Course notes on the Ontological Argument for students of the Edexcel syllabus

From the Paper 1 syllabus:

1.3 Ontological Argument   a) A priori compared to a posteriori types of arguments, deductive reasoning, not evidence based but understanding of concept of ‘God’ as an analytic proposition.   b) Definitions of ‘God’, necessary existence, aseity.   c) Strengths and weaknesses of the Ontological Arguments: concept of proof compared to probability, debates about ‘existence’ and predicates. Challenges to the argument.   d) Philosophical language and thought through significant concepts and the works of key thinkers, illustrated in issues in the philosophy of religion.  

With reference to the ideas of Anselm and B Russell.

Considered by daylight…and without prejudice, this famous ontological proof is really a charming joke‘ – Arthur Schopenhauer

‘[The ontological argument is the] most famous of all fishy philosophical arguments’ – Robert Nozick

Deus does not exist
But if he does, he lives above me
In the fattest largest cloud up there
He’s whiter than white and cleaner than clean
He wants to reach me’
– Bjork (lead singer of The Sugarcubes)

Routledge classics: Autobiography by Bertrand Russell (Paperback / softback)

In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell confessed to having been initially convinced by the argument: ‘I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco, and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when suddenly I threw it up in the air and exclaimed: ‘Great God in boots – the ontological argument is sound!’

A PRORI COMPARED TO A POSTERIORI TYPES OF ARGUMENTS ETC.

An a priori argument is one containing statements whose truth or falsity can be determined through reason alone. Here is an example:

All triangles have a total of three sides.
No rectangle has a total of three sides .
Therefore, no rectangles are triangles.

This argument is expressed in a syllogistic style, typically a three-line form consisting of two premises and a conclusion. In an a priori argument, the conclusion is deduced (follows inevitably as a matter of logic) from the premises. For example, knowing that all triangles have a total of three sides (the first premise) and that no rectangle has a total of three sides (the second premise), one may validly and logically conclude (without having to do any checking because all rectangles have four sides by definition) that no rectangles are triangles.

Other examples, this time of one-line a priori statements, are ‘a pentagon has four sides’ and ‘a bachelor is an unmarried male.’

Once again (because it is worth stating twice!), a priori arguments typically serve as examples of deductive reasoning where the conclusion is certain and follows inevitably from the premises* if they are true, as in the above example.

Contrastingly, the conclusion is only probable where inductive reasoning is involved. For example, consider the following:

All swans are white.
X is a swan.
Therefore, X is white.

The conclusion in this inductive argument seemed to be pretty sound for Europeans…until Dutch explorers discovered black swans in Australia in 1636.

See here for a brief but clear explanation of this contrast:

A priori statements are also said to be analytic rather than synthetic. Analytic statements can be proven true simply by analysing their terms (as they are tautological** or true by definition). Contrastingly, synthetic statements cannot be proven true by analysing the terms. They need checking to see whether they are true or not, and so observations, measurements or experiments may be required to verify them.

This analytic-synthetic contrast can be brought out by inverting those terms. An analytic statement, when inverted, inevitably involves a contradiction. For example, to state that ‘a bachelor is not an unmarried male’ or that ‘a triangle does not have three sides’ is logically contradictory. However, to invert a synthetic statement such as ‘Niall Horan (out of One Direction) suffers from ornithophobia (fear of birds)’ involves no such contradiction. Synthetic statements are those that are capable of being proved either true or false through observation or by acquiring additional relevant information. For example, a quick bit of Googling , reveals that Niall Horan does indeed suffer from ornithophobia, so the inverted statement, ‘Niall Horan (out of One Direction) does not suffer from ornithophobia’ turns out to be false.

Finally, a priori arguments are usually contrasted with a posteriori ones. Consider the statements ‘Diego Maradona died on the 25th November 2020’ and ‘There are approximately 1.7 billion Muslims in the world.’ These statements are both provisionally true a posteriori, in the sense that we can only confirm their truth on the basis of experience or empirical evidence. Some fact-checking or demographic research would be required in order to confirm or deny them. This means that arguments in support of these statements would have to be a posteriori as well. The syllogistic argument about swans above is an example of an a posteriori argument, one that subsequent research revealed to be false because the initial general premise turned out to incorrect. A posteriori statements are therefore potentially falsifiable, while a priori statements are not.

This distinction helps to explain what makes the ontological argument so distinctive. Unlike other arguments for the existence of God that are dependent on indirect evidence for God’s existence, like the complexity of the biological world or the origin of the universe (or experience in the case of the argument from religious experience), the ontological argument asserts that the conclusion ‘God exists’ is an a priori one that can be derived entirely from a process of a priori reasoning. It is what is known as an ‘armchair proof’ for God’s existence. You don’t have to rise from out of your chair to set about doing anything that might confirm it. Everything gets done in your head, like a piece of mental arithmetic.

*Apparently, it was Sidney Smith who remarked that two women arguing across a fence would never agree because they were arguing from different premises.

**A tautology (or tautologous statement) is one in which some of the content appears to be unnecessarily repeated e.g. ‘It’s like deja vu all over again’, or ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’

DEFINITIONS OF GOD, NECESSARY EXISTENCE, ASEITY

In his version of the ontological argument, St Anselm (1033–1109) collapses all the complex individual attributes of God such as omnipotence, omniscience, and so on – in other words the manner in which He is traditionally defined or understood – into one all-embracing category: perfection. Before looking more specifically at his argument, it is important to note that faith is already assumed. He wrote, ‘I believe in order to understand’. This is a good example of how thinkers in those days took faith for granted, and then built their ideas out of it. Anselm’s aim was to come up with a single proof for God’s existence that was so powerful that even a fool would be able to follow it and thus compelled to accept it.

Accordingly, Anselm used Psalm 14 to introduce his ideas.  This Psalm actually states that ‘the fool says in his heart there is no god’.  So the starting point is that of atheism. So what is a foolish atheist thinking of when they say this, what idea of God do they have in mind?

Anselm goes on to furnish the reader with a definition:  God is ‘a being that than which no greater can be thought’.  Then, in Proslogion Chapter II, he presents the first form of his argument.

‘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.’

Presented in a standard syllogistic form, Anselm’s first proof looks like this:

  • Premise 1 – God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
  • Premise 2 – Something that exists is greater than something just imagined.
  • Conclusion – God must therefore exist in reality as well as in thought.

In other words, the fool is thinking of God as a being that is purely imaginary, like a unicorn. But, Anselm argues, if they are doing this, they are actually being foolish because they are not thinking of the greatest conceivable being, because in order to be the greatest being one can think of, that being would have to exist both in someone’s imagination and in reality. Therefore, the most perfect imaginable being must exist in reality as well as in the mind. Which means that God just has to exist. His existence is as certain as the conclusion to a valid deductive argument.

Then, in Proslogion III, Anselm re-states his argument but this time in a different way that introduces one crucial difference, namely, that of God’s uniquely necessary existence:

‘And it assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist;. and this being thou art, O Lord, our God.

So truly, therefore, dost thou exist, O Lord, my God, that thou canst not be conceived not to exist; and rightly. For, if a mind could conceive of a being better than thee, the creature would rise above the Creator; and this is most absurd. And, indeed, whatever else there is, except thee alone, can be conceived not to exist. To thee alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others. For, whatever else exists does not exist so truly, and hence in a less degree it belongs to it to exist. Why, then, has the fool said in his heart, there is no God, since it is so evident, to a rational mind, that thou dost exist in the highest degree of all? Why, except that he is dull and a fool?’

Anselm’s second proof looks like this when presented in a syllogistic format.

  • Premise 1 – God is the greatest conceivable being.
  • Premise 2 – It is greater to be a necessarily existent being than a contingent one.
  • Premise 3 – If God is contingent then we could imagine something greater, i.e. something that isn’t contingent.
  • Conclusion – God must therefore exist as a necessarily existent being.

Note that the notion of aseity is built into Anselm’s definition of God here, according to which God is a necessarily self-existent, independent being. In other words God’s existence is part of his essence. Existence is part of His intrinsic nature, so that He cannot not exist. That is, God does not depend on anything else for His existence. Nothing ’caused’ God to exist. He always exists on his own.

God is therefore not a contingent being or thing i.e. something that might not have existed or that may one day cease to exist, and that exists because of prior causes and conditions and not in its own right as something entirely independent of other beings and things.

Though there is no reason to learn or even to understand it, Charles Hartshorne offered this more difficult but arguably more nuanced summary of Anselm’s second argument:

“If God could conceivably fail to exist, He must be something which, ‘even if it existed’, would be less than ‘that than which none greater can be conceived’; for we can (it is claimed) conceive of something such that it cannot be conceived not to exist, and to be thus is better than to be such that the nonexistence of the thing is conceivable.”

This is Monty Python having a bit of fun with Anselm’s notion of God as the greatest being that can possibly be imagined.

Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, a monk who was contemporary with Anselm, responded to his argument by writing In Behalf of the Fool. Gaunilo did actually believe in the existence of God but regarded the ontological argument as flawed. Gaunilo made his point by parodying Anselm’s argument, and he did this by comparing Anselm’s notion of God as the most perfect being that can be imagined to that of a perfect island, called the ‘Lost Island’ because it is so difficult (or perhaps impossible) to find.  We may be able to imagine such an island, but just because it is perfect does not mean that it actually exists. And so the same applies to God.  In other words, if an island or any old thing can be substituted for God in Anselm’s proof, then it cannot be correct.

But in a reply to Gaunilo, Anselm claimed that an island is something very different thing to God, as even a perfect island is finite, while God is uniquely infinite. So the two are not comparable. In the same reply, Anselm drew on the idea of necessary existence that features in Proslogion III to argue that an island is a contingent physical object that can, without any contradiction, be imagined not to exist. Such an island cannot therefore be compared to a necessarily existent being like God who cannot therefore be thought of as not existing.

In his discussion of Proslogion III, the philosopher Norman Malcolm (a defender of the argument) expands on Anselm’s point as follows:

‘So if God exists, His existence is necessary. Thus, God’s existence is either impossible or necessary. It can be the former [impossible] only if the concept of such a being is self-contradictory or in some way logically absurd. Assuming this is not so, it follows that He necessarily exists.’

Note that Gaunilo’s challenge is often mentioned as a mere supplement to other, more highly regarded criticisms of the ontological argument. However, it does have the merit of accepting all the argument’s controversial assumptions and premises, and so it can be said to be as sympathetic as it is possible to be to all of Anselm’s terms of reference in that sense, as well as to the structure of his version of the argument, whilst still revealing its apparent absurdity. The act of simply rephrasing the components of the argument also makes it potentially applicable to other versions of it.

Later, Rene Descartes (1596–1650) revived the ontological argument, which by the 17th Century had become somewhat neglected. He actually provides two versions of it but the better known one focuses on existence as a necessary attribute of a perfect being and can be expressed as follows:

  • Premise 1 – Whenever I think of God, I necessarily ascribe all perfections to Him.
  • Premise 2 – Existence is a perfection.
  • Conclusion – God must exist.

Or as Descartes himself put it:

‘Existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than the fact that its three angles equal to two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle, or that the idea of a mountain can be separated from the idea of a valley….[F]rom the fact that I cannot of God except as existing, it follows that existence is inseparable from God, and hence that he really exists.’

‘Existence is a perfection’ is a famous key phrase that, as we shall see, became a focus of criticism.

Note that Descartes also made use of two analogies to support his argument, namely, those of the triangle and mountain.  Just as one cannot imagine a triangle without three sides, neither can one imagine a mountain without a valley.  By extension, it is not possible to imagine God without imagining that He is perfect, which entails that He exists.

ANSELM AND DESCARTES COMPARED

  • Both Anselm and Descartes try to prove the existence of God based on a priori reasoning.
  • Both also drew on secondary, supporting arguments to demonstrate that God exists. Anselm did this by asserting and ultimate goodness and Descartes by arguing that that the idea of God could not originate from a finite mind, and so must have its source in God Himself.
  • As to whether Descartes was directly influenced by Anselm, in his book Philosophy of Religion John Hick mentions that, ‘When questioned by Mersenne about the relation of his own argument to Anselm’s, he was content to reply, ‘I will look at St Anselm at the first opportunity’. Hick suggests that this leaves the matter unclear, though he may be being unduly cautious, as the wording of Descartes’ response surely suggests that he was unacquainted with the argument presented in the Proslogion.
  • Be that as if may, Anselm’s definition is relational – it depends on a comparison between something that exists in the mind only and something that exists both in the mind and in reality. It also depends on a comparison between God and other beings, in the sense that God is the greatest of all beings that can be conceived. Descartes’ version does not appeal to any such comparison. It simply states that God is a perfect being.
  • Additionally, both the second form of Anselm’s proof and Descartes’ version of the ontological argument maintain that God exists necessarily rather than contingently. As has already been mentioned, contingent objects and beings are those that exist but might possibly not have done. For example, Descartes might not have existed if his parents had never met and conceived him. Similarly, the Eiffel Tower in Paris might not have been built if a decision had not been made to do so, or the materials and methods needed to construct it were not available at the time. Contrastingly, something that exists necessarily could not exist as a result of luck or mere chance. Given that God is a necessarily existent being, there are no logically possible circumstances in which He might never have existed. In other words, His existence is always guaranteed.

Note that this line of reasoning eventually gave rise to something called the ‘modal ontological argument’ which involves speculation about probability, possibility and necessity, and in particular, reasoning about states of affairs in alternative possible worlds and how what might be possible in them affects what might be true of the world that we happen to be in.

ALVIN PLANTINGA

For example, here is a modal version of the ontological argument as devised by Alvin Plantinga that takes in the notion of possible worlds, and in which the idea of necessary existence plays a crucial role.

  • It is possible to imagine alternate worlds in which certain things are logically possible – e.g. it is possible that there is a world in which Coldplay do not make completely lame music. However, it is not logically possible to imagine any world in which 2  + 2 = 5.
  • There is a possible world in which there is a being who is maximally great and maximally excellent.
  • In any possible world this being must necessarily exist if it had these attributes – because it’s maximal.
  • This world of ours is a possible world.
  • Therefore this maximally great and excellent being exists in our world too (God exists).

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS: CONCEPT OF PROOF COMPARED TO PROBABILITY, DEBATES ABOUT EXISTENCE AND PREDICATES. CHALLENGES TO THE ARGUMENT.

Albert Cock

Note: the discussion in this section might possibly be of some use in an examination but is probably better thought of as extension work.

The most famous challenges to the ontological arguments of Anselm and Descartes have been made by Gaunilo (see above) and Immanuel Kant (1724 -1804).

When it comes to Gaunilo, we have already noted that his island parody fails because, as a contingent object, it lacks the property of necessary existence. Is it possible to think of another parody-type criticism that fares any better?

A new parody argument was suggested by Albert Cock at the beginning of the twentieth century, one that is based on the existence of the worst possible being. It can be expressed as follows:

  • Premise 1 – ‘The Devil’ is a name that we might give to a being than which nothing worse can be conceived.
  • Premise 2 – Something that exists is worse than something just imagined.
  • Conclusion – ‘The Devil’ must therefore exist in reality as well as in thought.

Before anyone starts to get worried, Cock himself reassures us that we all know that there is no such thing as the Devil. But this also means that there is no such thing as God.

In evaluating this new parody argument, the first thing to take note of is that, unlike Gaunilo’s island, its scope would appear to be the same as that maintained in the ontological proof in that it embraces all possible beings. A being than which nothing worse can be conceived therefore does seem to be directly comparable to a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.

However, on closer inspection, the two arguments might not be as congruent as they seem to be. In Anselm’s argument, the ‘greatness’ of God appears to be an intrinsic quality, one that is unrelated to any effect that God might have on the world because He exists. However, as the worst being imaginable, the conception here of the Devil seems to be one in which his existence is related to the impact that he might have on the world, which definitely is not going to be a good thing.

As Yujin Nagasawa has commented, ‘This means that a closer parallel of the ontological argument must be an argument for the non-existence of the Devil; for the devil, that-than-which-no-worse-can-be-thought, must lack everything that is intrinsically great, including existence.’

A closer examination of the ontological proof would seem to confirm what Nagasawa has suggested when it is re-formulated more precisely:

  1. ‘The Devil’ is the name that we might give to a being than which nothing worse can be conceived (i.e. the most imperfect being one can think of).
  2. It is worse (more imperfect) for something to exist only in the mind than it is for something to exist both in the mind and in reality.
  3. Therefore the worst or most imperfect being that we can imagine exists but only in the imagination.

Similarly, here is a parody version of Descartes’ proof:

  1. Whenever I think of the Devil, I necessarily ascribe all imperfections to him.
  2. Non-existence is an imperfection.
  3. Therefore the Devil does not exist.

Finally, the opposite of necessary existence is necessary non-existence.

In summary, if we are discussing a being that is the opposite of God, one that is the most imperfect or worse being that we can think of in a manner that is truly parallel to the classic ontological arguments formulated by Anselm and Descartes, we end up with a being who either exists only in the imagination (like the Bogey Man) or does not exist.

Fungus The Bogeyman

Kant

Kant was responsible for coming up with the term ‘ontological’ to describe this type of argument, which he derived from the Greek word ontos or ‘being’. Like Gaunilo, Kant did not doubt the existence of God, but he too was not convinced by the argument and came up with two substantial criticisms of it.

Criticism 1:  Kant maintained that the ontological argument was based on a fundamental but false assumption, namely, that existence is a predicate. Predicates are terms that refer to the attributes of something. For example, in the sentence, ‘Peter Crouch is tall’, ‘tall’ is a predicate because it refers to ex-footballer Crouch’s attribute of tallness.

However, for Kant, existence, is not a real predicate; it is not a property or attribute something possesses.  In other words, existence doesn’t add anything meaningful to the description of an object or person. For example, in drawing attention to ex-footballer Peter Crouch’s considerable height, we do not need to say that he is tall and that he exists, because he has to already exist in order to have this attribute.  And so whatever existence is, it is not a predicate or an attribute of something or someone.

If this seems a bit confusing, try asking for an ‘existing pint of beer’ the next time you go to the pub. Your strange request will almost certainly elicit some puzzled looks from the person serving behind the bar, as well as anyone else within earshot, and this is because the word ‘existing’ doesn’t add anything of significance to the description of the pint of beer that you are trying to order.

Kant himself used the example of money to make his point by stating that, ‘A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers.’ In other words, whether we think of a thing as actually existing or merely existing in our own heads, we are still thinking of the same thing.

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) agreed with Kant that existence is not a meaningful property of an object, a conclusion that he reached as a result of his examination of the underlying logical structure of language. For example, consider the proposition ‘The present King of France is bald’. Is it a true or false statement?

According to Russell, it can be unpacked into three further propositions:

  • Proposition 1 – At least one thing (x) is a present King of France.
  • Proposition 2 – At most one thing (x) is a present King of France.
  • Proposition 3 – That thing (x) is bald.

Close examination then reveals that Proposition 1 is false as there is no present King of France (because at the time he was writing, France was a republic, as it still is, and therefore has no king).

By implication, Russell must therefore also be in agreement with Kant when Kant insists that existence does not ascribe any meaningful property to an object, in the sense that it would be a mistake to understand Proposition 1 as stating that there is a thing that has the property of being existent as well as the property of being the present King of France. Proposition 1 only only expresses the claim that there is a thing that the concept of a present King of France refers to. Similarly, to say that God exists does not mean that God has the attribute or property of being existent in the same way that He has the attribute or property of being omnipotent or omniscient. What is really meant is that there is merely an object or thing that satisfies the notion of God as ‘something than which nothing greater can be thought’ (Anselm’s own words for his conception of a supremely perfect being).

Unsurprisingly then, in his famous debate with Frederick Copleston, Russell made this remark:

‘…what you have been saying brings us back, it seems to me, to the ontological argument that there is a being whose essence involves existence, so that his existence is analytic. That seems to me to be impossible, and it raises, of course, the question what one means by existence, and as to this, I think a subject named can never be significantly said to exist but only a subject described. And that existence, in fact, quite definitely is not a predicate.’

A possible response to both Kant and Russell is there is a difference between something imagined and something real.  For example, Stephen Davis said that a 100 coins in reality have purchasing power while 100 imagined coins do not. By implication, existence therefore can make a difference and does genuinely add something to its subject.

However, Kant’s criticism can be countered in another way previously identified by Norman Malcolm (see above). This is because even if we accept that existence is not a predicate, necessary existence does seem to be. After all, necessary existence is an attribute that makes God unique and that distinguishes Him from ordinary existent beings. In which case necessary existence is a distinctive property of God that does add something to our conception of Him.

Criticism 2:  Nevertheless, Kant (writing a long time before Malcolm) seems to have been aware of this. He accepted that a proposition like ‘God necessarily exists’ might be true by definition. But he did not think that this then meant that we could go on to say that God exists in reality. Just as we know that the proposition ‘unicorns are horned horses’ is true by definition but it does not follow from this that there any real unicorns, so we can deny that there are any necessarily existent beings like God in the real world. In other words, Kant is arguing that we cannot move from the world of definitions and concepts, which may indeed have an internal logic of their own, to reality itself in the manner that ontological arguments seem to demand.

Writing even earlier than Kant, in chapter 9 of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume presents us with three characters who debate whether there is a God who can be said to have ‘necessary existence’. The protagonist whose views actually reflect Hume’s own viewpoint has this to say in the dialogue:

I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.

It is pretended that the Deity is a necessarily-existent existent being; and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that, if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist as for twice two not to be four. But it is evident, that this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as at present. It will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist; nor can the mind ever lie under a necessity of supposing any object to remain always in being; in the same manner as we lie under a necessity of always conceiving twice two to be four. The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent.

What Hume is saying here is that to assert that God has necessary existence is not the same as stating that two times two equals four, so that no logical contradiction follows from simply claiming that there is no such thing as a necessarily existent Deity like there would if we deny that two times two equals four.

Similarly, with Plantinga in mind, there is no contradiction in denying that there is a possible world with a maximally great being who must therefore, because of His maximal greatness, exist in all other worlds including this one.

Perhaps the best that can be said for Malcolm and Plantinga is that they have, at least, established the logical plausibility of aseity. In other words, if God does exist, He would have to be like this. He would have to be a being that is uniquely different from other beings in order for His very existence not to be put at risk by other things or beings. For example, one can imagine a science fiction story in which some future astronauts encounter an extraordinary dead being floating through deep space that turns out, on close examination with the help of the advanced apparatus on the space ship, to have been responsible for the creation of the universe. While it might be possible to invent a syllogistic argument to defend the logical possibility of a being like this, such a being would not be like the God imagined by theistic defenders of the ontological argument, who include the notion of necessary existence in their arguments. And so perhaps there is something to be said for according God a unique status in this manner, as even sceptically inclined readers would at last appreciate the need to highlight this attribute.

The Challenge of Aquinas (with some help from The Sugarcubes)

‘Deus’ [God] is a song by the Icelandic group The Sugarcubes, who used to feature Bjork as their lead singer, an artist and musician who eventually went on to enjoy an internationally successful solo career. Curiously, the lyrics to the song recall aspects of the ontological argument and permit us to examine some further issues that it gives rise to.

For example, the first line affirms that ‘Deus does not exist’ and therefore adopts the same perspective as that of the fool in Anselm’s version, namely, that of atheism. This is also a line that gets repeated throughout the song, and becomes like a mantra at the end.

Interestingly, Descartes claimed that God contains all perfections. But why assume, as both Anselm and Descartes seem to, that the mere fact of existence is a desirable attribute, something worthwhile enough to be perfected in God’s case? Given that many people have thought that life is not worth living, perhaps non-existence is more of an imaginable perfection than existence. Could this be something that The Sugarcubes might be faintly alluding to through their repetition of that opening line?

The South African philosopher David Benatar argues in the above publication that if you do not exist, then you avoid the suffering that life inevitably entails, and so if you never end up getting born, you are better off.

Returning once again to the beginning of the song, what then follows is a childlike evocation of the nature of God, one that resembles Anselm’s own conception of deity.

‘Deus does not exist but if he does, he lives above me
In the fattest largest cloud up there
He’s whiter than white and cleaner than clean’

Eventually, the song culminates with an actual encounter with God.

I thought I had seen everything
He wasn’t white and fluffy
He just had side burns
He just had side burns
And a quiff
He said “hi”
I said “hi”…
I was surprised
Just as you would be.’

Firstly, though this is not a point made by Aquinas, If the greatest being the Sugarcubes can think of has ‘sideburns and a quiff’ then doesn’t this mean that the greatest being we can conceive of might exist but not be like Anselm’s idea of God? For example, Hindus believe that the greatest and most perfect being is the impersonal Brahman, who is both the source of and identical with the universe, while for Theravada Buddhists the most perfect being imaginable would be the Buddha, who was simply a human being that – through a process of trial end error – eventually figured out how to put a stop to suffering. Recalling Albert Cock’s Devil parody (above), Satanists might imagine the Devil to be the most perfect (rather than the worst or most imperfect) being that can be conceived in the sense that he is perfectly evil and admirable for being intrinsically that way. In which case, we really might be in trouble after all. By extension, why assume that there is only one perfect being that it is possible to imagine? Perhaps a whole football team of supremely perfect beings exist both in the mind and in reality.

Moreover, wouldn’t God have to exceed the limits of all conceivability? If so, He would therefore be greater than any conception we might have of Him? So if we actually encountered him, wouldn’t we then also be ‘surprised’ as the song suggests? And doesn’t this mean that Anselm’s initial premise somehow places limits on God by placing him within the bounds of human conception?

This is a criticism that Aquinas made of Anselm. According to Aquinas, humans have a limited intellect and it is therefore impossible for them to understand or fully define the nature of God. Anselm is therefore overstepping the mark when he claims to know that God is the greatest conceivable being because if we cannot properly get our heads around the idea of God in the first place then we are not in a position to work out what the consequences of the idea of God might be. So Anselm’s argument can never get off the ground. Perhaps the fact that human beings can maintain such wildly varying conceptions of what a being than which no greater can be thought is like further suggests that Aquinas is correct: if our conceptions were adequate, surely they would not differ from each other quite so much.

The contrast between Anselm and Aquinas becomes more striking when the following assertion made by the latter is considered:

‘We can demonstrate the existence of God through His effects, though from them we cannot know God perfectly, as He is in His essence.’

Aquinas’s Five Ways are thus a demonstration of a posteriori reasoning in their attempt to show how the existence of God can only be proved indirectly through the evidence of His creation. Contrastingly, the success of the ontological argument hinges on a capacity to comprehend the essence of God, something that Aquinas held to be impossible (perhaps because God’s transcendence could not then be adequately maintained).

PHILOSOPHICAL LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT ETC.

Note: this section assumes a knowledge of the topic of Religious Language, which is also part of the Paper 1 syllabus.

The wording of the syllabus is a little unclear at this point. However, some observations about the ontological argument in relation to the philosophy of language/religious language can be made.

One might argue, for example, that a term cannot function independently of its context. In this sense ‘existence’ always operates within what is known as a particular ‘language game’. Anselm, Descartes and Kant all would seem to understand the language within their arguments as referential and stable. They would almost certainly claim that we can argue from a particular understanding of a concept because it is assumed there is an inherent meaning within it. This is especially so for Anselm and Descartes, as both stand roughly within the Platonic tradition. But if concepts are unstable and are frequently remoulded as time moves on, then we can question if it is even possible to speak about a concept such as ‘existence’ in a purely abstract fashion. In other contexts, for example as applied to the possibility of alien life, ‘existence’ may or may not be a predicate, but whether that has a bearing on ‘existence’ as applied to ‘God’ remains to be seen. Lastly, with regard to the possible instability of the term ‘existence’ in relation to God, Paul Tillich’s theology is arguably relevant, as for Tillich, God is arguably not an existent thing like other existents but the very ‘ground of being’.

Strengths and weaknesses of ontological arguments and some concluding remarks.

NOTE: if the specific wording of an examination question includes a mention of ‘strengths and weaknesses’, the examiner would expect candidates to include the criticisms described above, especially those of Gaunilo, Kant, Russell and Aquinas, as weaknesses. On the ‘strength’ side one might emphasise the appeal made to necessary existence by defenders of the argument. While those who are not convinced by this appeal might simply deny that that any such necessarily existent being really does exist, supporters of the argument have at least indicated the logical if not the actual possibility of such a being.

A further strength of the ontological argument is that if it is correct, it might be regarded as a single and powerful proof for God’s existence. Though regarded by many as a piece of philosophical sleight of hand (like a magician’s card trick) by many of its critics, it seems to be more difficult to refute than arguments for the existence of God that are based more on probability. Additionally, it may be considered to buttress the Cosmological Argument because it provides an additional reason for why the universe exists at all, namely, as the product of a supremely perfect, necessarily existent being. However, if we can be rationally certain of God’s existence, this seems to then provide only a diminished role for faith.

Anselm might also deserve credit for his advocacy of the idea that the pure activity of thinking alone can prove that something outside the mind can truly exist. This is an insight that might potentially have other applications.

On the other hand, even allowing for Bertrand Russell’s short-lived flirtation with it, a majority of philosophers and theologians seem to be unconvinced by the ontological argument. For example, Theodore M. Drange has stated that ‘Most philosophers regard [it] as either cognitively meaningless or as a kind of play on words, a semantic puzzle to sort out if one has some extra time….There is hardly anyone who is a theist on the basis of the ontological argument. I taught philosophy to thousands of students, and not a single one of them ever put any stock by it.’

Nevertheless, almost a thousand years after it was first formulated, the ontological argument continues to beguile many of those who encounter it. For example, Kurt Gödel, a person described in a Times newspaper obituary as ‘the most influential mathematical logician of the century’, has recently inspired fresh discussion as a result of a new formulation of the argument that he was working on towards the end of his life (he died in 1978).

These days, the debates are often conducted with the help of symbolic logic, according to which the first premise of Anselm’s argument (God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived) might be rendered as follows:

∃x(Cx & ¬∃y(Gyx & Cy))

Just the very fact that intellects of the calibre of Gödel continue to be attracted to the proof suggests that it is still of some relevance to modern philosophy, and perhaps this is because, after all this time, there is still no critical consensus about where any fatal flaw resides in Anselm’s reasoning.

Lastly, even a sceptic like Russell wrote in his History of Western Philosophy that, ‘an argument with such a distinguished history is to be treated with respect, whether valid or not. The real question is: Is there anything we can think of which, by the mere fact that we can think of it, is shown to exist outside our thought? Every philosopher would like to say yes, because a philosopher’s job is to find out things about the world by thinking rather than observing. If yes is the right answer, there is a bridge from pure thought to things; if not, not.

AND FINALLY…

The above Crash Course Philosophy overview of the ontological argument is useful for revision purposes. In it, the point is made that when the idea of God having necessary existence is included as part of the definition of what God is like, the argument assumes from the outset what it is trying to prove. In other words, it might be better thought of as an assertion rather than an argument, to the effect that if we define God as a necessarily existent, supremely perfect being, then that being would have to exist.