The Ontological Argument and Atheism

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Beathan Hopkins
Examine the ways in which the Ontological Argument attempts to prove to the
Atheist that God Exists.
The Ontological Argument claims to arrive at the existence of God, by analysing the idea of
God. It seeks to answer two main questions; can you prove the existence of God and does
the concept of God include existence? The argument is a priori, as it is based on logic and
reasoning rather than experience, this contrasts with a posteriori arguments like the
cosmological, teleological or the one from religious experience. The argument is also
analytic, it is based on a definition and does not need empirical data to verify it. For example
all bachelors are unmarried man, it is true by definition and needs no further explanation.
Finally the argument is also deductive, for if the premises are true then the conclusion must
necessarily be true;
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
therefore Socrates is mortal - the conclusion is logically necessary. Due to the nature of the
argument it has to either succeed fully or fail fully.
The main proponent of the Ontological Argument is Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury in
the 11th century, he was a believer in God but was looking for conclusive, philosophical
proof of God's existence. Anselm begins his argument with a quotation from Psalms 14; 'the
fool says in his heart "there is no God"'. Anselm points out that even though the fool rejects
God's existence he still understands the concept of God. This is all that Anselm says is
needed for the argument. No religious faith is required, as Anselm was trying to prove God's
existence to atheists. Anselm puts forward his argument in Proslogian 2. Anselm defines
God as 'a being than which nothing greater can be conceived'. He claimed that something
which exists in reality is greater than that which exists in the mind alone. Therefore if God is
the greatest thing that can be conceived, then he must exist in both the mind and in reality.
In Proslogian 3 Anselm argued that necessary existence is greater than contingent
existence. Therefore If God is the greatest possible being, then God must have necessary
existence. At first sight this argument appears persuasive, however it is troublesome for
atheists to jump from God existing in the mind to God simply just existing, as they do not
have the level of faith required.
In more modern times Norman Malcolm has also attempted to prove God's existence to
the atheist, using similar reasoning to Anselm. Malcolm bases his argument on the
presumption that if God could exist, he does exist, since He cannot not exist. Malcolm says
that there are three ways of conceiving God's existence; either God does not exist, or God
exists contingently or God exists necessarily. He argued that the first must be rejected,
since by definition God's non-existence is inconceivable. The second must also be rejected
as if God merely existed contingently his existence would be no greater than that of any
other being. Therefore Malcolm concluded that God must have necessary existence, as
there are no other alternatives.
Descartes took a different approach to the ontological argument. Descartes was a
mathematician, in the 17th century, who wanted to find a secure and certain foundation for
all new knowledge, he began by doubting everything. However Descartes could not doubt
that he was thinking, he was only certain of thought, famously saying "I think, therefore I
am". To reach knowledge of the external world Descartes used God as the bridge. However

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Beathan Hopkins
he had to prove God from thoughts alone because he had no knowledge of the external
world, so a posteriori proof was out. He needed to move from the idea of God to reality.
In 'Meditation 5', Descartes put the idea of God as meaning "a supremely perfect being".
Descartes claimed that existence is most certainly a perfection and the idea of God as a
supreme being includes the perfection of existence. Hence, he said, God must exist.…read more

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Beathan Hopkins
Gaunilo, a French Monk, argued in response to Anselm's form of the argument in his book
'On Behalf of the Fool'. Gaunilo said that if the logic of the argument was applied to things
other than God it lead to invalid conclusions. For example, Gaunilo said that he could
conceive of an island that then which nothing greater can be conceived. Such an island
therefore must possess all perfections, including that of the existence.…read more


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