The Argument from Ontology - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Defending Christianity

The Argument from Ontology

The "Argument from Ontology" is an argument for the existence of God. It is, perhaps, rather difficult to understand, and so it is often given in a "simplified" form. This simplified form, unfortunately, completely misses the point.

Here's the argument as I first heard it, and as it is often stated:

The fact that people can conceive of the idea of "God" proves that there must really be such a being.
The idea appears to be that for you to be able to imagine something, there must be some reality behind it, that a human being would not be able to conceive of something that is totally imaginary. This reasoning quickly falls apart once we consider some examples. I can conceive of fairies and Santa Claus and pointy-eared aliens from the planet Vulcan and politicians who keep their campaign promises, but that certainly doesn't prove that any of these things actually exist.

The real argument is much more sophisticated. Here is a more serious statement of it: 1

In the universe there are many objects or beings or forces. It is easy to imagine some of these things not existing. For example, I can easily imagine a universe with no elephants. It is not difficult at all to simply mentally remove elephants from any picture I might see that includes them. Other things are harder to imagine not existing. I find it very difficult to imagine a universe without gravity, where I could hold an object in the air and let go and it wouldn't fall. Or would there be air around us, if there was no gravity to hold it on the earth? Etc. The mind must really stretch. Elephants are not particularly fundamental to our concept of the universe. But gravity is very closely tied to our basic concept of what the universe is like.

So: Can you conceive of the idea of an object or being or force that would be so fundamental to our concept of the universe, that you could not imagine this being not existing? That is, can you conceive of something whose effects are all around us, all the time, to such an extent that it is not possible to even imagine a universe in which it did not exist?

Think carefully about your answer. If you answer, "no, I cannot imagine such a being", then you admit that you do not understand what we are talking about, and so of course you cannot have a valid opinion on the subject. If you answer, "yes, I can imagine such a being", then you must believe that this being exists. For how can you say, "I am thinking of something which cannot be imagined not to exist", and then say, "But I think it doesn't exist"?

We call this being, "God".

Note that the point here is not that we are trying to set up some sort of catch-22. Rather, we are saying that there might be some beings that are so real that just to imagine such a being is to immediately conclude that it must be real. Suppose someone says, "I am thinking of the number 2, which by definition is even, but I think it is odd". Our only possible conclusion is that he either doesn't know how many "2" is, or he doesn't understand what is meant by the concepts of even and odd. (Or that this is the beginning of a joke, I suppose.) Likewise, suppose someone says, "I am thinking of the idea of God, who is defined as being the creator of the universe, all of which is dependant for its existence on him, and I think this being does not exist". Perhaps we must conclude that he doesn't understand what we mean by the terms "God" or "universe" or "exist".

I find this argument fascinating. It has an almost mathematical feel to it. This is both its strength and its weakness. An argument based on some observation about the universe around us might be refuted by claiming that this observation is an illusion, or that the person who claimed to make the observation is lying. For example, suppose someone says, "I know that atoms exist because I saw such-and-such an experiment done in physics class". A person who doesn't believe in atoms might reply that there are other possible explanations for the results of that experiment, or that no such experiment was ever performed and this is all a hoax. But because the Ontological Argument is purely abstract and logical, it cannot be refuted by such claims. There is no observation underlying it that might be called into question; there is only pure logic.

But by the same token it is fair to ask, How can any purely abstract line of reasoning lead us to conclusions about the actual physical universe around us? We can start with some facts and use logic to draw conclusions. But can we draw conclusions with no starting facts? Science fiction writers often talk about an "ideal" of their craft being to make one unprovable, perhaps impossible, assumption, and spin a story around the implications of that assumption. What if it was possible to travel backwards in time? To become invisible? To travel faster than light? To make an anti-gravity machine? These stories (when done well) are interesting because the author makes us see how taking one "fact" about nature inevitably leads to many other conclusions about nature. But we cannot draw any conclusions if we start from notihng. Yet in the Ontological Argument, it appears that we do start from nothing. If there are no assumptions, no starting facts, that say anything about the real world, then how can we come to any conclusions about the real world?

Anselm himself, the Irish scholar who first proposed this argument back in the late 11th century, worded the argument poorly. The problem with Anselm's statement of the argument was that he used terms like "most perfect" rather than "most essential to reality". From his writings (or at least, the English translations of his writings that I have studied2) this appears to be what he meant, but he was groping toward a clearer statement. The "most perfect" language made him vulnerable to the "perfect island" rebuttal made by the monk Gaunilon:3 (In Anselm's original article he quoted the Bible verse, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'". So Gaunilon called his response, "In Behalf of the Fool".)

Suppose we imagine the most perfect island. The most beautiful beaches, trees full of fruit, etc. Surely such an island would be even more perfect if it really did exist than if it was purely imaginary. Therefore, such an island must exist.
Of course this is not true. Just because I imagine something that I think is the "most perfect" of its kind doesn't mean it really exists anywhere. And so, critics charged, Anselm's argument is likewise hollow. But what is wrong with the "most perfect island" argument? It is that it mixes together the property of existence with properties that have nothing to do with existence, like prettiness of beaches. We might like it better if an absolutely beautiful beach really existed, but there is nothing in the concept of "beautiful" that necessarily implies "exists". I can imagine many beautiful things that don't really exist, and many ugly things that do exist. To put it another way, "perfection" is just too vague a term. It is meaningless to debate whether or not "perfection" includes the quality of actually existing, because perfection could mean different things to different people, or in different circumstances. When we use a more concrete term, like "essential to our understanding of reality", the problem evaporates. If someone says, "I am thinking of an object that is beautiful, and that does not exist", there is no logical flaw with that statement. But if someone says, "I am thinking of something that is beautiful, and that is ugly," this is a contradiction.4 And if someone says, "I am thinking of something that is so real that it is essential to the nature of reality, and that does not exist", there is a clear contradiction.

© 2000 by Jay Johansen


Christa Jul 23, 2014

LerrrrApril 26, 2013This is not on the topic of the infertility amrguent , but on this last point: What justifies the state's involvement in marriage? The only good answer is that state involvement is justified because of the state's interest in its own perpetuation via the production of children and their development into productive citizens. (There is also, secondarily, the protection of those upon whom the burden of procreation mainly falls, women.) It is the possibility of procreation that justifies the states' recognition and regulation of marriage. But there is no possibility of procreation in same-sex unions. Therefore, same-sex unions do not deserve to be recognized by the state as marriage. This is not to oppose civil unions that make possible the transfer of social security benefits, etc.The logic of this amrguent of course hinges on whether you accept an idealist, functionalist or organizational definition of the state , and whether you accept the minimal, social-democratic etc. models of the role of the state. This sounds very reminiscent of the Leviathan theory of state power which conceives of the state as a self-serving beast which pursues interests independent of those of the individuals that make up society. Quite ironic that somebody who advocates New Right politics would be extolling the virtues of the Leviathan model of state power.It also hinges on the implicit assumption that whichever definition of state and its role that you subscribe to, the survival of that state is threatened by the legality of same sex marriage. I find this nonsensical, and also unsubstantiated by fact in reality. This amrguent he provides for SSM not deserving recognition by the state can be rejected without contradiction or inconsistency.Not sure how you can dismiss a description of your position being pseudo-rationalism as simply nonsense; if it is indeed pseudo-rationalism then such an accusation would be well warranted.I feel it is not worth discussing such issues with people who dogmatically hold beliefs; they do not begin from a position of open mindedness and seek to come to truth through open intellectual inquiry or investigation, they begin with a belief which they hold regardless, and then seek to use philosophy as a way of rationalizing it (as I mentioned in my other post, thereby ignoring the realities of other disciplines such as political and social science and granting the most unsubstantiated of assumptions as entirely reasonable). To those who might be reading this, take note: if you think I am appealing to emotion or acting high minded then please feel free to disregard what I am saying. But to those of you who are unsure, I encourage you to look beyond this type of philosophy. There is much information out there on this subject; e.g. look into sociology for more information on the construction of gender assignment and its connection the social construction of sexuality (also look to the concept of biological sexual essentialism for the modern discipline's explanation of some relevant ideas). Also would recommend the study of political science and the theories/models of state I mentioned earlier (Andrew Heywood has a particularly good elementary textbook that goes into some detail).

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