Whenever we debate the existence of God with one another, the conversation almost always seems to steer itself towards some kind of personal reliance on faith.
For some theists, faith is enough. Hell, faith is often more than just enough; it’s all there is.
But for other believers, faith is seen only as a tool that can be truly appreciated by those who have been enlightened by the graces of whichever religion they happen to subscribe to.
Some of these people recognize that if they want to be able to convince others of the existence of their God, they will have to do so by appealing to their rational senses. Others simply believe that God exists, and thus there should be ways to logically prove his existence.
Regardless of the reason, many theologians have taken it upon themselves to provide logical arguments that necessitate the existence of God.
So today we’re going to take a look at one of the very first formal arguments proposed to prove the existence of God and all of the logical problems that come with it.
The Ontological Argument
Ontology is the study of being or existence. When we talk of matters concerning ghosts or fairies or unicorns, we’re speaking ontologically. In terms of arguments for the existence of God, the Ontological Argument (OA) is basically the argument from existence. If that sounds circular, that’s because it is. But I’ll get to that in a second.
Early fragments of the OA are present in the works of some ancient Greek thinkers, but it wasn’t put forth as a complete idea until it was detailed in Anselm of Canterbury’s 1078 book of prayer titled Proslogion.
The argument is a logical proof that basically goes like this:
- God is the greatest being we can ever conceive of. He’s just the bee’s knees.
- Any being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that doesn’t necessarily exist in reality.
- Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind but doesn’t necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than God.
- But something greater than God can’t be imagined, being that he’s the bee’s knees and all.
- So, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality.
- God exists in the mind as an idea.
- Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality.
Sounds good, right? Looks like Anselm has this one all figured out, doesn’t it? Might as well just pack up and go home now!
But wait a second.
The argument might be sound, but that doesn’t mean we can let Anselm off the hook. There are numerous problems with the OA that we should cover before we accept it as law.
Reason #1: The Ontological Argument Is Arbitrary
One major flaw regarding the OA arises when we attempt to use the same type of reasoning as Anselm to make other types of ontological arguments.
- Unicorns are the best type of horse I can conceive of.
- I can conceive of unicorns, so they must exist.
- Otherwise, unicorns wouldn’t be the best type of horse. There would be a better type of horse, and that one would have to exist.
Do you see the problem with ontological arguments? You can use them to justify the existence of anything because they rely on the subjectivity of perfection within our minds to necessitate real world manifestations.
A contemporary of Anselm named Gaunilo of Marmoutiers objected to the OA by creating a similar parody about the existence of a perfect island, utilizing the same counter-argument structure I did above.
But Anselm argued that Gaunilo missed the point of the argument; God is the only necessary being or object in existence, and all other derivative existences of the OA are contingent upon God’s initial existence.
This is a fair point, because Guanilo used the OA to prove the existence of the best island, but not the best being. A problem arises in that we could always conceive of a better island or a better horse by simply adding “God-like” attributes to it, such as the ability to create other beings or the ability to perform miracles.
We could then follow this chain of improvements upwards until we reached the necessary existence of God, which would ultimately be some incomprehensible form of the ultimate version of everything, from beings to islands to unicorns.
So God is not only the best being, but the best island, the best unicorn, the best rapper, the best basketball player. You name it. He’s the best everything. I mean, he’s God.
But isn’t that irrational? When you look at the defining qualities of an island, you know it is relatively small in comparison to other land masses, it’s made up of some type of mineral foundation, and it is surrounded by water on all sides. So if you were to add God-like attributes to it, at what point is it no longer an island, but instead God? Would you not end up with an island-God instead of a God-God?
On top of that, you can argue that God is the best thing, but it is inconceivable to say that he is the best island. The best island is the best island. Beings and objects should be defined by the qualities they have and the function they serve. The qualities and functions of God and islands may overlap, but they are not even close to being identical.
I know it might seem as if we have entered the Philosophy Fun House (and in a way, we have, because this discussion has become quite silly), but this is really just a testament to the ridiculousness of the OA. It is ultimately an inconclusive argument that fails to provide epistemic proof of the existence of anything.
Reason #2: The Ontological Argument Begs The Question
By stating that the OA only applies to God because he is a necessary being, Anselm commits the logical fallacy of begging the question, which means he assumes the conclusion of his argument to be true within his argument.
This is why the OA seems sound, but it ultimately fails to be able to prove anything other than what it has assumed.
If we define God as “an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnitemporal, and omnibenevolent being who necessarily exists,” then yes, by definition God exists.
But we can define God to be anything. Keep in mind that definitions are a representation of how words are used in everyday vernacular, not the universal understanding of the word. Man precedes language. Definitions for words change all of the time.
By stating that God necessarily exists because he is a necessary being and that to not exist would diminish his greatness, we are assuming that existence is necessary for perfection.
The problem with this is that existence is not a quality. Nor can it be a tenet of the way something is defined. I can conceive of unicorns just fine regardless of whether or not they exist.
If unicorns did exist, their quality would not be improved. Just as if dogs or cats or fainting goats didn’t exist, their qualities would not be diminished. Existence cannot define something.
So we can imagine a perfect being without prescribing necessary existence as a quality, because a perfect being who exists is no better than a perfect being who does not exist. We don’t even understand the nature of existence ourselves, so to prescribe it as an admirable quality might feel correct, but it is ultimately based on our own perception of the importance of existence. Which is flawed.
Reason #3: Existence Can’t Be Proven Through Logic Alone
Before I detail this argument, let’s take a detour to Philosophy Land (which has to be the worst amusement park ever) and do some learnin’ on the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
In his 1781 Critique of Pure Reason, Kant outlines the four types of propositions or statements a person can make.
The first dichotomy is between Analytic and Synthetic Statements.
An analytic statement is one where the predicate idea of the sentence is included in the subject. Examples would be “All bachelors are unmarried,” or “All squares have four sides.”
Analytic statements contain conclusions that must necessarily follow from the initial premises. The definition of the word “bachelor” demands that they be unmarried, and the definition of the word “square” demands that it have four sides.
Synthetic statements are the opposite; the predicate idea is not included in the subject. Examples would be “All bachelors have more fun than married people,” or “Velveeta cheese tastes like shit.”
The definitions of the words “bachelor” and “Velveeta cheese” say nothing about them having fun or tasting like shit. The subjects and predicates of these statements represent two separate ideas.
The second dichotomy is between a priori and a posteriori statements.
In Latin, a priori means “from what comes before,” and a posteriori means “from what comes after.” In reference to philosophy, you can place the word “experience” at the end of each definition to understand the significance of the dichotomy.
A priori statements contain justifications that do not require experience. Experience may supplement the validity of an a priori statement, but it is not at all necessary for the justification.
Examples would include “All crows are birds” or “2+2=4.” For both examples, you do not need to physically experience birds or numbers to justify these statements.
A posteriori statements, on the other hand, do require experience to be justified. These statements cannot be verified without some type of evidence.
Examples include “All crows are alcoholics” or “Girls don’t fart.” There is no way you could determine the validity of these statements without any sort of real world experience. (But I’m still fairly confident that both statements are not true.)
When you combine the Analytic vs Synthetic dichotomy with the a priori vs a posteriori dichotomy, you get 4 types of possible statements:
- Analytic a priori – Every analytic statement is a priori. If the predicate idea of a proposition is included in the subject, then the statement can be justified without experience. Such as “all bachelors are unmarried,” or “all squares have four sides.”
- Analytic a posteriori – These statements are actually impossible to make, because all analytic statements are a priori. You can’t make a self-evident proposition that also requires real world experience.
- Synthetic a priori – These are statements that can be verified without experience, but the predicate idea is not contained in the subject. Examples would include statements made with undefined logical truths like “1+1=2” or “The sun can’t be completely red or orange at the same time.” You don’t need to experience numbers or the sun to verify these statements, but you do need to have an understanding of numbers and colors.
- Synthetic a posteriori – These are statements that need to be verified with experience, and they do not have predicate ideas contained in the subject. Examples include, “Spongebob is yellow,” or “Butts exist.” Nothing contained within these statements are logically evident in any way, so they can only be verified empirically.
I know that’s a lot to take in all at once. Bear with me. I’m about to connect the dots.
Let’s take the statement, “God exists,” for example. Is it analytic? Synthetic? How about a priori? A posteriori?
Anselm assumes it to be an analytic statement because the definition of God includes his existence. But we have already demonstrated that definitions and language do not necessitate reality. If we change our language to say that bananas are blue and not yellow, bananas will not magically change to the color blue. All that has changed is the name we give to the color that bananas are.
Furthermore, existence is not a predicate concept. Reason #2 detailed how the existence of something does not add or subtract from its definition, so to include existence within a definition is illogical and unnecessary.
So if existence cannot be contained within the predicate idea of “God exists,” then it can’t be an analytic statement. Which means it’s synthetic. That’s one down. Now is it a priori or a posteriori?
If we think about this for more than three seconds, it becomes quite apparent that nothing can be said to exist a priori. Without any way to experience the world, how could you come to believe that anything exists at all? It is only through experience that we come to believe that people and cars exist and unicorns and fairies do not.
So “God exists” is not an a priori statement. It is a synthetic a posteriori statement. An empirical statement. Like any other thing that is said to exist, God’s existence can only be verified by empirical evidence.
This is yet another strike against the OA, which assumes the existence of God to be an analytic truth. Which it’s not.
Reason #4: The Ontological Argument Assumes Real Objects Are Greater Than Imaginary Ones
This is the ultimate dilemma that needed to be solved from Reason #2.
At first glance, this seems to make sense. A giant ass chocolate chip cookie would be much better if it existed right in front of me than if it existed only in my mind. The same can be said of a huge pile of money or the time traveling DeLorean from Back to The Future.
But these things would only be better if they were real in terms of how they benefit me. The giant ass cookie is going to get its giant ass eaten if it existed right in front of me.
So is the cookie actually greater if it exists in reality and not just the mind? This is ultimately a moot point. As far as we know, cookies don’t manifest consciousness or sentience. Their existence or non-existence bears no weight on the scope of the universe. (Although it might bear some weight on me if I eat it all in one sitting, hardy-har-har.)
So maybe we should talk about the potential existence of some sort of living creature instead. Let’s go back to our unicorn example cause why the fuck not. Would unicorns actually be better if they were real?
If you want to argue that a being who exists is greater than a being who doesn’t because existent beings possess a greater power and ability to exert their will upon the universe, then I don’t think I can provide any valid responses to critique your claim.
But what about the fact that the nonexistent unicorns that reside within my mind are granted a freedom that they might otherwise not be able to possess in the physical world? What with zoos and global warming and man’s desire to control everything.
Imaginary creatures possess the potential to be anything and do anything. But that freedom is lost once imaginary beings enter reality. Actualization is a very restrictive process.
Beings that could once fly and cure cancer and fart out rainbows in my mind are now bound by the laws of physics and the laws of man in the real world. Beings that once could act in an infinite number of ways are now harshly limited in the number of things they are able to do.
Who are we to say whether something existent is greater than something non-existent? Life is suffering. For all of the beauty and wonder this world presents us, it offers up an equal or greater amount of pain and misery.
Without a conception of God who is willing to grant us eternal life in his supposed kingdom (but not animals, mind you, who experience just as much anguish as humans, if not more so), life becomes inherently meaningless anyway. So at that point, what does existence matter in any context greater than the individual sentience of a conscious being?
I would argue that it doesn’t matter at all, and thus existence and non-existence are simply two sides of the same universal coin.
Reason #5: The Ontological Argument Is Limited By Human Conception
As stated above, the assumption that real objects are greater than imaginary ones may seem reasonable, but how can we ultimately agree with this if we can only base our imaginations on what exists?
Our best perceptions of (supposed) non-existent entities are simply mental reflections of the real world. Everything we could possibly imagine is based on our current conceptions of reality.
For example, we can only imagine the quality of anti-gravity because we regularly conceive of the quality of gravity. But what would replace this conception if we lived within a universe that was built upon different fundamental physical laws? How would we conceive of non-gravity?
The answer is that we can’t. We are unable to even conceive of the possibilities of non-gravity because we have no experiential reference point.
But back to imaginary beings: we can certainly conceive of an infinite amount of non-existent creatures within our minds, but how many more would we infinitely be able to conceive of if our perception of reality were different?
What would the quality of color be if our eyes could see light at different wavelengths? Would not more color only increase the amount of beings we could imagine, thus increasing the stature of the greatest being?
What would the quality of sound be if our ears could perceive higher or lower tones? And would not more aural tones only increase the amount of beings we could imagine, thus increasing the stature of the greatest being?
What would the ultimate quality of life be if our bodies were equipped with different organs that allowed us to experience the parts of our universe that are currently invisible to us because we do not possess the necessary hardware to be privy to the information they have to offer? Isn’t our conception of the greatest conceivable being limited by the fact that we first have to be able to conceive of it?
If Anselm had made his argument a few hundred thousand years before he did to a population of humans who were markedly less intelligent or consciously aware of their surroundings, wouldn’t that make the greatest being they could conceive of remarkably less great than the one we are capable of conceiving today?
This creates a paradox because God’s existence is binary: he either exists or he does not. And the state of his existence is binary: he would exist whether we believe in him or not. Whether we can conceive of him or not. His qualities would be fixed and our perceptions of him would bear no weight on the scope of his existence.
So based on the OA, God has the potential to become more or less great depending on the ability of the person conceiving of him to properly conceptualize what God must be.
Which brings us to the next problem with the OA.
Reason #6: Perfection Is Subjective
We can say that God is the most perfect being, but what does that ultimately even mean?
If we look at perfection quantitatively, we could liken God to infinity. Quantities are easy to view in terms of greatness because one simply needs to continue adding to elicit higher degrees of greatness.
But the problem with this is that infinity does not materially exist. Of course, numbers don’t materially exist either, but the point is that infinity only exists as a concept. It doesn’t have any sort of existential application. Because of this, one can always conceive of something greater than infinity because the statement ∞ +1 > ∞ will always be true.
So in this regard, the concept of God as a perfect quantitative being doesn’t make sense. Perfection, or true infinity, doesn’t exist.
But God doesn’t typically represent a great quantity like infinity, but instead an amalgamation of great qualities like benevolence and omnipotence.
The ultimate problem with viewing God as a perfect being qualitatively is that perfection is subjective. It’s skewed by our own flawed humanity.
We might recognize the omni-qualities God is supposed to possess as semi-universal ideals, but that doesn’t make perfection objective by any means.
Like infinity, perfection quantitatively and qualitatively only exists as an ideal. It is a concept we use to compare things that we can conceive of realistically to a higher degree of their relative form.
For example, you might think you have the perfect chili recipe. It might be a damn good recipe that makes some damn good chili. Diced tomatoes and kidney beans and roasted peppers. Sounds scrumptious.
But maybe I have my own recipe that I prefer to yours. Maybe you use too many beans for my taste, or I don’t use enough peppers for yours. Either way, each person has their own conception of the perfect bowl of chili because we each have specific tastes and opinions that necessitate different degrees of perfection.
The perfect bowl of chili does not exist.
The same can be true of anything else.
Government. Movies. Marriage partners. Even God.
Maybe you like a God who cares about us and looks out for our well being and I like a God who doesn’t forsake gay people and flood the Earth and care so much about foreskins. To each his own, I suppose.
For the same reason that nothing which possesses subjective qualities can be perfect, neither can God.
However, if God were to exist, one could at least argue that he is the best being, indicating that his contradictory omni-qualities place him closer to the ideal of perfection than any other being. But this line of thinking is also problematic because it assumes that every being of a lesser possession of qualities is ultimately a lesser being.
Like pigs. Are pigs really any lesser of beings than humans? Or than a god? Why? They didn’t choose to exist. They didn’t decide what qualities they have. They had no say in the fact that they walk around oinking all day with cute little squiggly tails.
Moreover, are humans any greater of beings than any other creature on Earth? Just because we possess the highest intelligence and we have escalated to the top of the biological chain of power does not mean we deserve the title of greatest physical being.
Perfection, or greatness for that matter, is relative to function. A pen is a more perfect writing utensil than a banana because of the function they both provide. To compare them to one another in terms of a more perfect object is ludicrous. So why do we do the same for beings?
Does God have a function?
For Christians, the function of God is to serve as the creator of the universe, among a slew of other more trivial things. I am sure that if God were to exist and possess all of the qualities that are often attributed to him, then he is very qualified for this job. But to outright declare him to be the most perfect being is a bit of a leap.
Because what is the most perfect being? Is it the universe? Is it the scope of the infinite number of universes? Is it nothingness?
These are questions that don’t have answers.
Reason #7: The Ontological Argument Says Nothing About Religion
Rounding up our little thought process here, I think we need to make something very clear that people tend to forget when arguments for the existence of God are made:
The OA doesn’t prove Christianity to be true. Or Judaism. Or Islam. Nor does it disprove Hinduism, Norse Mythology, Confucianism, Jainism, Sikhism, or any of the thousands of other miscellaneous religious beliefs related to some type of worshiped deity.
The OA doesn’t prove heaven to be real. Or hell. It says nothing about souls, or spirits, or good, or evil.
It says nothing about the creation of the universe or what happens after we die. It says nothing about morality or ethics. It says nothing about who we are, why we are here, and what we are supposed to do.
The only assertion that the OA makes is that the concept of God as the greatest being (which isn’t even easily agreed upon by people within one sect of a religion, let alone the numerous religious factions across the globe) must necessarily exist.
Even if we take the OA to be a good example of a logically sound argument, we can’t extrapolate anything from it. It ultimately proves nothing.
Even if we cede that God as a concept exists, we haven’t proven that he is an anthropomorphized version of ourselves, some old man with a long white beard and a billowing robe who supposedly loves us and looks out for our wellbeing. Much less that God exists as any sort of physical entity.
At best, God as a concept is some unknowable, undefinable, metaphysical entity. It (#dontassumemygender) represents everything and nothing at the same time. Infinity and zero. Black and white. Paradoxes and contradictions melded to create a unison of incomprehensible existence.
This is the God of the OA, the supposed most perfect being.
And this is all well and good if you are simply trying to find a logical way to argue for the existence of God.
But the problem is that no one ever attempts to do that.
Arguments for the existence of God are made as a starting point to entice outsiders of specific religions to see how rational and thoughtful religious people can be.
As I hope I have clearly demonstrated here, this is absolutely not the case.
If you take anything away from The Ontological Argument let it be this: arguments, like people, can very well be wolves dressed in sheep’s wool. Very few things are ever as they seem, and those that are needed to be investigated thoroughly.
Just because something sounds logical or right or “good enough” does not mean that it necessarily is. The Ontological Argument is a sound argument, but the initial premises that it assumes, and the paradoxes that accompany it, force it to be disregarded by anyone who likes to maintain the integrity of a rational being.
Don’t accept logical arguments as logical truths, and always attempt to poke holes in arguments that are presented to you.
Even the entirety of my writing.
I do my best to ensure that I am passing on truthful and thoughtful information, but as I have hopefully demonstrated above, I am not a perfect being. I have been wrong in the past and I will be wrong in the future. I change my mind constantly and you should too.
The world is full of things that seem just and right and good. It is our duty to question whether this is so and replace what doesn’t work with something that will.
With that being said, I stand by everything I have written, and even though I would like my work to be scrutinized to the same degree that I scrutinize others’, I hope that we are all now a little more informed as to why the Ontological Argument is no bueno.