The Ontological Argument
Due to its philosophical nature, the ontological argument may be considered by many to be the weakest argument for the existence of God. However, it nonetheless presents many intriguing facets to the debate. Put simply, the argument suggests that the existence of the very concept of God implies that God exists in reality. The key element of the argument is in how the concept of God is defined.The ontological argument was first proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century monk, in his book, The Proslogion. In his argument, Anselm proposed that once a clear understanding of the concept of God is obtained, the necessary existence of God will follow. His definition for God took shape as ‘God is an entity which none greater can be conceived.’
An atheist, then, would have to counter-argue that the idea of a being of which none greater can be conceived exists only in the mind but not reality. It is here where Anselm considered the counter-argument to be compromised. If the atheist asserts that a being which none greater can be conceived exists only in their mind, then the nature of that being is limited to what the mortal mind can create, and thus is not the greatest conceivable entity, even in conceptual form. Furthermore, if the atheist asserts that a being which none greater can be conceived exists only in his mind, a greater being can be conceived as a being which none greater can be conceived in the mind and reality. Anselm’s argument can be communicated in an outline form:
- God is an entity which none greater can be conceived.
- It is possible for God to exist as an idea in the mind.
- If premise 1 is true, then the existence of God cannot be limited to an idea in the mind.
- God must exist in reality.
One of the initial objections to this proof came from the monk Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm. His objection was based in a theological concern that Anselm was defining God in order to prove his existence. He introduced a simple analogy to prove the point: If one defined a perfect island as one which none greater could be conceived, then by Anselm’s proof it too would exist. According to Gaunilo, proving the existence of an island in this manner is absurd, as would be proving the existence of God in the same manner.
Anselm’s response to the objection required a minor clarification of premise ‘1.’ He suggested that only a necessary or non-contingent being could be defined as that ‘which none greater can be conceived.’ For any given finite entity, there could be any number of conceivable greater versions. One would only have to observe the limits of the attributes of that entity in order to conceive of an expansion or improvement. In other words, an island could conceivably have more coastline, one more coconut tree, finer sand, etc. Anselm reminded Gaunilo that God is necessarily non-contingent, and thus the argument sustains.
Later in history, however, 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced another objection to the ontological argument. Kant argued that Anselm’s proof was ultimately tautological as it appealed to the necessity of the existence of God in order to prove the existence of God. In other words, Kant suggested that existence was not an attributable property of something as are the properties of size, weight, shape or color. Thus conceiving of something which has any sort of properties does not make it so, simply on the basis of possibility. It must be empirically verifiable. However, neither the positive or negative side of the argument can satisfy such a requirement, as it is not discussing finite entities that can be examined. Nevertheless, after Kant’s criticism, the ontological argument was rarely invoked.
One flaw to Kant’s objection lay in his requirement of the proposition’s existence to be verifiable outside of the argument itself. There would be no purpose to even conceiving of such an argument were it not dealing with an entity that would exist! In other words, if an entity which none greater could be conceived would not implicity exist, then an argument seeking to prove the existence of that entity should neither exist. Contemporary philosopher Norman Malcom suggested the following adaptation to Anselm’s proof:
- God is an entity which none greater can exist.
- If the existence of God is possible, then God must exist.
- If the existence of God is impossible, then God must not exist.
- The existence of God is possible.
- God must exist.
This argument resolves the other issues and cannot be refuted without disputing the truth of premise ‘4.’ For anyone to reject the possibility of the existence of God, complete and objective knowledge of everything would be required.
Another form of the argument can be found in the work of philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga’s argument propels the challenge into the realm of possible worlds. He suggests that if the existence of an entity of which none greater can be conceived is possible in any world, then its existence would be necessarily possible in any possible world. If this is so, then it would be impossible for an entity of which none greater can exist to not exist! A proof of Plantinga’s argument can be outlined in the following way:
- A possible world in which exists an entity which none greater can be conceived exists.
- An entity which none greater can exist is so only if it exists in all possible worlds.
- An entity which none greater can exist is so only if it is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect.
- It is impossible for an entity which none greater can exist to not exist in any possible world.
- An entity which none greater can exist exists in all possible worlds.
This argument rests on the acceptability of the first premise, which is not obligatory for the atheist to accept. Though the argument itself is internally consistent and rational, its tenuous nature may not make it an effectively persuasive one. Bearing this in mind, Malcolm’s argument is more effective as it places the burden of proof upon one who would deny its fourth premise, ‘The existence of God is possible.’ The impossibility of affirming the opposite of this premise requires knowledge unavailable to any man.
From a philosophical perspective, the ontological argument can be seen as somewhat ‘in-house’ in nature, as it remains purely philosophical and cannot be empirically tested. However, it deals with the essential question of how God is defined, as well as the rational possibility of the existence of God.