Ontological argument

Posted by Anisha M on October 06, 1998 at 05:23:44:

The Ontological Argument

(a) Give an account of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God?

The Ontological argument is a group of different philosophers arguments for the existence of God. "Ontological" literally means talking about being and so in this case, that being is the existence or being of God. The main component of the Ontological argument can be found in the Anselm’s "Proslogion" which is a short work that tries to demonstrate both the existence and the nature of God. His main aim in writing the Proslogion is not to directly prove the existence of God but to moreover, to show the relationship between faith and reason. Anselm wanted to understand the object of the belief. He is also not trying to defend his belief against the atheist and neither is he trying to convince the atheist that God exists. The ontological argument differs from other arguments in favour of God as it is an ‘a priori’ deductive argument, a priori meaning that can come to a conclusion by the use of reason and not proof. A deductive argument means that if the premises that are put into the argument are true, then the conclusion must be true. Thus, Anselm tends to base his argument on the definitions and terminology used.

Anselm’s first form of the argument is that God is "that than which none greater can be conceived". Firstly, it must be emphasised that Anselm’s definition does not limit God to being the "greatest" but makes it known that nothing greater can be thought than God himself. Therefore, God should not in any way be linked to terms such as ‘omnipotent’ as terminology such as this limit him to what he really is. With this definition, he attempts to prove that not only does God exist in the mind but also in reality. Anselm uses the example of "the fool" to prove his point on God’s existence. He says that when "the fool" says that "There is no God" in Psalms, he must therefore understand what he hears , and what he understands in his intellect by the term "God". Therefore, if he knows what God is, God must exist as it is impossible to know what something is if it does not exist.

In chapter three in the ‘Proslogion’, Anselm contributes his second form to the argument. This form of the argument is that of ‘necessary existence’. He says that "that than which can be thought not to exist is not as great as that which cannot be thought not to exist." Therefore, to say that God can be thought not to exist if the definition of God is "that than which none greater can be conceived" contradicts the previous statement and this indicates that God necessarily exists.

(b) Examine the responses of various scholars to this argument

Various philosophers did question Anselm’s argument in favour of the existence of God. One of these philosophers was Gaunilon, Anselm’s contemporary who argued against Anselm’s first form of his argument. Gaunilon said that Anselm’s sense and reasoning would bring about a ridiculous conclusion if it was applied to any other field other than the existence of God. He attempts to set up an argument which is parallel to Anselm’s ontological argument by using the example of a perfect island. Gaunilon using the idea of this perfect island came to the conclusion that for it to be a ‘perfect island, it must exist both in mind and reality. This conclusion is ridiculous. Therefore, Anselm argued back at Guanilon by saying that that "the most perfect island" is part of the "contingent world" so cannot endure the same reasoning as is used for the most "perfect conceivable being". This indicates that Anselm is justifying why his principle does not apply to the "perfect island" example and he seems to be highlighting the importance of the idea of his second form of the argument which is that of "necessary existence" He is stressing the point that God is unique and that the reasoning of the ontological argument applies only to the most conceivable perfect being which has necessary existence.

Descartes moderated the ontological argument and said that "a supremely perfect being" must exist as existence is a defining predicate. He attempts to prove this concept by trying to portray it by using an example of a triangle. He says that "existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than the fact that its three angles equal two right angles can be separated from the essence of the triangle". Descartes is basically saying that by definition, a triangle must have three angles and in the same way, he is saying that that ‘existence’ must be a predicate that is included in the defining qualities that God holds.

The Cartesian version of the ontological argument was then challenged by Immanuel Kant. Kant completely disagreed with the concept that ‘existence’ as a predicate, however he momentary let this pass and accepted the fact that ‘existence’ is a predicate in order to prove another point. Kant disputes Descartes theory that God exists on the basis that "it does not follow that the subjects combined with their predicates exist because the subjects are linked to their predicates." Therefore, he says that if it someone knows that a triangle exists, then that same triangle must have three angles as this is one of the triangle’s defining predicates. He then tries to follow up on this notion by using the same theory but now linking it to the ‘perfect supreme being’. He says that if someone knows that there is a ‘perfect supreme being’, then that supreme being must exist as existence in this case is the defining predicate. By using this theory, Immanuel Kant has clearly demolished Descartes argument of the existence of both the "perfect supreme being" and the "triangle".

Kant does in fact, disagree with Descartes notion that existence is a predicate of God. He rejects this idea of an object that necessarily exists as he says that it is not possible to qualitatively compare whether existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind or not and therefore, possible and necessary existence cannot be compared either as one cannot say that either necessary or possible existence exists more than the other. With these arguments, Kant seems to have successfully demolished Anselm’s main argument.

Norman Malcolm, a twentieth century philosopher also attempted to strengthen the Ontological argument. Malcolm was very careful in his attempt to prove that God existed. His argument was based on two statements. The first was what if God exists, then his existence is necessary. The second statement argues that if God does not exist, his existence is impossible. However, since we cannot say that God’s existence is impossible, his existence is therefore necessary.

Davis weakens this argument by arguing that the use of the word ‘impossible’ is not used in a consistent manner throughout the argument. The word ‘ impossible’ in the second statement means that it cannot happen whereas the use of the word in the conclusion which is drawn up from the two premises means that God’s existence cannot be held without contradiction. As Malcolm changes the meaning of this word right in the middle of his argument, the two meanings of the word contradict one another and since the second premise is incorrect, the conclusion that God’s existence is necessary is also incorrect.

(c) To what extent does the argument remain strong in the light of these responses?

Several of the various versions of the ontological argument seem to have weakened. Anselm’s argument has been weakened by various philosophers, however, there are some elements that tend to show that his argument remains strong.

Anselm’s first form of the ontological argument was criticised by his contemporary Gaunilo. He drew parallels between the supreme being and a perfect island. He attempted to show proof that there is a ‘perfect island which no greater can be conceived’. Anselm disputed against Gaunilo’s attempt to weaken his argument by saying that the idea of God is unique. The concept of a ‘perfect island’ can never be consistent as every individual would tend to have their own idea of what a perfect island really is whereas the idea of "the most perfect being" seems to be a common idea that seems decided upon. This criticism tended to be ineffective and remained strong in this sense.

Kant does successfully however, destroy Anselm’s first form of the argument and indirectly also demolishes the argument on the ‘necessary existence’ though his criticism. He criticises and successfully attacks the Cartesian version that in order for there to be a ‘supreme being’, existence must be predicate of God (the supreme being). Norman Malcolm then tried to save this argument by coming up with an argument which Davis seems to have demolished successfully.

Although the argument does not seem to remain too strong in the light of these responses, we can say that although Anselm failed to show ‘the fool’ that God existed, he by acquiring more knowledge and understanding about the Christian beliefs seems to fortify his faith as a believer. Anselm’s second form of the argument seems has kept philosophers interested and fascinated with it throughout time.

The very fact that philosophers such as Descartes, Kant, Malcolm have been intrigued by the ontological argument strongly shows that it is a very important and complex argument which is in favour of the existence of God. Although a final and ultimate answer to the question of God’s existence has yet to be attained, it is still considered to be a remarkable argument.

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