In this essay I will be looking at the ontological argument in order to find out if it demonstrates that there is a contradiction in denying the existence of God. I will begin with a short description of what exactly the ontological argument is. Then I will put forward Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s (1033–1109) ontological argument, using Gaunilo of Marmoutiers (11th-century) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to point out problems with his argument. From that I will move onto René Descartes’ (1596–1650) famous ontological argument, using Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and my own arguments in order to undermine it. Then I will sum up whether or not I think that to reject the ontological argument results in a self-contradiction, and use David Hume (1711-1776) to sum up my views succinctly.
So to begin: what is the ontological argument? The ontological argument is one that is used to argue that god exists by virtue of the definition of god. The definition of the being makes its existence possible, and necessary. In this way the argument is a priori and attempts to show that to deny god’s existence is illogical and contradictory.
Saint Anselm of Canterbury is one of the first to put forward the ontological argument in such a way that has been reformulated and studied ever since. In his Proslogion he put forward the view that nothing greater than god is conceivable. He describes god as: aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit – That than which no greater can be thought.
Anselm says, the argument of the Proslogion can be summarised as follows:
- That than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought.
- If that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought, it exists in reality.
- That than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality. (1)
He also put forward an argument which made the refusal to agree with his conclusion a contradiction:”Assuredly, this being exists so truly [really] that it cannot even be thought not to exist. For there can be thought to exist something whose non-existence is inconceivable; and this thing is greater than anything whose non-existence is conceivable – Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be thought could be thought not to exist, then that than which a greater cannot be thought would not be that than which a greater cannot be thought – a contradiction. Hence, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists so truly [really] that it cannot even be thought not to exist.” (2)
This was challenged by a contemporary of Anselm: Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. Who stated that one could use the exact same argument to prove the existence of a perfect island. (3) As the existence of a perfect island is more excellent than a flawed one, thus the perfect island must exist. He also hinted at a problem that Kant was later to bring out fully:
“Now whoever says, “This being exists because otherwise that which is greater than all others would not be greater than all others” does not pay enough attention to whom he is speaking. For I do not yet admit – indeed, I even doubt and deny – that that which is greater [that all others] exists at all in reality.” (4)
Another objection was that of Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa Theologica he objected to Anselm’s argument based on the fact that we cannot possibly know the nature of god, and thus no one can conceive of god in the way that Anselm was claiming. (5) For Aquinas the ontological argument fails exactly because we do not understand god completely, unlike god. Thus only god could make such an argument logically.
If we are to go with Gaunilo and imagine other things as the most perfect: For example the most perfect of lovers. Surely if this perfect lover does not exist then you can imagine a more perfect lover. Thus the perfect lover must exist by necessity. Anselm would reply (6) that the lover is limited just like the island is, and god is not. But if we are to theoretically remove this limit: we transform the island or lover into unlimited perfection. Otherwise known as god. While using Aquinas’ view: It seems to me that the only people who can use the ontological argument without running into a contradiction is Pantheists, Deists, and God itself.
Moving on from Anselm’s ontological argument, or to say it more accurately: now to look at a reformulation of Anselm’s argument. René Descartes put forward a famous argument for the existence of god. He used the nature of god in order to deduce its existence a priori. His argument is the most commonly came across as the ontological argument: That god is perfect, and in order to be perfect one must exist. Thus god must exist because it is perfect. Without existence, god would not be perfect. An example of this argument is:
“It is quite evident that existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than the fact that its three angles equals two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle…It is…A contradiction to think of God (that is, a supremely perfect being) lacking existence (that is, lacking a perfection) (AT VII 66;CSM II 46).” (7)
Bertrand Russell took issue with this by drawing a distinction between existence and essence. Stating that the essence of said being could be argued or described, and still leave the existence of such a being perfectly in question:
“The ontological argument depends upon the distinction between existence and essence. Any ordinary person or thing, it is held, on the one hand exists, and on the other hand has certain qualities, which make up his or its ‘essence’.” (8)
Although in the page following this statement he does admit that while the ontological argument seems absurd, it is hard to find out why exactly we feel this way about this argument. “The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.” (9)
The most successful refutation of Descartes’ argument came from Immanuel Kant. Kant like Russell (But much earlier than Russell) drew a distinction between properties and existence. To him, making existence a property was nonsense. But the strongest refutation of Descartes’ argument by Kant is quite different. The argument goes:
“If, in an identical proposition, I reject the predicate while retaining the subject, contradiction results; and I therefore say that the former belongs necessarily to the latter. But if we reject the subject and predicate alike, there is no contradiction; for nothing is then left that can be contradicted. To posit a triangle, and yet to reject its three angles, is self-contractionary; but there is no contradiction in rejecting the triangle together with its three angles. The same holds true of the concept of an absolutely necessary being. If its existence is rejected we reject the thing itself with all its predicates; and no question of contradiction can then arise.” (10)
I think Kant’s refutation is somewhat powerful, but I also think more can be said about what is wrong with Descartes’ argument (and to some degree with Anselm’s). If God is perfect by definition, In order to be perfect one must exist. Therefore god exists by necessity of being perfect, is how his argument goes. But, first of all the definition of god is not perfection. You can argue like Kant did that existence is not an attribute but something altogether separate, and that proving something by analytical statements says nothing about the reality of the matter. Logical possibility is purely theoretical. The function of this is to show what can or cannot be the case, but it cannot say what is in fact the case.
Also existence is a brute fact, while perfection is contingent on existence being true. To say that something exists because of a contingent fact only makes sense when talking about other contingent facts. A being such as god that does not come into being via contingents is made nonsensical by claiming that its perfection results in its existence. When it needs existence in order to be perfect. A contingent before a necessity makes no logical sense.
What I mean by this is that Descartes is arguing that god exists because it is perfect. But existence comes first as a brute fact, and then perfection comes from existence as a contingent fact. His reasoning is backwards, and thus flawed. He is using contingent perfection (Something which he cannot possibly know about god in the first place.) to prove the brute fact of existence, which is just another thing about god that he cannot possibly know in the first place. To take his argument as factual, you would have to first prove the existence, and then the perfection could follow from that. And Descartes, like all of us, can prove neither the perfection nor the existence of god. Thus him attributing either to his essence or being is an assumption.
There is also another way to show how Descartes’ argument is absurd. The way I will do this is by actually agreeing with him. I will assume that Descartes did know the true god, and god was perfect and thus exists. Assuming this you’re left with a childishly simple question: Why did perfection do anything? Perfection involves all highest goods. Thus god needs, nor wants anything: god needs not to do anything, nor desires it. Nor does god need to replicate, as adding finite to infinite is nonsensical. A perfection would also be perfect self-sustainability. Meaning god would not do anything, nor have a necessity to do anything.
God’s doing of something seems to negate its perfection. As perfection is so supreme that it would not, nor have any reason to do anything. Thus if Descartes is correct, his god is imperfect: Thus he is incorrect. Further more; A perfect god seems inconsistent. If god is perfectly just and also perfectly merciful, then you result in a contradiction. And if god is perfectly good it would allow free-will, but if god is omniscient then free-will becomes meaningless and incoherent. (11) Meaning the ontological argument fails by common sense. It at best; proves an imperfect god (Which contradicts his conclusion and premises, which means the argument is invalid), and at its worst; it simply is an argument with faulty, assumed premises.
Using this argument further:
- God is imperfect.
- Non-existence is an imperfection.
- God may not exist.
I am fully aware of how crude this argument is, and I personally don’t take it seriously. I am using it purely as a parody, and to point out a clear problem with the ontological argument. Descartes seems to be implying that god must exist by necessity. But why is existence necessary? He is assuming that language contains reason and truth, and that by uttering a sentence you may find, summon, conjure and make real something which you have thought. Another problem is that you can make the same argument about anything, and thus make that object God. And also what do we mean by perfection: 1. Perfect to all? Or 2. Perfect in and of itself (i.e. I am perfectly me, or This bowl is perfectly itself)? God could be perfect in and of itself and not exist. Just as a perfect teacup can be existent by being perfectly itself, but a perfect to all teacup would result in non-existence, as perfection contradicts our everyday experience of our universe. This is where and when the ontological argument becomes a language game rather than a serious endeavour of reason.David Hume summed up his entire view on the ontological argument as the character Cleanthes in his Dialogues concerning natural religion which sums up my own opinion succinctly:
“I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no Being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.” (12)
So to conclude:
What the ontological argument shows is that it is both reasonable and logical to accept or deny the entire argument, but if you accept or deny parts of it you end up with a contradiction. In this way the ontological argument does not set out to prove god, but to test theoretically what is possible. And my conclusion is that a perfect god is as possible as its non-existence. There is no contradiction in the denial, nor acceptance of the existence of god. Although the acceptance of the existence of a perfect-to-all or a maximally great god results in some incoherent conclusions, which contradict the ontological argument. Thus only a god which is perfect in and of itself seems logically coherent: the god of the deists and pantheists. Meaning that the ontological argument results in a contradiction for theists that believe in a literal perfect god. Thus Descartes and Anselm are contradicting their own conclusions with their premises. So, to answer the question: “Does the ontological argument demonstrate that there is a self-contradiction in denying the existence of God?”; My answer is a firm no. It does not.
1. Saint Anselm, Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy:
2. Anselm of Canterbury, Volume one: Monologion, Proslogion, Debate with Gaunilo and Meditation on human redemption. Proslogion – Chapter three: God cannot be thought not to exist. Page 94. (Printed in Great Britain by Western printing services limited, Bristol. Scm. Edited and translated by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert W. Richardson, 1974.)
3. Gaunilo’s island argument: Anselm of Canterbury, Volume one: Monologion, Proslogion, Debate with Gaunilo and Meditation on human redemption. On behalf of the fool. What someone, on behalf of the fool, replies to these arguments. Page 119. (Printed in Great Britain by Western printing services limited, Bristol. Scm. Edited and translated by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert W. Richardson, 1974.)
4. Anselm of Canterbury, Volume one: Monologion, Proslogion, Debate with Gaunilo and Meditation on human redemption. On behalf of the fool. What someone, on behalf of the fool, replies to these arguments. Page 118. (Printed in Great Britain by Western printing services limited, Bristol. Scm. Edited and translated by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert W. Richardson, 1974.)
5. A short article containing some questions, arguments and objections from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica:
6. Anselm of Canterbury, Volume one: Monologion, Proslogion, Debate with Gaunilo and Meditation on human redemption. Reply to Gaunilo by Anselm. What the author of that treatise replies to these objections. Page 123-134. (Printed in Great Britain by Western printing services limited, Bristol. Scm. Edited and translated by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert W. Richardson, 1974.)
7. René Descartes being quoted in John Cottingham’s book Descartes. Chapter three: From self to God to knowledge of the world. The ontological argument, page 59. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1986.)
8. Bertrand Russell, History Of Western Philosophy. Book three: Modern philosophy. Part I: From the renaissance to Hume. XI Leibniz. Page 567. (Routledge, printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ive plc. 1993 reprint.)
9. Bertrand Russell, History Of Western Philosophy. Book three: Modern philosophy. Part I: From the renaissance to Hume. XI Leibniz. Page 568. (Routledge, printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ive plc. 1993 reprint.)
10. Immanuel Kant, Critique of pure reason: I. Transcendental doctrine of elements: Second division: Transcendental dialectic. Chapter III. The ideal of pure reason. Section 4. The impossibility of an ontological proof of the existence of God. (Palgrave Macmillan, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, revised second edition ((With new introduction by Howard Caygill) published 2003.)
11. God’s perfection bringing justice and mercy, and free-will and goodness into question was taken from a paper written by Kenneth Einar Himma, Seattle Pacific University, U.S.A. Titled – Anselm: Ontological argument for God’s existence.
Article contained and read on The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) (ISSN 2161-0002): http://www.iep.utm.edu/ont-arg/
12. David Hume, Dialogues and the natural history of religion. Dialogues concerning natural religion, Part IX. Page 91. (Oxford university press, 2008 reissue.)
– Anselm, Volume one: Monologion, Proslogion, Debate with Gaunilo and Meditation on human redemption. (Printed in Great Britain by Western printing services limited, Bristol. Scm. Edited and translated by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert W. Richardson, 1974.)
– Aquinas, Summa Theologica.
– Cottingham, Descartes. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1986.)
– Descartes, Meditations and discourse on the method.
– Hume, Dialogues and the natural history of religion. (Oxford university press, 2008 reissue.)
– Kant, Critique of pure reason. (Palgrave Macmillan, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, revised second edition ((With new introduction by Howard Caygill) published 2003.)
– Russell, History Of Western Philosophy. (Routledge, printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ive plc. 1993 reprint.)