Ontological Argument

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The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God was first developed by St. Anslem of Canterbury in 1078 CE, based off of ideas seeded by Plato and St. Augustine of Hippo. There are several formulations of the Ontological Argument, which are based on the notion that God is the greatest thing imaginable, and therefore must exist, because existence is greater than non-existence.

This argument has been widely panned by critics -- and even by fellow clergymen in St. Anslem’s own time.[1] Despite its flaws, the Ontological Argument remains popular because it seems convincing; it takes some time to explain, and it can confuse those without the critical thinking or discrete math skills needed to dissect the argument. This effect is often compounded by using obfuscating language.

Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the abstract nature of being.[2] The classic Ontological Argument takes the form of a proof by contradiction:[1]

  1. Assume the idea of God, which is defined as a “maximally excellent being,” for which no greater being can be conceived, and who possesses every form of perfection (e.g., omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, and sovereignty).
  2. Assume the idea of such a being exists, and the possibility that such a being may or may not exist in reality.
  3. Assume that it is necessarily greater to exist in reality than it is to merely be an idea.
  4. If this greatest conceivable being were merely an idea, then it would be possible to think of even greater beings (i.e., one which also existed in reality). This is a contradiction, since a being greater than God cannot be imagined.
  5. Therefore, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality.
  6. God exists in the mind as an idea.
  7. Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality.

However, there are numerous flaws with this argument:

The Island Argument

The most popular and damning response to the Ontological Argument is the “Island Argument” proposed by St. Anselm's contemporary, Guanilo of Marmoutiers, in his book On Behalf of the Fool. (Let that sink in -- the Ontological Argument is so flawed that it could be openly mocked and derided during the height of the Middle Ages without the fear of heresy.) Guanilo argued the following:[1]

  1. Picture a tropical island, defined to be a “maximally excellent place,” which possesses every form of perfection (e.g., plentiful food and drink, sunshine, all your friends from school are there, innumerable disease-free sex partners to choose from, no travel costs, etc.) This is a place for which no greater place can be conceived.
  2. Assume the idea that such a place exists, and the possibility that such a place may or may not exist in reality.
  3. Assume that it is necessarily greater to exist in reality than it is to merely be an idea.
  4. If this greatest conceivable place were merely an idea, then it would be possible to think of even greater places (i.e., one which also existed in reality). This is a contradiction, since a place greater than this island cannot be imagined.
  5. Therefore, if this island exists in the mind as an idea, then this island necessarily exists in reality.
  6. This island exists in the mind as an idea.
  7. Therefore, this island necessarily exists in reality.

The Ontological Argument is a non-sequitur, which can be used to “prove” the existence of literally anything. As such, rather than attacking the argument itself, you should accept all Ontological Arguments at face value, and use their form and structure to “prove” all sorts of absurdities. This turnabout cannot be turned back around against you, because you aren’t using the argument to support any claims. By using their own argument in unintended ways, you can force the clergyman into arguing against themselves, eroding their credibility.[3] For example:

  1. Superman is the greatest of the heroes.
  2. A hero that exists is greater than one that does not.
  3. Therefore, Superman is real.

Similar arguments can be used to prove the existence of unicorns, faeries, etc. Ontological Arguments can “prove” the existence of every god, because there is nothing Christian-specific about the Ontological Argument. You could even assume the existence of a perfect void, and use the Ontological Argument to prove that nothing has ever existed at any time!

Problems Concerning the Greatness of Existence

The Ontological Argument invalid because relies on the use-mention error when the idea of God is equated with the greatest conceivable being. There are two independent ideas being discussed:

  1. The greatest possible thing is arbitrarily labeled "God".
  2. God is greater when compared to every other object.

The Ontological Argument is essentially a rhetorical shell game which masks the change from the first statement about God to the second.

Additionally, the Ontological Argument is invalid because it affirms the consequent by assuming that existence confers greatness, and concluding that greatness confirms existence. As a result, the conclusion is not guaranteed to be true, even if the premises were true. At best, the Ontological Argument only demonstrates that God exists while we are thinking about him; it does not prove that there is an independent being which actually matches this idea.

There is no justification as to why existence is considered to be “greater” than non-existence. Without such a justification, this assumption is an unsupported assertion. Furthermore, the term “greatness” is undefined. What constitutes “greatness”? Is a fat man greater than a skinny guy, or vice-versa? Does God have infinite mass? Because if not, larger, more massive gods could be imagined, and if God does have infinite mass, then his existence can be empirically disproven.[3]

These problems are what led Bertrand Russell to become a skeptic, and later argue that all Ontological Arguments are cases of bad grammar.[3]

Circular Reasoning / Begging the Question

Immanuel Kant pointed out that the Ontological Argument does not prove the existence of God; it merely proves that if any entity were God, then they would exist, and vice-versa. The Ontological Argument says nothing regarding if there are or are not any entities which actually match this definition; it can only prove the existence of what is known to exist. The Ontological Argument is invalid because it is a circular argument, which only proves its own assumptions.[3]

Inconceivability

The Ontological Argument assumes and requires mankind to be able to fully comprehend the infinite power and wisdom of God’s nature. This is beyond human capability, since that level of comprehension would require having a mind as complex as all-knowing God's.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 M. Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  2. J. A. Paulos, Irreligion (Hill and Wang, 2008).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 D. Barker, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist (Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1992).