The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

This argument (the ontological argument) comes from St Anselm of Canterbury, who lived from 1033 to 1109. He said that the existence of God can be deduced from just the idea of God. Just because we can think about God proves that God exists. It goes like this:

- By definition, God is that being greater than which none can be conceived.
- God can be conceived of as just a thought in your head, or as really existing.
- It is greater to exist than not to exist.
- Therefore, God must exist.

A monk whose name was Gaunilo replied to this by saying that you could use this to prove anything at all. For example, you could have the idea of a perfect pizza, "greater than which none can be conceived". Therefore such a pizza must exist, because if it did not it would be less great. As this is ridiculous, it shows that you cannot infer that something exists from the IDEA of its being perfect.

St Anselm replied that the ontological argument does not work for pizza (or anything else); it only works for God, as the relationship between God and perfection is a unique one.

Anselm distinguished here between "accidental" properties and "essential" properties. A pizza might or might not have the property of being the greatest conceivable pizza. It's an accidental property, not an essential one. But if God exists, then God must be by definition the greatest conceivable being. It is an essential property of God. But to actually BE the greatest conceivable being, God must exist.


Maddie said...

What a great post, we've just been learning about the Ontological Argument in class. Well, actually we started to learn about it but have been banned from continuing with it due to it contradicting the subject of RE. :S I found the whole argument really hard to grasp, it seems really quite illogical.

I like your analogy of the pizza though, it's a lot easier to understand than that of an island, the model we have been using.

Filo Sofia said...

Yeah, I've seen the island one, but I just think pizzas taste nicer than islands. Plus I happened to be eating one at the time.

(Btw, how does the ontological argument contradict RE?)

Some say the OA falls down because the being I am conceiving, "greater than which none can be conceived", might not actually be God, but something else entirely. And if God doesn't exist, then God CAN'T be that being. So the OA presupposes God exists.

But I think that's false. Because if you can conceive of such a being, you can just simply NAME it God, and then by the OA, God must exist.

Maddie said...

Haha indeed, I've never tried eating an island but I'm guessing it wouldn't taste very nice.

Well, the way we were learning the OA, we focused on finding flaws in it and the RE department didn't take kindly to that so they grassed up my teacher to the head.

'Tis a shame really, yeah I agree if that is the case then it could be down to a linguistic meaning- god could be anything like a unicorn, for example, and so if it was called God it must therefore exist.

Filo Sofia said...

Yes, but only if the unicorn was a being greater than any that could be conceived.

Garg the Unzola said...

The problem with that argument is that it comprises of illicit minor premises.

The conclusion may or may not be valid, but the minor premises do not lead to this conclusion and they are not relevant to the validity of the conclusion. It's an invalid and unsound argument, even though the conclusion may be sound.

By definition, God is that being greater than which none can be conceived.

In other words, god is greater than anything conceivable?

If so, whatever can be conceived is not great enough to be god. Right?

God can be conceived of as just a thought in your head, or as really existing.

So however god can be conceived, whether a thought in your head or as some aloof existence, is not great enough to be god.

That cancels both of these scenarios, because both are ways of conceiving god.

This minor premise is thus illicit.

It is greater to exist than not to exist.

Perhaps there are things which are conceivable which are greater than things which exist. This would refute this minor.

Let's say I conceived of a rocket powered skateboard, which doesn't exist yet. I proceed to built it, thinking that existence is better than the mere conception of it. I build the skateboard and while using it, I roast my neighbour's pets, I set fire to a convent and I cause the deaths of several orphans, as well as put myself into hospital with my diabolical skateboard.

Which was better? The conception, which didn't exist, or the application, which caused minor chaos and destruction?

I'd prefer the thought of my rocket powered skateboard to the deaths of several orphans, as well as the stay in hospital.

This minor premise is thus also illicit.

Therefore, God must exist.

Again, a conception. Therefore, by the first statement, it is not good enough to be divine.

And, again, the conclusion may be sound, but it is invalid because it does not follow from the rest of the argument.

Another contradiction: If god were almighty, could she create a stone that's too heavy for her to lift?

This gives rise to 2 possible scenarios: she creates a stone that's too heavy to lift, and fails to lift it, in which case she isn't almighty, because she can't lift her own stone.

Or, she creates a stone that's too heavy for her to lift, and lifts it, in which case she isn't almighty because she couldn't create a stone that's too heavy for her to lift either.

Filo Sofia said...

Thanks for your comment, it seems very well-argued. Yeah, the Onto Arg is not a very good argument is it? The thing that bothered me about it was it seemed circular, like we have to assume the truth of the thing we are trying to prove. I don't think you can ever prove if there's a god or not.

ewebert said...

Interesting post! I agree with you both about OA being unsound.

I also have problems with the semantics of the statement. What exactly does it mean for one being to be 'greater than' another being? I look around earth and see many creatures, large and small. There are many ways they are different but how would you classify all of these beings on a 'greater than/ less than' hierarchy? Some are smaller than others (is this 'less than'?) Some are much bigger (at first glance one might say bigger is 'greater than'). A shark is bigger than a fish so you may say its greater, but a shark out of water is not really greater than anything. And even in water, is it really the size or the power it has from having the sharpest teeth?
And what of speed, the ability to fly, or strength? All of these characteristics give different animals a variety of different abilities helping them to survive in their own environments.

'Greater than' only works as a numerical reference unless you have defined the attribute of which each being has more or less.

As humans we feel we rule the earth, so in this case I'm going to assume the 'greater than' is in some way referring to intellectual capability... perhaps our power (but not persay the physical strength power of a single human as that is easily 'less than' other stronger animals such as gorillas, but the power to create change and act which we have harnessed through utilizing our mental capacities and knowledge of our physical surrounding thus providing ever advancing technologies). To me it makes no sense to say a being 'greater than which none can be conceived' without qualifying which characteristic you are presuming they are the greatest.

As many people have many conceptions of who or what "God" is, I feel you would need a working definition for what you are arguing about. If you define 'greater than' as more powerful in the working definition I gave above for humans, I have a hard time reconciling this with the 'omnipotent' or all-powerful characteristic many people give to God. This is why I would need a definition of what God or what kind of God you are arguing for or against. As far as I know, no one alive today has seen God with their own eyes (in other words, God does not have a physical body, or he has not embodied himself as Christians believe he did 2008 years ago). Humans at this time on earth seem to have harnessed our power more than any other being. I am open to opposing views of course, but I if God is all-powerful, and many would say he exists everywhere, how is he exercising this power? Does he just have it and not use it? That seems like quite underpowered. If he has no physical body, how does he affect this world, how does he act on it or exert his power?

If we defined 'greater than' as intelligence, say woman x is the smartest woman alive. She has the highest IQ ever recorded, has aced every standardized test, and has amazing interpersonal intelligence as well. Then one day she is hit by a car and is completely paralyzed in every part of her body. Her brain remains fully intact and is unaffected by the accident- is she still 'greater than' all the other humans in intelligence? The knowledge and potential knowledge is still in there, but her ability to use it, to express it and have it affect others has now been severely limited perhaps forever.

Going back to God and to summarize, while I think you have already made good points against OA, I still believe before anyone can truly answer it or have it be verified:

1) you must define your 'greater than' characteristic
2) you must give (at least a working) definition of God
3) if 'all powerful' is included in your definition of God or your 'greater than' characteristic definition, then how his power affects/ touches this world needs to be addressed. (or in my opinion you are stuck in the realm of having the most intelligence but being stuck in a brain with nonworking, paralyzed body that cannot affect this world).

The only other way I can see around #3 is to prove that something in a spiritual realm or mental realm can move, affect, cause change etc in the physical world.

Filo Sofia said...

To ewebert: Thank you for your comment, I really enjoyed reading it.

I was thinking a bit more about OA and I think much of the problem with it comes from the idea of a being that is absolutely perfect in every way.

For example, if God is all-seeing, then he/she can see everything that will happen in the future, so in particular can see everything that he/she will ever do. This means that he/she is rendered incapable of making any decisions in the future. All his/her actions are thus completely pre-determined, which is not a property you would readily associate with a being "greater than which none can be conceived."

It's entirely possible though, that the problem here may arise from the inadequacy of human language to cope with these concepts. By this I mean that the English language, at least, speaks of existence as though it was a property that things can "have", in the same way that things can be blue, or tall, or round.

So a being that can see everything in its own future AND is able to make free and independent decisions, is an absurdity when expressed within the parameters of language, but nonetheless could make perfect sense, and perhaps even be experienced, in an area beyond that of logic and language based concepts.

Sinan said...

Hi everyone,
Here's my answer:

Filo Sofia, in my opinion there's no future or past for God. I know that the time is a relative concept which has created by our minds. I mean there's no time for God but an instant.

Sofia said...

To Sinan: Thanks for your comment :)