The Ontological argument C/B grade summary notes


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Anselm’s 1st form of the ontological argument

  • God is the greatest being we can imagine. 
  • It’s greater to exist in reality than just in the mind. God exists in the mind, therefore God exists in reality.
  • A priori argument – based on reason, not experience. If you just think carefully about what God is, you’ll see that God must exist.
  • Deductive argument – if the premises are true the conclusion must be true.

Gaunilo’s response

  • Gaunilo says if we replace the word ‘God’ with ‘Island’, if we apply Anselm’s logic to another case we get an absurd result. 
  • I can imagine the greatest island – according to Anselm’s logic, it’s greater for that island to exist and so it must exist. But – where is this island? It doesn’t exist. 
  • So, Anselm’s logic must be flawed – it doesn’t work when applied to other cases.

Anselm’s 2nd form of the argument

  • Anselm responds: there’s a different between God and an island – you can’t compare them. God is a necessary being (must exist – doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence) whereas an island is contingent (depends on something else for its existence). An island depends on water to exist. 

Evaluation of 2nd form & Kant’s 1st critique

  • Kant developed the type of argument Gaunilo was making into a stronger form. 
  • Kant’s triangle example: A triangle necessarily has three sides – this shows that if a triangle exists then it has three sides.
  • Anselm is trying to say that God necessarily exists – but Kant is pointing out that this only shows that if God exists then God exists necessarily.
  • Anselm hasn’t shown that God does exist necessarily.
  • The ontological argument doesn’t show that God does exist – it only shows that if God exists, then God exists necessarily.

Kant’s 2nd critique of the ontological argument: existence is not a predicate

  • Kant says existence is not a ‘predicate’.
  • A predicate is a describing word – a word that describes a subject of a sentence.
  • E.g. ‘the cat is black’ – ‘black’ would be a predicate.
  • If I said ‘the cat exists’ – the word ‘exists’ there doesn’t actually describe anything about what the cat is – it only describes that the cat exists.
  • In that case, ‘existence’ can’t be an attribute of God, like omnipotence, omniscience, etc.
  • So, Anselm can’t say that God must exist in order to be God (the greatest being).

Malcolm’s response to Kant

  • Malcolm says Kant has made the same mistake as Gaunilo – trying to compare God (necessary) to contingent things. Cats are contingent! Kant’s example of coins is also contingent. 
  • Contingent existence is not a predicate – but Malcolm argues that necessary existence is a predicate.
  • If you say a thing has necessary existence then you are actually describing it – you are describing that it contains its own reason for existence within itself – it doesn’t depend on anything else to exist.

Aquinas & Gaunilo’s critique that God is beyond understanding

  • Anselm says that God exists in the mind.
  • Gaunilo and Aquinas criticise that claim – they point out that God is beyond our understanding – so there’s no way God can exist in our understanding/mind.
  • This is normal in Christian theology – God is an infinite transcendent being who is beyond our ability to understand.

Evaluation: response to Aquinas & Gaunilo

  • This critique fails, however. We don’t need a full understanding of what God is in order to meaningfully say that God is the greatest possible being. We may not fully understand what God is, but we understand he has the power to do anything and knows everything – he is the greatest being we can imagine. That’s all Anselm needs to claim for his argument to work. 
  • God is the greatest being, it’s greater to exist in reality than just the mind, the idea of the greatest being exists in the mind, so it exists in reality.