The Necessarily Existent
Hartshorne (Charles)
Source: Plantinga, Alvin (Ed.) The Ontological Argument, Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1965
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  1. Plantinga’s Comments: (p. 123) '[A professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, Charles Hartshorne is a leading proponent of the ontological argument and has probably written more extensively on it than has any other contemporary philosopher. Indeed, Man's Vision of God, 1941, the book from which this selection is taken, is devoted entirely to that argument. Hartshorne distinguishes two lines of argument in Anselm, maintaining that the traditional criticism of the ontological argument holds against only one of them, leaving the other unscathed.]

      Where would such an idea, say as that of God, come from, if not from direct experience? ... No: as to God, open your eyes—and your heart; which is also a perceptive organ—and you see him. But you may ask, Don't you admit there are any delusions? Yes: I may think a thing is black, and on close examination it may turn out to be bottle-green. But I cannot think a thing is black if there is no such thing as black. Neither can I think that a certain action is self-sacrificing, if no such thing as self-sacrifice exists, although it may be very rare. It is the nominalists, and the nominalists alone, who indulge in such skepticism, which the scientific method utterly condemns.
      Charles Sanders Peirce, in Collected Papers, Vol. VI.
  2. (p. 124) The ontological argument turns logically upon the unique relation between the possibility and the actuality, the "essence" and the "existence," of God. With ordinary finite ideas the task of knowledge is to decide among three cases: (1) the type of thing conceived is impossible, and hence non-existent (e.g., a moral being totally without "freedom"); (2) the type of thing is possible, but there is no actual example (a Euclidean space?); (3) the thing is possible, and there is an example (a speaking animal). The ontological argument holds that with the idea of God only two of these three cases need be considered, since one of the three, (2), is meaningless. If, the argument holds, there exists no God, then there also can be no possibility of the existence of a God, and the concept is nonsense, like that of "round square." If, further, it can be shown that the idea of God is not nonsensical, that it must have an at least possible object, then it follows that it has an actual object, since a "merely possible" God is, if the argument is sound, inconceivable. Where impossibility and mere unactualized possibility are both excluded, there nothing remains but actuality, if the idea has any meaning at all.
  3. The ontological argument itself does not suffice to exclude the impossibility or meaninglessness of God, but only to exclude his mere possibility. Or, as Leibniz said, it must assume that God is not impossible. (We shall consider presently whether the argument can be extended so as to justify this assumption.) The inventor of the argument, Anselm, took it for granted that the man with religious experience, to whom he addressed his discourse, though he may doubt God's existence, will not easily doubt that in hoping that there is a God he is at least hoping for something with a self-consistent meaning. Now, given a meaning, there must be something which is meant. We do not think just our act of thinking. What we think may not be actual, but can it be less than possible—unless it be a self-contradictory combination of factors, singly and separately possible? In short, when we think, can we fail to refer to something beyond our thought which, either as a whole or in its elements, is at least possible?
    (p. 125) Granting this, the ontological argument says that, with reference to God, "at least possible" is indistinguishable from "possible and actual" (though, as we shall see, "possible" here means simply "not impossible" and has no positive content different from actuality). Let us now present the reasons for the contention that "at least possible" and "actual" are indistinguishable in the case of the divine.
  4. According to one theory of possibility, a given type of entity is possible if the most general features, tbe strictly generic characters, of existence or of the universe are compatible with the production of such an entity. Thus, there is no contradiction of the most general features of reality in the supposition that nature has really produced Mr. Micawber. There is contradiction of the details of nature (such as the detail that Micawber is a character in a novel written by a highly imaginative author), but these may be supposed otherwise without destroying the meaning, the generic content, of "existence." But the idea of God is the idea of a being everlasting in duration, and independent, in a certain aspect of his being (in his individual "essence"), from everything else. Such a being could not be produced, since he must then be both derivative and un-derivative, everlasting and yet not everlasting. To create the omniscient, one must endow him with a perfect memory of the past before he existed; to create the omnipotent, one must endow him with incomparably more power, a metaphysically different order of power, than that which created him. It is hardly necessary to prolong the discussion: no theologian holding either type-one or type-two theism has ever rejected that portion of the ontological argument which consists in the proof that God could not be a mere possibility; and (as we are about to show), it is demonstrable that in order to reject this proof one must construct a theory of possibility which would not be required for ordinary purposes, so that the tables may be turned upon those who accuse the argument of making God an exception to all principles of knowledge. The argument does make God an exception, but only in the sense that it deduces this exceptional status from a generally applicable theory of possibility together with the definition of God.
    (p. 126) Nothing else is required. The opposition, on the contrary, sets up a general principle which, but for God and the desire to avoid asserting his existence (as following from his possibility), would be without merit.
  5. It might, however, be thought that "possible" need not mean the consistency of the supposition of the thing's being produced, or of its coming into existence due to some cause. Only with one type of thing, it may be held, does "possible" mean this. With another type, consisting of things with universal extent in time, a thing either just always exists or just always lacks existence, either status being possible, although no temporal cause could conceivably effect the difference.
  6. I submit that this is a view so paradoxical that it would hardly be considered at all but for two reasons. One is that it invalidates the ontological argument. The other is that it lends color to the supposition that the laws of nature discoverable by science are eternal laws, although their non-existence is logically possible, and although, as eternal, they could never have been produced, constituting, as they do, the very machinery of all production, the presupposition of all events. The alternative to this supposition about laws is the idea that the laws of nature with which physics deals are themselves produced by the cosmic process, the most general principles of which are beyond "law" in this sense. (There must be some sort of law governing the production of laws, but this higher law is of another order, and may be conceived as the aesthetic principle of the value of order as such, and of the no less real value of a certain element of freedom and disorder, of surprise and novelty, as well as repetition and predictability.) On this view, nothing is possible and at the same time not actual unless at some stage of the cosmic evolution the forces were such that there is no contradiction in the idea of their having taken a turn which sooner or later would have led to the production of the thing in question. Thus, if nature had developed other habits—and who shall say she could not have?—other "laws" would have obtained. But clearly God could not be possible in this way, and he is the only consistently conceivable object which must be conceived
    (p. 127) as unproduced, a reality always existing or never existing or even capable of existing, either in essence uncaused or a mere nonentity.
  7. The old objection that if a perfect being must exist then a perfect island or a perfect devil must exist is not perhaps very profound. For it is answered simply by denying that anyone can conceive perfection, in the strict sense employed by the argument, to be possessed by an island or a devil. A perfect devil would have at the same time to be infinitely responsible for all that exists besides itself, and yet infinitely averse to all that exists. It would have to attend with unrivalled care and patience and fullness of realization to the lives of all other beings (which must depend for existence upon this care), and yet it must hate all these things with matchless bitterness. It must savagely torture a cosmos every item of which is integral with its own being, united to it with a vivid intimacy such as we can only dimly imagine. In short, whether a perfect God is sense or nonsense, a perfect devil is unequivocally nonsense, and it is of no import whether the nonsensical does or does not necessarily exist, since in any case it necessarily does not exist, and its existence would be nothing, even though a necessary nothing. Clearly, again, an island is not in essence unproducible and self-sufficient. Of course one can arbitrarily put concepts together and suppose that an island which could never be destroyed and had never been produced would be better than one capable of production, since some form of eternal life might go on upon it, undisturbed by any possibility of an end to such a world. But it is not apparent what would make such a world an island, if the "waters" which "washed" it never wore its shores, and if it were not a part of the surface of a body in space surrounded by other bodies capable of smashing it to pieces, and were not composed of particles capable of ultimately separating, etc. The question is if such a conception would in the end be distinguishable from the idea of the cosmos as the perpetually renewed body of God, that is, not an island in the least, but an aspect of the very idea of God whose self-existence is upheld by the argument.
  8. (p. 128) The question is, Can a possibility be real, unless it would, if actual, be an effect of a cause which is real, or the effect of a possible cause which, if actual, would itself be the effect of a cause which. . . (the series ultimately terminating in a cause which is real)? Otherwise, possibility is something wholly apart from actuality, something no experience could ever reveal or evidence support.
  9. I may be told that "logical possibility" is simply self-consistency and that no further reality than this consistency is required. But the reply is that the meanings whose consistency is granted must mean something, and this referent of the meanings is not the consistency but the presupposition of there being any meanings, consistent or otherwise. If a consistent meaning means something, but something not even possible, then it means something very odd indeed. If it means only its own consistency, then it is really meaningless.
  10. Let us be empirical. I may think of any object of any color I choose; will it be denied that an object of this color is consistently conceivable as a production of "nature"? In fact, of course, objects of at least approximately the same color have been actually given in my experience. The step "from thought to reality" is merely the reverse reading of the step from reality to thought without which there is no thought, as the very logicians who attack the ontological argument on the ground that it seeks to "derive existence from a mere idea" would be the first to grant. We are always in contact with the forces which produce realities, and hence we can think both actual and possible objects. Or, in other terms, we can distinguish, in the reality some portion of which is always given to us, between the essential or generic features and the details, and can see that this distinction implies that mutually incompatible details are both or all compatible (separately, though not together) with the generic features. But God is not a detail, and only contradiction results from trying to make his possibility conceivable in the fashion in which alone mere possibility is ever really conceived.
  11. We may go further. The reason God is not a detail, whose existence would be one of two equally conceivable
    (p. 129) alternatives, is that he is really the content of "existence," the generic factor of the universe. To conceive God is not to conceive what might exist, but what "existence" itself must be—if the idea of God is not meaningless. Either God is nothing at all, or all else that exists exists in and through him, and therefore contingently, and he himself exists (in his essence, though not in his accidents) solely in and through himself, that is, necessarily. The cosmological argument showed that only "God" makes clearly conceivable the flexibility of the generic features of existence by which alternative details of existence can, as alternatives, be real. Alternativeness is one way of looking at creativeness, and the essential or cosmic creativeness is the divine, and nothing else.
  12. Thus to make God's existence exceptional in relation to his conceivability is a result, not a violation, of the general principle of existence. Whatever is merely possible, this possibility as such is real, is other than nothing, only thanks to something which itself is not merely possible but is reality itself as self-identical, or as that which, being the ground of possibility, is more than merely possible. It is an implication of the idea of God that he is that ground.
  13. At some point potentiality and actuality must touch, and at some point meaning must imply existence. God is the general, the cosmic and everlasting, the essential or a priori case of the unity of essence and existence, and he is this because he is supreme potentiality as existing power, a real agent who eternally does one or other of various pairs of alternatives which he "can" do. All meaning implicitly asserts God, because all meaning is nothing less than a reference to one or other of the two aspects of the cosmic reality, what it has done or what it could do—that is, to the consequent or primordial natures of God.
  14. It has been objected to the ontological argument that existence is not a predicate, and hence cannot be implied by the predicate "perfection." But if existence is not a predicate, yet the mode of a thing's existence—its contingency or necessity of existence—is included in every predicate whatever. To be an atom is essentially to be a contingent product of forces which were also capable of not producing the atom, and doubtless for long ages did not do so.
    (p. 130) Again, contingent existence (the equal compatibility with existence or its negative) is implied by such predicates as those describing a man. His weaknesses imply that it is not true that he is the master of existence, able to exist through his own resources. The strength of God implies the opposite relation to existence. "Self-existence" is a predicate which necessarily and uniquely belongs to God, for it is part of the predicate divinity. It is part of the nature of ordinary causes that they are themselves effects of causes which antedate them. It is part of the nature of supreme causality1 that it is coextensive in time with all causal action. (Not that God's action is in no sense affected by causes, for the law of action and reaction may apply to God; but simply that God, as an individual, cannot have originated out of pre-existent individuals. His existence is uncaused, whether or not all his properties are. Or, otherwise expressed, his essential properties, being one with his existence, have no ground in other individuals; but he may be subject, in spite of the Thomists, to accidents whose explanation is in part to be sought in the accidents occurring in other individuals.) To be God is essentially to be the supreme productive force itself, unproduced and unproducible (except in its accidents) by any force whatsoever. Hence either God is actual, or there is nothing which could be meant by his possible existence. Thus that God's essence should imply his existential status (as contingent or necessary) is not an exception to the rule, but an example of it, since the rule is that contingency or non-contingency of existence follows from the kind of thing in question.
  15. There is another way in which the argument illustrates rather than violates general principles. The argument is not that God's individual nature implies his existence, while other individual natures do not. It may reasonably be held that every individual nature implies existence, and indeed is an existence. By regarding possibilities alone, one can never reach any truly individual character. Individuation2 and actualization are inseparable by any test, since individuals as such are known only by pointing.
    (p. 131) Description of contingent things gives always a class quality, unless in the description is included some reference to the space-time world which itself is identified as "this" world, not by description. But "perfection," as we shall see presently, is the one description which defines no class, not even a "one-membered" one, but either nothing or else an individual. If, then, it is true, as it seems to be, that mere possibility is always a matter of class, then the perfect being, which is no class, is either impossible or actual—there being no fourth status.
  16. But if every individual quality implies existence, must not all individuals exist necessarily? The answer is that contingency is not a relation of existence to a thing, but of a thing to existence. To say a thing might not exist is not to say there might be the thing without existence. It is rather to say there might be existence without the thing. To pass from the actual to what might be is to generalize, ultimately to refer to the uttermost generalities. It is the world (in its generic features) which does not imply its contingent inhabitants, not the inhabitants which do not imply the world with themselves as its existing parts. They do imply it. Without it they, as individuals, would not be, even as possible. There is an unutilized possibility of individuals, but not an individuality of the unutilized possibility. Mr. Micawber is a quasi-individual, with some of the aesthetic properties of an individual, but not an individual in the strict sense. He is a class, specific enough to simulate an individual for the purposes of the aesthetic illusion or "make-believe."
  17. The unique status of God is that no distinction can be drawn between any individual having perfection and any other. Every perfect being must have the same space-time locus (omnipresence), and must know the same things—all there are to know. If there had been another world, the God of this our world would have known it, for the very possibility of another world can be related to God only as something he (not some other God) could have done or can still do. Hence "the perfect" is no class of possibilities, all of which might be unactual, but only an individual character belonging to nothing, not even potentially
    (p. 132) (for the only individuality that could be involved is already involved), or else belonging to the one real perfect individual.
  18. The necessary being is, then, that individual which existence implies, and which itself implies, not simply existence (for every individual does that), but implies, through the identity of its generic with its individual character, that (so far as its primordial nature is concerned) there is in its case no separation between possibility and actuality, the class and the individual. In other words, "perfection" implies that existence itself necessarily contains a real perfection, or that existence, in its cosmically essential features, is perfection as existent, as the unity of being and possibility. Or, perfection implies that existence, any and all existence, implies the existence of perfection as its ground.
  19. Again, to conceive a thing in two alternative states, actual and possible, is to conceive something common to these two states, as well as something different. But between the world with God and the world without God no common feature could be found. For the world with God is the world completely dependent upon the existence of God, for both its actuality and its possibility, and hence it follows that in the absence of God nothing of the world as it would be with God could be identified.
  20. Doubtless these are all ways of construing the one simple principle: nothing but existent perfection could make perfection possible, or rather, perfection cannot have the dependent relation to other things implied by the status of mere possibility, but must have either the status of an impossible idea or pseudo-idea, or else must be simply actual, with no alternative of non-actual possibility at all.
  21. If it be thought suspicious that the ontological argument argues from a unique relation of God to existence (though one deduced from the normal relation plus the definition of perfection), let it be remembered that, by definition, God's relation to every question is unique. He is the unique being, unique because maximal, the only unsurpassed and unsurpassable being (in senses A and R). Naturally, God's relation to existence is maximal also, that is, he exists under all possible circumstances, times, and places, in other words, necessarily.
    (p. 133) That which would exist, if at all, necessarily, cannot be non-existent and yet possible, for this would mean having existence as a contingent alternative, and a contingent alternative cannot be necessary. To object to this is to object to the idea of God, and not merely to the affirmation, "There is a being corresponding to the idea."
  22. If all individuals are contingent, then the whole of existence is contingent, and it might be that nothing existed, or it might be true (though nonsensical) that there was nothing of which any proposition would be true. Furthermore, what could constitute the identity of existence as such, if not an eternal and necessary individual manifested in all individuals? We human beings tend to carry our own personality with us in all our hypotheses, in so far as we say to ourselves, Suppose I were to experience so and so. This gives an aspect of identity by which we might try to define existence as such. But the definition would be solipsistic. Hence there must be some further aspect of identity, like ourselves in being a concrete existent, but unlike us in being able to constitute the unity, the all-embracing register of existence itself, without limitation upon conceivable variety and independence. This is what God is, the all-embracing register of existence, perfect in his flexible and tolerant ("merciful") sensitivity to all experiences, who can see things as they see themselves, also as other things see them, and also as they are related without distinct awareness on the part either of themselves or of other imperfect things.
  23. It is to the credit of the ontological argument that it has to be opposed by making an absolute disjunction3 between meaning and its referent, reality, or between universals4 and individuals, a disjunction5 at no point mediated by a higher principle. Only if there is one actual individual whose presence is universal, have universals6 an intelligible ground in actuality. Otherwise we have to relate mere universals7 and mere individuals by—what? Ordinary individuals, being non-universal in their relevance, cannot explain the identity of the universals8 as such.
    (p. 134) Aristotelian objections to disembodied universals9 can be sustained only if there be a universal embodiment, a "concrete" universal so far as present actuality is concerned, though a universal which is also (contrary to Hegelianism) abstract so far as the future and potentiality are involved.
  24. Thus there is not from any point of view good reason to object to the exceptional status of God's existence, every reason to welcome it as the completion of the theory of meaning.
  25. It is often said (and with an air of great wisdom) that a "mere idea" cannot reach existence, that only experience can do that. But there is no absolute disjunction10 between thought and experience. A thought is an experience of a certain kind, it means through experience, even when it reaches only a possibility. A thought which does not mean by virtue of an experience is simply a thought which does not mean. Therefore, if we have a meaning for our thought of God, we also have experience of him, whether experience of him as possible or as actual being the question. It is too late to assert total lack of experience, once meaning has been granted. The only doubt can be whether the experience, already posited, is such as to establish possibility only, or existence also. But in the case of God no distinction between "not-impossible" and "actual" can be experienced or conceived. Hence we have only to exclude impossibility or meaninglessness to establish actuality.
  26. Moreover, since God is conceived as all-pervasive of actuality and possibility, if we do not know God as existent, it cannot be because we have been denied some requisite special experience, since either any experience is sufficient, or else none could possibly be. Or, once more, either God is a meaningless term or there exists a divine being.
  27. In still other words: either the idea of God is less than an idea, or it is more than a "mere idea" such as might designate an unactualized possibility, and is a direct awareness of an actual deity – as not only the mystics, but most theologians, have maintained. "Deity" may be nonsense, but a mere idea it cannot, without nonsense, be. To paraphrase Kant's final remark on the subject, all disputation about this, the real, point of the ontological argument is labor lost, as much as disputation about arithmetic.
    (p. 135) To say God cannot be a mere potency and to say two and two cannot make five differ in the degree of clearness of the ideas involved, but not in the a priori, or (relatively) self-evident, character of the reasoning.
  28. That the ontological argument is hypothetical we have admitted. It says, "if ‘God' stands for something conceivable, it stands for something actual." But this hypothetical character is often distorted out of all recognition. We are told that the only logical relation brought out by the argument is this: The necessary being, if it exists, exists necessarily. Thus to be able to use the argument in order to conclude "God exists necessarily," we should have to know the premise "God exists." This makes the argument seem ludicrous enough, but it is itself based on a self-contradictory assumption, which says, "If the necessary being happens to exist, that is, if as mere contingent fact, it exists, then it exists not as contingent fact, but as necessary truth." Instead of this nonsense, we must say, "If the phrase ‘necessary being' has a meaning, then what it means exists necessarily, and if it exists necessarily, then, a fortiori, it exists." The "if" in the statement, "if it exists, it exists necessarily," cannot have the force of making the existence of the necessary being contingent—except in the sense that the argument leaves it open to suppose that the phrase “necessary being" is nonsense, and of course nonsense has no objective referent, possible or actual. Thus, what we should maintain is, "that which exists, if at all, necessarily," is the same as "that which is conceivable, if at all, only if it exists." Granting that it is conceivable, it then follows that it exists because it could not, being an object of thought at all, be a non-actual object. Or once more, the formula might be this: The necessary being, if it is not nothing, and therefore the object of no possible positive idea, is actual.

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