The Ontological Argument: Is it Logical?
by Ryan S
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It is the mark of any great philosopher to make those with whom he philosophizes with to believe what he believes. On the subject of the existence of God many philosophers have attempted to sway the masses to affirmation. Even more have tried to coax society into negation. Knowledge has grown over the centuries, and philosophers have gained more ammunition for their fierce battles. The effect of this procurement is usually the casting aside of old arguments in favor of the more current ones.
Very few arguments survive the test of time without fading into obscurity. One of the few to endure is nearly a thousand years old. Saint Anselm's Ontological Argument continues to puzzle a great number of philosophers. The Archbishop of Canterbury for the 11th century formulated what can seem like an infallible argument for the existence of God (Perry, 45). I shall answer the question: Does Anselm's work deserve all of this thought?
What is it about this argument that is so beyond a definite answer? To answer that question we must first understand the argument itself.
Ontology- from which the argument derives its proper name- is the study of being. Being, as I shall use the word, is to belong in reality, i.e. to exist. Anselm set out to produce an argument that would make the "fool" see that by denying God he was in fact admitting God existed.
The core of his argument is sometimes difficult to grasp verbatim from his text. So for analysis purposes most philosophers break it apart into its obvious pieces. Anselm defines God as "That than which nothing greater can be conceived" (Perry, 45).
That is to say that God possesses every great attribute and power and lacks absolutely nothing that is to be attributed to greatness. This is what the argument will revolve around. Next Anselm begins to build on his platform.
"When the fool hears the words 'something than which nothing greater can be conceived,' he understands what he hears, and what he understands exists in his understanding-even if he doesn't think that it exists." (Perry, 45).
And that is Anselm's first goal. To get a person to admit that they understand his definition of God in their mind. He needs them to be able to understand God's existence in their mind first. In his continuing reductio ad absurdum he begins to approach the argument like a mathematical proof (Depoe, 2). To simplify, we will designate the aforementioned definition of God as E.
Moving forward in his argument he introduces Another being, which we shall call F. This second being, F, is defined the same as E (God) but a god that exists both in understanding and reality. Anselm maintains that it is greater to exist in both reality and understanding than to simply exist in the understanding. Therefore F is greater than E!
This however is a blatant contradiction of Anselm's definition of God. And since of course nothing can exist that is greater than God, he must exist. That is the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God.
The initial reaction to Anselm's argument is most commonly one, not of complete understanding, but one of confusion (Depoe, 1). After several more readings people most likely develop opinions based on their personal beliefs. That is to say a theist would be more likely to give Anselm credence that would an ardent atheist. I had to read and re-read the argument many times before I was able to answer the very question that I posed earlier. Is the ontological argument brilliant logic that can't be refuted?
No, it is not. There are far too many objections that weaken the arguments strength past the point of breaking. My first problem came in Anselm's definition of God.
He claimed "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" was what was to amount to God. However I question his use of the word greater in his definition. Greater alludes to "better than" which is a subjective phrase that varies from person to person.
Let us imagine that Anselm's perfect God has a certain number of perfect conceivable qualities. Let these qualities be represented by the variables A through G. The said variables can stand for any such qualities Anselm would desire. Be they omnipotence or omni-benevolence or any other conceivable quality. Let me then say that quality H, which was not included in Anselm's list, is the quality that I believe a God must have. Therefore my definition of "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" is different than Anselm's and anyone else's for that matter.
I could see Anselm's followers leaping to defend him by saying that God is the sum of everyone's conceivability. However I think that objection will fall flat based on Anselm's wording itself. The word conceive is yet another subjective adjective. What I can conceive is not what someone else can conceive. My limits may be set further or shorter than theirs happen to be. Things may be different if Anselm had used the word possibility instead of conceivability, however this is not the case. Thus because Anselm's definition is, in my view not applicable and indefinable, his argument is greatly flawed.
However others find many faults in his arguments as well. His own associate, a man by the name of Gaunilo, was actually the first to raise an objection. He said that according to Anselm's logic anything could be "reasoned" into existence (Depoe, 1). Gaunilo used an island as his example. He said that if he envisioned an island that is "beautiful and sparking and completely perfect" then it must exist. He reasoned that an island that did exist would be more perfect than the one that he had pictured, and therefore his perfect island must exist in reality. Gaunilo argued that we can't show that something exists merely by analyzing such a thought. Allow me to provide an example along Anselm's line of thinking. Imagine an eight-legged cow that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Everyone can picture a cow with eight legs given a little imagination. Hence an eight-legged cow exists in your understanding. We will designate this eight-legged creature as C. Now picture an eight-legged cow that exists in both your understanding and in reality. Let that be known as D. D exists in both reality, and understanding so one is forced to assume that D is greater than C. However by definition nothing can be greater than C. Therefore to satisfy the definition, C must exist in reality.
According to Anselm I have just proved the existence of an eight-legged cow by using his own reasoning. However like any good philosopher Anselm responded to his critics with yet another puzzling argument. He argued that God was the one exception to the rule. In his reply to Gaunilo he said,
" If any man shall devise anything existing in reality or in concept alone except that a greater cannot be conceived to which he can adapt the sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him his lost island never to be lost again" (Depoe, 2).
Another apparently baffling argument produced from the 11th century archbishop. But is it really? I do not think so. He says that if his argument applies to anything except the being that which nothing greater can be conceived, he will find the Gaunilo's Island himself (Stairs, 1998). In other words, he is saying that the Ontological Argument works for "God" but not for other things. That may be a valid point. But he does not offer a reason as to why.
I do not feel that Anselm addressed the objection. Thus I must assume that he could not successfully defend his argument.
The objection that is given the most credence is by far Immanuel Kant's. The 19th century philosopher built on previous objections involving existence.
Kant claimed that existence is not a trait that can be added to an object (Manfredi, 1999). He also maintained that existence did not make an object "greater".
The common example drawn is between that of a real one hundred dollar bill and of a hundred dollar bill thought of in the mind. One can be crumpled and one is not, however both retain the exact same properties. Keep in mind that the ability to be used in reality does not affect the perceived "greatness" of that object, the dollar bill in this case.
Kant attacks the very structure of Anselm's argument. And as most philosophers agree, I believe Kant has done the most damage to Anselm's crusade to rid the world of "fools".
Thus we have quite a few arguments to Anselm's Ontological Argument. In writing his work to convince the "fool" he may have only succeeded in making the "fool" think harder about what it was he was being foolish about. It is probably safe to assume that as many people that have been converted by this argument, an equal number of people have become stronger in their beliefs against it. I believe Anselm was a very clever educated man who attempted to prove the impossible.
In closing I offer you another Ontological Argument. Allen Stairs of the University of Maryland argues that "one way of putting Anselm's argument is that if God is even possible, God must exist necessarily." Most people would agree that it is very possible that God exists. And if the people of the world could be objective, they might also admit that it is possible that there is no God. And if God must exist necessarily we get an argument for a totally opposite conclusion from Anselm's: God does not exist. To phrase the argument like Anselm's it would appear like this. "If a being greater than which nothing greater can be conceived exists, then God exists necessarily (God can't fail to exist.) If it is possible for a thing not to exist, then it does not exist necessarily.
It is possible that God doesn't exist. Therefore, God doesn't exist necessarily" (Stairs, 1998).
Therefore, God doesn't exist.