The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God
Carlos Thomas, 2003
In considering the validity of the ontological argument for the existence of God, it is necessary to carefully and explicitly state your premises in order to justify your conclusions. One of the most important items requiring definition is the definition of God. Traditionally, we might define God as that being which is all knowing, omniscient, all powerful, omnipotent, morally perfect, and the being that is responsible for the creation of the universe, with itself being considered apart from this creation. This type of argument was backed undoubtedly by many theologians, for it asserts that the God which we’ve defined must exist for reasons which can be supported by just the fewest of premises, summed up in a few lines of script. The definition of God has been tweaked in different versions of the ontological argument in order to strengthen its tenets and better hold up against refutations.
The ontological argument was hinted at first in the 11th century by the theologian St. Anselm. His writing reads as if a prayer to the supreme Being itself. “We believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived…” In that statement we get a definition of what God has to be, according to Anselm. Further into the argument he suggests that “ …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.” From this statement we gather that according to Anselm, a God that exists in reality can be conceived, and that it is greater than an imaginary God. I find it necessary to ask the question what makes it greater? On what basis is a God that exists in reality greater than one that exists in the mind. I’d require further elaboration of the “greater” concept from the arguer. It sounds as if an argument examining the nature of objectivity and/or the existence of an external world delineates from the use of the word “greater”. The argument requires reflection on the arguers interpretation of the externality, because “greater” implies a notion a more valid, objective, or real sense of reality. Rene Descartes’ version of the Ontological argument contains a point that is similar to Anselm’s in that it draws a similar reference regarding the greater, or more perfect nature of a God that exists. From Anselm we can assume that objects conceived in the mind and objects that exist in the physical universe sit on opposite sides of the table, showing value toward one type of existent over the other. Anselm’s position on externality could be inferred based on his argument, but it helps to question it to be sure that the arguer is fully aware of what his conclusions and premises lead to, or allow.
Rene Descartes’ version of the Ontological argument appears to be more easily read and followed than Anselms’. I suppose that by its rather simpler construction, it hopes to be more elegant, and more likely to be the valid argument due to Occams Razor. Similarities between the arguments do exist, because they are essentially the same argument. Descartes’ argument imbunes perfection as a quality of God. God is the being with the most perfection, the ultimate ideal of perfection, he is perfect. From this definition of God, and from the premise that existence is a perfection, we eventually arrive at the conclusion that God possesses the quality of perfection and therefore exists. The problem that I initially have with this argument is with the definition of perfection, and how it translates to the supreme being. Like Anselm’s argument, the use of the word “greater” regarding the state of Gods existence, whether it is in reality, or is in the imagination, Descartes argument fails to satisfy me. His argument lacks persuasiveness because of the flaw in its premises. Philosophers also have noted flaws in the premises of Descartes’ Ontological argument. The point of existence being a perfection was questioned by Inwagen. What makes existence so wonderful? He points out. To me, the premise already assumes what he’s trying to prove. Existence being a perfection, and defining God as being a perfect being isn’t really saying anything about the nature of God, or, whether he really does exist in objective reality.
David Hume also points out the flaw in such arguments that attribute perfection as a quality of the supreme deity. The character Philo responds to Demea, the theologian, that “ whoever scruples this fundamental truth deserves every punishment which can be inflicted among philosophers…” He goes on to posit that all perfection is relative…” and that we should never claim to understand the nature of a divine being in its perfections, as we are likely to only attribute perfections that are analogous to those perfections important to human creatures. Qualities such as knowledge, wisdom, and justice are qualities that are respected amongst men, but when discussing the nature of the Deity, these same qualities cannot be applied with any validity. In all this talk of perfection, it seems that humans place perfection, or degrees of perfection on a hierarchical scale. God resides at the top of this scale. I ask though, why is perfection deemed a “good” quality? Why is it not just a possible state of being, not really good or bad, but an indifferent state without a positive value for the purpose of this argument. The counter argument to Philo’s point was rasied by Celanthes, who said that the world and all of its parts resembled that of a machine, and that that machine, with all of its parts being so well adjusted to one another, resemble things that are created by man. Because of the likeness of the world to the concept of a machine that might be created by man, we are led to believe that the world, created by God, has the mind and intelligence also like that of man. In my opintion, the world being compared to a machine, begs the question regarding a necessary designer. Machine is a concept of men, and of course machines must have designers. Philo responds to Cleanthes by showing that the concept of a house, which implies a builder or an architect, is not the same as the concept of the universe in that it necessitates a builder of the same mind.
The Ontological argument by Descartes is minimally substantiated. It has flaws which are also discussed in Inwagens’ Metaphysics through the mention of Immanuel Kant‘s refutation. Kant’s refutation is based in the argument that existence cannot be a property of things, which Descartes’ argument suggests. It couldn’t be a property in the same way whiteness is a property of objects. According to Kant, Descartes argument treats existence as something that is merely part of a concept. And that concept is the supreme being. I suppose in Kant’s view, this is limiting the scope of what the supreme being represents. All arguments being considered, the ontological argument according to Descartes, falls short of satisfying the necessary points that would make a nessary being the most likely reality. In other words, existence is not a trait that can be predicated to something which is only conceived of.
This is an old essay for a Metaphysics class I took in college…
Related articles on the web
- An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion Ch. 5 (Ontological Arguments) (theisticnotebook.wordpress.com)
- The Conceit of How We View the World (randi.org)
- Modal Logic and the Ontological Proof (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- Is God Falsifiable? (dangeroustalk.net)
See all posts on Philosophy