There is a class of the argument of God’s existence that depend entirely on your thoughts. The one that interests us is Joseph de Maistre’s “no excuse” argument. It is less well known than Saint Anselm’s “ontological argument”, which is worth a few moments puzzling over.
Anselm’s argument runs like this:
- You have some idea, even as an atheist, about who God is;
- God is “a being than which none greater can be imagined”; that is, it is impossible to think of a being greater than God;
- Beings that exist in reality are greater than those that exist only in the mind, because existing itself is a good;
- But we cannot think of a greater being than God;
- Therefore, God exist.
Everybody agrees with the first step in the argument. And there seems to be no real controversy in the second and third steps. It’s step four that makes us think some sleight-of-hand has been pulled.
It’s true existence is a good, and it seems to be true we can’t think of any being greater than God. So we can’t think of a being who actually exists greater than God. So it must be this being about whom none greater can exist must himself exist. Right?
Many think not. The argument seems to conjure God’s existence out of our thoughts, or even hopes. It’s hard to escape the notion that a circularity or flaw is buried somewhere, but it’s tough to finger.
But not impossible. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that since we cannot know the full nature of God, it is thus not possible for us to absolutely think of “a being than which none greater can be imagined”. This necessarily limited understanding of God is the reason Anselm’s argument fails to be completely convincing.
We can’t know all about the nature of God—we are, after all, limited creatures. But we can know some of God’s nature. What does that imply? De Maistre said it led to another argument of God’s existence.
Joseph de Maistre was a Catholic reactionary chased from France after Napoleon came to power. And not because he was a friend to the French Revolution. Nor was he keen on the then-fresh scientific materialism of Francis Bacon, which de Maistre perceived would lead to rampant atheism.
Bacon didn’t think much of Anslem. Bacon thought it “absurd” the claim that “men have found by reason the existence of a being of which they cannot form any idea.” (All quotes are from de Maistre’s An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon in the chapter “Of God and Intelligence”.)
De Maistre countered “To maintain that we have no idea of God because we cannot have a perfect idea, and that it is absolutely the same thing not to know what he is, or if he is, is not only blasphemy against God himself, it is also a blasphemy against good sense.”
That’s step one of de Maistre’s proof. Step two is the truism “we can affirm nothing of what does not exist.” To affirm is greater than to state. Thus we can affirm facts about horses, but we can only make statements about unicorns. There is no way to affirm anything about unicorns, because they do not exist.
Now the man who says “I have no idea of God, contradicts himself without knowing it; for it is precisely as if he said that he has an idea of which he has no idea.” And “The very fool who says God is not affirms that he has an idea of him, for no mind can deny an unknown existence.” To deny God is to deny something.
De Maistre needs only one more step. “How could man receive a new truth if did not carry within him an interior truth, an innate rule by which he judges the other?” Any teaching, human or divine, is a revelation—a revealing. We must have inbuilt a (even if flawed) sense of which arguments work and which not. To deny that is to affirm it. This sense must be of divine origin. De Maistre of course does not say, but this sense could not be biological in origin and simultaneously trustworthy: you could never know if your genes were lying to you.
In a word, the goal of revelation is only to lead the human mind to read in itself what the divine hand has traced there; and revelation would be worthless if reason, after the divine teaching, was not rendered capable of demonstrating to itself the revealed truths, just as mathematical teaching, or any other human teaching, is only recognized as true and legitimate when reason, examining the theorems on the eternal rule hidden in the depths of its essence, says to the human revelation, YOU ARE RIGHT, that is to say, you are reason.
God speaks to all men by the idea of himself that he has placed in us by this idea that would be impossible if it did not come from him, he says to us: IT IS I! Those who are called atheists reply: How could this be you, since you do not exist?
De Maistre concludes: This is why they will be inexcusable. This of course echoes St Paul: For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.
This bumps against St Thomas’s other rebuttal of Anselm: “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher (Metaph. iv, lect. vi) states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition ‘God is’ can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God’ (Psalm 53:2). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.”
That we cannot know God does not exist, given we can have some idea of God, is self-evident, says de Maistre. A fool can always reject a truth, out of mere stubbornness or petulence if nothing else.
Even so, it’s hard to escape the notion that de Maistre—besides his excellent point about partial knowledge—assumed what he sought to prove, here in the step where he asserted our reason must be God-given. This is surely true, but there might be a way to bring in CS Lewis’s famous argument against biological confirmations of reason to support de Maistre at his weak point.