The Ontological Argument

(Investigator 163, 2015 July)


Introduction

The Ontological Argument has been highly controversial ever since it was first conceived. Bertrand Russell was dismissive, but with some reservations. He stated,

It is much easier to be persuaded that ontological arguments are no good than it is to say exactly what is wrong with them.

The OA appears at first to be absurd, until you really start to think about it. Alvin Pantinga puts it this way,

Although the [ontological] argument certainly looks at first sight as if it ought to be unsound, it is profoundly difficult to say what, exactly, is wrong with it. Indeed, I do not believe that any philosopher has ever given a cogent and conclusive refutation of the ontological argument in its various forms.

Other common arguments for the existence of God are the Cosmological and Design Arguments. These rely on observations about the actual world. They both precede the OA by over a thousand years since they have their origins in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. However, the OA is radically different. It is an argument based upon what Immanuel Kant calls, "Pure Reason". It is a purely logical argument that has virtually no reference to the actual world.


Anselm of Canterbury

The OA was first conceived rather late in history by a Monk in the 11th Century. Saint Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033 – 1109) was a Benedictine monk, who held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. He has been a major influence in Western theology. Anselm sought to understand Christian doctrine through reason and develop intelligible truths interwoven with Christian belief. He believed that the necessary preliminary for this was possession of the Christian faith. He wrote, "Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

In his Proslogion (which means Discourse on the Existence of God), Anselm put forward a "proof" of the existence of God which was later called the "ontological argument". The term itself was first applied by Immanuel Kant to the arguments of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century rationalists (Descartes and Leibniz). Anselm defined his belief in the existence of God using the phrase "that than which nothing greater can be conceived".  

In the Psalms it says “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’”. Thus Anselm argues that even the fool has a concept of God. A critical passage from the Proslogion is as follows:

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. 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. Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

This passage is quite verbose, but we can simplify it. He reasoned that, if "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" existed only in the intellect, then it would not be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived", since it can be thought to exist in reality, which is greater. It follows, according to Anselm, that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" must exist in reality. Alvin Plantinga has provided a formalised rewording of Anselm’s Argument:

•    God is defined as the greatest conceivable being
•    To exist is greater than to not exist
•    If God does not exist then we can conceive of a greater being that does exist
•    Thus if God does not exist then he is not the greatest conceivable being
•    This leads to a contradiction
•    Therefore God must exist


Gaunilo

Anselm's ontological proof has been the subject of controversy since it was first published in the 1070s. It was opposed at the time by a fellow 11th century Benedictine monk called Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. He argued that humans cannot pass from intellect to reality. In Behalf of the Fool, Gaunilo refutes Anselm using a parody of Anselm’s argument:

1.    The Lost Island is that than which no greater can be conceived
2.    It is greater to exist in reality than merely as an idea
3.    If the Lost Island does not exist, one can conceive of an even greater island, i.e., one that does exist
4.    Therefore, the Lost Island exists in reality

Most attacks on the OA are based on parodies. If the same argument can be used to prove something absurd, then there must be something wrong with the original argument.

This process is valid. However, usually there is something wrong with the parody. In Gaunilo’s case there is No intrinsic maximum for the greatest conceivable island. How many palm trees and dancing girls constitute the greatest conceivable island? Thus "a greatest conceivable island" is not a coherent concept. Gaunilo's criticism is repeated by several later philosophers, among whom are Thomas Aquinas and Kant. In fact much of the criticism has come from people who already believed in God.


The Rationalists

Rene Descartes is an extremely important person in the development of Western Philosophy.

He is considered the father of modern philosophy and the father of rationalism as well as being a great mathematician. Rationalism was a movement that aimed to obtain certain knowledge by pure reason alone. Anyway he contributed to the development of the OA. He introduced the idea that existence is a perfection. He also introduced an intuitive argument for the existence of God. The more you ponder the nature of God, the more it becomes evident to the intuition that God must exist.


Descartes' argument can be summarised as follows:

•    God is a supremely perfect being, holding all perfections
•    Existence is a perfection
•    It would be more perfect to exist than not to exist
•    If the notion of God did not include existence, it would not be supremely perfect, as it would be lacking a perfection
•    Consequently, the notion of a supremely perfect God who does not exist is unintelligible
•    Therefore, according to his nature, God must exist

Leibniz was also a Rationalist. He extended Descartes' argument because he knew that Descartes' argument fails unless one can show:

•    That the idea of a supremely perfect being is coherent, or
•    That it is possible for there to be a supremely perfect being.

He claimed that it is impossible to demonstrate that perfections are incompatible and thus all perfections can co-exist together in a single entity. Since he considered logic associated with necessity and possibility was in fact a forerunner of modal logic and the Modal Ontological Argument.


Kant’s Critique

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an Enlightenment Philosopher. His greatest work was the Critique of Pure Reason in which he attempted to unite empiricism and rationalism (Pure Reason). Within the Critique of Pure Reason he launched critiques of the traditional arguments for existence of God, in particular

•    The Ontological argument,
•    The Cosmological argument, and
•    The Teleological (or Design) argument.

This doesn’t mean he was an atheist. In fact he believed in God, but this belief was based on the moral argument. Hence we can consider his arguments as friendly fire. Kant launched at least 3 criticisms of the OA.

They are:

1.    Existence is not a predicate
2.    How can a conceptual conundrum in the mind affect a being's objective existence?
3.    Negation does not entail a contradiction

We will look at each of these criticisms.


Existence is not a predicate

Kant is famous for his claim that existence is not a predicate. However, what is a predicate? The definition of the meaning of predicate is crucial to Kant's argument. One way of defining predicate is to say that all propositions consist of a subject and a predicate. For example, consider the statement, "A dog has 4 legs". "A dog" is the subject and "has 4 legs" is the predicate. That seems to make sense. However, consider the proposition "God exists". God is the subject and exists is the predicate. Thus existence is a predicate and so Kant must be wrong.

However, Kant is not that stupid. Predicate can be defined in other ways. The predicate contains the properties of the subject. Kant argued that existence is an instantiation of an object and thus existence is not a property, nor is it a perfection. Kant was not so much undermining Anselm's version of the OA. He was primarily aiming at Descartes' version of the argument as Descartes had claimed that existence is a perfection and thus it would be more perfect to exist than not to exist.


Conceptual Conundrum

Anselm argues from concepts in our minds to the objective existence of God. However, how can a conceptual conundrum in the mind affect a being's objective existence? I tend to agree.

Negation is not a Contradiction

Some statements are necessarily true, since their negation entails a contradiction. Examples of statements that are necessarily true are:

•    All bachelors are unmarried
•    All squares have 4 sides

However "God does not exist" is a coherent statement that does not entail a contradiction. Thus Kant argues that "God exists" is not a necessary truth. In this respect I think Kant is right. The statement "God exists" is not a necessary truth. However, I think Kant confuses "necessary truth" with "necessary being".

Thus Kant concludes that the Ontological Argument "neither satisfies the healthy common sense of humanity, nor sustains the scientific examination of the philosopher."

However, Kant's views are not universally accepted. We are going to look at Plantinga's Modal Ontological Argument but firstly we will look at what Plantinga has to say about Kant, in particular his predicate argument. Plantinga says:

Kant's point, then, is that one cannot define things into existence because existence is not a real property or predicate in the explained sense. If this is what he means, he's certainly right. But is it relevant to the ontological argument? Couldn't Anselm thank Kant for this interesting point and proceed merrily on his way? Where did he try to define God into being by adding existence to a list of properties that defined some concept?
If this were Anselm's procedure -- if he had simply added existence to a concept that has application contingently if at all -- then indeed his argument would be subject to the Kantian criticism. But he didn't, and it isn't. The usual criticisms of Anselm's argument, then, leave much to be desired.


The Modal Ontological Argument

Alvin Plantinga has produced a version of the Ontological Argument that is based on modal logic and is thus called the Modal Ontological Argument (MOA). Modal logic is an extension of philosophical logic to deal with possibility and necessity. God is defined as a Maximally Great Being (MGB) and one key property of God is that He exists necessarily. The argument does not rely on concepts in the mind and seems to avoid all of Kant's objections.

The MOA is as follows:

1.    Premise 1: It is possible that God exists.
2.    Premise 2: If it is possible that God exists, then God exists in some possible worlds.
3.    Premise 3: If God exists in some possible worlds, then God exists in all possible worlds.
4.    Premise 4: If God exists in all possible worlds, then God exists in the actual world.
5.    Premise 5: If God exists in the actual world, then God exists.

Most people are initially puzzled by premise 3. Why is this so? One property of an MGB is that an MGB is a necessary being. Therefore if a necessary being can exist in one possible world then he/she/it must exist in all possible worlds. The rest of the premises and the conclusion follow in a fairly natural way. Thus according to William Lane Craig only premise 1 is controversial.

However, what does "possible" mean? "Possible" means "metaphysically possible" rather than "epistemically possible". Metaphysically possible means "is it actually logically possible?" whereas epistemically possible relates to our knowledge. For example, if I say "Gee, I dunno, therefore I guess it's possible" that is not what the argument means by possible. Thus possibility is not an appeal to ignorance.

The argument is also not implying that existence is a property or predicate. Existence may not be a property but the type of existence is.

The type of existence may be

1.    Impossible (e.g. a square circle),
2.    Contingent (can exist in some possible worlds but not others, e.g. a unicorn), or
3.    Necessary (has to exist in all possible worlds, e.g. numbers, shape definitions or absolute truth)


Objections

Objections to the MOA usually come in 2 types. These are:

•    Parodies, or
•    Claims that a MGB is incoherent or impossible.

Parodies

Parodies are not really an argument. Parodies are attempts to use parallel arguments to prove the existence of things we don’t believe in and so demonstrate the absurdity of the original argument. If the parody is valid then we still have to find the flaw in the original argument. What we find with the MOA is that all of the parodies contain flaws. The MOA only works for an MGB. For example, someone has attempted to use the MOA to prove the existence of a Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn. The argument goes like this:

1.    It is possible that a Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn (NEPU) exists
2.    If it is possible that a NEPU exists, then a NEPU exists in some possible world
3.    If a NEPU exists in some possible world, then a NEPU exists in every possible world
4.    If a NEPU exists in every possible world then a NEPU exists in the actual world
5.    Therefore a NEPU exists

However there are problems with this parody. The counter argument is as follows:

1.    A pink unicorn is physical
2.    All physical objects/beings are contingent
3.    Therefore a pink unicorn cannot be a necessary being
4.    Therefore premise 1 is false

Incoherency

As well as using parodies other people claim that the idea of an MGB is incoherent. These are versions that claim that it is not possible that an MGB exists. An example is the Omnipotence Paradox. The omnipotence paradox is "Can God create a stone that is so heavy that he cannot lift it?" The idea is to show that one or more of God’s attributes are incoherent or self–contradictory. However, it is unreasonable to claim that God should be able to do the logically impossible, such as creating a square circle.


Essence of Argument

In conclusion, what is the essence of this argument? Is it just playing with words or does it have a core argument that is compelling. The core argument is that if it is possible that a Necessary Being (NB) exists then that NB must exist in all possible worlds. This makes sense and seems necessarily true. Thus the main issue at stake is whether a necessary being is possible.

Kevin Rogers
Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide


 



ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

Anonymous

(Investigator 164, 2015 September)


The argument

Saint Anselm (c.1033 – 1109), a Benedictine monk, and Archbishop of Canterbury, came up with what is called the "Ontological Argument" for God's existence.

Mr Rogers (Investigator 163) simplified Saint Anselm's argument to the following:

[Saint Anselm] reasoned that, if "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" existed only in the intellect, then it would not be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived", since it can be thought to exist in reality, which is greater. It follows, according to Anselm, that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" must exist in reality. Alvin Plantinga has provided a formalised rewording of Anselm’s Argument:

•    God is defined as the greatest conceivable being
•    To exist is greater than to not exist
•    If God does not exist then we can conceive of a greater being that does exist
•    Thus if God does not exist then he is not the greatest conceivable being
•    This leads to a contradiction
•    Therefore God must exist

This argument relies on a suppressed premise, plus a double meaning, plus the suppression of an obvious distinction or difference.


Suppressed Premise

The suppressed premise is "Everything that people can imagine in their minds also exists in reality i.e. in the world outside their minds."

This gives the syllogism:

1.    Everything that people can imagine also exists in reality.
2.    People can imagine God.
3.    Therefore God exists.

The conclusion follows logically from premises "1" and "2" but is false because premise "1", the suppressed premise, is false.


Double meaning

I've changed "conceive" to "imagine" because "conceive" is ambiguous since people can conceive of things imaginary or things not-imaginary (i.e. things that exist outside of their minds).

If we request someone, e.g. Kirk, to "conceive of an animal" he is entitled to ask, "Do you want me to conceive of an animal that's imaginary such as a unicorn, or one that exists in the real world?"

Kirk can ask the equivalent question if requested to conceive of "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". He would ask "Do you want me to conceive of something imaginary or something real."

If "imaginary" and Kirk conceives of God, then God is imaginary.

If "real" then Kirk cannot and will not conceive of God unless prior to "conceiving" he is given proof that God exists.



Suppressed distinction

The suppressed distinction is that people and objects can be "great" or so great that "no greater can be conceived" in a range of ways. Greatness can be by size, weight, monetary value, fame, accomplishments, prestige, complexity, and many more criteria.

So does the ontological argument request Kirk to conceive of the greatest possible Weight? Prestige? Value? Size? Fame?

If asked to conceive of the greatest "prestige" that he can conceive of in the real world, not just in his imagination, maybe Kirk will come up with Winston Churchill.

This makes Winston Churchill God; therefore God exists.

If asked to conceive of the greatest "size" perhaps Kirk will come up with the Multiverse, which makes the Multiverse God; therefore God exists.

Because of the range of ways of identifying "greatness" we can come up with many different gods — but not the God that people want to prove the existence of.


Conclusion

When we expose the premises and assumptions that the Ontological Argument suppresses then the Ontological Argument is itself exposed as verbal trickery.





 

The Ontological Argument

(Investigator 165, 2015 November)


I refer to the critique of the Ontological Argument (OA) by Anonymous in #164.

The OA is an argument for the existence of God based on pure reason rather than relying on any empirical evidence. It has been a source of fascination for philosophers ever since the time that Anselm first proposed it in his Proslogion in the 11th century. I provided a brief historical overview of the argument in #163 from Anselm through to modern versions by philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga.

Anonymous is a Christian and obviously believes in God apart from the OA. The fact that he is willing to critique an argument for the existence of God is perfectly healthy. Using a bad argument will only discredit the good ones. For example, Immanuel Kant provided critiques of the Ontological, Cosmological and Design arguments even though he believed in God. I don’t agree with his conclusions but it is certainly ok for him to analyse them critically.

Anonymous only critiqued Anselm’s version of the OA and concluded that it was easily shown that it was invalid. Personally, I do not find Anselm’s version absolutely compelling. Kant commented something like, "How can a conundrum in the mind result in the existence of God?" I am partly sympathetic with that view.

However, even Anselm's version of the argument has been remarkably resilient to criticisms even to the current day and I believe Anonymous' dismissal is quite premature.

To be fair to Anselm, the reader ought to read Anselm’s full argument in the Proslogion. However, it can be summarised briefly as follows:

•    God is defined as the greatest conceivable being.
•    Suppose that God only exists in the imagination and not in reality.
•    To exist in reality is greater than to exist only in the imagination.
•    Therefore a God who only exists in the mind cannot be the greatest conceivable being.
•    This leads to a contradiction.
•    Therefore the greatest conceivable being cannot just exist in the mind but must also exist in reality.

Anonymous claims that the word "conceive" is ambiguous. It certainly is. It can also mean to become pregnant, but that is not what Anselm meant. Anonymous claims that "conceive" also means "imagine" and further claims that Anselm is implicitly claiming that whatever is imagined must also exist in reality. Now this is certainly not true and there is no way that philosophers would take this argument seriously if Anonymous' claim were true. Anselm uses the word "conceive" in the sense of "to apprehend mentally" or "to understand". It is like performing a thought experiment, which is a perfectly legitimate activity.

Anonymous uses the example of a unicorn. We can imagine a unicorn. Does that mean that a unicorn must exist in reality? If a unicorn does not exist in reality then this does not lead to a contradiction, whereas the non-existence of the greatest conceivable being does. There is a distinct difference and Anonymous' analogy fails.

Anonymous then discusses what "greatest" actually means. Now this is a topic that is seriously discussed under the topic of "great making properties". Typical properties are omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection and necessary existence. Anonymous suggests "prestige" as a great making property. This does not seem self-evident but let’s run with it.  Anonymous suggests that Kirk will propose Winston Churchill as the man with the greatest prestige and therefore Winston Churchill must be God. There are a couple of things wrong with this parody. Firstly, just because someone makes a proposal does not mean that the proposal is the greatest conceivable. The "greatest conceivable" is an ontological category and is not just the subjective opinion of an individual. Secondly, does Winston Churchill have the greatest conceivable prestige? Certainly not. Consider another individual with whom Anonymous must surely have sympathy:

"God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father". (Philippians 2:9-11)

That is more like the greatest conceivable prestige and certainly surpasses Winston Churchill. It also befits the God that Anselm would "want to prove the existence of".

Now I initially said that I did not find Anselm’s version particularly compelling, but having written the above, my sympathies are moving. It is not just a matter of a thinking problem, it is also a matter of pure logic. Great minds like Descartes and Leibniz found this argument particularly intriguing and I am beginning to understand why.

Leibniz observed that "if it is possible that a necessary being exists, then a necessary being must exist." This is obviously true but does not finally answer the following issues:

•    Is it actually and ontologically possible that a necessary being exists?
•    What is this necessary being like?

Kant claimed that the Cosmological Argument (CA) is dependent on the OA. However, historically this cannot be the case, as the CA preceded the OA by at least 1500 years. The CA requires the existence of a necessary being to explain why the universe exists and the OA explains why a necessary being must exist. They are not dependent on each other. They complement each other.

A necessary being does not have to be the Christian God, but the Christian God may well be the exemplification of that greatest conceivable being.

The OA is interesting, even though it may not be final. I suggest that readers study it in order to appreciate its fascination even if it does not result in a final conviction.

Kevin Rogers
Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide


 



THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

Anonymous

(Investigator 167, 2016 January)


Mr Rogers (#165; #163) summarised Anselm's argument as follows:

•    God is defined as the greatest conceivable being.
•    Suppose that God only exists in the imagination and not in reality.
•    To exist in reality is greater than to exist only in the imagination.
•    Therefore a God who only exists in the mind cannot be the greatest conceivable being.
•    This leads to a contradiction.
•    Therefore the greatest conceivable being cannot just exist in the mind but must also exist in reality.

I objected that people can "conceive" in their minds either imaginary things or things known in the empirical world. Synonyms of "conceive" would be "bring to mind", "think of" or "consider". And again we can "bring to mind", "think of" or "consider" imaginary things or real things.

To pre-empt the "Ontological argument" we simply insist on being told which of these two areas — the imagination or the real world — is supposed to contain "the greatest conceivable being".

If the imagination is where God is then God is imaginary. To then argue "To exist in reality is greater than to exist in the imagination" gets Anselm nowhere if God is already conceded to be imaginary.


Alternatively if Anselm or whoever argues likewise, defines God as existing in the real world then he should point God out. And if God can be pointed out then the rest of the Ontological argument is redundant because we could confirm God by focusing our eyes on Him or with some other empirical test.

Rogers rejects my example of prestige as a "great making property" and suggests omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection as more typical.

The existence of people and perhaps other creatures possessing prestige we can confirm by looking, but that anyone or anything has omnipotence or omniscience we cannot. The Ontological argument seems to require us to accept the existence of the preceding "great making properties" prior to proving there is a God who has them. Properties do not exist independently of an object or entity except in the imagination or as a hypothesis. I might hypothesize that there exists in England someone with the property of being a prince but the prince-hood property can only be considered real after we identify a person who has it.

 
Rogers says that the "greatest conceivable" is an ontological category and is not just the subjective opinion of an individual. He argues that anyone who believes Winston Churchill has the greatest conceivable prestige is trumped by Philippians 2:9-11 which says "God exalted him [Christ] to the highest place…"

My Churchill example illustrated prestige "in the real world, not just in the imagination". This gets us back to the imaginary versus real distinction. People who don't accept the Bible reject Philippians 2:9-11 just as people who reject Islam also reject belief in Muhammad's overnight flight to Jerusalem.  

Mr Rogers presented a reasonable case for the existence of a Creator and satisfactorily answered objections in Investigator #127; 130; 132. If Rogers adds to this a second argument, one based on verbal trickery, one which makes the fallacy of assuming within its premises what it is  trying to prove and relies on the ambiguity of the word "conceive", he calls into question what he has already achieved.


 



The Ontological Argument

(Investigator 168, 2016 May)


I refer to the critiques of the Ontological Argument (OA) by Anonymous in #164 & #166.

In my original article I described the historical development of the Ontological Argument from Anselm onwards. Anselm spoke about conceptions in the mind and this has been the main target of Anonymous’ criticisms. But let us move on from Anselm.

As far as I can recall, Anonymous has not addressed the essence of the OA. In both of my articles I have stated that the essence of the OA is:

"If it is possible that a necessary being exists, then a necessary being must exist."

A necessary being is one that necessarily must exist in all possible worlds. If it is ontologically possible that a necessary being exists then it logically follows that a necessary being must exist. This was Leibniz’s observation. The only way out of this is to deny that it is possible that a necessary being can exist (and that is exactly what people try). As soon as you admit that it is possible, then you are gone for all money; the argument is over. As far as I know, no one has come up with a good argument for why it is impossible that a necessary being can exist.

Now the OA is limited. It does not identify the necessary being. However, the OA is supported by philosophers at the highest level. According to Alvin Plantinga, the OA is not a proof, but it does mean that it is rational to be a theist. It does not seem that it can be dismissed lightly.

I have been involved in a couple of debates on the existence of God but I have never used the OA on those occasions. However, I find the argument interesting and I have taught it. Thank you for your kind remarks about my attempts on other arguments. Hopefully I am not undermining what I have done before.

For interest, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/struggling-with-the-ontological-argument. William Lane Craig used to think that the OA was fallacious but has now changed his mind.

Kevin Rogers
Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide


http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

http://ed5015.tripod.com/