The ontological argument in brief

In this post, I’m going to try to do something I’ve never done before: attempt write a statement on the ontological argument for inclusion in the book, and make it concise. Here it goes:

The ontological argument is the epitome of an argument that essentially no one actually uses as argument for existence of God, but is instead used to show how sophisticated religious thought supposedly is. These days, it’s even hard to find a philosopher who thinks the argument is good for anything except tormenting philosophy students.

Yet some people think it’s terribly important that atheists deal with the argument properly. Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse (two philosophers at Vanderbilt), go so far as call the ontological argument “the litmus test for intellectual seriousness.” They don’t say why this is, as opposed to the cosmological or design argument being the litmus test of intellectual seriousness. Because of this, I’m going to comment on the ontological argument, but I’m going to keep it very brief.

What is the ontological argument? In reality, there’s more than one ontological argument, but the original one given by St. Anselm (1033-1109) was based on claiming that it’s better to exist in reality than only in the understanding, and therefore it would be contradictory God (defined as the greatest being than can be conceived) to exist only in the understanding. Therefore God exists!

That was just a brief summary, and of course philosophers disagree about how exactly to interpret Anselm’s argument. For our purposes, I just want to mention one of the most famous objections to the ontological argument, made by Anselm’s fellow monk Gaunilo: if the argument works, it would seem to also prove the existence of the greatest conceivable island.

Now an island isn’t the best example for making this point. You might think there’s a limit to how good a god can be, but no limit to how good an island could be. Or you might wonder if the perfect island might exist after all (in heaven, perhaps?) But if you have to, replace “perfect island” with “perfect demon”: analogous to God in every way except for being as evil as possible. Any time anyone tries to tell you anything good about the ontological argument, ask if they have a good answer to that question. If not, you’re safe ignoring them.

In The God Delusion (p. 84), Dawkins claims:

I once piqued a gathering of theologians and philosophers by adapting the ontological argument to prove that pigs can fly. They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong.

Now, philosophers may be a bit annoyed with this story, as it implies that modal logic is just obviously ridiculous. However, while modal logic may or may not be ridiculous, the modal ontological argument is even more vulnerable to parody than Anselm’s argument. For example:

  1. It’s possible that it’s a necessary truth that pigs can fly.
  2. If it’s possible that something is a necessary truth, it’s a necessary truth.
  3. Therefore it’s a necessary truth that pigs can fly.
  4. If something’s a necessary truth, then it’s true.
  5. Therefore, pigs can fly.

I won’t attempt to give a lesson modal logic here, but if you’ve studied it (or are inspired to go study it by reading this), you’ll realize that this argument that pigs can fly is just as logically valid as the modal ontological argument.

I should note that Alvin Plantinga, the most famous proponent of the modal ontological argument, doesn’t claim it proves the existence of God. Instead, he claims it shows that it’s reasonable to believe in God. I think this claim is wrong, but rather than explain why, I’ll just say that I think Graham Oppy gets this issue exactly right in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on ontological arguments, and you should read that if you care about the issue.

  • Bob Jase

    The ontological arguement is why Superman kept getting more powerful for decades, he couldn’t be super enough unless such & such power was added so it was added. Damn near turned him into the Spectre.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    The modal ontological argument did in fact inspire me to teach myself a little modal logic. Once I understood the inference #2, I decided that the premise #1 simply doesn’t mean what it first appears to mean. Counterintuitively, it really means, “There is some possible world where, from that world’s perspective, pigs can fly in all possible worlds”. Since all possible worlds share the same set of possible worlds, that implies pigs can fly in all possible worlds. Plantinga claims the conclusion is reasonable because the premise is reasonable. I think the premise only sounds reasonable because it’s a poor translation from modal logic into colloquial language.

    I also think the modal ontological argument is basically superior to any versions that mention perfection or maximal greatness. The modal version strips down all that unnecessary junk.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse (two philosophers at Vanderbilt), go so far as call the ontological argument “the litmus test for intellectual seriousness.” They don’t say why this is, as opposed to the cosmological or design argument being the litmus test of intellectual seriousness.

    I have an idea why the ontological argument is the litmus test rather than the other arguments; the other arguments are easier to debunk by comparison. With the ontological argument, it’s easy to sense that there is something wrong with it, yet not quite put one’s finger on just where it goes wrong. Untangling it takes work, or at least the effort to look up someone else who’s already done that work.

  • eric

    There needs to be a term for the class of philosophical arguments that provide equal proof or equally valid arguments for an infinite number (or at least wide variety) of contradictory entities. Because the ontological argument is just one of this set. Pascal’s wager is another. The teleological argument is pretty much part of this set (but if someone wants to argue otherwise, I won’t be too hard to win over). The more simplistic argument, “well, entity x isn’t logically inconsistent with what we know – we can’t be philosophically certain x doesn’t exist” is also in this set.
    The whole set can be tackled together, and the same counter-point or points pretty much address them all.

  • MNb

    “essentially no one actually uses as argument for existence of God”
    Actually I know a Dutch philosopher of religion who does. Only several months ago he defended his thesis.
    I have a request. I have read Oppy’s article on the ontological argument, but I am by far not sure if I have grasped it. So a comment by you might be useful.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Oppy definitely does not explain everything in full. Did you understand the two paragraphs on Plantinga, at least? Oppy has an entire book on ontological arguments, if you really want to get into it. If you’re just interested in understanding Plantinga’s Ontological Argument, you might pick up his book Nature of Necessity.

  • Greg G.

    A circle can be defined as a planar figure with an infinite number of points a given distance from a given point. We can only conceive of a perfect circle but one cannot exist in reality. The same holds for squares, equilateral triangles, or regular million-sided polygons. Thus, it is a necessary truth that not all things that can be conceived of in the mind can exist in reality. Therefore, it may be possible that it is a necessary truth that perfect things cannot exist in reality.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Which could lead to a cesspool of Platonism in defining “existence.”

  • kraut

    “defined as the greatest being than can be conceived”
    define greatest. Largest? Heaviest? Tallest? Mentally Monumental? Most Evil? Most Good -
    define good and evil. What does this nonsense even mean without a clear definition of the attributes?

  • hf

    But if you have to, replace “perfect island” with “perfect demon”: analogous to God in every way except for being as evil as possible.

    No, no. The objection you want involves the argument ‘proving’ the existence of a greatest physical being – presumably the Cosmos in which we live – which could easily be the object of the original proof. (You also get a greatest being between zero and one exclusive. I assume this is gamma.)

    While you could go on to prove the existence of a greatest non-physical being, this is clearly the number 1 (or 0 for qabalists). It would take a particularly obtuse theist to insist that the number 1 may have necessarily died for our sins.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I hope you find space in your chapter to drop in the term “polishing a turd. It fits modern variations of the ontological argument perfectly.

    • Darren

      Second!

      And “bollocks”, we demand the use of the word, “bollocks”.

  • Darren

    “The ontological argument is the epitome of an argument that essentially no one actually uses as argument for existence of God, but is instead used to show how sophisticated religious thought supposedly is. These days, it’s even hard to find a philosopher who thinks the argument is good for anything except tormenting philosophy students.”

    Nice!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    It occurs to me that ontological arguments which claim “maximal greatness” get body slammed by the argument from evil. The usual dodges to the AE is that God has to allow for free will, or maybe he’s doing the best he can but there would be unspecified hurdles to an evil-free world, but a maximally great God would be able to allow for free will and still not allow evil, or overcome whatever those barriers are.

    • eric

      There is a much simpler response to the whole ‘free will’ argument, which is: Satan knew, yet walked. Abraham knew, yet complained. The OT hebrews had direct experience, but were constantly disobeying God, worshipping other gods, etc. Judas saw Jesus work miracles. We know how that turned out. In fact all twelve apostles saw Jesus work miracles, yet I bet practically every Christian theologian will tell you they’re in heaven. So evidently their will was not compromised so terribly much by the direct observational proof they were given.

      In short: the argument that God revealing himself would prevent our free will choice to accept him flies directly in the face of the bible, which contains numerous stories of people both rejecting God and having faith in him after getting proof of his existence.

      • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

        I don’t know how I never encountered this point before! It’s obvious when you think about it, and yet very clever, and very hard to refute. I shall be noting this for future use…

  • Ray

    “But if you have to, replace “perfect island” with “perfect demon”: analogous to God in every way except for being as evil as possible. Any time anyone tries to tell you anything good about the ontological argument, ask if they have a good answer to that question. ”

    I’m not convinced this is a good idea. Sounds too much like Satan (granted this is more Manichaean than orthodox, but don’t expect everyone to know that.) Also, the more orthodox associate evil with nonexistence (privatio bonum) and so may say that the most perfectly evil being would be one that DID NOT exist.

    If you must choose an alternative example try “smelliest fart,” since a fart that exists is certainly smellier than one that doesn’t, and it has no obvious theological referent. It also accords the ontological argument exactly the respect it deserves.

  • BKsea

    Short form of the ontological argument: “If god exists, then god exists”

  • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

    Urgh, I remember the ontological argument from my undergrad days. I can neither confirm nor deny that I may have stopped listening after a couple of paragraphs. I suppose it’s not as ridiculous as Lewis’ faux-intellectual dreck, but it has to be close.

  • MNb

    “Did you understand the two paragraphs on Plantinga, at least?”
    I hope so. Let me test it. Does the problem basically boil down to the ontological argument being circular, ie proving what has been assumed in the first place (namely god)? Like BKsea wrote? Quite comforting btw that lots of people think it’s dreck – apparantely my brain objects understanding dreck.
    As for recommended books – living in Suriname means that my financial possibilities are quite limited, which means I have to be very selective. For 2013 my budget already is spend on TA Gates and Herman Philipse.
    I like the perfect demon version btw – thát’s something I definitely get.

    • Chris Hallquist

      It’s not circular in the very narrow sense of arguing “God exists, therefore God exists,” but it can be considered circular in the broader sense of relying on assumptions that no one who did not already accept the conclusion would accept. Now that second understanding of circular can be somewhat problematic, but I think you’ve got the right general idea here.

  • Ray

    I think what the Plantinga argument is really relying on is that the reader will elide over the fact that modal quantifiers can be used to represent different notions of possibility.

    If the first premise is read as “it is logically possible that the existence of God is metaphysically necessary,” suddenly the premise becomes plausible, but the other steps don’t follow.

  • http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca/ Richard Greydanus

    There’s more to the ontological argument than some here are allowing for, though, at the end of the day, the argument only amounts to a proof if you accept the basic premises from which it begins.

    I posted this over on my blog:

    The ontological argument for the existence of God is one of those arguments that truly perplexes post-Kantian thinkers. It does not attempt to prove the existence of God from any sort of observable phenomenon, i.e. any of the things of our mundane experience about which you or I might think, but from the act of thinking about the idea of God. In more common parlance, the claim of the ontological argument is that God’s existence can be known by reason alone. To summarize St. Anselm’s version of the ontological argument:

    1) Since God is that being than which can be conceived no greater being, and
    2) since existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind,
    3) therefore, God must, by definition, exist.

    For (the corollary argument goes),

    4) if God exists only in the mind, then
    5) it is always possible to conceive a a being greater, namely, one that exists in reality,
    3) therefore, God must, by definition, exist.

    At the end of the 18th century, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant ruled this sort of argument out of bounds by observing that to claim something exists adds nothing to the idea one has of that thing. The argument may be summarized with Kant’s pithy, but opaque, statement, ‘Existence is not a predicate’.

    (The rest can be read here: http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca/2013/01/the-ontological-argument-for-existence.html.)

  • Jack Blair

    Dr. Dawkins may thought himself clever (and indeed he is), but either his half-remembered anecdote is actually missing a crucial element, or Dawkins has deluded himself into thinking that he outfoxed those gathered chaps.

    He says they resorted to modal logic. That would be expected since the ontological argument itself IS a form of modal logic. What makes him think they should respond in any other way?

    A possible answer is that Dawkins likes to move freely among types of arguments (sometimes even within the parameters of the same exposition!). This has the effect of someone telling a story, and shifting tenses at will and at random throughout.

    And if he does it, doesn’t EVERYBODY?

  • Filbert Lam

    Prof. A.C. Grayling wrote an interesting, but brief, critique of the modal ontological argument in his book, The God Argument. He argued that while the argument is logically valid, it is unsound. For example, when Plantinga spoke of “necessary existence” being a “great-making property” of a “maximally great being (MGB)”, Grayling argues that Plantinga did not specify what the MGB’s “great-making property” was compared to? Essentially, “great”, compared to what?

    Grayling gives the following example. It is necessary truth that there is always a “tallest” person in London, in the sense that he is “least short” compared to the rest. Thus, Grayling argues “maximally great” might mean less “bad” or deficient as the rest. However, such a definition of MGB being “less deficient” than the rest hardly amounts to an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, whose existence is also necessarily true. Grayling, in essence, challenges Plantinga’s premise that “a being has maximal excellence in a given world only if it has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection in that world”. Grayling’s criticism is targetted at what he believes to be an unsound leap of logic from being “maximally great” to “omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection”.

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  • MNb

    @CH: No, I have no problem with the second understanding; I have met it before. Thanks.


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