The Ontological Argument

If you've ever taken a philosophy of religion class you've encountered the famous (or infamous) ontological argument for the existence of God first proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury. A simplistic version of the argument:
1. God is the greatest being that we can imagine.
2. To exist is greater than not to exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Technically, this only proves that God is the greatest being that we can imagine and that, if we imagined God, we have to imagine that God exists. But imaging God's existence isn't proof that God does, in fact, exist. To address this we'd have to add premises like "to exist in reality is greater than to exist in the mind." Regardless, you get the basic idea.

Few find the ontological arguement persuasive. It seems too cute and quick. Seems a bit fishy. And yet, some find the argument persuasive and the argument has been given a fair amount of logical and philosophical attention, then as now.

Personally, I'm one of those who don't find the ontological argument persuasive. And yet, how I think about God has a family resemblance to the ontological argument.

At its heart the ontological argument has us imagine a horizon of "greatness" and "perfection." The argument then goes on to say that existence must be, necessarily, a part of that vision. Maybe, maybe not. But in one sense it really doesn't matter. Because I think that horizon of "greatness" and "perfection" can do much of the work we want from any conception of God, with or without existence.

For example, when I think of "the Kingdom of God" what I have in mind is an ideal, a biblical ideal, a place where swords are beaten in plowshares and where the lion lays down with the lamb. Once posited, this ideal creates two eschatological functions, one negative and the other positive. Negatively, the Kingdom of God damns and stands in prophetic judgment of the status quo. In relation to the Kingdom of God the world is deemed fallen, sinful, and in need of rehabilitation. The horizon of the Kingdom of God creates the "oracle of the Lord," the "thus saith the Lord" of divine wrath and judgment.

Positively, the Kingdom of God functions as a goal state, a telos, a moral North Pole. A vision so beautiful, captivating, and wonderful that it infuses our dreams, our art and poetry, generation after generation.

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27 thoughts on “The Ontological Argument”

  1. Totally agree. Anselm's argument makes me think of Father Ted, where Ted has Dougal study the diagram of his head that says "dreams" inside the head, and "reality" outside the head. But, taken as an answer to the question "Who is worthy of your faith and devotion?" and not an ontological argument, I think this argument is a lot more helpful and interesting.

  2. Actually, the first premise is that God is that than which nothing greater can be thought - Anselm is not imagining that we can imagine God. If that were the argument, it would never have been worthy of serious consideration.

  3. I tend toward a more negative theology, which is that "the greatest thing we can imagine" is (probably, maybe) not God, for God is beyond that.

    I spent a week in southern Virginia, where there is a vast array of Christian television. While watching, I was constantly reminded of how much we recklessly define God: "God wants you to do this . . ." Which in turn reminds me why I end up in so much trouble when someone (especially someone close to me) asks: "Do you believe in God?" and "Do you believe in Heaven?" If I'm smart, I'll just say "yes" and "yes" and leave it at that.

    A close friend says I'm being evasive when I say I believe in "isness," "suchness," "the ground of being," and "the god beyond god which can be imagined." But I'd argue there is no true answer which is not evasive..

  4. I think, if the ontological argument ever gets you, it gets you in a flash. Less logical and more intuitive. "To rightly conceive of who God is"--or, as you are arguing, what the eschaton is--"is to love it and to believe in it." Imitations and imaginations are less real than reality; if we get the inkling of something more real than reality, we may posit that we didn't, after all, just make it up.

  5. I remember a professor making fun of the grammatical awkwardness of this premise--even addressing a mock prayer to the great "that than which" in the sky.

  6. For me, the Wittgensteinian take on the OA is the most helpful -- and interesting: namely, it speaks to the grammar of faith, to the way (implicitly) we deploy the term "God", not just in our God-talk (theology) but, above all, in our prayer and worship. When believers speak of God, we are not speaking of a being who may or may not exist but who, in fact, happens to exist. Such a being could not God, it would be a creature, and therefore our faith -- our prayer and worship -- would be idolatrous. Kierkegaard (in his usual, wonderful, indirect way) nailed it: God does not exist, God is eternal.

    Simone Weil also has a beautiful aphorism on the OA: "The ontological proof is mysterious because it does not address itself to the intelligence, but to love."

  7. You may have lost me when you said, "Technically, this only proves that God is the greatest being that we can imagine ..."

    The argument proves its first premise?

    Okay, I'm easily lost. And my brain is off today.

    I should only be discussing offtological arguments.

  8. Richard, an interesting read for you might be Stan Grenz's book, The Named God and the Question of Being. Grenz traces the history of ontology all the way back to the early Greek philosophers and the subsequent Christian use of it beginning with guys like Clement, Origen and Augustine. More importantly, he shows how the Christian sojourn into metaphysics around a substantialist ontology ultimately failed. He argues that instead of this onto-theology in its various forms, we should develop a theo-ontology around the narrative of the named God, which makes the issue identity not natures, and would be rooted in Trinitarian relations rather than speculative ideas about freedom, power, causation, etc.

    I like Robert Jenson's take on ontology as well (Systematic Theology, vol 1). Jenson writes, “'Being' is not a biblical
    concept, or one with which Christian theology must necessarily have been involved, had the gospel’s history been different than it is… But 'being' was a central concept of the theology with which the gospel came into essential
    conversation in Mediterranean antiquity. Thus the concept has become an inextricable determinant of the actual doctrine of God."

    Jenson moves ontology, and its attendant notions of God, away from “a perduring something” or “continuing
    subject” toward more personal, temporal, and dramatic meanings. There is nothing that stands behind the personhood of God that constitutes the divinity of God. The fact that God “changes his mind and reacts to external events,
    makes threats and responds to them” are not anthropomorphisms inappropriate to God conceived as a persisting substance. “In that the true God is personal they are ontological perfections, not deficiencies.” The way these “ontological perfections” are discovered, the way the identity of God is known, is through the narrative construals of the biblical testimonies. “To the question ‘Who is God?’ the New Testament has one descriptively identifying answer: ‘Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.’”

    I like your move to the Kingdom of God as cutting two ways, as functioning heuristically. But I don't think this is ontology as conceived by Anselm and others. If it ontological, it is a narrative ontology, which is a very different animal. Anyway, thanks for letting me share a little from my dissertation.


  9. Anselm's line of reasoning leaves me cold - mainly because I'm an incurable pedant, I think. Any god whose existence in any way derives from, or is a function of my imaginative powers is probably not worth too much attention and any binary (either/or) concept of existence is surely simplistic - let's introduce some 'both/and' notions into the mix. And whilst God may be congruent with human logic, he necessarily transcends it. We may be made in imago dei, but that doesn't imply a vice versa argument. I note that you have to move from 'God' to 'the kingdom of God' in order to make your argument. For me, I think it's the otherness, not the logical consistency of God that speaks of his love - the ineffably sublime divinity, as Wesley puts it. Otherwise, I'm just worshiping at an ornate mirror.

  10. By the way, are you familiar with the witty comment by another philosopher--I think Kant--on the Ontological argument: "No matter how much play money you have, you still can't buy a real car."

  11. In the video Karen Kilby (an excellent catholic scholar) explains Anselm's argument

  12. Ummm, you cut the sentence in half. It reads in full:

    "Technically, this only proves that God is the greatest being that we can imagine and that, if we imagined God, we have to imagine that God exists."

    And, as should be clear, that's not the first premise.

  13. Thanks for this.

    Would it be okay to summarize by saying that Anselm's argument is really just a way to express the aseity of God?

  14. Anselm's conclusion is that God necessarily exists, because existence is greater than existing only in one's imagination. If God only existed in one's imagination, God would *not* be the greatest possible being. So, you actually agree with Anselm's line of reasoning :).

    Are we made in the imago dei, or not? Does God transcend human logic, or not? I hope you mean to say, some statements about reality are not (either/or)---rather than *all* statements.

  15. As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, would it be okay to say that the ontological argument is less a logical syllogism than a confessional statement about the aseity of God?

  16. Barth talks about the resurrection as being like the point at which an arc touches a tangent - in that it never really touches yet functionally touches (sorry to mathematicians for that clumsy rendering). Your reflection reminded me of that for some reason.

  17. Hi barobin

    Thanks for your comeback on my rather sparse comments. I think I was reacting against the positivist assumption that everything can be measured, compared and ranked. I was wondering whether we need a richer, more emotionally literate way of thinking when we attempt to talk about God; whether any definite statement about God is not (according to another line of logical thought) necessarily idolatrous because the infinite can never be captured by the finite. I was wondering, too, whether more time could be devoted to imagining the world from God's point of view rather than defining (=setting boundaries around?) God from a human point of view (I'm currently wrestling with this thought to avoid getting too cross as I re-read the pentateuch!). I certainly value logical reasoning (not least in reaching some of my universalist conclusions), but I was arguing for a richer mix of thinking than can be captured by an either/or tool - we can attempt to calculate the number of human lives in a given community, for example, without capturing anything of its richness, subtlety or intricacy. Is there any point in attempting to prove the 'existence' of something without first considering what we mean by that term? I suspect any such attempt is destined for the dustbin of logical circularity and unlikely to inculcate faith, hope or love into the confusion of the world.


  18. Andrew,

    I agree with much of what you said in the last 2/3rd; but I do want to point something out for reasons of clarity. The ontological argument is *not* a positivist argument---if by positivist, you mean 19th/20th century logical positivism. Logical positivism rests on an empirical epistemology, as your statement accurately points out: "that everything can be measured, compared and ranked." Logical positivists tended to suggest that any talk of God, the supernatural, or anything else beyond our senses, to be nonsense, because it cannot be categorized. Needless to say, logical positivism has been rejected long ago by the philosophical community. On the other hand, the ontological argument is an analytic statement (to borrow from Kant), or something that can only be arrived at rationally, not empirically, when one thinks of the analytic meaning *the greatest possible being.*

  19. Unfortunately, though, logical positivism's influence continues to pervade disciplines ill-suited to its worldview - including, I'd argue, popular theology via the back door of psychology. So, for example, experimental psychology's love-affair with what it (mistakenly) took to be 'proper' science has contributed to the continuing prevalence of trait-based notions of personality which have in turn seeped into notions such as measures of purity in popular theology - "how can I become more pure?"; "which of the two candidates is more devout?" etc. I'm not convinced even that all philosophers and theologians are always fully aware of their ontology when forming statements about the nature of God. I realise the positivist school post-dates Anselm, but my concern here is with the way such arguments are used today. This line of reasoning might encourage us to revisit constructs such as that of "the greatest possible being" and think more in terms, for example, of the qualities of God's relationship to human individuals and communities, rather than comparing God's greatness with our own which will only ever lead to personification (or 'humanification' perhaps) and implicit if unintentional boundary setting of the infinite. Hence my appeal for a consideration of the otherness of God.

    Anyway, thanks for making me think!

  20. Coincidentally, I picked up my neglected copy of The Crucified God today and found myself reading about Horkheimer's critical theory:

    "What sort of being, then, would be a God who was only 'almighty'? He would be a being without experience, a being without destiny and a being loved by no-one."

    Moltmann traces a line of descent from Dostoevsky and Camus, describing critical theory as:

    "based on the presupposition that we do not know what God is critical to the extent that it cannot be satisfied with any immanent idols and righteousness, but seeks a universal beyond contradiction...; it is negative insofar as it cannot allow any positive definitions of God, whether these are dogmatic or secularised...So Horkheimer uses the formula of 'longing for the wholly other'.

    Further along, Moltmann criticises either/or theologies of God's impassibility:

    "Granted, the theology of the early church knew of only one alternative to suffering and that was being incapable of suffering...but there are other forms of suffering between unwilling suffering as a result of an alien cause and being essentially unable to suffer, namely active suffering, the suffering of love, in which one voluntarily opens himself to the possibility of being affected by another."

    I think these are the kinds of thoughts I was fumbling towards. I keep hoping Richard will consider the subject of the passibility of God at greater leisure sometime...

  21. One small problem. God is an evil idea, one of the worst possibilities to imagine. Premise 1 doesn't hold.

  22. I find I have a real problem with calling greatness a defining feature of God, because I don't believe people should feel confident as they generally do that they have a sane attitude towards (what they perceive to be) upscale.

  23. Hmmm, sounds like either you're imagining Satan and calling him God or don't like the idea that you are fallable and don't want to be accountable to any kind of ethical standard.

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