The Ontological Argument: an Explanation and Critical Assessment

The Ontological Argument: an Explanation and Critical Assessment

The Ontological Argument: An explanation and critical assessment Phil 361 Lec 01 Professor: Reid Buchanan Ryley Braun, 10013764 April 16, 2010 The ontological argument is an attempt to refute skepticism of God and prove His existence through reason alone. The philosopher, Saint Anselm, presented his work on the ontological argument, or argument from reason, in his text the Proslogium. The argument, on the surface, is very logically convincing and attempts to allure even the skeptic of God. Anselm tries to show the proposition of God exists based on analytic necessary truth – which will be discussed later in further detail.

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This paper will explain and assess the deductive and a priori nature of the argument, address the objections to the premises of Anselm’s argument, and ultimately refute the argument. The general argument Anselm created attempts to prove God’s existence without any practical evidence, based on a priori analytic necessary knowledge alone. A priori knowledge is independent of experience, for example, ‘all bachelors are unmarried’. This statement is also an analytic or necessary truth, as it is true by the virtue of its meaning.

Essentially, it would be absurd to disprove such a claim based on our understanding of the word bachelor. Using this logic, Anselm believes he can refute skeptics of God and by simple deduction create an argument for His existence that would be as absurd to critique as ‘all bachelors are unmarried’. Anselm’s argument is very convincing and is based on the idea that ‘the fool’ believes there is no God; despite his knowledge of the claim that God is, “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived”. The problem, which Anselm discusses later, is the fool believes God to exist in the understanding and not in reality.

It must be clear that the Tooth Fairy and Cyclops are other beings that exist in the understanding alone, and not in reality. It is understand what these beings are, but we do not believe them to exist in reality. It could be acknowledged that some individuals may argue they do exist in reality, however, to stay inside the scope of this argument I will avoid these acquisitions. Alternately there are objects that exist in reality but not in our understanding, such as deep-sea creatures and plants in the rainforest. Although they do exist, our minds cannot understand them to exist.

Anselm argues that existence in both reality and in the understanding is greater than existence merely in the understanding. To understand God as an omnipotent omniscient wholly good being – “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived”, God must exist in not only in the understanding, but also in reality. Thus, is would be logically incoherent to understand the nature of God, but believe Him not to exist: P1) The concept of God is one of a being with all perfections P2) Existence in reality and the understanding is a perfection C) God exists in the understanding and in reality.

The argument appears to be logically sound, and requires no empirical evidence of God. However, one can quickly start to see where the argument falls apart. In the first premise, Anselm believes the concept of God is one of a being with all perfections. This claim is subjective to one society or religion. If the skeptic can appropriate another definition of God, the argument is flawed. If one does not believe in His existence, He may only be viewed as an object of worship. It quickly becomes clear that the skeptic may be opposed to the belief in God, as he does not believe Him to be the greatest conceivable being.

The fool may also question Anselm’s view that a God is omnipotent, which he indeed must to be truly perfect, based on a popular paradoxical claim. If God is omnipotent, can He make a mountain too big for Him to clime? Initially the believer may be inclined to say yes, God can do anything. However, in making the mountain too big to climb He has restricted His power. Therefore, the believer replies that no, God cannot create the mountain, as He could climb anything. However, this is also a restriction on His power. This paradox created questions the fundamental logic of omnipotence.

Another problem with the second premise is its fundamental claim. Is existence in reality really greater than existence in merely the understanding? I argue no. There are many examples of things greater in the understanding than in reality; the Tooth Fairy mentioned earlier, for one. I strongly believe that individuals enjoy the idea of the Tooth fairy – their understanding – much more than the reality of one. The understanding brings children comfort when they lose a tooth. However, if a magical fairy were breaking into our children’s windows at night, to replace their teeth with change, would we be so inclined to this reality?

No. Thus, if the fool does not agree with the acclaimed definition of God, or does not agree that existence in the reality is better than just the understanding, Anselm’s conclusion is not logically sound. The philosopher Gaunilo is best known for his critique on Anselm’s ontological argument. He says that essentially any perfect thing can be created using Anselm’s logic, which he exemplifies with his creation of a perfect island. This argument parallels Anselm’s by saying that a perfect island is that which none greater can be conceived.

In addition, existence in reality is better than in merely the understanding; an island cannot be perfect if it is not known to exist. Therefore, according to the logic of the argument that existence is an entity of perfection, a perfect island exists: P1) The concept of a perfect being is one with all perfections P2) Existence in reality and the understanding is a perfection C) A perfect island exists Anselm’s argument slowly starts to break down, by relying merely on analytic necessary truth, which Gaunilo makes apparent. The perfect island is up to subjective interpretation.

Even if someone is unsure of this specific claim, we can replace the island with anything, revealing a huge flaw in Anselm’s argument. Either all of these arguments are sound, or none of them are. As rational beings, we must conclude on the latter of the two – there can be no perfect cell phone, no perfect Calgary Flames, no matter how much we wish there could be. In defense of Anselm, Alvin Plantinga claims that the argument can only be applied to God, the greatest possible thing. Meaning the island has no possible limit to how great it can be.

Then – how much knowledge (where knowledge could be replaced with any quality of God’s) does God have? The believer would reply He has the perfect amount, of course. Well, in direct comparison to the island or the Calgary Flames, one may ask, how many players do the perfect Calgary Flames need to trade to make the playoffs? Gaunilo would answer the perfect amount. Thus, Gaunilo’s argument is as coherent and sound as Anselm’s. Immanuel Kant, another well-known philosopher has another critique of the ontological argument.

Kant claims that the argument treats existence as a property of perfection; the object ‘has’ existence or not, and it is a defect (imperfection) not to have it. Kant claims this is illogical. Something that ‘exists’ (I use this term loosely, as the skeptical argument may create further repercussions of the definition of this word, but for our purposes I refer to the common meaning) does not have some property that is existence. Existence is not a property, where a property is an attribute, quality, or characteristic of something. The laptop, in which I am writing this paper, for example, could have a non-existent property.

To explain this point, I could tell you the properties of this laptop. It is small; it has a keyboard, a charger, and webcam. One could be skeptical of these claims, but ultimately, it has these properties. Now, if I were to claim that it also does not exist, one would respond that I do not really have a laptop at all. This is the point that Kant is trying to make. Existence is not a property. An object must exist to have any further properties, but without it, you have nothing. The previous analysis leads to the final critique on the Ontological Argument that the concept of God entails His existence.

What this means is if there is a God, then He must necessarily exist. God does not depend on anything else for His existence, that it is in his nature to exist. This does seem to be a legitimate claim and raises many questions: Did God always exist? If God did not always exist, who created God? God could not have created Himself as He would have had to already exist. It brings forward little confirmation to say it is in His ‘nature’ to exist. Anselm’s ontological argument was unique and very forward, in trying to prove the existence of God through a priori analytic necessary truth.

This attempt, which is still revised today, appears to be logically sound on the surface. There is a lot of debate regarding the argument, but the arguments I have presented refute the knowledge claim to God. First, the interpretation of God is subjective, which raises a red flag to the foundation of the first premise. Next, the paradox that emerges from the first and second premise places a restriction on God’s ultimate power and questions his omnipotence. In addition, I argue that the second argument is flawed because existence in reality is not always greater than existence in the understanding alone. Furthermore,

Gaunilo’s perfect island and Kant’s review of the argument all lead to the general conclusion that it is flawed. Finally, the concept of God cannot entail existence. This ontological argument, ultimately, is unsound. While it may seem to be the case the fool has won, it should be apparent that only the argument is flawed, and this critique does not prove disprove God. Anselm should be credited for creating a very interesting argument, on reason alone, that will continually debated so long as there are philosophers. Although the argument is successful is creating interest, the bold attempt to remove the doubt of God fails.


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