my ontological horror story

by Mike Scalzi

Dr. Dendrite’s lectures on the philosophy of religion were his specialty, and in the eyes of his graduate students, would likely be his downfall. His recitations of mediaeval arguments for God’s existence, the problem of evil, and his own highly original theodicies had become the frequent subjects of academic debate, gossip and playful imitation among the university’s graduate, undergraduate and elite intellectual populations. Yet as impassioned as Dr. Dendrite’s apologetics were---extending far beyond a seasoned professor’s dutiful defense of the text---they also retained the capacity to muddle his otherwise unbreakable concentration and crystalline logic, rendering him as obstinate and single-mindedly obsessed as a ranting politician. During these philosophical fugues he was given to fits of fallacy, eruptions of erroneous argumentation as well as rhapsodious rants, both pedestrian and pedantic---all of which he’d have easily dismissed as sophomoric or sophistic under less intellectually imperiled conditions.

Medieval theological arguments, steeped as they are in the principles of Aristotelian and Platonic metaphysics, manage to employ their share of quasi-logical ‘rabbit in the hat tricks’, i.e. arguments that either bamboozle the reader with "pretzel logic" (the twisting of relationships between ideas and definitions until they appear to produce a valid conclusion, or perhaps just a mentally fatigued reader), or ask them to accept a few simple premises, and then hit them over the head with a conclusion that appears to follow from them, yet at the same time go far beyond what they promise. Both of these techniques tend to leave the reader vaguely dissatisfied with the conclusions drawn, yet strangely unable to articulate why.

Ian Fichte was a proud member of the "fallacy finders" club: an informal faction of young brilliant minds found in the front row of every philosophy lecture, scrutinizing every point of discussion to death with overly-literal interpretations of text, knit-picking minute points of logic, i.e. generally attempting to ruffle the mis-matched tweeds of stalwart professors. Such biting criticisms as "anachronism", "confirmation bias" or the ultimate coffin pin in any ethical position: "the naturalistic fallacy" (the claim that no ethical term can be explained by mere approval or disapproval) were their daily fare. The standard modus operandi for young philosophers had become negative: an attack on all preceding positions. Rather than creating new ideas---a practice which the academe had deemed trite and perhaps nigh-impossible at this late stage in the shelf-life of secondary research, it was sufficient to simply react---to present a contrasting pale. After all, it’s the positive claim that ultimately bears the burden of rational argument. Defense of a negative is not nearly as difficult a task; it’s simply as a lack of belief—a healthy skepticism requiring no further defense.

Ian sat in the front row for every one of Dendrite’s lectures, remaining particularly attentive during the recitations of theological arguments. While the rest of the class sank into its customary dogmatic slumber, Ian’s shrewd sensibilities were titillated rather than dulled by the hylomorphic doctrines of the Scholastics and Neo-Platonists---both subjects he had mastered previously by methods both formal and autodidactic. The subject of today’s rant was on the formal syllogistic proof of God’s existence, otherwise known as the "classic ontological argument" as formulated by St. Anselm of Canterbury in his famous "Prosologium". And a rant it was---as Dendrite set up the premises of the 11th century argument he paced the half empty hall with a military pomp and swagger that resembled the goose-step; footnotes and corollaries jettisoned from his tongue, fanning off in all directions like philological shrapnel. Contrary to the cold, dispassionate flavor of the original argument’s form, Dendrite’s interpretation, or perhaps more aptly put, performance of the argument far exceeded St. Anselm’s original in both depth and character of presentation, and all but confirmed Ian’s long-standing suspicion of Dendrite’s crypto-thespianism. He questioned how the rest of the students could manage to wistfully doze off or stare at their smart phones with such a spectacle before their eyes and ears. He found the ontological argument fascinating, and Dendrite’s rendition of it only buttressed this fascination.

The argument itself, to Ian’s mind, was a good example of a logical "rabbit in the hat" trick. There was something seemingly trivial about the way the conclusion landed in the lap of the interlocutor, giving her no choice but to assent to its positive claim, yet unable to resist a gnawing sense of gut-skepticism. It seemed a preposterous and arrogant piece of reasoning on several levels, yet it was extremely difficult to articulate even to one’s-self exactly what was wrong with it. Atheist Richard Dawkins, in his pseudo-philosophical bestseller "The God Delusion" compared it to a childhood playground anecdote, in which one child plays a little trick of the "na-na-na-na" variety on his classmates. English philosopher Bernard Williams simply called the argument "invalid" (i.e. the conclusion does not follow from the premises). Ian found the argument to be valid, but perhaps unsound, in that the conclusion does appear to follow from the premises, but the truth of premises is highly debatable. Dendrite’s moderately augmented version of the argument was presented as follows:

"Premise one is simply that it is a conceptual truth that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined---that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined. Whether or not you are willing to accept that there is such being, the argument asks only that you admit that the idea of the being than which there can be no greater exists as an idea in the understanding. It is a concept that you can clearly grasp and understand." And indeed it was---thought Ian, an understandable concept, whether or not is a believable proposition in "reality" (i.e. outside of the understanding).

Dendrite’s second premise was a little more challenging:

"A being that exists as an idea in the understanding and in reality, is greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the understanding. For instance, imagine the idea of an ice-cream cone, just the idea of an ice-cream cone, in your mind. Now imagine the idea of the ice cream cone in your mind, and in your hand as well, at the same time. Which is greater? The idea of the ice-cream cone in the mind alone---or the idea of it in your mind combined with the actual item in your hand, and in your stomach as well?"

The majority of the class conceded that, indeed, it was greater to have the ice cream cone both in the mind as an idea, and in their hand as a reality. Dendrite went on:

"Thus, if what we have agreed to in these two premises is true: if the being that exists as an idea in the understanding and in reality is greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the understanding, then the being than which there can be no greater cannot exists only as an idea in the understanding, for then we could obviously imagine a being that is greater than the being which there can be no greater. But, by definition we cannot conceive of a being greater than the being than which there can be no greater---for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being. Therefore, this greatest possible being must necessarily exists."

At the end of this brilliant recitation of a somewhat perplexing piece of reasoning, at least half of the class remained silent and understandably bamboozled. The other half appeared to at least get the logical "feel" of what was being presented---if not convinced of the truth of the conclusion. To Ian it was somewhat convincing, in that the argument seemed to have the uncanny ability to slip through the logical fingertips of the interlocutor when presented in this conversational form. It really only asks you to assent to the two initial premises:

1. That she is capable of understanding the idea of "the being than which there can be no greater", i.e. the greatest possible being. It is not asked that the reader imagine what this being would be like, or what it would be like to be this being, or even to believe that this being must or even could exist (in this initial premise)--- but only that she is able to clearly grasp the idea of the being than which there can be no greater. The majority of readers will readily assent to this premise. In the words of Anselsm:

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood exists in the understanding.

2. That a being that exists both in the understanding, conceptually, and outside of the understanding in "reality" (both as a mind-dependent and mind-independent substance) is necessarily greater than a being that exists only conceptually in the understanding. This premise is usually accepted by the majority of readers as well, although it may often require further explanation than is presented in the original deductive argument:

And assuredly that than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

For instance, one may object, on the basis of Platonic Metaphysics, that that which exists in the understanding (i.e. in the mind), purely as a concept, is necessarily more perfect, and therefore greater than that which exists outside of the mind (either as a sensation and/or a corporeal substance). But this can easily be remedied by the argument. St. Anselm, although a staunch Platonist, is not arguing that the being that exists inside the mind as a concept and outside of the mind as a reality, exists outside of the mind in a less perfect (or corporeal) form. Rather, the being than which there can be no greater exists outside of the mind in precisely the same way it exists inside the mind, yet in a more realized form, rather than a conceptual form. Therefore there would be no downgrade or compromise to the greatest possible being’s existence simply because it exists outside of the mind. It would still be the being than which there can be no greater, loosing none of its perfection, but simply manifest in a mind- independent form.

Once these two premises have been accepted by the reader, she has only to attend to the contradiction produced by attempting to deny the existence of the being than which there can be no greater (known as a reductio ad absurdum, i.e. an argument which concludes in a contradiction). If the reader is able to clearly conceptualize the idea of a being than which there can be no greater, and admit that this being would be even greater if it existed outside of the mind as a real being, as well as in the mind as an idea, then they have only to attend to the logical contradiction produced by the denial of this being’s existence outside of the mind. If the being does not in fact exist outside of the mind as well as within it (if the being is not realized, but remains only conceptual), then the two premises (which the reader has already admitted were true) become incompatible; the greatest possible being cannot be the greatest possible being if there is an even greater possible being. But this is precisely what there would be if the greatest possible being existed in the understanding alone. If it’s true that a being existing in the mind as well as outside of it is greater than one existing only within it, then any being that exists both in the mind and outside of it would be greater than the greatest possible being. Therefore the conclusion would have to be: if the greatest possible being exists only in the understanding, as an idea, then it could not be the greatest possible being---for there could be many other beings which exist both in the understanding and outside of it, and therefore all of them would be greater than the greatest possible being. But of course this cannot be, therefore either the reader does not in fact understand or possess the idea of the greatest possible being in their mind, or there must be a being, in fact many beings, which are greater than the greatest possible being. Neither of these are possible options though: the later for obvious reasons, and the former, because we clearly are able to produce and understand an idea of "the being than which there can be no greater" in our minds. Its conception is coherent and distinct. Therefore the only rational conclusion is that this being must exist in reality, outside of the mind, as well as inside of it.

Ian had pondered the argument for about three years, since he’d first encountered it in his private studies. He was mystified, as many others had been before him, by the arrogance of the conclusion that one can prove the existence of an infinite substance by merely forming the concept of it in their mind. There was something fallacious about it in either a formal or informal sense, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. The most obvious problem, to Ian’s mind, was that between the first and second premise the argument switches from a proposition about the idea or concept of a being to a proposition about an actual being, i.e. from proving that an idea exists, to proving than an actual being exists. And on this basis it may be concluded that, rather than proving that God exists as an actual being, the argument proves only that the idea of God exists. But it must then be admitted that the argument proves that the idea of God exists inside and outside of the mind as well---and what would it be like for an idea to exist outside of the mind? Is there such a thing even possible? A mind-independent idea? Ideas are by definition mind-dependent, and therefore any claims that the ontological argument only proves the existence of an idea, yet one that exists outside of the mind, is a manifest contradiction. Ian had run this line of enquiry through his mind many times, but it had always come to a dead end. An idea existing outside of the mind does indeed contradict the definition of an idea, but putting it back into the mind becomes a tricky business.

Also, there is the famous objection presented by the 11th century monk Gaunilo. Gaunilo claimed that the logic used in the ontological argument could be applied to an idea of anything at all---that is, the perfect idea of anything. Being a contemporary of Anselm, Gaunilo was able to respond directly to his argument, proposing that Anselm swap the idea of the greatest possible being for the idea of the greatest possible island, and on that basis prove by the same argument that the island than which there could be no greater must necessarily exist. Guanilo’s island than which there can be no greater is described as "the island which is more abundant with "riches and delights" than any other possible island". This argument fascinated Ian just as much as the original, and Anslem had a chance to respond to it: his reply was that sheer quantity of "riches and delights" (or of any other thing) can always be exceeded. This is premised on Aristotle’s denial of the possibility of a true infinite, i.e. it is impossible to count upward to an actual infinite number. When dealing with quantities there can always be one greater—therefore infinity is purely conceptual, never actual. So the greatest possible island, when characterized as greatest on the basis of its unsurpassable abundance of riches, could always be greater in actuality, and therefore remains purely conceptual, and never actual. This resonated with Ian, being a devotee of Aristotle. But it also seemed that all Gaunilo would have had to do was to swap the island’s criterion for greatness from sheer abundance to beauty or tranquility, or a less quantifiable, more qualitative property--- or simply swap the original being than which there can be no greater for a unicorn than which there can be no greater, or a time-machine than which there could be no greater or some other fantastic thing. Then his argument would not be subject to criticism of greatness in terms of sheer quantity—and his objection would likely stand stronger against Anselm’s original argument. Yet even this, to Ian’s sensibilities, may not definitively refute Anselm’s argument.

The fact is that Anselm’s argument is about the greatest possible being; i.e. the greatest possible thing of all. He does not contend that there must be a greatest possible thing of this kind or of that kind (i.e. the greatest thing within a particular class of things), but rather that there must be one thing that is the greatest possible thing of all things. And this something must be not only the greatest thing in all of existence, but must also be the greatest possible thing in existence. Perhaps this is why we run into trouble when we try to get more specific and describe what the particular form of this thing might be---be it an island or a unicorn or what have you, since these things are particular things, and by definition finite and bounded. But if we stick to simply contending that there must be something that is the greatest possible thing of all, then we might not have to deal with these complications. Perhaps the greatest possible thing of all, that is, of all things that could exist, is not subject to the same logical limitations, due to its conceptual character, that other more specific greatest possible things of one sort or another are. After all, the idea of the greatest possible unicorn is only the greatest possible thing amongst unicorns---but the greatest possible thing of all things seems less logically contingent in that it is not limited to any particular class of things. It is in a sense necessarily generic or ‘one of a kind’, and therefore requires, by the argument’s logic, special ontological status.

As these thoughts flooded Ian’s mind (for minutes at a time, broken up by attending to the lecture) Dr. Dendrite fielded objections to Anselm’s argument for the better part of an hour. Several students had broken their dogmatic slumbers and reacted, as they invariably will to the ontological arguments, with great passion and fervor. One student argued that a concept simply can’t prove the existence of something, i.e. that Gaunilo’s objection stands up against the argument, even in its quantitative form. Another argued that a "greatest possible thing" is necessarily finite and bounded, in that its "that which there can be no greater" status is able to distinguish it from other sorts of things--- and is therefore disqualified as a theistic deity (for the theistic deity, by definition, possesses infinite being). But Dendrite disarmed them at all turns---he seemed, like many tenured professors, to have "canned" responses to all possible attacks (and these were not the most ferocious of attacks by any means).

Ian was not planning to weigh in on the subject---not today. Dendrite was on fire, and he could think of nothing that would stand against his counter-arguments. Even Kant’s famous objection that existence is never a predicate or quality of an idea (and therefore adds nothing to its concept) seemed less than rival to the power of Dendrite’s rejoinders. But then it hit him. It hit him hard. What if the positive character of the argument was reversed? What if the same logic demonstrated in the ontological argument was used not to prove the existence of the greatest possible being, but the worst possible being? Would the argument not possess the same strength in the negative? In fact, would it not be even more convincing in the negative?? The more Ian thought about it (running it through his mind at lightning speed for what was probably no more than twenty second) the more he was convinced of it. It was practically apodictic ("apodictic" being one of those fancy philosophical words associated with a18th Century German Idealist Immanuel Kant, meaning: "necessarily conceived as true upon clear conception in the mind"), and more so than in the positive!!

Ian was exalted, and simultaneously terrified. He starred down at his desk. Then at his note pad, his pen, the cover of Anselm’s Prosologium. Then he made his move. Without raising his hand he inquired sharply: "What if we can imagine the idea of the being than which there can be no more terrible?"

Dendrite looked up from the brooding plod of his wide-stepped pace, squinting through bi-focals in Ian’s direction. "I mean," continued Ian, "if we are able to clearly understand the idea of the being than which there can be no more horrible, and grasp it conceptually in our mind---and assent to the fact that that being would be more horrible if it existed both in the mind conceptually as well as outside the mind in reality---then does it not follow that that being must exist in reality?"

The class continued to stare at Ian. Dendrite’s expression further intensified---his stare moved to the floor, to the table on which his text laid. It struck Ian for the first time that Dendrite was truly convinced by the logic of the ontological argument---the intensity with which he pondered this new negative version only testified to the fact that he took the logical force of the reduction ad absurdum very seriously.

"In fact," Ian explained further, "One of the common objections to the original argument denies that the idea of a being existing in the understanding alone is necessarily a lesser being than one existing in reality. But a being than which there can be no more horrible, or terrible, would definitely be more terrible if it existed in reality. I can clearly comprehend the idea of the worst possible being: the most terrifying, evil, disgusting, contemptible being possible. It is clear to me what these words mean, and although I do not wish to come up with an image to accompany them, the concept of this being is clearly apprehended by the mind. Now surely if the idea I have of this being were realized there is no question that it would be much, much more terrible than it is as a mere idea inside my mind--in fact it seems even more certain that it would be all the more terrible if it were realized than the greatness of the greatest possible being would be if it were realized--- and therefore all the more convincing that this being must exist in reality. The logical force of Anselm’s second premise seems to be even more convincing in the negative, therefore the being than which there can be no more horrible must certainly exist, if the being than which there can be no greater does. Indeed it seems to be of even greater necessity that this most terrible being must exist than must the greatest----for the horror of its existence in reality seems to be so much worse than its mere existence in the mind, when compared to the difference in greatness between the greatest possible being’s existence in the mind compared to its existence in reality."

It was true that the argument seemed much more convincing in the negative. It was hard to put one’s finger on exactly why, but it was clear to Ian that Dendrite was now convinced of this disturbing addendum to the ontological argument. The fact that this being could, and in fact must (by the logic of the ontological argument) exist in reality, was a much more powerful realization for some strange reason than the realization of the existence of the greatest possible being. And it was this fact: the certainty of the sharp increase in the manifest terribleness of this being if it were to exist in reality, rather than in the mind alone that was responsible for the certainty that it must exist. The realization that one must assent to the this being’s necessary existence----not the worst being in existence, but the worst possible being---- the most terrible being that could exist in any possible world, or accept the logical contradiction which arises from its denial, appeared to be more than Dendrite’s superior yet delicate sensibilities could suffer.

Professors often shudder and stir at the well placed jabs of their brighter students, and then regain their composure and rejoin with a zinger of their own, or simply "bloviate" their way around the objection with grand posturing and big words. Dendrite did neither. He was clearly vexed by Ian’s argument, and just as clearly convinced of its logical efficacy. His pacing resumed silently. Clearly he was disturbed, put off---completely broad-sided by this bizarre yet highly convincing argument. He shook his head. He stirred and took his glasses off, wiping them with his breast-pocket handkerchief which he then applied to his moistened brow. In a highly transparent attempt to laugh it all off, he exclaimed: "Well that’s really quite an interesting point, "of course, I do see your point --- It is rather …..ummm…....interesting. You have created quite a conundrum. In fact…..my God…" he exclaimed, now drenched in sweat and making little effort to compose himself, "You seem to have stumbled upon something quite, well….quite… I’m at a bit of a loss to…." Dendrite chuckled nervously, this time under his breathe, "I’ll have to think…..I…..aaugh….. I’ll have to get back to you…….that will be all for today--."

Dendrite abruptly left the room. The argument had been all too convincing; particularly to one who was obviously convinced by the argument’s original theistic form. The students looked at each other, and then at Ian, who began to laugh nervously. He had a desperate urge to discuss the argument further with Dendrite. It was not going to leave his mind. He was not entirely convinced of it, of course---- he was never entirely convinced by the original ontological argument--- but there was one thing he was sure of: Dendrite was convinced---clearly convinced of the necessary existence of the being than which there can be no more terrible. He had obviously been much more convinced by Anselm’s ontological argument than Ian had previously realized, and, on that basis, even more convinced by this new version of the argument. He could only imagine that Dendrite was now starring at the walls of his office, trying desperately to un-convince himself of the sheer logical necessity of the existence of this horrible being, and perhaps just as desperately to rid his mind of accompanying images of how this being might actually appear.

Ian left the classroom no less abruptly than Dr. Dendrite had moments before. His office was two floors up in the same building. Ian took the stairs---thoughts of violence and terror ascending through his mind as he climbed. When he got to Dendrite’s door it was hanging open. The first thing he noticed was a swift draft blowing into the hallway. Upon entering he saw no sign of Dendrite, but then noticed broken glass all over the desk, spilling onto the floor. The large, window, still closed, was shattered. Something large had been obviously hurled through it. Ian retreated to the door way, shut the door and fell back against it in a doomed attempt to deny what he was surely about to confirm. Slowly he stepped towards the window and stuck his head through the gapping shattered pane, only to confirm his greatest (well perhaps at this moment, his second greatest) fear. Dendrite’s tweeds were ruffled for the last time, around his twisted, motionless body on the sidewalk four stories below. The fear was too much---the reality of this most horrible being was incontestable. Only a fool would attempt to deny it.



St. Anselm: Proslogium; Monologium: An Appendix In Behalf Of The Fool By Gaunilo; And Cur Deus Homo, Translated From The Latin By Sidney Norton Deane, B. A. With An Introduction, Bibliography, And Reprints Of The Opinions Of Leading Philosophers And Writers On The Ontological Argument, (Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company,, 1903, reprinted 1926)