[Home]TheOntologicalArgument

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And so without further ado, letís turn to the ontological argument. By the time we finish talking about it, I think youíll be able to see why itís called "the ontological argument." Obviously, the argument has something to do with ontology, with the study of existence. Anyway, the following version of the argument is due to the Medieval philosopher, St. Anselm. Here goes:

There are various kinds of so-called perfections. Size, intelligence, beauty, power, benevolence, and so forth -- all these qualities we naturally regard as perfections. And we all understand that there are various degrees of these perfections. What is more intelligent is more perfect as regards intelligence; what is more beautiful is more perfect as regards beauty; and so forth. Now, we have a concept of God, as that which has all perfections to the greatest degree conceivable. Indeed, our notion of God is of something than which nothing greater, nothing more perfect, can be conceived. If we ever conceive of some greater degree of perfection, than we previously conceived of, then we must regard God as having that greater degree. So when we conceive of God, we conceive of something which is the greatest conceivable being.

But now just for the sake of argument, I want you to suppose two things. Pay attention and keep these in mind. The first supposition: we have a concept of the greatest conceivable being, God. The second supposition: this concept of God exists only in our minds. St. Anselm says that these two suppositions contradict each other. How does he show that? As follows. Our supposition is that we have a notion of the greatest conceivable being, and that this most perfect conceivable being does not, in fact, exist in the world. But in that case our concept of God is a concept of a being that is only imaginary; so it is not a concept of the greatest conceivable being -- why? Because a being that actually exists is a greater being, more perfect, than a being that merely exists in our minds, of course. Existence is a perfection, just like power, beauty, and so forth. So if we conceive of the greatest conceivable being, we must conceive of a being that exists. A being that didnít exist wouldnít be the greatest conceivable being. So the second supposition, that the concept of God exists only in our minds, contradicts the first supposition, that we have a concept of God. Hence, if we have a concept of God, then God necessarily exists. And we do have a concept of God. Therefore, God necessarily exists.

Now, there are a lot of things that we could be, and have been, said about this argument. Iím just going to focus in on a few. The basic trouble seems to be that we have, it appears, simply conceived God into existence. Surely itís very strange to think that all we have to do is to conceive of God as existing, and it follows from that alone that we have good reason to believe that God exists. But letís not jump the gun here; Iím going to present three traditional objections and then present another one of my own.

One traditional criticism of the argument is that existence is not a perfection, because existence is not a property. If existence were a property of items, including God, then it might be a perfection. But since itís not a property, it cannot be a perfection; only properties of things can be perfections of things. Now, we have previously encountered this notion, that existence is not a property, in our discussion of metaphysics. I rather doubt that this view is correct. There are better objections to be made, then, that do not depend on dubious presuppositions like this.

So a second traditional criticism is to say that, even if existence is a property, it is nonetheless still not a perfection. Either something exists or it doesnít; there arenít any degrees of existence. Something canít be more or less existent. So thatís a reason to think that existence isnít a perfection. But to this St. Anselm might reply that, even granted that there arenít degrees of existence, surely existence is more perfect than nonexistence; and in any case, something that exists is greater than something that doesnít. That is certainly plausible. So let us look for more objections.

So hereís a third, famous objection to the ontological argument, raised by Anselmís contemporary, Gaunilo. Gaunilo invited us to think of the greatest, or most perfect, conceivable island; I donít know what would make the island perfect, but say itís sunny, green, great beaches, skiing in the hills, who knows. No such island exists, right? But in that case we arenít thinking of the greatest conceivable island, because the greatest conceivable island would exist, as well as having all those other desirable properties. Since we can conceive of this greatest or most perfect conceivable island, then it must exist.

Of course, this is a silly argument. But, Gaunilo says, this argument no worse than Anselmís. In the same way, you could, if you wanted to, "prove" the existence of the most perfect hamburger, the most perfect dumpster, or the most perfect toilet. Thatís absurd! But Anselmís argument isnít any worse than these. So Anselmís argument isnít any good either.

Iím going to offer a fourth objection, an objection of my own. For the sake of simplicity, Iím going to restate the argument. It would take me too long, and it would be too hard to follow, for me to explain why I think my restatement is equivalent to St. Anselmís original argument. So youíre just going to have to trust me that it is the same as Anselmís original. So here goes:

1. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the greatest conceivable being (call it B1) exists only in the mind.

2. But we can conceive of a being (call it B2) that is greater than any being that exists only in the mind.

3. So, we can conceive of a being (namely, B2) that is greater than B1 (since we are supposing that B1 exists only in the mind).

4. But then we can conceive of a being that is greater than the greatest conceivable being (B1) which is a contradiction.

5. Therefore, our supposition in (1) is wrong; the greatest conceivable being really exists, and not only in the mind.

Thatís the argument. Hereís my criticism: I think that (4) does not follow from (3). I fully admit premise (3). Yes, since we are supposing that B1 exists only in the mind, we can conceive of a being (namely, B2) that is greater than B1. In other words, we can imagine that that being, God, which, as we suppose in premise (1), exists only in the mind, did not only exist in the mind, but also in reality. Sure, we can imagine that. But that doesnít mean that we can conceive of a being that is greater than the greatest conceivable being! Why would St. Anselm think that that follows?

Well, according to (3), we can conceive of a being that is greater than B1; and B1, remember, is the greatest conceivable being. So naturally youíd think that (3) entails (4), that we can conceive of a being that is greater than the greatest conceivable being. But B1 isnít the greatest conceivable being, itself; B1 is a concept of the greatest conceivable being. Itís an idea we have of the greatest conceivable being.

Why do I say that? Look at premise (1) again. It says: "Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the greatest conceivable being (call it B1) exists only in the mind." (Anselmís phrase is: "Exists in the understanding alone.") Now what is this thing, B1, which we say exists only in the mind? What is it? Is it the greatest conceivable being, itself, or is it, more precisely stated, a concept of the greatest conceivable being? Clearly, itís only the concept that can exist in the mind. We would never admit that the greatest conceivable being itself might somehow exist only in our minds. That wouldnít make any sense! In other words, when we say that the greatest conceivable being exists "in the mind," or "in the understanding alone," we just mean that we have a concept of the greatest conceivable being. And then we use the words "greatest conceivable being" as short for "concept of the greatest conceivable being." Make sense?

So hereís my criticism summed up. St. Anselmís argument, as I presented it, claims, in premise (3), that we can conceive of a being that is greater than B1. But B1 is just a concept; even if it is the concept of the greatest conceivable being, itís nonetheless still a concept. And so of course we can conceive of lots of things greater than that concept. But premise (4) doesnít follow from any of the foregoing -- it just doesnít follow that I can conceive of something greater than the greatest conceivable being. All that follows is that I can conceive of something greater than my concept of the greatest conceivable being. Which is no big surprise!

There are other versions of the ontological argument besides St. Anselmís. So maybe one of those other versions would do better.


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