A systems view of God

The necessity of God from a systems perspective 

While reading Churchman’s chapter on “Leibnizian inquiring systems: fact nets”, I came across Anselm’s ontological argument. This never really hit home with me, so I decided to try and simplify it (hopefully not too much) by constructing a concept map on the basis of an explanation on the Internet (here) by Gideon Rosen. To me, this excursion into medieval thought is necessary to follow Churchman’s interpretation of the Leibnizian system of inquiry, which is useful background information for better understanding the systems approach to inquiry and intervention design.

Anselm       Saint Anselm was born into a noble Lombard family in northern Italy (1033). His name is of Germanic origin, ‘ans’ or ‘as’ meaning God (as in Oscar or Oswald) and (h)elm meaning helmet or protection (as in Wilhelm). He lived in the era of William the Conqueror with the Battle of Hastings (1066) and all that. He became a Benedictine novice in Normandy at the age of 27, was elected Abbot of Bec Abbey (formerly the most influential abbey in Normandy) in 1078, and held the office of archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, where he was buried (but the location of his remains is no longer known, not dissimilar to what happened with the relics of Thomas Beckett. The latter requested that Anselm be elevated to sainthood at the Council of Tours in 1163).


Scholasticism            … is not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, as it places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference and to resolve contradictions. It evolved in monasteries and later universities from about 1100 onwards as a method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context. Anselm of Canterbury, as St. Anselm is often called, was one of the founders. Other key figures were William of Ockham (Ockham’s razor) and Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica is considered to be the pinnacle of scholastic and medieval Christian philosophy. By thoroughly and critically reading a particular book by a renowned scholar, scholastic students learned to appreciate the theories of the author. It reminds me of what I am doing with the work of Churchman. It also occurs to me now that concept mapping may be considered an application of Ockham’s razor (or the lex parsimoniae, i.e. the Law of Parsimony), although the concept map in this post is perhaps not the best example.

God      … is a concept of considerable philosophical importance, especially as the ultimate principle of one key concept or another for 17th century rationalists such as Descartes or Spinoza, so the proof of God’s existence is the keystone of many a philosophical scheme. Churchman summarizes the ontological proof of God’s existence of Anselm as follows: “a thing defined to have all maximal properties must exist.” In the well-known words of Leibniz the same proof becomes: “ God exists if He is possible.” After careful study of the consistency of definitions, Leibniz concludes, in the words of Churchman, that “ there is one and only one possible  model which includes the existence of a so-defined God. Hence, only those contingent truth nets that ultimately meet the requirement that God exists can be considered as candidates for validity. In other words, the existence of God is sufficient for a unique solution of the system of reality.” In one of my next post, I will explain what it all means.

The ontological argument        … in short, is meant to refute the ideas of a real or imaginary ( 😀 ) atheist, who denies God’s existence on rational grounds. Anselm manages to do that by bringing the atheist to contradict himself or herself. The steps are as follows: 1. Anselm defines God as the absolutely unsurpassable being; 2. The atheist is asked to imagine this to be a possibility, i.e. to consider it a possibility that such an unsurpassable being exists in his/her understanding; 3. God being unsurpassable in every property and aspect, must also be unsurpassable in terms of existence, or else he would not be unsurpassable in every property and aspect; 4. Therefore God’s existence is a logical necessity that cannot be denied without contradicting oneself.

Reductio ad absurdum          Gideon Rosen explains in some detail (here) that the ontological argument is in fact an “argument to absurdity”. This type of argument can take many forms, one of which is based on the idea that the denial of the assertion would result in a logical contradiction, as in this example: “There is no smallest positive rational number, because if there were, then it could be divided by two to get a smaller one.” The contradiction in the ontological argument lies in the fact that: “A being that cannot be conceived to be greater than it is can be conceived to be greater than it is.” At this point it is important to note that most contemporary philosophers do not accept contradictions as an element in proof, but consider it simply a limit to rationality, a boundary the rational mind cannot cross. I am inclined to concur.

Charles Hartshorne       … developed Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy into process theology. He also developed the neoclassical idea of God and produced a modal proof of the existence of God that was a development of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument. I mention this to show that Anselm’s insight is not just a nice example of medieval scholastic reasoning, but continues to be relevant in some schools of philosophy, not just in the Vatican. The term “modal proof” means that the ontological argument does not stand alone, but is one strand in a fabric of reasoning which Hartshorne sometimes called “the global argument”. In doing so, Hartshorne follows the advice of Peirce and the example of Leibniz (and his contingent truth nets). Hartshorne (1897-2000) was one of two editors of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American pragmatism. In my view, pragmatism and process thought form the theoretical pole while the systems approach (incl. Wicked Solutions) forms the practical pole. The works of Churchman form the link between the two poles and the gateway to their understanding, in theory and practice.

Socratic dialogue       The earlier dialogues of Plato , relating the debates of his teacher Socrates, raised the use of reductio arguments to a formal dialectical method (Elenchus), now called the Socratic method. A dialogue on Anselm’s ontological argument would go as follows (thanks to Anselm, his translators, and Gideon Rosen):
Anselmus: You see no proof of God’s existence, so you do not belief he exists. Is that right?
Atheist: Yes, that’s right. There is no shred of evidence for God’s existence.
Anselmus: Yet you have a clear idea in your mind of what it is you belief not to exist. To keep things simple, is it OK if I define God as a being than which nothing greater can be conceived?
Atheist: Yes, that’s a good way of understanding the meaning of the word God.
Anselmus: Now, let’s suppose that God exists in the understanding alone, similar to trolls and Santa Claus. Yet, God could be conceived to exist in reality, couldn’t he?
Atheist: Yes, of course. God can be conceived to exist or not to exist, no problem at all.
Anselmus: But you will agree that it is greater for a being to exist in reality than to exist in the understanding alone, won’t it?
Atheist: Well, yes. I can’t deny it.
Anselmus: But then we seem forced to conclude that a being than which none greater can be conceived can be conceived to be greater than it is. That’s self-contradictory, which leaves us no other conclusion than that God must exist in reality as well as in the understanding!


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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