Among many never-ending intellectual battles fought against critics of God’s existence, the ontological argument is probably the most intellectually rigorous as well as the most intriguing one. The pioneer philosopher in this tradition is the theologian St. Anselm whose chief argument against the deniers of God’s existence is that the claim ‘God does not exists’ entangles them in a logical contradiction. This paper attempts to make a case for the existence god with a clear exposition of Anselm’s ontological argument and rebut possible objections with an acute operation of linguistic incapacity and complications around the God debate.
Let’s examine Anselm’s argument through a hypothetical situation by reflecting on the logic of negative existential assertions. Let us suppose that a friend of mine argues to have seen a dragon coming out of a lake and flying into the sky. And I object to this by claiming that ‘dragons do not exist’. He looks at me in a state of shock and asks, ‘do you know how dragons look like?’ My answer would be ‘I don’t know how they really look like except from the supposed pictures I have seen, but I know for fact that dragons are just mythical creatures in stories.’ Now, if I did not have any idea of what dragons are or really look like, then my claim that they do not exist is an epistemic fallacy. A failure to recognize the gap between what I know and what exists. And logically, it undermines the cogency of the claim. Anselm argues that this applies to the problem of God’s existence. Those who claim that God does not exist are not different from me asserting that dragons do not exist despite the fact that they have no idea about what kind of being is God supposed to be (Rauhut, 2011:176).
Anselm asserts that both atheists and theists would come to terms with the idea that God is the idea of greatest being that we can think of. He maintains that this is a reasonable definition of God as a foundation for his argument construction. A strong concrete pillar against this base is the principle that existence in reality is greater than existence only in understanding. He argues that anything that exists in reality is greater than anything that exists only in understanding, no matter how defectless(flawless?) or perfect it is. A simple fountain pen that exists in reality is greater than a golden one in imagination. The ontological status of both pens offers the choice of choosing one over the other. Therefore there is a good reason to choose the pen that exists in reality. However, it follows that if something exists only in understanding and not in reality, it still is possible to think of something greater than the previously imagined.
Looking back to the claim for God’s non-existence and examining it in this light, it is possible that ‘we can think of something greater than the greatest thing we can think of’. It is an outright contradiction. However, to establish a logical form of the ontological argument for God’s existence we need to conclude from the below:
1. By definition, the idea of God is the idea of the greatest being one can think of.
2. If God does not exist, then God exists only in the understanding but not in reality.
3. If God does not exist, then the idea of greatest being one can think of exists only in the understanding but not in reality.
4. If something exists only in the understanding but not in reality, then it is possible to think of something greater than that thing.
5. If God does not exist, then it is possible to think of something greater than the greatest being one can think of.
6. But it is impossible to think of something greater than the greatest being one can think of.
C. It cannot be true that the God does not exist. God exists (Rauhut, 2011:178).
The argument seems rather simplistic but the strength of this argument lies in its logical form, and it is difficult to point out any logical discrepancies. David Hume objects that ontological argument is based on a priori considerations by which he means that it requires a precedent knowledge or concept of the subject in question. He thinks that to argue for the existence of polar bear requires the prior knowledge of how polar bears look like, and therefore existential claims can never be analytic but synthetic (Rauhut, 2011). This doesn’t do harm to the argument, as in this case we are not dealing with an ordinary object but the greatest thing we can think of. It is not improbable that it is a unique case with the God. Norman Malcolm and Alvin Plantinga present a rebuttal in which they differentiate necessary and contingent existence as kernel to understanding God’s existence. They postulate that God’s existence is either necessary or logically impossible, but it is not impossible for God to exist (Rauhut, 2011). Therefore God necessarily exist. Though the argument presented is quite strong, it cannot escape the fundamental assumption that God’s existence is necessary or logically impossible.
Another famous objection is Gaunilo’s ‘Lost Island’ argument, which provides a reductio(?) of Anselm’s argument that goes like this:
1. The Lost Island is that which no greater island can be conceived. (Definition)
2. The Lost Island exists in the mind, but not in reality. (Premise to be reduced to absurdity)
3. Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone. (Premise)
4. It is conceivable that the Lost Island exists in reality. (Premise)
5. It is conceivable that there is an island greater than the Lost Island. (Follows from 2, 3, and 4)
C. It is conceivable that there is an island greater than that island than which no greater island can be conceived. (Gaunilo’s reply to Anselm)
It is certain that the two arguments are similar that we cannot prove the existence of an island that which no greater can be conceived. Quite plausibly, one can see that it is a serious challenge for defending the ontological argument, but one room for skepticism to the ‘lost island argument’ is to pause and reflect on how appropriate would that be to apply the same line of reasoning to God? Because it is not impossible that the God is a unique case, as Kant would argue for transcendental knowledge to grasp the noumenal world to which we will visit in the following sections.
In retrospect, critics who argue against God’s existence are also entangled in the same predicament. For instance, even the rationalist or empiricist arguments that our knowledge about the world can be conceived through reason or experience fail to escape certain assumptions. This explains a fundamental problem in philosophy, i.e. the limits of human knowledge in grasping certain epistemological and ontological problems. But for the purpose of this paper, let’s see how Kant argues against rationalism and empiricism for a phenomenon beyond the realm of reason or experience as it indirectly supports the ontological argument. We have seen Kant arguing against God’s existence while he assumes that existence is not a property of the things. His counter argument to the ontological argument is the existence perfection argument, which challenges that existence is not a real property of things and thus no perfection. He posits that existence is not a predicate; existence is not a ‘great-making’ property of any object (Rauhut, 2011). If this is the case, it is threatening to the ontological argument for God. The ontological argument seems to have nothing in refutation, but what if it is the case that existence is not a property of God but rather ‘God is existence itself’. This clearly responds to Kant’s argument that God is not a predicate. It perfectly follows that if God is existence in itself, God is the predicate as well as the subject and its existence is necessary, not contingent. God is ‘a thing in itself’ in Kant’s own expression and we cannot know God as he really is. The ontological argument still stands firm because God only exists as the greatest conceivable thing in our imagination or understanding, not in reality. If we accept the premise that God is existence itself, then we cannot know if he exists, because he is the existence.
To conclude, as the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard argues, reason is incapable of understanding faith and God is beyond reason, it takes a leap of faith to transcend the limits of reason to our knowledge about the God. In some sense, it can be argued that the experience with God is different from our sensory experience or intellectual discovery; it is outside the scope of philosophy (McDonald, 2002). The significance of this is that it defends the ontological argument by arguing for the incapability of reason in understanding God that exists for the faithful in his heart and imagination.
Rauhut, Nils CH. Ultimate Questions: Thinking About Philosophy, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publications Date, Third Edition 2011, NJ.
Oppy, Graham, “Ontological Arguments”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Grier, Michelle, “Kant’s Critique of Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Davidson, Matthew, “God and Other Necessary Beings”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
William McDonald, on Soren Kierkegaard
http://www.iep.utm.edu/kierkega/ (accessed 9/25/2011)
Gaunilo’s reply to Anselm
http://nd.edu/~jspeaks/courses/mcgill/201/gaunilo.html (accessed 10/9/11)