Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Ontological Argument (Part 2)

So last time I laid out St. Anselm's argument for God and gave a little history of it. I harbor no delusions that any of you printed it off and agonized over it for hours, but I do hope that at least some of you took a little time to try and understand the basic idea. This post will assume that you have, so if you haven't, perhaps another look wouldn't hurt.

Here I just want to deal with what I take to be the two most important objections that have been offered against the argument and then sketch briefly what use the argument itself may have for the thinking Christian (or the thinking non-believer for that matter).

The first and maybe most popular objection came very early on from a guy named Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm. Without going into too much detail, Gaunilo offered a now-famous 'perfect island' analogy. Applying Anselm's own logic, he said, we could quite easily construct 'proofs' for things like perfect islands, perfect beaches, perfect sunsets, etc. This is because, according to Anselm, the very idea of 'perfection' will always entail actual existence. But of course none of these things really exists. So, by counter-example, neither must Anselm's God.

The problem with this objection is fairly obvious upon reflection. It is a simple misunderstanding of Anselm's first premise, which defines God as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived.' This is not limited to islands or beaches or sunsets, but rather includes all conceivable beings. Without this clarification, the argument does indeed fail.

But Anselm was very clear from the beginning what we are talking about here: not everyday, contingent beings but the Christian God--the necessary ground of all being itself. Indeed, this is what makes the argument work. So Anselm's response here could be something like, "Well of course a perfect island doesn't actually exist! Who would ever think of such a thing? Now back to my argument..."

The second objection comes from Immanuel Kant and is largely regarded as the most important to date. Unfortunately, exactly what Kant had in mind with his objection is not entirely clear, but it has classically been summed up in the phrase "existence is not a predicate."

A 'predicate' in this sense is basically 'what is being said about the subject,' in this case, God. Presumably, by this Kant meant something like 'the idea of something actually existing does not really say anything about that thing.' Think of it this way: picture a chair in your mind and then imagine that someone were able to make an exhaustive list of all of the features--all the predicates--of that chair. Every possible description of it would be on the list. Kant's claim seems to be that adding to the list the fact that the chair actually exists would not be saying anything of substance. It wouldn't add anything to the description we already have.

Again, without going into too much detail, I just think Kant was wrong. I think existence (at the very least necessary existence--the kind we're talking about with God) is a predicate. And fairly obviously so. To paraphrase one of my professors, would you rather have the candy bar in your head or the one in your hand? And if the latter, then existence must add something to the description of the candy bar, mustn't it?

So much for the two best objections. On to the usefulness of the argument.

Obviously, this is not something one should throw out in most conversations, especially those of an evangelistic nature. You'd probably just end up sounding arrogant and confusing your conversation partner. This is because arguments like this one, even if they're sound (which I believe this one is), are hardly ever persuasive. Many people who recognize its power still feel tricked somehow by the end of it.

However, I do believe the argument serves an important purpose. At the very least I think it shows that belief in God is not irrational. In fact, going on this argument alone, it is at least as rational as unbelief. And when we supplement it with the other arguments for God we are discussing, we can make a persuasive case indeed.

So while I would probably not use the ontological argument in normal conversation, I do consider it to be sort-of an a priori (known apart from experience) playing field-leveler when it comes to the question of God's existence.

Next time, the moral argument. Stay tuned.

* Be sure to check out Professor John Lennox discussing the self-defeating nature of naturalism and the evidential basis of Christianity in the new Featured Video down on the right. It's only about 7 1/2 minutes long, and well worth it.


  1. I really liked the aspect of the existance of God being a predicate. Our mind can concieve of an infinite number of things, but the reality is in things that exist. Through this argument, God is seen as someone to get to know in the here and now and not just make up in one's head.

  2. I hate the fact that I can no longer just grab a piece of paper and formulate your ontological argument using symbolic logic. I need to bust out my old logic book when I get back to the states and study up. I can barely do a basic truth table anymore :(

    I find it interesting that you find the ontological to be your favorite argument. I have always favored it the least, preferring instead the teleological or cosmological arguments for the existence of God. It doesn't seem right or reasonable to me to say that because any one thing can be conceived of, it must therefore exist in a real sense, even if that thing is assumed to be infinite. Being able to conceive of God doesn't prove anything in my mind. I agree with Kant wholeheartedly. I'll take it this way, similar to Kant: being able to prove God's existence logically does nothing to prove His existence corporeally. Because He can exist in a thought experiment does nothing to say that He exists in reality as well. Assuming you were able to predicate everything possible about that chair you were talking about picturing in your mind, the chair actually existing would obviously be significant. However, predicating the chair's existence in a logical sense does not mean that the chair actually exists; it means that it does for the purposes of your argument perhaps, but nothing further than that. Therefore, predicating the chair's existence only has significance (or at least only has meaningful significance) if the chair actually exists. Predicating the existence of the chair is significant, but the chair's actual existence is more significant and can't be achieved by a mere predication. That, I think, is what Kant meant when he said that you can't predicate existence, and I think you're making a straw man of his argument. The object's infinitude, while perhaps defeating Gaunilo's counter, ultimately is rendered pointless because its being infinite doesn't defeat Kant. Necessary existence is really more of a cosmological argument anyway, not an ontological argument.

    Anyway, what I really came to your blog for was to see if you'd posted anything about original sin. My chaplain thinks that Christ removed the curse of original sin and therefore people are literally born sinless and are only held accountable when they reach the alleged "age of accountability" and their depraved (but he thinks not totally depraved) wills kick in and cause real sin. I disagree with him, but unfortunately original sin is one of the more important biblical concepts that I really don't have a strong grasp of. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

    Justin Sedlak

  3. So, God exists, because God exists? Using this logic, Zeus exists because Zeus exists, or that scary monster in the closet that my daughter keeps telling me exists really exists just because she believes it. I'm glad we use this logic on a daily basis, and that the Pentagon and the court systems use this logic. Otherwise, we all would be disbelievers. And being a disbeliever is the worst crime, right?

  4. Excellent posts on the Ontological Argument. Might I recommend Stephen Parrish's "God and Necessity" if you would like to read what I consider the strongest version of this argument? I've written about it extensively on my site.

  5. Justin: First, I'm terribly sorry that it has taken me this long to respond to your post. Second, I must say that it is refreshing to receive an intelligent objection to something I've posted, and interesting that it comes from a fellow believer. (No offense intended to my other commenters, of course.) That said, I'll try to deal with your objection.

    The pertinent portion of your comment is as follows: "...predicating the chair's existence in a logical sense does not mean that the chair actually exists...Predicating the existence of the chair is significant, but the chair's actual existence is more significant and can't be achieved by a mere predication. That, I think, is what Kant meant when he said that you can't predicate existence, and I think you're making a straw man of his argument. The object's infinitude, while perhaps defeating Gaunilo's counter, ultimately is rendered pointless because its being infinite doesn't defeat Kant."

    I do not think I am misrepresenting Kant's claim at all. In fact, I wonder if your own reading of him is legitimate. To find out, I suppose we'll have to look to him. The relevant passage from his Transcendental Dialectic is as follows:

    "'Being' is obviously not a real predicate; that is, 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 copula of a judgment. The proposition "God is omnipotent" contains two concepts, each of which has its object -- God and omnipotence. The small word "is" adds no new predicate, but only serves to posit the predicate in its relation to the subject. If, now, we take the subject (God) with all its predicates (among which is omnipotence), and say "God is," or "There is a God," we attach no new predicate to the concept of God, but only posit it as an object that stands in relation to my concept. The content of both must be one and the same; nothing can have been added to the concept, which expresses merely what is possible, by my thinking its object (through the expression "it is") as given absolutely. Otherwise stated, the real contains no more than the merely possible...By whatever and by however many predicates we may think a thing -- even if we completely determine it -- we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that this thing is. Otherwise it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than we had thought in the concept: and we could not, therefore, say that the object of my concept exists. If we think in a thing every feature of reality except one, the missing reality is not added by my saying that this defective thing exists."

  6. Justin (cont.): As I mentioned in my post, this is more than a little unclear. Whatever Kant's actual argument was, he was apparently relatively unconcerned about formulating it clearly. This is unfortunate. However, from what we can glean from the passage, I personally think my interpretation is fair and yours perhaps a bit too friendly. That isn't to say Kant wouldn't agree with you, but only that your claim and his are not obviously identical. However, it is clear that Kant DOES say that actual existence adds nothing to the explanation of a thing, as I claimed in the post. And this seems obviously false to me.

    However, your own claim (probably one Kant would agree with) still ought to be dealt with. You say, "predicating the chair's existence in a logical sense does not mean that the chair actually exists." I wholeheartedly agree. And so, I believe, would Anselm. And this is the real problem with Kant's objection, one I now wish I had made clear in the post: it is just irrelevant. Nowhere in Anselm's argument does he make a list of God's attributes and then add existence to them and claim, "Voila! God exists!" In fact, it seems to me that the only way for Kant's objection to be relevant is if we take him to simply be denying premise (3)...and this would be something like MY interpretation of him. So it turns out maybe I'm being nicer to Kant than you. ;)

    As far as original sin goes, I have not posted anything on it, and I likely won't for some time. This is because (1) It's very sticky and guaranteed to alienate at least some readers no matter what position I take, and (2) frankly, I don't know what I think about it. Part of your chaplain's thoughts resonate with me and other parts really rub me the wrong way. But since you mentioned the 'age of accountability,' I literally just read a somewhat interesting post on that over at Prosblogion: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2010/07/accountability.html

    Thanks for commenting!

  7. Anonymous: You may want to go back and read the first half of the post again more carefully.