The Ontological Argument
June 13, 2013
The Ontological Argument
On Thursday the 6th of June we discussed the Ontological argument. The Ontological Argument (OA) is an argument for the existence of God based on reason alone without virtually any reference to scientific or historical evidence. The purpose of our discussion was to familiarise ourselves with the argument and the issues that surround it rather than to argue vehemently for its truth. The meeting was recorded via the Video Recording and the Power Point Slides.
The content of the presentation is also summarised as follows:
The Ontological Argument has been highly controversial and maligned ever since it was first conceived. For instance, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the OA as a “sleight of hand trick” or “a charming joke”. Bertrand Russell was also 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. One can even find justification for these arguments in the writings of the apostle Paul in Romans 1. 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.
2 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 – 21 April 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 the 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 a bit. 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. The bulk of the Proslogion is taken up with Anselm’s attempt to establish the identity of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” as God, and thus to establish that God exists in reality. Anselm wrote in an informal style before the days of philosophical precision. However, 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
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
- The Lost Island is that than which no greater can be conceived
- It is greater to exist in reality than merely as an idea
- If the Lost Island does not exist, one can conceive of an even greater island, i.e., one that does exist
- 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.
4 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.
5 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 what many consider a devastating critique 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:
- Existence is not a predicate
- How can a conceptual conundrum in the mind affect a being’s objective existence?
- Negation does not entail a contradiction
We will look at each of these criticisms.
5.1 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.
5.2 Conceptual Conundrum
Anselm argues for 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? It makes me wonder.
5.3 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.
Plantinga may or may not be right. The point is that Kant’s views are not universally accepted.
6 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:
- Premise 1: It is possible that God exists.
- Premise 2: If it is possible that God exists, then God exists in some possible worlds.
- Premise 3: If God exists in some possible worlds, then God exists in all possible worlds.
- Premise 4: If God exists in all possible worlds, then God exists in the actual world.
- Premise 5: If God exists in the actual world, then God exists.
The MOA refers to possible worlds and the concept of possible worlds is a big part of modal logic. A possible world is any possible combination of state of affairs.
Most people are initially puzzled by premise 3 which states that “If an MGB exists in some possible world, then an MGB exists in every possible world”. Why is this so? One property of an MGB is that an MGB is a necessary being. Therefore 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 (It is possible that an MGB exists).
However, what does “possible” mean? “Possible” means “metaphysically possible” rather than “epistemically possible” Does this sound confusing? 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 type of existence is. The type of existence may be
- Impossible (e.g. a square circle),
- Contingent (can exist in some possible worlds but not others, e.g. a unicorn), or
- Necessary (has to exist in all possible worlds, e.g. numbers, shape definitions or absolute truth)
Objections to the MOA usually come in 2 types. These are:
- Parodies, or
- Claims that a MGB is incoherent or impossible.
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 there is further work to do. We still have to find the flaw in the original argument. What we think we find with the MOA is that all of the parodies contain flaws. The MOA only works for an MGB. We will look at some examples of parodies.
7.1.1 Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn
Someone has attempted to use the MOA to prove the existence of a Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn. The argument goes like this:
- It is possible that a Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn (NEPU) exists
- If it is possible that a NEPU exists, then a NEPU exists in some possible world
- If a NEPU exists in some possible world, then a NEPU exists in every possible world
- If a NEPU exists in every possible world then a NEPU exists in the actual world
- Therefore a NEPU exists
However there are problems with this parody. The counter argument is as follows:
- A pink unicorn is physical
- All physical objects/beings are contingent
- Therefore a pink unicorn cannot be a necessary being
- Therefore premise 1 fails
7.1.2 Reverse OA
The reverse MOA is an attempt to use the same argument structure to prove that an MOA does not exist.
- It is possible that an MGB does not exist
- If it is possible that an MGB does not exist, then an MGB does not exist in some possible world
- If an MGB does not exist in some possible world, then an MGB does not exist in every possible world
- If an MGB does not exist in every possible world then an MGB does not exist in the actual world
- Therefore Maximal Greatness is impossible
However, Premise 1 is tantamount to saying that it is not possible that an MGB exists. Thus it assumes its conclusion and is begging the question. Likewise premise 2 is question begging.
7.1.3 Dawkins’ Ontological Argument
Richard Dawkins has proposed an OA to prove that God does not exist. The Argument is as follows:
- The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.
- The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.
- The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.
- The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.
- Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being namely, one who created everything while not existing.
- An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
However, it is incoherent and impossible to propose creation by a God who does not exist.
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. These are typified by:
- The Omnipotence Paradox, and
- The Problem of Evil
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, No-one claims that God can do the logically impossible, such as creating a square circle.
The other objection is that the presence of evil means it is impossible that an MGB exists. However, we deal with this issue in other sessions.
8 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 that really makes sense to me 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.
Some have claimed that it is a good argument but it still does not convince people. However, William Lane Craig believes in the argument and has started using it in debates. Craig used the MOA in a debate with Victor Stenger. Stenger attempted to use a parody, which was a maximally great pizza. However, Craig easily demonstrated that a maximally great pizza is incoherent, since a really great pizza is meant to be eaten.
However, is the OA helpful in other ways? I believe it is. I have heard it claimed that it never convinces anyone. However, this is not always true. A student did his PhD on the MOA and eventually convinced his supervisor. The MOA also asserts that God is maximally great in every possible way. This may feed into the Moral Argument and be one solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.