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The Ontological Argument revisited

Via Jerry Coyne, I learned about this interesting radio discussion with three philosophers on BBC4, hosted by Melvyn Bragg, on the Ontological Argument.

I must admit that I am more than a little puzzled by the appeal of this argument, which has taken various forms over the centuries since it was first advanced by St. Anselm in the 11th century. Some of the greatest minds have taken a crack at it, some to try and improve upon it, others to refute it.

According to the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, the argument goes like this:

St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists. [italics in original]

As one of the philosophers in the radio program said, this is the most austere of the three major philosophical proofs for god, which can be classified as (1) the Design Argument, (2) the Cosmological Argument, and (3) the Ontological Argument.

The Design Argument is rich in facts. It asks us to look at all the features of the world and especially of nature and observe how well they are designed, and infers that there must be a designer, ergo god. The Cosmological Argument eschews all that and looks at just one brute fact, that our universe exists at all, and poses the fundamental question of why is there something rather than nothing (a question I discussed recently) and from that infers that god must exist in order to not have nothing. The Ontological Argument eschews empirical facts altogether and seeks to prove the existence of god using pure logic alone.

I discussed the Ontological Argument last year and expressed my skepticism about it.

I must admit, I just don’t get it. As I have said many times, I simply do not see how you can answer an empirical question of the existence of anything using pure reasoning without any supporting data. Just because you can conceive of something or because something is possible to exist cannot lead to any firm empirical conclusions as to its existence.

If this is the best argument that theologians can come up with, then god is done for.

After listening to this interesting discussion (which I can recommend because it is very thoughtful), my earlier conclusion remains unshaken.


  1. Randomfactor says

    It’s a poor mind that can’t easily conceive of a greater thing than an existing god. He fits into all those human-made boxes, after all.

  2. says

    I see the ontological argument as a tautology. All versions I’ve read thus far have packed God into the word great, or relied on the distinction of being. This, to me, is an horrendous flaw.

    If you leave off the word being, you might conceivably define greatest as, “That which allows things to exist.” In that incarnation, the universe itself is the greatest thing, as it allows all things that exist. But as soon as you tack on the word being, you’ve assumed your conclusion: that some other agent must exist that allows all things to exist.

    To me, this is an even greater flaw than the mind projection fallacy inherent in the conflation of conception and existence.

  3. busterggi says

    I’ve never bought the ontological argument simply because my first thought was, “I can think of a god that’s better than your god, as long as there is no way to actually measure divinity.”

    It makes no sense to me to declare an imaginary being ‘better’ than another imaginary being except maybe as literature/fiction.

  4. stonyground says

    Not only is the argument circular, it also begs the question by assuming what it is attempting to prove. All three of the “proofs” mentioned here fail to prove a specific god. Those using these arguments simply assume that it is the god of their own religion that they are arguing for.

    I mentioned over at WEIT that this subject has been dealt with by the Jesus and Mo cartoons. Someone pointed out that GC had already cited this but the link went to a different cartoon from the one that I was thinking of. J&M tried using the Ontological Argument on the barmaid and then ordered two more pints. The barmaid then said ‘Why don’t you just define two pints into existence?’.

  5. AsqJames says

    In Our Time is a very rare beast indeed in the modern media landscape – intelligent, thoughtful, rounded discussion from people who really know what they’re talking about and have a passion for communicating interesting and complex ideas to the general public.

    The In Our Time archive is well worth checking out.

  6. sawells says

    One very simple refutation is this: no, you can’t imagine “a being greater than which nothing can be conceived”, any more than you can imagine “a rational number which is the square root of 2″. There’s no such thing (especially as “greater” is not even defined, so you might as well say “more squognathous”). Even if you _think_ you’re imagining that thing, you aren’t; you’re just wrong.

  7. Jean says

    It’s impossible to arrive at a consistent definition of the greatest being. Just for example can this being destroy itself? If not then it’s not the greatest because it has limitations and if it can be destroyed then how can it be the greatest.

  8. Mano Singham says

    One of the later clarifications of the OA that I learned from listening to the program is that the definition of the thing cannot be self-contradictory. For example, one could think of the most perfect equilateral triangle but it makes no sense to think of the most perfect square circle. Such a thing cannot exist.

    So this would rule out self-contradictory definitions of god.

    Not that it helps much.

  9. Jean says

    But is what I mentioned self-contradictory? I’m not sure and I’m not a philosopher but that seems to indicate to me that the ontological argument is meaningless because is uses ambiguous language such as the word ‘greater’.

    I can conceive of a being so great that it can destroy anything and I can conceive of a being so great that nothing can destroy it so by definition the greatest being would have those two properties but it can’t. So the greatest being that you can conceive is just a made up concept that doesn’t mean anything.

    And you can’t just think something into existence anyway.

  10. Mano Singham says

    My comment was a general one not addressed specifically to your comment because I am not sure if a being that can destroy itself is self-contradictory.

  11. sawells says

    I’m going to assume that “greater” in theological arguments refers strictly to the ability to dance the rumba.

  12. Chiroptera says

    Presumably, the greatest conceivable being can eat anything. However, an even greater being can microwave a burrito so hot that it cannot eat it.

    I’m just sayin’, is all.

  13. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    At least the Sophistimacated Theology types are kind enough to offer us arguments so hilariously pathetic that they can be effectively addressed by a troll comic.

  14. Mano Singham says

    What was interesting during the radio discussion was that when opponents of the OA made that kind argument (they used an island instead of a taco), proponents said that the OA could only be used for things like god! That’s quite convenient, no?

  15. eigenperson says

    I am also confused by the appeal of the ontological argument. It’s so easy to dissect it.

    Let P be a scoring system for objects. To find the score of an object, simply use the following chart, adding together the point values for all lines which apply.

    If the object exists: 100 points
    If the object is a unicorn: 30 points

    Okay, now we can conceive of an object than which no higher-scoring object (on the scoring system P) can be conceived. Now, we can conceive of a unicorn U. Either U exists or it does not. If U does not exist, then P(U) = 30. But, we can conceive of a unicorn U’ with the additional property that U’ exists, and P(U’) = 130. This contradicts the maximality (on the scoring system P) of U, so this case is impossible. Therefore, U must exist. We conclude that a unicorn (namely, U) exists. Counterintuitive, to be sure, but who can argue with such a rigorous proof?

    But perhaps we were not ambitious enough with the scoring system P. I think I would like a billion dollars, don’t you? All we need is the proper scoring system:

    If the object exists: 100 points
    If the object is one billion US dollars in cash and is in my possession: 30 points

    Repeat the argument with P’ instead of P, and with one billion US dollars in my possession instead of a unicorn, and I have a billion dollars! Perhaps this is the long-awaited solution to the national debt?

  16. eigenperson says

    Oh, shoot. I should have reversed the roles of 30 and 100 — otherwise the argument doesn’t work. I guess that explains why I don’t have a billion dollars.

    On the other hand, now I’ve fixed the argument and I still don’t have a billion dollars, so something else must be wrong. But I can’t figure out what it is.

  17. bad Jim says

    To a mathematician, at least, the utility of logic is that its manipulations scrupulously preserve the premises. If a logical argument produces a result it must have been implicit in its premise, else there was a fault in the reasoning. You can’t get God out of logic alone.*

    The argument that a perfect being would be more perfect if it existed is somewhat like saying that anything would be better with a pony. Would a perfect evil would be more perfect if it existed or it didn’t? “Perfect” is being asked to do too much.

    * However, in Fortran IV, GOD is real unless declared integer.

  18. Funkopolis says

    Thing is, even if it was a valid argument, it would disprove the god of the bible. It’s pretty easy to imagine a more consistent, less childish deity whose holy books can actually withstand scrutiny. Maybe some meaningful predictions and a scale consistent with the universe… a few car chases…

    So, well done, St. Anselm. You’ve convinced me. There’s a god, and yours ain’t her.

  19. Albert Bakker says

    I suppose a Theologian would reply this argument is only reserved for necessary things or beings, things that exist (in modal logic terms) in all possible worlds. Taco’s are contingent things they exist in some possible worlds but perhaps not in all possible worlds.

    Then again one might argue that the perfect Taco would exist in all possible worlds indeed. Maybe then it follows that God is the perfect Taco.

  20. Goblinman says

    My theory is that the ontological argument is nonsensical in so many ways that it confuses people’s logic circuits and makes them think they must have missed something and it really makes sense after all.

    Once you get past that though, it is such a mess that nearly every word in it can be argued against.

    Just take the use of “perfect”, for instance. Where does the idea come from that something being “perfect” makes it MORE likely to exist? In the real world perfection is effectively impossible in almost all cases. You can flip the entire argument on its head by simply pointing out that it actually makes more sense that a “perfect being” couldn’t exist since, for the most part, perfect objects can only be imagined.

  21. Mano Singham says

    That is a very good point that according to mathematical logic, the conclusion implicitly contains the premise.

    I also like the Fortran idea.

  22. Aliasalpha says

    Given that the premise requires the actor to reach the limit of their ability to conceive ideas, wouldn’t that require a completely independent reality for every person alive because we all have different imaginations? Not only that but it’d surely be a constantly changing thing, some days you’d be less imaginative than others, what happens to god then?

    Say I had a bad day and the depression has set in, I’m focussed on the short term, small scale stuff and am not feeling overly imaginative. In that case, the values you’d get from me would be radically different than you’d get from me on days where I wake up with my brain overclocked and I’ve designed software, businesses & fictional realities in my head before I’ve even had breakfast. When exactly does this imagination of the divine get measured? Is there a theological analogue to the gas man coming round once a month to read your meter?

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