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The Ontological Argument - Responses and Objections

The Ontological Argument: Anselm, Gaunilo, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Russell, Aquinas, Malcolm, Plantinga,

Elliot Reynolds

on 20 September 2016

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Transcript of The Ontological Argument - Responses and Objections


The £50 that you imagine in your mind
A £50 note that exists
in both the mind and in
The philosophical
study of existence
An argument based on reason and logic, where if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be true
1033 - 1109
Archbishop of Canterbury
French theologian
Originator of the Ontological Argument
Developed his theory not to convert atheists, but to help theists understand their faith.
'Faith seeking understanding'
Anselm's 1st
Ontological Argument
God is that which nothing greater can be conceived.
A real, existent being would be greater than an imaginary, fabricated being
Therefore, God exists.
In his writing, he made reference to Psalm 53:
The fool says in his heart 'there is no God'
why then, did the fool say in his heart 'God is not', since it is so obvious to the rational mind that you exist supremely above all things? How was the fool able to 'say in his heart' what he was unable to conceive?!
Necessary and Contingent
Empiricism and Rationalism
'A Priori' and 'A Posteriori'
Knowledge gained before experience
Conceptual, logical knowledge
'All bachelors are unmarried men'
Knowledge gained from empirical experience
Knowledge based on the senses
'All bachelors are happy'
Analytic and Synthetic
A statement that is true by definition
No evidence is needed to prove it
'All bachelors are unmarried men'
A statement in which the predicate is not necessarily part of the subject
'All bachelors are happy'
'God is the Greatest Conceivable Being'
Anselm believed this to be an analytic a priori statement - The concept of existence is part of the concept of God.
Criticisms of Anselm
Contemporary of St. Anselm
French Monk
Apart from his letter to St. Anselm titled 'On behalf of the fool', we know relatively little about him
'The Lost Island example
Replace God with island and it is easier to see how Anselm's argument is flawed.
You may think of an island to be perfect, but if this island had one more beach, or one more palm tree, it will surely make it even more perfect
St Anselm thought that Gaunilo devised a good argument, but he misunderstood one thing
God has necessary existence
logically impossible for it not to be true
if something has necessary existence then it is logically impossible for it not to exist
something that is dependent on something else
if something has contingent existence then it might, or might not exist, but importantly, it does not NEED to exist.
God has necessary existence, whereas everything else in the world, including a perfect island has contingent existence.
For example: we would say that a train carriage has necessary existence, whereas the train tracks will have contingent existence.
Anselm's 2nd
God is the Greatest Conceivable Being
A God that can not be thought of as not existing, is greater than that which can be thought of as not existing
Therefore, God exists
St Thomas Aquinas
1225 - 1274
God's existence is not self evident
'Truth does not exist'
God's existence is logically impossible because 'the fool said in his heart'. Therefore, there is no proof behind this statement.
God is extraordinary so we can not speak of him in human language.
'Perhaps not everyone who hears the name 'God' understands it to signify something which is greater can be thought seeing that some have believed God to be a body. everyone understands that by this name 'God' is signified something that which nothing greater can be thought. nevertheless the name God does not actually, just mentally.
There had to be more than just a definition to prove the existence of God - Aquinas believed that firm evidence was needed to prove the existence of God.
evidence that he provided in 5 ways...
Aquinas' 5 pieces of evidence:
Unmoved mover
First cause
Argument from contingency
Argument from degree
Teleological argument
1596 - 1650
French philosopher and mathematician
'Father of modern philosophy'
relating to Descartes and his thoughts
The view that reason is the source of knowledge
Truth is not gained through the senses, as they can deceive us, but via our intellect and method of deduction
Plato, Descartes and Lebinez were all Rationalists
The view that knowledge is based on sensory experience
Aristotle, Locke and Hume were all Empiricists
Descartes believed that people are born with innate ideas that are imprinted in our minds from birth, which are universally shared by humanity
Ideas such as: equality, shape, number and understanding what God is.
God is a Supremely Perfect Being with all perfections as his attributes. by perfections, Descartes meant the traditional attributes, such as omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence.
Descartes' version of the Ontological Argument
God is the most perfect being, so he all all perfections
Existence is a perfection
As the most perfect being, God must exist
Also known as the Cartesian Ontological Argument
Analogy of the triangle
You can not think of a triangle, without thinking of it as having 3 sides and angles which equate to 180 degrees
Just as the notion of 3 angles is essential to a triangle, so is existence to the notion of God
'Existence can be no more separated from the essence of God than can having three angles equal to two right angles be separated from the essence of a triangle.'
Descartes continued to say that God is perfect, he must be unchanging, therefore must have always existed and will continue to always exist.
Criticisms of
Draw the outline of a house
Give it a chimney
Give it a central front door
Give it windows
Draw a path leading up to the front door
Draw two flowers either side of the path
Give it existence
Existence is not a predicate
Existence is not a characteristic or attribute of something
Existence, Kant argued it not the same as a predicate; it does not tell us anything about the object that would help us to identify it
We can predicate of a unicorn that it is similar to a horse and has a single straight horn in the middle of its forehead, but adding 'exists' to our description will not make any difference to whether or not the concept of a 'unicorn' is realistic so that we could go and find one
Response to Kant
God's existence is different to anything else
God's existence is necessary and so perhaps 'necessary existence' is a predicate, but it only can be predicated of God.
The problem with this response is that the argument then becomes circular. we have to accept that God exists necessarily in order to come to the conclusion that God exists necessarily
Being is obviously not a predicate, that is as it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. it is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the binding of judgement
Many philosophers consider Kant's criticism fatally damaging to the Ontological Argument
Modern Versions
1911 - 1990
American Philosopher
Studied with Wittgenstein who is concerned with the philosophy of language
Revived the Ontological Argument
Accepted Kant's argument that existence is not a predicate but still argued that Anselm's second version of the Ontological Argument was successful
If God does not exist today, then he never can and never will - His existence must be impossible.
If God does exist, then he must exist necessarily
God's existence is therefore either impossible or necessary
God's existence is not impossible. it is not logically contradictory to have the concept of a God who exists - it is an idea that we can entertain without any logical absurdity
Therefore, given that God's existence is not impossible, it must be necessary
Consequently, God exists necessarily
Criticisms of Malcolm
Perfect Island

There can be things that do not exist without their existence being impossible
It is illogical to say that 'sometimes there is a God and sometimes there isn't' (if we accept that God would have to be eternal), but it is not illogical to say 'maybe there is a God and maybe there isn't'
Malcolm's versions of the argument, like the other's rests on the assumption that God's existence is different to the existence of other things.
Malcolm did not think that the argument would convince atheists, but theists would see the necessary truth to the claim 'God exists'
It only proves God is true for those who believe in God
Uses 'modal logic'
Modal logic concerns possibility; whether something is possible, necessary or impossible.
Modal logic: philosophers consider not just what exists and occurs in the world we have, but also what could exist or could occur in a world of infinite possibilities
Plantinga's version of
the Ontological Argument
This is consistent with Descartes' God of all perfections and Anselm's 'greatest conceivable being'
There must be a being of 'maximal greatness'
A necessary being exists and continues to exist independently whereas a contingent being depends on other factors for its existence and therefore, can not be 'maximally great'
The being of 'maximal greatness' must have necessary existence
A maximally great being's existence in a possible world is either impossible or necessary
To exist in a possible world the being of maximal greatness would be self contradictory - it's existence illogical and its concept incoherent. Therefore, Plantinga concluded that existence must be necessary
Criticisms of Plantinga
A being of no maximality
By this, we mean that God has no maximum
This would illustrate that God does not exist in any possible world
Revision Test Questions:
1. In what century did Anselm live?
2. How did Anselm define God?
3. Who criticised St Anselm's argument by applying it to the notion of a Lost Island?
4. What is meant by 'necessary existence'
5. What is an analytic proposition?
6. What did the 'fool say in his heart' according to Psalm 53?
7. Who argued that God's existence is not self evident, but can be demonstrated in five way?
8. Who described God's attributes in terms of 'perfections'?
9. Who criticised the Ontological Argument by saying existence is not a predicate?
10. Which modern scholar claimed that God's existence is either impossible or necessary and it is not impossible
Revision Test Answers:
1. 11th
2. 'that which nothing greater can be conceived'
3. Gaunilo
4. It means existence which does not depend on anything else
5. A statement which gives the definition of something else
6. there is no God
7. Aquinas
8. Descartes
9. Kant
10. Norman Malcolm
That part of a statement that makes an assertion
about a subject - telling you what something is, does or has.
Full transcript