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Tue, 12 Oct 2010

Some Thoughts on the Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. Actually it's a set of at least two different arguments. The most widely quoted version, which uses the idea that a nonexistent God isn't as great as an existent one, is by far the worst form of the argument. There is another form that is far better. I've already written about the ontological argument in an e-book with the words "God" and "science" in the title. Also, I've written a little bit about the argument in an earlier post. Here I want to share some thoughts about what this argument, in its good form, really tells us. I think a lot of the confusion about this argument comes from a misunderstanding about what it proves.

Scholars have long known that there is more than one form of the ontological argument. The argument's originator, Anselm of Canterbury, proposed at least two different forms (see [1] and [2] for details). The first form of the argument is (in my opinion and in the opinions of many other commentators) not much good. (Interestingly, this seems to be the form that atheists prefer to attack. Coincidence?) The second form of the argument does succeed up to a point: it shows that if it's possible that there is a perfect being, then there is a perfect being. (Another way of putting this conclusion is: if there's no perfect being, then it's impossible for there to be a perfect being. The perfect being is either real or impossible - unlike many other things, which can just happen not to exist.) Thanks to the work of Charles Hartshorne [2], it seems that the argument establishes at least this much.

This leaves a big question open: What is a perfect being?

Philosophers of religion have tried to flesh out this notion of a perfect being (sometimes called a "greatest possible being") in various ways. They have tried to make this intuitive notion more precise - and as with some other intuitive concepts, there's more than one way to make it precise. I won't go into all of these ways here. The important thing is that a perfect being exemplifies, to the greatest possible degree, all the values that a being can exemplify. This means, for example, that if goodness is a value, then the perfect being is at least as good as any other being. There is no being greater in goodness. Similarly, if beauty is a value, then this being is, in some sense, at least as beautiful as any other being. And so forth.

Most religious people who like the ontological argument seem to think that this argument is proof of the existence of the God they believe in. Usually they believe that God is a supernatural creator of the universe. By "creator," they usually mean a being that literally caused the universe to come into existence - not an original cosmic principle of a more elusive kind.

Suppose, just for a moment and for the sake of discussion, that the ontological argument (in its better form) proved the existence of a perfect being. Does that mean the argument supports the existence of a supernatural creator?

It does not.

The ontological argument, if it succeeds, provides evidence for the existence of a perfect being or greatest possible being. It doesn't let us take the next step, to the existence of a supernatural creator - unless we make the additional assumption that a greatest possible being has to be a supernatural creator! Even a thinker who accepts the basic argument can avoid the leap to a supernatural creator by assuming that a perfect being might not have to be a supernatural creator. In other words, the argument doesn't support the traditional theistic God unless the property of being a supernatural creator somehow makes a being more perfect than that being otherwise would have been.

Is a supernatural being more perfect than a natural being, just by virtue of being supernatural? I don't think so. Why should it be more perfect? What's so glorious about being supernatural? Couldn't a natural being (a being that's within the framework of nature instead of outside that framework) be equally good and beautiful, and equally perfect in every other way?

Is a being that created the physical universe automatically better or more perfect than a being that did not? The answer isn't obvious - but the answer isn't obviously "yes." The physical universe, as we all know, is a bit of a mess in many ways. As the traditional "problem of evil" in the philosophy of religion reminds us, we can't automatically assume that a cosmic creator (if there is one) has to be a perfect being. There are difficult questions involved here.

So, is it obvious that the ontological argument (in its good form) supports the existence of the traditional God of theism? No, it is not obvious.

Earlier in my writings (see here, here and here) I pointed out the importance of getting clear about what we mean by "God." The word "God" makes different people think of different ideas of God. Not everyone understands that word in the same way. If by "God" we mean a being that represents all that is good and that is worthy of our highest love, then the ontological argument supports the existence of such a being. (At least the argument shows that if such a being is even barely possible, then such a being exists.) However, if by "God" we mean a supernatural creator, or a supernatural being of any kind, then the ontological argument does not support the existence of "God." The argument doesn't rule out such a being; it just doesn't lend any support to the existence of such a being.

The idea of a perfect being that is not supernatural may seem odd. How can there be such a being when none of the things in nature is "perfect"? I've explored this question elsewhere (especially at this link), and I've proposed an answer. In brief: no single concrete object in nature is a perfect being, but a certain abstract object, combined with other objects, might very well qualify as a perfect being. I won't pursue this suggestion here because I've already gone into gory detail about it elsewhere. I mention it only to point out that "perfect" doesn't necessarily imply "supernatural" - and that a perfect being wouldn't have to be an extra thing besides the things of nature.

Does the ontological argument, in its logically correct form, prove rigorously that there is a perfect being? Not quite. To make the argument prove that there is a perfect being, you need a separate argument showing that a perfect being is possible. (I said something about such arguments in the e-book I mentioned earlier.)

Does the ontological argument lend support to the existence of God? No - if you think God can only be a supernatural being that literally created the universe. Or yes - if you think of God as a supremely perfect being, and not necessarily as supernatural or as a literal "creator."

Take your pick.



[1] Anselm. Proslogium. Trans. Sidney Norton Deane, ed. Paul Halsall. [], accessed 5/18/2009. In: Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook [], accessed 5/18/2009. Anselm's first (weak) and second (strong) versions of the argument are in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, of his Proslogium.

[2] See: Hartshorne, Charles. Anselm's Discovery. (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1965), especially pp. 12-18.

posted at: 01:01 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry


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