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  • Writer's pictureJude

The Ontological Argument: Gods existence in the mind and reality

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

The existence of God is a compelling subject. People argue it’s pointless to ponder on this subject due to the lack of empirical evidence. But I question if it’s truly pointless. I believe if you question something thoroughly it encourages reflection on your opinions. In this case, arguments for and against the existence of God can change your perception of God or make your faith stronger. The Ontological Argument is one of many arguments for the existence of God. The argument has been attributed to many different Philosophers, but Anselm’s argument was the first which was clearly stated so we are going to discuss his account. He developed this argument in his meditation Proslogion, which is Latin for Discourse on the Existence of God. In Proslogion Anselm’s objective wasn’t to prove the existence of God but to muse over why he believed God exists.

The argument can be seen in two forms: Modus Ponens or Modus Tollens. Modus Ponens means the way that affirms by affirming. It’s similar to Modus Tollens which I explained in a previous post. (See Problem Of Evil). Although the Ontological Argument is a complex form of Modus Tollens, I’m going to show the difference between the two forms of arguments in a basic form (for the sake of learning something new and for following posts which may contain one of the two), present the Ontological Argument in Modus Tollens, show different interpretations of the argument and finally present my own thesis.

When an argument contains an if-then, you can either affirm the first part (the If) or deny the second (the Then). Once you affirm the first part, the conclusion follows based on the second or if the second part is denied the conclusion follows based on the first:

Example of Modus Ponens:

If you’re a dog, then you’re an animal. You’re a dog. <— Affirmed the first part Therefore you’re an animal. <— In conclusion affirmed the second part

Example of Modus Tollens:

If you’re a dog, then you’re an animal. You’re not an animal. <— Denied the second part Therefore you’re not a dog. <— Denied the first

Here’s the Ontological Argument in Modus Tollens form:

1. God is the greatest conceivable being 2. The idea of God exists within the mind 3. A being which exists in the mind and reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind 4. If God only exists in the mind then we can conceive a greater being which exists in reality 5. We can’t conceive something that is greater than God 6. Therefore God exists.

Anselm defines God as the greatest conceivable being, which means we can’t comprehend anything greater. He then states the idea of God exists within the mind. In example: We all have a notion of a creator or cause of existence whether it’s God, The Big Bang Theory or any other theory. Anselm then argues something that exists in the mind and reality is greater than something that exists only in the mind. In his Proslogion, Anselm uses the example of a Painter:

A painter has an idea of what he’s going to paint next in his understanding. (His mind) He has it in his understanding but has yet to understand it to be because he hasn’t performed it yet. (It’s in his mind, but not yet in reality) Once he has finished the painting, he has it both in his understanding and understands it exists. (Now it’s in his mind and in reality)

Anselm then states that “the fool” (the Atheist) can even understand that a being exists in the understanding that which nothing greater can be conceived. Anselm believed we can’t conceive something greater than God and that’s why the existence of God became self-evident to him.

A response to Anselm’s Ontological Argument from Guanilo attempts to show how this argument can be used to assume the existence of anything. He proposes the Lost Island analogy which uses the same structure as the Ontological Argument. Instead of the existence of God, Gaunilo aims to prove the existence of a faultless Lost Island:

1. The Lost Island is that than which no greater can be conceived. 2. It’s greater for something to exist in the mind and reality. 3. If this Island doesn’t exist, then one can think of a greater Island which exists. 4. One can’t think of a greater Island which exists in reality. 5. Therefore, the Lost Island must exist in the mind and reality.

Gaunilo states this Lost Island is perfect; everything comes in abundance more than is conceivable. Anselm responds to this analogy by stating the argument can’t be applied to an Island because an Island can’t be perfect, it would always have room for improvement. For example: A perfect Island with 100,000 trees can be an even more perfect Island if it had 100,001 trees. God is a perfect being; it’s unintelligible to think of a being greater. Plantinga, a Philosopher, supports Anselm’s use of “that which no greater can be conceived” by stating it can only apply to a necessary being, not an Island like in Guanilo’s analogy. There is another argument against Guanilo’s response. If no greater Island can be conceived, then maybe something that isn’t an Island but is greater can be conceived. For example: a City which has everything in profusion even more so than that perfect Lost Island or even Heaven which has an everlasting richness in goodness.

Kant’s criticises the third premise of the argument which is “A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind”. He contests this premise on the grounds that existence doesn’t function as a predicate. A predicate is a part of a sentence which isn’t the subject but it gives information about the subject. It’s something a subject can possess or lack. e.g. “Anselm wrote” – Anselm is the subject, wrote is the predicate.

Kant suggested that claiming the existence of something means it’s exemplified in the World. e.g. “London exists” – London does exist. We can’t say “God exists” to Kant because we don’t have an example in the World; he saw the concept of existence only corresponding to something within the World. Kant didn’t see existence as a property in the case of a being that isn’t evident to us. For example: The properties of an Apple – round, red, or green. The properties of God – Existence?

I’m going to create an analogy that combines both the structure of Anselm’s Ontological Argument and considers Kant’s criticisms of properties and predicates:

Let’s create two things called a “Loggle” and a “Laggle”

A Loggle is a flying green arrow that is shaped like a diamond. It propels itself to move wherever it wants. A Laggle is a flying green arrow that is shaped like a diamond. It propels itself to move wherever it wants and it exists.

Difference between the two is that a Laggle has defined existence as a property. If we can’t find a Laggle in reality, the closest we can get is a Loggle which is an idea in the mind. We might be thinking of a Laggle, but really we are thinking of a Loggle due to the fact a property of a Laggle is existence and Loggle doesn’t have that property.

If we look back at Anselm’s argument he doesn’t prove God exists like we can’t prove a Laggle exists. Kant stated existence would need to be exemplified in the World. Anselm’s argument defines existence as one of Gods properties; he suggests we can conceive nothing greater than God therefore God exists. Looking at the argument closely it’s stating – if God exists, then God exists. It’s circular and never really gives example how Gods existence is apparent.

When I first looked at Anselm’s Ontological Argument it was fairly convincing, then I thought of my own perception and felt the argument could have been stronger so it could  not face obvious refutation. When Anselm talks about the idea of God existing in the mind I felt I understood why he thought this. Thinking about the conception of existence I believe whatever created it as the first cause of everything. At that point I convinced myself that this cause is what I see as God. This conclusion is a product of my mind. The responses from Guanilo and Kant gave me some doubts. Although it’s true that we can use this structure to prove the existence of many things, I don’t think it’s necessary to do so because for most things there are examples of them in the World and they could be better than they already are. There are numerous Islands but there are almost certainly not numerous causes of this whole existence, even if there is it would make more sense to attribute it with one because several or more seems incomprehensible.

For me Kant successfully confuted how Anselm used existence as a property when I look at it logically, but I also don’t see this as necessary. We scientifically studied what allows us to breathe, oxygen, but we can’t see it. Would Kant say a property of oxygen is colourless or rather transparent? We can’t see it just in the same way we can’t see God. You could argue that we know oxygen exists, but these same Scientists who researched this most likely supported the Big Bang Theory. As I said before I believe there was an initial cause, I’m not associating it with a religious perception of God but I define that initial cause as God. With this view in mind we could say one of the properties of that cause is transparency. We could also state existence is a property of that cause and the example of this is simply all around us, the immaterial essence of existence.

What do you think of Anselm’s Ontological Argument? Is it a well-constructed and convincing argument for the existence of God? Or do the refutations lead you to question it?

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