The Ontological Arguement

A set of revision cards outlining the Ontological arguement as I understand it!!!

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The ontological arguement is a logical arguement that derives from the 11th Century and St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), from his books he Monologian and Proslogian. Another key contributor to the arguement is french philosopher Rene Descarte, who propounded a more modern version of the arguement.

The arguement is based on logical reasoning, mainly because society during Anselm's time heavily revolved around religion, with science still primitive. The Arguement gets its name from the belief that we are ontologically distinct from God, which goes further than being at epistemic distence. it means that we are absolutly distinct in every way, and therefore it is logically impossible for the creature to be the creator. The arguement can also be described as a priori, as it is derived from logic and not substanciated by fact. Finally, the arguement is anti-realist as it kis non-cognitive and is based on objective reality, whilst Realism is congitive and proportional an is based on truth and fact, and can be tested.

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St. Anselm's classic Ontological Arguement

Anselm defined God as "that which nothing greater can be conceived", which Anselm advancing this by stating that even the athiest must have a definition of God, if only to dismiss his existence. Therefore, according to the definition, God exists in the mind, but he must also exist in reality because he is that whichnothing greater can be conceived. this is because it is it is better to experience something in reality than in your imagination, for example, imaginging yourself driving a ferrari, but it feels better if you actually drive the Ferrari in reality, and also as Anselm states "Therefore, Lord not only are You that which nothing greater can be conceived but you are also something greater than can be conceived"Proslogian.

Anslem also suggests that there is more to God then just existence, by trying to prove that god is necessary, similar to what Aquinas attempts to prove in his second way. Anselm suggests that we do know this by suggesting:

1) It can be conceived that something exists that cannot be thought not to exist

2) God must be such a thing if He is "that which nothing greater can be conceived"

3) This is because something that can be thought not to exist would be inferior to that which cannot

Anselm is suggesting that beacuse God is transcendant (beyond our understanding), it is logical to accept that God exists.

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Rene Descarte's Ontological Arguement

Descarte developed Anslems arguement by describing God as a supremely perfect being. Descrate furthers this by defining God as perfect, and argues that God must exist, as existence is a predicate of perfection. Descarte furthered this by stating that God not existing would be like a triangle not having three sides which is logically impossible, and that perfection is part of existence and both must go together.

Descrate carries on to say that the idea of a necessary being, for whom existence was a necessary perfection, was a clear and distict idea. It was not a case of the mind dreaming up the idea of a necessary being such as God is, but the actual reverse "The neccessity of the existence of God determines me to think in this way...I see clearly that it is necessary that he should have existed for all eternity, and that he must exist eternally".

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Norman Malcolms Ontological Arguement

Malcolm believed that Anselm is saying that God must exist because the concept of God is the concept of a being whose existence is necessary.

Malcolm develops Anselm's arguement as follows: "If God, a being greater than which nothing can be conceived, does not exist then he cannot come into existence . for if He did He would either have been caused to come into existence or have happened to come into existence, and in either case He would be a limited being, which by our conception of Him He is not. Since He cannot come into existence, if He does not exist His existence is impossible. If He does exist he cannot have come into existence...nor can He cease to exist, for nothing could cause Him to cease to exist. So if God exists His existence is neccessary.

Thus God's existence is either impossible or necessary. It can be the former only if the concept of such a being is self-contradictory or in some way logically absurd. assuming that this is not so, it follows that He necessarily exists". Norman Malcolm

Malcolm is saying that God can be described as an unlimited being, which can either be logically necessary or logically impossible, and that the existence of an unlimited being is not logically impossible, and that therefore God is logically necessary. if God needed a cause to come into existence he is limited.

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Alvin Platinga - "Possible worlds"

Platinga propounded the idea of possibel worlds, and he developed this to create another, possible world:

  • There is a possible world W, in which there exists a being with "maximal greatness"
  • A being has maximal greatness only if it exists in every possible world

This means that in every possible world that has to be a being with maximal greatness (this is not necessarily God). Platinga states that to be maximally great, a being only has to be present in every possible world. Platinga has not accounted for the existence of a being in one world, which is greater than the maximal being.To deal with this, Platinga introduces the idea of "Maximal Excellence". he states that:

  • Maximum greatness entails maximal excellence
  • Maximal excellence entails omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection.


  • There is a possible world in which there is a being taht is maximally great.
  • It has maximal excellence (entailed within maximal greatness).
  • If omnipotent, omniscience and morally perfect, and maximally great, it is existent in our world
  • Therefore, there is a God
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Criticisms of the Ontological Arguement - Guanilo

Guanilo say's that you can't jump from definition to existence, and uses the analogy of the Islands to illustrate this, where he replaced the word God with "The greatest island", which led to an arguement simliar to Anslems, with true premises, but leads to a false and invalid conclusion:

  • I can conceive of an island of which no greater island can be thought
  • Such an island must possess all perfections
  • Existence is a perfection
  • Therefore, the islands exist

However, this argument becomes invalid as Guanilo only talks about Islands NOT God, and another conclusion is taht yuo can conceive God, or indeed any other object as perfect. Guanilo goes on to say to say that Islands have no intrinsic maximum, unlike God, and therefore the islands can always be bettered.

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Emmanual Kant and Gottlob Frege

Kant objects to Descarte by saying that you can give something a definition but whether it is exists in reality is a different subject altogether. Kant also does not agree with Descarte's view that existence is a predicate, as Kant says that to say taht soemthing exist gioves us no information about that thing e.g. X exists but what is it? And a predicate must give us information about a thing not just taht it exists. Therefore we must etsablish that soemthing exists before we can know what it is like and not the other way round.

Frege distinguishes between first and second order predicates, with the first order telling us about the nature of soemthing e.g. dogs are black, whilst the second order predicate tells us about the concept i.e. dogs are numerous. Frege objects to Anselm and Descarte as he says that they see existence as a first order predicate when it is actually a second order predicate.

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Bertrand Russell

The use of the word existence is wrong as it cannot be a predicate e.g.

  • Man exists
  • Santa is a man
  • Therefore Santa exists

Existence is not a property but the idea of things, and Russel puts Anslem's arguement into different terms, startign with the statement that to label or define is to talk about the intention concerning the object, so to describe an animal with four legs and an udder is to have the intention to describe the cow. The fact the cow exists provides an extension of an intention, and to conceive a cow and accept its existence is easy. What about taht which nothing greater can exist? the intention of the phrase is fine, but does it have an extension? Yes! if any idea can exist then that which nothing greater can be conceived must be the totality of all ideas, it doesn't have to have physical existence to be conceived as long as it is conceivable. Therefore, Russell supports Anselm's claim that God is the greatest thing you can think of, but not that this proves God's existence in reality.

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David Hume

The arguement is a failure because it made a false assumption about existence - that necessary existence was a coherent concept. Hume also argued that existence could onyl ever be contingent (dependent and limited), and that all statements about existence could be dented without contradiction.

Gasking - offered reduction to demonstrate the fallacy of the ontological proof:

  • 1) The creation of the world is the most supreme achievement conceivable
  • 2) The value of an achievement is measured by it's intrinsic quality and the ability of its creator.
  • 3) The greater the limitation of the creator, the greater the achievement
  • 4) The greatest limitation of a creator would be non-existence
  • 5) Therefore, a world created by a non-existent creator would be greater than one created by an existent creator
  • 6) An existing God is therefore not the greatest conceivable being, since an even greater being would be one which did not exist

Conclusion: God does not exist

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