The Ontological Argument

Imagining Elephants

I do a fair bit of debating on the existence of gods, so I’ve heard pretty much every argument for God at one time or another, but one of the few that I’ve never had used on me is the Ontological Argument. I was surprised recently when someone on Twitter listed it as a good reason for belief, though they never actually got around to arguing it. There are a variety of versions of this argument, but they are all similar. The classic one by St. Anselm runs like this:

  1. By definition, God is a being than which none greater can be imagined.
  2. A being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that does not necessarily exist.
  3. Thus, by definition, if God exists as an idea in the mind but does not necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than God.
  4. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
  5. Thus, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality.
  6. God exists in the mind as an idea.
  7. Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality.

The criticisms of the argument that you find in philosophical sources often suggest that it is difficult to refute. I think when you first glance over it, the flaw in it is immediately apparent: it makes a jump from the imaginary to the real. I think that most people see the argument as nonsense when they first read it; but upon deeper thought, many are unable to identify the specific flaw in it.

Line 1 is just a definition, so we can accept it as is. The flaws in the formal argument begin with line 2.

2. A being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that does not necessarily exist.

Statement #2 can be accepted as true, but it is setting up the trick; starting to mix imagination and reality. Even though the words “in reality” are in there, both of these proposed beings are imagined; imagining that a being is necessary in reality doesn’t mean that it actually is necessary in reality.

3. Thus, by definition, if God exists as an idea in the mind but does not necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than God.

Statement #3 is where the sleight of hand occurs. The definition of God was “a being than which none greater can be imagined”. If a maximally great being exists as an idea in your imagination, then you can’t imagine something greater, so statement #3 is false. The fact that it doesn’t actually exist in reality is not relevant. The fact that it doesn’t necessarily exist in reality is not relevant. If you have imagined it as necessarily existing in reality, you’ve completed the thought experiment. It just means you’ve imagined something that, like many things you can imagine, isn’t known to exist in reality. Nothing here absolves you of the responsibility to prove that it exists or that it must exist.

To reiterate, you can imagine a god that must necessarily exist, but its necessity is also an attribute that you have imagined; it isn’t something that’s shown to be real. You can’t make an imaginary thing “break out of the thought bubble” into reality by simply claiming that it is necessary. You only imagined it to be necessary; that doesn’t make it so, any more than imagining a pink elephant makes it real. Not even if you imagine that the pink elephant is a necessary being.

The trick of the argument is the language limitations that make it difficult to express exactly what is flawed in the syllogism. I hope I have done that.

God Breaks Out?

Since statement #3 is false, that makes #5 false and leaves #7 unsupported, which is probably what most people thought at first glance.

All versions of the ontological argument are variations on this same sleight of hand, intended to make you forget that you were discussing imaginary things and switch to talking about real things.

Here’s is Alvin Plantinga’s version as pitched by William Lane Craig:

  1. It is possible that a maximally great being (MGB) exists.
  2. If it is possible that an MGB exists, then an MGB exists in some possible world.
  3. If an MGB exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
  4. If an MGB exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
  5. If an MGB exists in the actual world, then an MGB exists.
  6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

In this version, they try to fool you into accepting premises which already contain the conclusion they claim to argue. The question begging is hidden in the definition of MGB: since an MGB is defined as having the property that if it exists in one possible world (which is to say that it isn’t logically contradictory) then it must exist in all possible worlds, premise #1 amounts to “an MGB exists unless it’s logically contradictory” and you can stop right there. Argument by assertion; religious apologetics at its finest. This kind of intellectual dishonesty gives philosophers a bad name.

The God in your imagination might be a representation of a real god (if theists are correct), or not (if atheists are correct), but either way, that particular god is in your imagination. The ontological argument sheds no light on the question of whether a god exists in reality.

Note: this post does not address whether god(s) exist; it only addresses a specific argument for a god’s existence, so if you comment, please stick to this argument.

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