The ontological argument for the existence of God

The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God The ontological argument is an a priori argument. The arguments attempt to prove God’s existence from the meaning of the word God. The ontological argument was introduced by Anselm of Canterbury in his book Proslogion. Anselm’s classical argument was based on two principals and the two most involved in this is St Anselm of Canterbury as previously mentioned and Rene Descartes. The ontological argument argues that if you understand what it means to talk about God, you will see His existence is necessarily true. Anselm defined God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’, hence God must exist. Anselm also believed that evenIf He did not exist, then you could still think of an even greater being (one just like God that you said did not exist, except this one would exist). Existence must be one of God’s attributes because to remove it, you would still be able to fathom a greater God (one which does exist). The problem most have with this argument is that it seems to simply list existence among God’s attributes, rather than show it. The argument appears to say whatever you can imagine should be true in reality. Descartes claimed “God exists” is true, if we know what it means to talk of God.

Similarly, he maintained that once we know what a triangle is we know that it must have three sides. Like a triangle inherently must have three sides, so God inherently must exist. Objections to the ontological argument were first brought up by a monk who was a contemporary of Anselm named Gaunilo. He said that according to Anselm’s line of reasoning, if he envisioned an island that is beautiful and sparkling and completely perfect, then it must exist. For an island that does exist would be more perfect than one that does not exist. Gaunilo said that we cannot simply define things into existence. We cannot show an island or God exists simply by analyzing that idea. The Ontological Argument, the Greek word ontology’ relating to being, for the existence of God uses A Priori logic and reason, based on premises that are not drawn from or dependent upon experience, to state that God must exist because he is the greatest possible being we can conceive. The Ontological Argument is also deductive and analytic as the premises of a deductive argument contain the conclusion that it reaches and is structured so that its conclusion is the only possible one that could be deduced from its premises. As it is analytic it is true by definition alone and therefore this argument reaches conclusions about the existence of God based on the definitions of God used in its previous premises.

The basis of the ontological argument was first proposed by Anselm and later interpreted by many other philosophers such as René Descartes and Norman Malcolm; however each argument only differed because each started with a different concept of God. The Ontological Argument has faced many critics that challenge the argument for not proving the existence of God and each critic highlights the flaws within this argument explaining that these flaws lead to impossible conclusions. Anselm, an Archbishop, was the first to propose the Ontological argument which was included in the second and third chapters of his book proslogion’, a book written as a prayer and/or meditation to reflect on the attributes of God and not originally to prove the existence of a God. Anselm has 2 main arguments, his first defining god as that than which no greater can be conceive. By this Anselm suggests that the greatest possible being must have an existence in reality as a being that exists in reality is greater than a being that exists in the mind, ‘and surely that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone.

For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater”. If a being only exists in our mind then a greater being that exists in both our mind and reality can be conceived, therefore the being that than which no greater can be conceived must exist and Anselm concludes that this being is God. Anselm’s second argument claims that God is eternal, unlimited, by or in time and therefore has necessary existence and is a necessary being. Anselm argues that it is better to be a necessary being than a contingent being, a being that depends on other things for its existence i.e. having a cause/end because this would ultimately limit your power. He explains that God must be a necessary being because if God exists as a contingent being we could imagine greater, therefore God would not be that than which no greater can be conceived. A being which cannot be conceived not to exist must be greater than one that can be conceived not to exist. Anselm then explains it would be a self contradiction to claim God does not exist because he is that than which no greater can be conceived and therefore there must be a being that so truly exists it cannot even be conceived not to exist, this form or argument being called reductio ad absurdum’.

Reductio ad absurdum is a method of reasoning used by Anselm in the Proslogion which aims to demonstrate the truth of something by reducing to absurdity the opposite of what is being proved, Anselm uses this method to reduce to absurdity the opposite of his conclusion, this being that God does not exist. He aims to show this is absurd by means of an argument which shows that the existence of God is logically necessary, and he cannot not exist. René Descartes composed many different Ontological arguments developing them from Anselm’s original argument. Descartes puts forward the first premise that God is a supremely perfect being and has all perfections, his second premise is then existence is perfection and finally he concludes that God is a supremely perfect being and therefore must exist. This means that Descartes believes God to be a supremely perfect being holding all the perfections and explains if the notion of God did not include existence it would not be supremely perfect as it would be lacking a perfection and therefore he argues that this would be unintelligible and according to his nature God must exist. Descartes argues that Gods existence can be deduced from his nature, as can geometric ideas can be deduced from shapes and he uses the example of a triangle to support this. The example of the triangle is to show that Descartes believes you cannot deny the existence of God any more than you can the angles of a triangle equalling two right angles as it is an analytic statement.

A statement is analytically true if the clauses or predicates within the statement say something necessarily true of all instances of the subject and Descartes maintained existence belonged analytically to God as three angles were analytically predicated of a triangle. The Ontological argument also faces many criticisms by different philosophers for not proving the existence of God. Gaunilo was one of the first philosophers to criticize Anselm’s theory using his island’ theory. Gaunilo asked people to conceive an island ‘more excellent than any other island” and he suggest that this island according to Anselm’s proof must necessarily exist because an island which exists in reality would be much greater than one purely in our minds. Although Gaunilo’s argument does not directly highlight a flaw it does however show the same logic of Anselm’s argument can be applied to other non-accepted arguments. Anselm responded to this by explaining that only arguments of necessary existence can be applied to the ‘that than which no greater can be conceived theory and the island theory is a contingent object and therefore can always be improved therefore never reaching a state of perfection. Anselm then dismissed any criticisms that did not relate to a necessary existence. Gaunilo went on to further criticize Anselms argument by putting forward the concept that the notion of God cannot be conceived, he goes onto explain that atheists would not accept that God can be fully understood or grasped and therefore humans cannot fully conceive God.

Thomas Aquinas also had this criticism suggesting that people do not know the nature of God and therefore cannot conceive, Aquinas adds the ontological argument would only be useful to someone who understands the essence of God and he does not believe any human is capable of such great understanding. Kant’s main criticism against the Ontological argument is that he, unlike Anselm and Descartes, does not see existence as a real predicate, ‘ Being is obviously not a real predicate”. He explains that existing is no perfection, like Descartes has previously stated, because it cannot be listed in a description of anything and explains it cannot be a real predicate because existence does not add to the essence of a being. Kant questions the concept of a necessary being, he considers the example given by Descartes using the necessary proposition of ‘a triangle having 3 angles” and rejects the transfer of this logic used on the existence of God, He argues that such necessary propositions are only true if such being exists. Kant also proposes that the statement ‘God exists” must either be an analytic or synthetic statement explaining the predicate must either be inside or outside the statement.

He argues that for the statement to be analytical like the argument takes it to be it can only be true because of the meaning given to the words, however if the statement is synthetic the argument would not work because the existence of God is not contained in the definition of God. David Hume also went on to criticize Anselm’s argument by arguing the argument was a failure because it made false assumptions about existence by saying existence was a logical concept. Hume argued existence could only ever be contingent and all statements about existence could be denied easily without contradiction. He also criticized the argument stating that humans have no clear experience of Gods existence and therefore cannot conclude Gods existence through conceiving. In my own opinion I don’t believe the Ontological argument proves the existence of God. Atheists looking at this argument would struggle to understand how this proves Gods existence because a lot of Anselm and Descartes argument relies on the assumption that God exists, and an atheist would not have this believe. The ontological argument is also an A priori argument using no evidence for concrete support and therefore relying on logic alone, this contributes to the difficulty of atheists understand how it could be true because they do not have the assumption about a God.

The argument proposes the existence is entailed in the concept of God but many people argue that conceiving God is not possible and therefore his existence to cannot be possible. God exists is argued to be an analytical statement because its predicate is contained within the subject, however critics argue that being and existence is not a real predicate and therefore this statement could be a synthetic statement relying on empirical evidence for Gods existence, this relies on there being empirical evidence for the existence of God which many people including me believe that there isn’t. I do not believe the Ontological argument provides the information for an atheist to understand or believe that God exists. Overall the Ontological Argument for the existence of God is both supported and criticised by many philosophers. ‘That than which no greater can be conceived is a statement that is interpreted different by many different philosophers and many different people. Many people believe this shows that God is a supremely perfect being and must exist whilst others will fail to understand how God can be conceived by humans because they cannot comprehend a being like God and how this would evidently lead to his existence. I believe that it isn’t possible to prove the existence of God from the concept of God alone because I fail to see how something so advanced can be conceived by humans without any experience of God.

The ontological argument provides different theories for the existence of God each with their strengths and weaknesses however to conclude I do not believe that the Ontological argument would convince an Atheist to believe in the existence of God because ‘that than which no greater can be conceived” may be true for some believes it is not necessarily true for others. Only if true premises lead to valid conclusions can a ‘deductive” argument be said to have fully succeeded, this cannot be said of the Ontological argument as it has flaws and many argue its premises do not lead to its conclusions. For example Anselm’s second predicate fails to meet the conclusion that God exists.I therefore believe that the criticisms overpower the arguments explained in the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

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