August 19, 1997

Megan McClure

The Ontological Argument for God's Existence

The Ontological Argument seems at once logical, hard to refute, and yet obviously unsound. I believe the premises of the argument are true and that the form of the argument is deductively valid, but that the argument is unsound due to it containing an informal fallacy.

The Ontological Argument was first formulated by Saint Anselm and expressed this way:

. . . that than which a greater cannot be conceived cannot stand only in relation to the understanding. For if it stands at least in relation to the understanding, it can be conceived to be also in reality and this is something greater. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be conceived only stood in relation to the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be conceived would be something than which a greater can be conceived. But this is certainly impossible. Therefore, something than which a greater cannot be conceived undoubtedly both stands in relation to the understanding and exists in reality (127).

or to put it more simply:

God is a being of which no greater can be conceived.
To exist in reality is conceivable and greater than to exist only in imagination.
God exists.

The first premise is true from the definition of God. But why existence in reality is greater than existence in imagination is a bit confusing, so I think the argument can be presented better this way:

God is eternal.
An eternal being is a being that exists.
God is a being that exists.

The first premise is true once again by definition; likewise, the second premise is true by definition since an eternal being is a being that exists for all time. The form of the argument is deductively valid since it is just an argument of the form:

A is B.
B is C.
A is C.

If the argument is unsound, it must contain an informal fallacy, because the premises are both true and the argument is valid.

To translate this into a categorical syllogism, the argument would be translated as:

All G are T.
All T are E.
All G are E.

where G is beings identical to God, T is beings that are eternal, and E is beings that exist. But all does not assert existence. It's used to mean that if any things of a certain class exist, that they have a certain characteristic. To conclude All G are E just means that if God does exist that he has the characteristic of existence. That's a completely meaningless conclusion to obtain though because it's a necessary truth. If we wanted to assert God's existence in the conclusion to this argument we would have to say Some G are E where some asserts that at least one exists: but that would commit a fallacy known as the existential fallacy. To go from universal premises to a particular conclusion is not allowed since arguments such as the following would be possible if that were the case:

All unicorns are animals.
All animals are forms of life.
Some unicorns are forms of life.

The conclusion asserts that at least one unicorn exists but that is obviously false. It does little good to prove God's existence with such an argument if the existential fallacy is committed in the process.

It's interesting to note that Immanuel Kant chose to criticize the Ontological Argument on the grounds that it treated existence as though it were a characteristic of an object. He believed existence was not a characteristic of anything. But when I think about it, existence entails being in space and time. The universe consists of space and time and all the things that exist in it. I think that to say that something exists is to say that thing is a property of the universe. So saying that galaxies exist is saying that the universe has galaxies. Existence really doesn't seem to be a property of an object, but rather something asserting what the properties are of the universe. Another version of the Ontological Argument can be formulated:

God is eternal.
If a being is eternal, then the universe must contain that being.
The universe must contain God.

Now God's existence is a property of the universe rather that God, but God's existence still follows from the argument, so I don't think Kant's criticism is sufficient for rejecting the Ontological Argument.

The monk Guanilo proved that the Ontological Argument is unsound because the existence of any sort of perfect thing could be derived from it if existence is a quality of perfection--and that is impossible. Actually, I think the existence of anything, regardless of whether it is perfect, can be derived with like reasoning. Consider this example:

Purple tigers are purple.
For something to actually be purple, that thing must exist.
Purple tigers exist.

I can imagine anything to exist in space and time and to have certain properties, but to really have those properties, it must really exist in space and time. I think there is some sort of equivocation going on in the argument between imaginary properties and imaginary existence, and real properties and real existence. We can imagine anything at all to exist and have all sorts of properties, and alas, it is not possible for a thing to really have those properties unless it really exists. But that does not prove the object exists since we never presumed the object and its properties to be real in the first place. With the Ontological Argument I can imagine God to have all the qualities of perfection such as being eternal, and it is not possible for God to really have those properties unless he exists; but we were never talking about those properties as being real in the first place, so the conclusion does not follow. I think the Ontological Argument is equivocal in this sense, so I think it is a fallacious argument.

The Ontological Argument can be formulated such that both premises are true and the logical form is deductively valid. The argument must be unsound though; otherwise, the existence of anything could be proved with such reasoning and that is obviously not possible. The reasoning used in the argument is unsound, I think, because it is equivocal in the way it treats imagined and real properties as though they are the same. The only real conclusion that can come from such an argument is that if there is a God that he exists, and that is far from saying that God really exists.

Works Used

Anselm. Proslogion. Core Questions in Philosophy: A Text with Readings. 2nd ed. Ed. Elliott Sober. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1995. 126--128.

Sober, Elliott. Core Questions in Philosophy: A Text with Readings. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1995. 80--88.

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