The Ontological argument

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  • Created by: Alice.El
  • Created on: 07-05-16 14:40

Anselm's first argument

Anselm’s principle was ‘faith seeking understanding’ which for him meant ‘an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God’. In Anselm’s book he suggests one way in which the existence of God could be demonstrated to people.

He reflects on the psalm from the bible which says ‘fools say in their hearts “there is no God’.

Anselm’s puts forward two closely related ontological arguments. His first argument may be  summarised as follows:

-      God is the greatest possible being which can be conceived of.

-      God may exist in the mind alone or in reality as well

-      Something that exists in reality and in the mind is greater than something that exists as an idea in the mind alone

-      Therefore, God must necessarily exist in reality and the mind. 

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Explaining his first argument

Anselm’s argument is in reply to the fool who believes there is no God and this works as the basis for his argument. For the fool ‘there is no God’ the fool has an idea of what God is.

Anselm suggests that the definition in mind is that God is the ‘greatest possible being’. Hence Anselm says that God is the ‘greatest possible being that can be conceived’.

He points out that it is greater to exist in reality than in the mind alone. For example, people have an idea of what a unicorn is and give a description of it does not make it exist in reality.

What matters to Anselm is that what exists in reality as well as in the mind is greater than something that is only an idea in the mind. 

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Existence is a predicate

The word predicate is used in philosophy to indicate to an intrinsic property or quality of something. Anselm claimed that it is part of God’s nature to exist. In philosophical terms: a predicate of God is God’s existences.

Philosophers would say that the predicates of something are included in the subject you are talking about. For example, the term ‘widow’ refers to a woman whose husband has died. The predicate of being a widow is that your husband has died. This is part of the nature of being a widow.

Anselm’s claim is that existence is a predicate of God. Therefore, God being the greatest possible being has to exist, since an idea in the mind is not as great as an idea that exists in reality. The idea that exists in reality has the extra property of actual ‘existence. The greatest possible being God must, necessarily have his property of existence.

The conclusion that Anselm reaches is that because God is the greatest being that can be thought of, part of being a ‘being’ or ‘thing’ is that you exist. So God must exist. For Anselm, God’s existence us thus analytic. 

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Anselm's second version of the argument

Anselm’s second version of the argument.

This adds the point that it is impossible for this being, God, not to exist. In other words, ‘this being’ has to exist. Furthermore, if you say ‘God does not exist’ you are, according to Anselm, contradicting yourself.

-      God is that being nothing great than which can be thought of.

-      Something that cannot be thought not to exist is greater than anything which can be thought not to exist.

-      Therefore, it is impossible to think that this being cannot exist.

-      And this being is what we call ‘God’

Anselm thinks this because he believes that it is part of God’s nature to exist. 

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Anselm's second version of the argument

Anselm’s second version of the argument.

This adds the point that it is impossible for this being, God, not to exist. In other words, ‘this being’ has to exist. Furthermore, if you say ‘God does not exist’ you are, according to Anselm, contradicting yourself.

-      God is that being nothing great than which can be thought of.

-      Something that cannot be thought not to exist is greater than anything which can be thought not to exist.

-      Therefore, it is impossible to think that this being cannot exist.

-      And this being is what we call ‘God’

Anselm thinks this because he believes that it is part of God’s nature to exist. 

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Contigence and necessity

Anselm’s second argument concludes that God has to exist and cannot fail to exist. In philosophical terms this is called necessary existence.

Anything which has to exist and cannot fail to exist is said by philosophers to exist by necessity.

Most things that exist depend on something else for their existence. For example, your house exists in reality because someone built it. You cannot say your house had to exist, because it was up to the builder to decide whether to build it. This type of existence is called ‘contingent existence’.

‘Contingent existence’ refers to something which depends on referring to something else to fully explain why it exists.

Anselm argues that God must necessarily exist because is God existed only contingently, God would depend on something else for existence, and therefore would not be as great as being that had to exist and could not fail to exist. 

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Gaunilo's response to Anselm's argument

The most famous criticism of Anselm’s argument was made by a monk called Gaunilo. His argument was titled on ‘Behalf of the fool’ and it is a defence of the fool Anselm based his ideas off.

He argued that Anselm’s conclusion that God cannot fail to exist is ‘unintelligable’ – it cannot show that God necessarily exist.

He believed that Fool mentioned may reply to Anselm in the following ways: 

Gossip- The fool could have in mind all sorts of things that do not exist in reality. Gaunilo gives the example of someone hearing about a person from gossip. However, he says that gossip is unreliable, and the person and event in question were made up to trick you.

Defining things into existence - Furthermore, Gaunilo argues that you cannot demonstrate the existence of something just by having an idea about it; you cannot define the idea into existence. 

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Gaunilo's island

Gaunilo’s island – The most famous argument put forward by Gaunilo is that of a perfect island.

He suggests that anyone can think of a most perfect paradise island. Gaunilo argues that while the most perfect island can be conceived of, this does not mean that it exists.  

He implies that it is absurd to say that just because you have an idea of something it must exist. For example you could have an idea of the perfect sports car but this does not make it exist. This leads Gaunilo to claim that either the argument of a perfect island is a joke or the man making the argument is a fool or that the person believing that argument is a fool.

In the same way he concludes that Anselm cannot demonstrate or prove that the idea of God as the greatest possible being means that God exists in reality. 

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Anselm's reply to Gaunilo

Anselm replied to Gaunilo’s argument with the claim that God’s existence is necessary:

-      Anselm not only said that God is the greatest possible being, but that God’s existence is necessary. Gaunilo’s argument is different because the island, while being the greatest possible island, is contingent.

-      He argued that if you conceive of the greatest possible being you conceive of a greatest possible being which cannot be conceived not to exist. Gaunilo’s island is not a thing which can be conceived not to exist, so Anselm rejects Gaunilo’s argument from the idea that it can exist from the idea of it alone.

-      Alvin Plantinga has suggested that Anselm could also reply to Gaunilo by suggesting that however great an island is, there could always be one better; as there is no intrinsic maximum or limit to the perfectness of the island. 

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Thomas Aquinas' rejection of Anselm's argument

Aquinas rejects claims that the existence of God is self-evident to human beings. For Aquinas, human beings are not in a position to understand God’s nature: hence they cannot know that ‘God exists’ is an analytic statement.

He believed in God but disagreed with Anselm’s argument proving his existence. Aquinas raises questions about God’s self-evident existence.

He claims that things can be self-evident in two ways: in itself and both in itself and to us; even though something may exist self-evidently in itself, this self-evidence may not be known to us as humans and therefore, its existence would not be self-evident to us.

This is exactly what Aquinas proposes God to be. God is self-evident in himself because he is his own essence. However, seeing as this essence is unknown to us, the statement ‘God exists’ is not self-evident to us.

This, again, is another criticism which holds weight against the Ontological Argument, highlighting a glaring weakness in its logic.

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Backgroung to Descartes' Ontological argument

Descartes Ontological Argument

Prior to presenting his Ontological Argument for God’s existence, Descartes reached the following conclusions:

-      In the third meditation Descartes claimed that God has placed in every person the idea of God and he likened this to a trademark.

-      Some things cannot be doubted, such as the truths of mathematics. He believed that God’s existence is a truth somewhat similar to mathematics

-      Demonstrating the existence of God is not about proving the idea of God true; it is about showing that there is no reason to doubt that God exists. 

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Triangles and Descartes Argument

Descartes use the triangle as an example. The nature of a triangle is that it has three sides and three interior angles adding to 180. The nature of a triangle is immutable and incapable of change.

Triangles are what they are. So far as Descartes is concerned it makes no difference if I have an idea of what a triangle is or not because even if no one has ever seen a triangle, it is still a shape with three sides.

According to Descartes, part of God’s nature is that God exists. This is immutable; it tells us something about God.

Part of God’s essence is therefore existence. Descartes argues that God existing is as fundamental to the nature of God as the interior angles of a triangle adding up to 180 degrees are essential to what a triangle is.

For Descartes, the essence of God is that God exists and existence is a predicate of God. 

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The Argument

God is a supremely perfect being

-      A property of perfection is existence

-      Therefore, God exists.

Descartes argues that it is part of the essence or nature of God to exist and the reason for this is that existence is a perfection.

By perfection Descartes means that something is not lacking in any way. If you have an idea of a perfect car, it is only an idea; it is not the perfect car exists in reality. Descartes gives the example of it being impossible for a mountain to exist without a valley that goes with it.

Existence so far as Descartes is concerned, is a perfection of God to exist and the reason for this is that existence is a perfection of God in the same way as a mountain and valley go together. You cannot talk about God unless God exist because God is perfect, and part of perfection is existence. 

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Kant and why existence is not a predicate

Immanuel Kant in response to Descartes, argues that existence is not a predicate. For example, one can have an idea of what a unicorn is. However, that does not mean it exists in reality, even though we can think about unicorns as living creatures.

Another way of arguing this point is to say that Kant is saying that existence is part of the concept of God but it does not prove that God exists in reality.

For Kant, all philosophical statements or propositions about existence are synthetic – they need to be verified as true or false. God’s existence, like any other thing’s existence is synthetic and needs to be verified

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Criticisms of Kant

Is Kant right to say existence is not a predicate? For example, one could have an idea of what a Yeti is and list the properties of it.

However if I have actual evidence of the existence of a Yeti, that adds something to the idea of a Yeti – it adds existence.

Charles Hartshorne pointed out that: ‘the conceptual description of a kind of thing may at most account for so much of its quality or value as is expressible in merely abstract terms. But the full quality is not thus expressible’

In other words what Hartshorne says could be a claim that there is a big difference between describing the symptoms of an illness and having the illness.

For Hartshorne, the problem with Kant’s argument is that there is a big difference between an idea of God and God existing in reality. He rejects Kant’s idea that existence is not a predicate. 

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Criticisms of Kant

Norman Malcom has suggested that necessary existence could be a predicate of God. Malcom argues that necessary existence of God is either impossible or necessary.

Following Anselm’s second argument, he suggests that God cannot contingently exist; otherwise god cannot be the greatest possible being. Malcom reasons that God’s existence is impossible only if God’s existence is both self-contradictory and illogical.

However an issue with Malcom’s claim that God necessarily exists is that you cannot prove God exists by stating what is not the case. Even if God’s existence is not impossible or contradictory, this only shows that God’s existence is possible, not that God necessarily exists. 

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Is existence a perfection God cannot lack??

Is existence really a perfection which God cannot lack?

Pierre Gassendi wrote a reply to Descartes idea that existence is a perfection which God cannot lack. He argued that something either exists or it does not. It is only relevant to discuss perfection of something if it exists.

If something like a unicorn, yeti or God does not exist then these things are neither perfect no imperfect; they just do not exist.

 

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Descartes reply to Gassendi

Descartes reply to Gassendi

Descartes responded to Gassendi’s idea, stating that existence is necessarily part of the nature or essence of God and the relation between existence and essence is manifestly quite different in the case of God from what it is in the case of a triangle.

 In other words, Descartes is suggesting that God is a different sort of thing from triangles and it is the essence of God to exist.

 

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