On the Ontological Argument

The Ontological Argument (OA) is one of the more interesting a priori arguments in philosophy – it’s had both noted champions and critics, and it generally seems that although it is in fact interesting it is not compelling as an argument. I definitely agree – as an argument, it’s not that compelling.

But I was thinking about it last night – suppose it’s not necessarily meant to be a compelling argument. I mean, look at the context – it’s smack dab in the middle of a work of devotional/mystical prayer (indeed one of the great works of devotion and prayer of the middle ages, in my opinion). Anselm does indeed seem to want to prove ‘the fool’ wrong – but perhaps not so much in an analytic way but rather in a religious way.

In a nutshell, I think the OA is an excercise in allowing the mind to ascend to the most pure communion with God – in a sense, to find God in His most real or ultimate form. Anselm’s famous definition of God as that which no greater can be conceived isn’t so much of an analytic axiom – rather it is the full force of the reality of God upon the mind. Anselm has arrived at God – in a ‘this is *it*’ kind of way. It’s God in His full reality of being, or rather a glimpse of that, being had by the mind, and all Anselm can say is ‘no greater can be conceived’. While differing in content and form I think there is a family resemblance with the theologies of Bonaventure and Eckhart here. Anselm is seeking true communion with the Reality that is God, and as he continually ascends towards God’s reality he finds His most perfect form as that which no greater can be conceived.

Now this is a pretty brief and broad exposition, and I haven’t really gone into a lot of depth and suspect that this isn’t really a majority opinion as to the meaning of the argument. But it’s what I get when reading the work.

A Prayer for Enemies

‘This is the punishment
that in the secret of my heart
I want to exact
for those who serve with me and those who sin with me –
this is the punishment that I ask
for those who serve with me and hate me –
let us love you and each other
as you will and as is expedient for us,
so that we may make good amends to the good Lord
for our own and for each other’s offences;
so that we may obey with one heart in love
one Lord and Master.
This is the revenge your sinner asks
on all who wish him evil and act against him.
Most merciful Lord,
prepare the same punishment for your sinner.’

(Saint Anslem, ‘The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anslem,’ p. 218)

The Thought of Saint Anselm of Canterbury – Part I

This will be the first in a series of posts reflecting on the contribution to Western though by Saint Anselm of Canterbury; this post will focus on the Ontological Argument.

What is the Ontological argument in its original form?

Therefore, Lord, who grant understanding to faith, grant me that, in so far as you know it beneficial, I understand that you are as we believe and you are that which we believe. Now we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be imagined.

Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not? But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying – something than which nothing greater can be imagined – understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding and another to understand that a thing is.

For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his undertanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.
Therefore even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because when he hears this he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.

And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality. (Proslogium, Saint Anselm)

The basic ideal at the heart of Anselm’s argument is this: if something exists in thought, then it must exist in reality. We can conceive of God; therefore He exists.  A being that is totally perfect would have complete existence in every reality including our own; since we can conceive of such a being, it therefore exists in every possible world and as such exists in our actual world.

The obvious weakness here is a simple one: does that mean anything that one can conceive of is out there, existing, somewhere? Anselm would say no, that his argument applies only to such beings as no greater can be conceived; therefore thinking of such things as cars, islands or whatnot aren’t simply wrong, they misunderstand the argument. All these examples do not need absolute perfection to exist; God, however, by definition, does and therefore this argument applies and works only when used for God.

How, then, does the argument hold up? Critics from Thomas Aquinas (who argued that only God could know God’s essence completely, therefore only God could use the ontological argument to prove it to Himself)) to David Hume’s objection:

[T]here is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any argumentsa 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.

…to Kant (who objected to being being a predicate to existence) have all rejected it in it’s original form; however, other modes of the argument that are much tight and more valid continue to provoke thought and criticism to this day.

The next posts will deal specifically with various criticisms of the argument as well as newer versions.

Various other forms of the argument include Alvin Plantingas Modal argument: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Plantinga#Modal_ontological_argument

And variousother revisionists: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontological_argument#Revisionists