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The Ontological Argument

02 Sep
David:
You’ve said that you would only believe in God if His existence could be logically proven. Well I have proof.
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Venus:
Actually I would only require that the case for God be stronger than the case against. Proof isn’t necessary, but if you have it I would certainly interested. Tell me, what is your proof?
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David:
It is possible for us, as humans, to be able to conceive the idea of a being of such greatness that there can be no greater being imagined. The fact that we are even having this conversation is proof of that. We can debate whether or not such a being exists in reality, but there can be no debate that the idea certainly exists in the mind at least. The question is whether it exists in the mind alone or in reality as well as the mind. Now, supposing it did exist only in the mind, it would not be the being of which no greater being could be thought would it? For a being which exists in reality is necessarily greater than a being which only exists in the mind(1 p. 79; 2 p. 41).
Since we’ve already agreed at the outset that the idea of a being of which no being greater can be conceived can exist in the mind, and we must also agree that the idea of a being which does exist is greater than the idea of one which only exists in the mind, such a being, who we name God, must exist in reality as well as in the mind (1 p. 79; 3 p. 93).
This is what Anselm called the Ontological Argument(1 p. 79). Now you have proof. Do you now accept that God exists?
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Venus:
I’m afraid you’ve proven nothing but the philosopher’s willingness to turn his own mind in knots to convince himself that his thoughts are so great as to be able to create God.
As Gaunilo said of this very argument, the first premise that humans can conceive of a being of which no greater being can be thought is laughable. When we think of great humans we can use words like honesty, strength, integrity and kindness. But these are all human qualities and human judgements. The qualities of a being of which “no greater being can be thought” are so far beyond human experience that it is impossible to know what such a being would be like (1 p. 80; 4 p. 31).
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David:
I’m afraid you misunderstand my argument Venus. I am not suggesting that we can know the qualities of God to the same degree that God does. I am rather suggesting that with our frail human minds we are capable of understanding that God, existent or otherwise, is the greatest possible being (4 p. 31). And following the logic I presented earlier, by attempting to say that God does not exist and yet defining him as the greatest possible being, you have in fact proved than He does exist (5 p. 41).
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Venus:
There is no misunderstanding David. I was merely getting you to clarify your terms so that I could more easily point out the fault in your alleged logic.
You claim that since it is possible to conceive of the idea of the greatest possible being, and that one necessary feature of said being would be existence, that it must therefore exist. Yet this could be said of any number of things which do not exist (6 p. 420). I, for example, can conceive of the idea of a tropical island of which no greater tropical island could be conceived. By your own statement, I do not need to know the features of the island. I only need to be able to conceive the idea of it. Any good tropical island would have a lot of palm trees, so the greatest tropical island must have the most palm trees which anybody could imagine. Yet whatever number of palm trees you name, I could imagine an island with one more. This island must therefore, by your own logic, have an infinite number of palm trees, each containing an infinite number of coconuts which fall onto the infinitely fluffy white sand to be chopped into halves and served as Pina Coladas by an infinite number of waitresses each in an infinitely revealing bikini… and it must all exist since that which exists in reality is clearly greater than that which exists only in the mind.
This is known as the reducio ad absurdum argument (1 p. 80). Using the same logic as your argument, I could prove all sorts of nonsensical things(5 p. 41; 6 p. 420). Sadly, the tropical island of which no greater tropical island can be conceived does not exist, and neither does your God.
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David:
Well that would be absurd. This logic, by its very nature, can only really apply to things which have an inherent maximum (1 p. 81; 6 p. 419). The qualities of this island have no inherent maximum so such an island becomes a logical impossibility. The agreed definition of God, and only God, can be the superlative of every one of his properties: power, knowledge, presence, righteousness and existence. Anselm’s argument can really only be used to prove God because each of God’s attributes has an inherent maximum (1 p. 80; 6 p. 420; 7 p. 255).
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Venus:
I can come up with some non-existent objects with inherent maximums. For example, I can conceive of a perfect one thousand dollar note. Now you can think of notes with higher denominations but they aren’t thousand dollar notes. A thousand dollar note by definition is worth one thousand dollars. Its perfection would be in its perfect print, creaselessness, paper colour and so on. All of these are factors with inherent maximums. As a note which exists is better than one which does not exist, the perfect thousand dollar note must exist. If the ontological argument can prove God then it can also prove the existence of a perfect thousand dollar note (1 p. 81).
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David:
It seems we have reached an impasse for the moment. I’ve heard that Charles Hartshorne has another form of the argument (1 p. 81; 8 p. 336). I’ll bring that along next week. Perhaps that will convince you of the truth of God.
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Venus:
You are welcome to try. I do admire your persistence.
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Works Cited
1. Peterson M, et al. Reason and Religious Belief: an introduction to the philosophy of religion. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008.
2. Anselm’s Ontological Arguments. M, Norman. 1, Durham : Duke University Press, Jan 1960, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 69.
3. On Behalf of the Devil: A Parody of Anselm Revisited. T, Chambers. Oxford : Blackwell Publishing , 2000, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 200.
4. The Ontological Argument of St. Anselm. SA, Grave. 100, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1952, Philosophy, Vol. 27.
5. A Primordial Reply to Modern Gaunilos. JP, Downey. 1, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, Mar 1986, Religious Studies, Vol. 22.
6. The Perfect Island. EM, William. 339, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1976, Mind, Vol. 85.
7. The Perfect Island, the Devil, and Existent Unicorns. ED, Philip. 3, Illinois : University of Illinois Press, 1975, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 12.
8. The Modal Ontological Argument. R, Kane. 371, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1984, Mind, Vol. 93.
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2 Comments

Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Religious

 

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2 responses to “The Ontological Argument

  1. ty

    September 3, 2010 at 1:11 AM

    If you remove the equivocation of “greatest” with “best” and “largest”, the tropical island does not have a problem being perfect. Obviously, a perfect tropical island does not have more coconut trees than is absolutely necessary. The “greatest” number of trees the island can have is “the number required for it to be perfect”, and on no account is that an infinitely large number, as a perfect tropical island must exist, and therefore is not infinitely large.

    Also, I think the word you may be looking for is “impasse”.

    Why not convince me that my thinking a thing makes it so? This is what lies at the core of the argument, not any quality God may or may not have. Yes, I can concieve (perhaps) of a perfect God, and a perfect God must exist (maybe)… But my conceptions do not make a thing so, in the formal logic.

    “But a perfect God MUST exist.”
    “Ah, but if He does not, then obviously I am not thinking hard enough (and cannot).”

     
    • jaminism

      September 3, 2010 at 6:15 AM

      While I am inclined to agree that the greatest conceivable island could have inherent maximums. Sand which is too fluffy and white eventually ceases to be sand, so a perfect balance of coarseness and fluffiness may exist. The same goes for how many trees there may be. I would also argue that the perfect island is the one I am currently experiencing, so if I am not currently experiencing and island in reality but only in my mind, then the process falls down again.

      Unfortunately none of the arguments from Anselm’s contemporaries seemed to consider that possibility. And most modern theorists focus on the more immediate problems with the logic of the argument rather than the crazy things it could bring into existence were it true. There is also an issue with Cartesian Dualism which is brought into the argument after the island and notes examples were presented so that the argument only applies to spiritual beings.

       

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