Monday, February 13, 2017

What is the ontological argument?

Ontology is the study of being and the Ontological Argument is an a priori metaphysical argument regarding the nature of God’s existence.  It is a purely rationalistic argument, not based in observation or empiricism.  This argument is first known to have been developed in writing by Anselm (1033-1109) in his ProslogiumAnselm was a Benedictine monk and Archbishop of Canterbury.  He stated regarding God, “if that being can be even conceived to be, it must exist in reality.  For that than which a greater is inconceivable cannot be conceived except as without beginning.  But whatever can be conceived to exist, and does not exist, can be conceived to exist through a beginning.  Hence what can be conceived to exist, but does not exist, is not the being than which a greater cannot be conceived.  Therefore, if such a being can be conceived to exist, necessarily it does exist”.[1] 

Another way to state Anselm’s argument is like this:  Nothing greater than God can be thought (in the mind).  If God does not exist, then something greater could be thought, because existing and being thought is greater than being thought alone.  Therefore, God must exist.  Other proponents of the Ontological Argument are Alvin Plantinga (1932- ) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who used a form of this in his Meditations.  Critics include Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), David Hume (1711-1776), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).      

Objections to the Ontological Argument
A number of philosophers have criticized the ontological argument, one of the first being Gaunilo, a monk who was a contemporary of Anselm.  Gaunilo proposed the notion of the perfect island, which is that than which no greater island can be conceived.  If it does not exist, then it is not a greater island than that which can be conceived, because being conceived and existing is greater than being conceived without existing.  Therefore, he said, the island must exist.  One can insert almost anything in place of the island and use the same argument.  Anselm responded to Gaunilo in the Proslogium with the contention that the argument works only for God, because “God’s existence is uniquely a necessary existence”.[2]  Because God is a perfect and necessary being, it is not possible for Him to not exist.  Descartes used a similar argument to refute critics who stated that conceptual existence does not require actual existence.  Descartes, using a rationalist argument, stated that it is a logical necessity to affirm the essential nature of a concept.  For example, the essential nature of a triangle is to have three sides.  He then reasoned that it is clearly perceived that existence is the essence of a necessary existent.  Hence, God must exist.[3]  Of course, one must prove the premise here of a being that necessarily exists.  A criticism of Descartes’ argument was that he did not prove that God’s existence is not logically impossible. 

Kant’s critique
Kant probably offered the most valid critique of this argument by basically stating that it is an illogical transition to take the notion of a perfect being from the realm of thought to that of reality.  Kant reasoned that existence is not a predicate of someone or something and is not part of the essence.  It adds nothing to the essence of God if he exists.  The concept of God remains the same and no new predicate is added to the conception of God with the addition of existence.  This would merely posit or affirm the existence of God with His predicates.  The real adds nothing to the possible.  For example, God’s omnipotence is part of His essence and nothing would be added to His omnipotence if He actually existed.  In the same way, one hundred possible dollars does not increase in value if it is real:  The value of the possible is $100 and the value of the real is $100.  Whether or not it actually exists does not change the value.  So, for Anselm to say that existence increases the value of the object conceived is an invalid logical step, according to Kant.

A Necessary Being
It appears the best hope for overcoming Kant’s objections lies in the understanding of a necessary being.  If it can be demonstrated that it is necessary for there to be an uncreated creator or an unmoved mover, the argument would be validated.  However, by doing this we would have moved out of the a priori ontological reasoning to an a posteriori cosmological argument.  In other words, to assert that there must be something or someone who caused the first cause is to permit the underlying premise that there are observable causes.  This moves the argument from the purely mental and rational to the empirical and phenomenological.  Plantinga offered an argument that appears to overcome the objections of Kant and others.  It is a bit long to reproduce here, but is well-reasoned and relies on a seeming undeniable premise that something exists.  At any rate, the ontological argument appears somewhat insufficient to conclusively argue for God’s existence, whatever type of god that may be. 

So, where to go from here?
After sorting through the varieties of this argument and corresponding criticisms, what does it mean?  Many people in the 21st century think of God, with a myriad of different ideas concerning his existence and nature, but very few probably ever consider the ontological argument.  So, is it little more than mere philosophical musings?  Possibly.  The ontological argument is interesting to ponder, but likely not sufficient to convince anyone one way or the other.  There are other more convincing reasons and evidences for God’s existence which are mentioned in different sections on this website.  The most compelling by far is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of which are reliable historical facts. 

Selected Bibliography:
Geisler, Norman, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House Company, 1999.
Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1994.

[All Biblical quotations are from the NASB version.]

[1] Anselm, Proslogium, translated by Sidney Norton Deane (Chicago, IL:  The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903), 154.
[2] Richardson, Alan, and John Bowden, editors, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 415.
[3] Geisler, Norman, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1999), 556.

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