’ve found God. St. Aquinas too is careful to not get stuck in an infinite regress of endless causes and says there must be a single, ultimate “first” (272) cause because we can sense the universe exists and therefore some thing must have been the cause that created it. Were there an infinite series of causes there would be no first cause meaning the universe wouldn’t even exist.

Of course how we get from the physical world of experience to the spiritual one involves a little help from God Himself. St. Aquinas writes, “The divine rights of grace do not abolish the human rights of natural reason,” (266), and from this we learn through the gifts of reason that God has given us that God’s existence can be revealed to us, even if exactly how God works or what He is made of would be beyond our reason alone to discover or comprehend.  

St. Aquinas is also arguing against St. Anselm in that St. Anselm is assuming we can actually know God’s essence well enough for that to be self evident to us (as if it were, say a clear and distinct definition, as Descartes might put it), but St. Aquinas is saying we can’t possible have a self evident understanding of God’s essence to lead us to proving God exists. He is, in fact, calling the entire foundation of St. Anselm’s premise suspect and faulty. God can reveal Himself to us, but we can’t get their on our own.

Of the two arguments, I believe St. Aquinas is making a stronger case. St. Anselm is saying we have it within ourselves to (innately) know God, that we do not need anything other than the gifts of reason God has given us to know him, however this is all predicated on the notion that words themselves actually mean exactly what we believe them to, that language has the ability to stand in representation perfectly of that which is being described, and also that we are even capable of actually understanding God’s essence. St. Aquinas is, I believe, far more practical and scientific because we can rely on our senses which seem to serve us quite well enough in the everyday world. The main weakness in St. Aquinas’ argument however is with the senses themselves. How can we be sure we are actually sensing the world well enough to draw definite conclusions about what is causing what and how? Are our senses deceiving actually us? This is an aspect he never addresses.

And so I conclude that neither Saint has a bulletproof argument making the case for the existence of God. The main cause for hope, however is that both Saint’s believe we do have the ability within us, either through an ontological thought experiment or through practical experience, to use our gifts to know God. We will have to wait nearly 400 years for Descartes to thoroughly examine the flaws in both Saint’s premises to arrive at a more concrete argument for the existence of God, but he too will carry on the tradition of showing how we have it in ourselves to discover the greater truths of being and the existence of God.

Is the examined life for all men?

When Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living for a man,” (97) he had meant all men. Plato, however, came to the conclusion that such examinations were not meant for all men, but that only a select few were cut out for such rigor. In this essay I will explore how both Socrates and Plato agreed on what constitutes the good life, but also how they differed in their ultimate conclusions of how this good life can be achieved.

When Socrates was executed he “seems to have kept his calm and courage to the end,” (117). Though an understandably solemn occasion for his roughly fifteen friends in attendance, Socrates seemed quite prepared to die. Socrates is prepared not only because he has no wisdom about what death even is, he says death is either “like a dreamless sleep,” (98), or an opportunity to “spend my time testing and examining people [in Hades],” (99), but because he has lived his life in harmony. Though considered a gadfly by his detractors, Socrates has done no wrong, he has willingly followed the rules of Athens by being a citizen and even refuses to escape his jailors. He has, in effect, embodied the Form of the Good by not focusing his life on selfish pursuits, such as Euthyphro, but in examining and pursuing what makes a person good. And Socrates believes this ability is open to anyone who chooses to examine their own life and live in harmony.

Plato, too believes that living in harmony is the key to the good life and that Socrates was justified in “doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul,” (150). By divorcing our desires from our souls we move from loving, for example a single beautiful body or many beautiful bodies, to moving up what he calls the Ladder of Love into the Form of Beauty itself. By moving away from the visible things of this world we can more easily enter into the abstract, intelligible world of the Forms – death will be far less painful because through this study of philosophy (the examined life), we “are cultivating dying,” (142). No longer does desire stir conflict in our bodies, but by living in harmony we can “drive toward otherworldliness,” (142).

Yet while both Socrates and Plato agree that harmony within the soul is the key to the good life, they disagree on whom may achieve this. Socrates believes anyone is capable of achieving this. For example Socrates demonstrated that even a simple slave boy could recognize the Form of Truth without ever had been previously acquainted with it, “the boy sees that taking the diagonal of the square solves the problem,” (103). Through dialectic and geometry Socrates shows that even the most humble and uneducated person can achieve a knowledge of the Forms and so it follows that anyone is capable of examining the world and their life to achieve harmony and happiness.

And while Plato agrees that education is “the art of orientation,” (137), as we have seen with how Socrates handled the slave boy by guiding him and not “stuffing the mind with facts,” (137), Plato believes only a select few of us can ultimately achieve this knowledge of the Forms.

Plato first compares our soul with society itself by showing how reason, desire, and spirit are not only the functions of the soul, but are also the functions of society. In each person desire motivates, reason guides, and spirit animates, whereas in a society reason rules, desire produces, and spirit acts. All three of these functions need to operate in harmony for their to be happiness. It then follows that since society is made up of people then everyone must fall into one of those three categories: desire, reason, or spirit and that they must all work in harmony for the overall society to be happy. This leads to a structure where reason sits at the very top because only reason has the wisdom of the Forms to guide the rest of society. The lower levels, spirit and desire, though just as necessary, do not share in the greater knowledge of the Forms because they can only focus on the tasks set out for them to complete at the rule of reason. If desire and spirit were to have access to the knowledge of reason then there would be chaos which Plato compares to a ship’s crew who likens the “captain as nothing but a windbag with his head in the clouds,” (151).

In conclusion we can see how while Socrates and Plato agreed that when we examine our lives we can move along a the divided line from a world of the visible things of this world into the intelligible, abstract world of the Forms, the two philosophers disagreed on who is capable of achieving this. Socrates takes a very democratic approach and believes we are all like the slave boy who can recognize the Forms when we are instructed well, whereas Plato believes only a select few of us can do so because only a select few are capable of providing reason and thus being the leaders of a happy and just society just as reason attempts to lead the other two parts of a harmonious soul: desire and spirit.

The One Reconciled with the Many

2500 years before modern-day particle physicists, the Ionian philosopher Parmenides, and later the Atomists, followed logical reasoning towards discovering what we currently believe to be the fundamental structure of the universe. In this essay I will show how both schools believed in a universal One that is, in effect, all of reality, how this leads towards a scepticism of our own senses, and how these views differed on the key point of change as we perceive it.

The first, and most alien concept for us to intuit is that of the One. Prior to Parmenides, philosophers and the epic poets explained a world governed either by a pantheon of meddlesome gods, a Boundless that brought order through a vortex motion in the universe, as was the case with Anaximander, or through a system of opposition, such as Heraclitus believed. Parmenides’ breakthrough was in realizing there cannot be a nothing. In previous philosophies there always exists some distance between that which governed (god, boundless, etc.,) and that which was being governed (people, the seasons, etc.,); a sort of chasm in which the controlling force had to reach over in order to influence that which existed in a different sphere. Parmenides, using only rational thought, realized there can be no nothing, no part of the universe that does not exist. Everything is, and that is is the One.

An example which can help us to wrap our brains around the idea of there not being nothing is to examine thought itself in this way: “You cannot think “nothing”. Why not? Because nothing is not, and to think is [as Parmenides explains] to think of what is,” (28). In other words nothing is a definable something and therefore it can no longer meet the definition of nothing. There simply is no nothing.

The atomists, too believed in a One, however they refined this One into a fundamental substance (though this word can be misleading). Democritus, a philosopher living a generation after Parmenides called this atoms. Atoms, like the One are, literally, everything and there is no point in the universe which does not contain them. The word atom literally means “uncuttable” because to do so would mean there is a nothing for them to exist, now cut, inside of which, because of Parmenides, we understand to be impossible. Therefore the universe in all directions and at all points connecting must be made entirely of these atoms.

A strange phenomena now arises because of this line of thinking, and one in which both Parmenides and the atomists attempted to explain. The problem is with our own senses. Parmenides understood the One not just as all of everything, but that it also does not change: it is eternal. Yet we can clearly sense change all around us be it the changing of the seasons, our own ageing, or the positions of the stars in the sky.  

Parmenides explains this problem of appearance and reality by simply saying we are experiencing reality incorrectly, that our senses are just opinions and our observations of reality are only “the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief,” (30). The Atomists also believed we are incorrectly experiencing reality, however as with their exploration of the One, they too refined Parmenides’ somewhat confounding conclusion.

Though the Atomists were unable to physically examine these atoms, they understood, also solely through logical thought, that these atoms must behave in unique ways. Though the eternal substance of the atom never changes, the way these atoms interact with each other can vary. For example, one atom might be in the shape (again a misleading, but still useful description) of the letter “N”, while another might be in the shape of a “Z”. Many different combinations can arise from differences in these atoms, either through shape, position, or how they are arranged. These differences will then alter our perception of the atoms. In furthering our example, if we were we to try and taste a “N” atom with our tongues which might be made up of countless combinations of “T”, “U”, and “G” atoms, our experience with “N” will vary from tongue to tongue. I might say “N” tastes bitter, while you with your unique combination of tongue atoms might say it tastes sweet.

Because of this unique way in which atoms interact with themselves we are then unable to accurately experience reality – the One – as it is truly is. We sense change when, in fact, there is only the One, or the atom. We experience reality though convention, not how it truly is.

However, a key difference arises between Parmenides and the Atomists when it comes to the “many”. While both schools believe there is only a universal One, Parmenides sees this One as a solid, homogeneous eternity where nothing changes and everything just is. The Atomists, however, attempt to account for what we perceive to be many things. Atoms, these singular bits of eternal “Oneness” are described in the plural, yet how can there be many atoms if there is no nothing to differentiate them? The solution is what Democritus defines as the void.

This void is not nothing, rather the void is a thing itself yet containing no atoms. Though this might seem contradictory it does follow reason since “what-does-not-contain-any-body need not be the same as what-is-not-at-all,” (33). The void is, it just contains no atoms. So while they both still agree there cannot be nothing, what is is refined by the Atomists into things and no-thing.

When the Atomists settled on this refinement of Parmenides’ observations it resolved not only the paradox of the One and the Many, but also the subsequent paradox that if there was only a One there could not even be any movement, as the philosopher Zeno reasoned. When Zeno looked at Parmenides’ arguments he understood via reductio ad absurdum that a man racing after a tortoise cold never catch it since no finite point could be separated from another finite point (a nothing between finite points) for which a runner could pass to eventually overtake the animal. Obviously our own experience shows this is not true since we can clearly outclass even the most spry turtle. Luckily for our runner the Atomists were able to resolve this paradox with the concept of the void.

In conclusion we have seen how Parmenides’ concept of a universal and eternal One was reasoned by understanding that there can be no nothing, and then how this was taken up by the Atomists in the form of atoms existing in a void. We have also seen how through the unique pairings of atoms we are unable to experience reality as it truly is, and that our experience is merely convention and not an accurate observation of reality. We have also seen that, though Parmenides and the Atomists were very similar in their understanding of the universe, the breakthrough for the Atomists was that there could exist a something that contained no-thing: a void. This broke the paradoxes arising from Parmenides and allowed philosophers to reconcile our senses with reality, a reality modern science has shown to closely model the thought experiments of ancient philosophers living roughly 25 centuries ago.