Wednesday 22 August 2018

Ontological Argument

There have been a number of arguments put forth purportedly proving the existence of God. The avowed aim is to demonstrate that a belief in God is a rational belief and thus prove the existence of a supernatural deity. Many of these arguments have an ancient pedigree. They coalesced in the mind of the 13th century Christian apologetic, Thomas Aquinas. For it is he who set about presenting the various arguments in a systematic way in his book, “Summa Theologiae”. It is interesting to note that the whole edifice of the Catholic church is bound together by Thomistic philosophy. It has a lot to say about Catholicism that its philosophic base is founded upon a discredited Medieval philosophical system. The innate conservatism of the Catholic church is typified by its insistence upon notions which are antique and non-scientific. Nonetheless, even if these arguments were successful, which they are not, it would only ‘prove’ the existence of a supernatural entity. In no way would it demonstrate the Christian God with all of its associated superlative characteristics. Indeed, if the thesis could be shown to be true it would be totally consistent with a plurality of gods and therefore would not necessarily support the concept of the monotheistic God espoused in the Bible.  
The argument I would like to present is called the ‘Ontological Argument’. This was not a thesis which found favour with Aquinas. Of all the arguments put forward in support of God(s), the ontological argument is the only one which has a supposed appeal to pure reason and logic. It should be noted that if all the premises of the argument could be shown to be logically sound then the conclusion must be true. That said, let us examine the posited proof as originally proposed by the 11th-century Italian cleric, Anselm:
1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality, is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.).
6. Therefore, God exists.
Please note: Anselm’s argument has been reworked and repackaged in modern times, but the basic tenets of Anselm’s refrain remain, unsullied. Therefore, for simplicity sake, I have stuck with the original and simplistic formulation. 
There is much to understand here and it is worth reading the proposition several times to baste in its nuances and full implications. As for the rebuttal, I’ll try to keep any counter-arguments relatively simple and avoid the more technically complex refutations (Immanuel Kant was a real pissant and very rarely stable). The ontological argument received adverse criticism in its own time. Gaunilo, a contemporary monk of Anselm, argued that this form of reasoning could be used to conjure into existence all manner of none existent things. Instead of God Gaunilo substituted the concept of the greatest possible island. His implication is that Anselm’s argument could be utilised to prove the existence of anything, even green Pixies with the surname, Mugumbo. 
You may think Gaunilo’s counter rather trivial and obvious, but there are other serious philosophical objections based on fallacy and reason, as mentioned below.
The argument raises the problem of the ‘equivocation fallacy’. It can be admitted that a word may have several meanings. Thus, in Anselm’s first premise we have a conceptual god who exists only in the mind. However, in a later premise, Anselm states that God exists in reality. Surely the concept of God in the mind and the real existence of God are not the same thing. The second fallacy committed is termed, ‘begging the question’. Begging the question refers to a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion. Following on from this argument, and approaching from a different tack, consider this: the ontological argument is based upon the assertion that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence. To explain: contingent existence is something which can be imagined in the mind but does not exist in reality, a unicorn would be an example, while necessary existence is something which can be held in the mind but also exists in reality. A horse in this context would be a good example. The proposal that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence is taken as given by proponents of the ontological argument. Why this is the case is rarely explained. On what basis is ‘necessary’ greater than ‘contingency’? There does not appear to be an objective definition of ‘greatness’ and therefore subjectivity rules. Why is existence a great making property? A formal definition is required- but is it possible to objectively define 'greatness'.
Immanuel Kant, the 19th-century German philosopher criticised the argument on the basis of ‘existence is not a predicate’. Er, yes. Kant’s refutation is highly technical and will not be dissected further. That said, many philosophers consider Kant’s counter-argument the most effective.
So, there you have it. Are you convinced that the ontological argument is a pile of wombat dung or is it a valid proposal for the existence of supernatural deities?  Discuss.
Gentle reader, I’m sure it has not gone unnoticed that my posts of late have been very sensible. I blame my new medication which is playing havoc with my creative flow. After much deliberation with my psychiatrist, Prof Mugumbo and several voices in my head, it has been deemed necessary, nay imperative, that I should revert to my previous medication- you have been warned.    


  1. Leibniz: "Why is there something, rather than nothing?" Any physical account of the origin of the universe - or even multiverse, for those who believe in that explanation - can't work, since space, time, matter and energy are all integral features of the thing being explained. Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent, as Wittgenstein said.

    1. A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.”
      ― Ludwig Wittgenstein

    2. Surely, Mr Adams did a whole lot more...

  2. Perhaps we're all just dreamed into existence: