Ontological Arguments

Ontological Arguments: A General Overview

  • Ontological arguments are arguments a priori. They are based on logic and reason, without relying on empirical evidence.
  • The term ‘ontological’ comes from ‘ontology’, the study of entities and their existence.
  • The arguments claim that we can deduce God’s existence purely from the definition of God as the greatest possible being.
  • Main proponents include Anselm, Descartes, and Gödel.

Anselm’s Ontological Argument

  • Proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury, it is probably the most famous of the ontological arguments.
  • Anselm’s argument is based on the concept of God as the greatest possible being.
  • Anselm asserts that God exists by necessity because the idea of a perfect being needs to include existence to be truly perfect.
  • He draws a distinction between existence in intellect (understanding) and existence in reality.
  • Anselm concludes that the greatest conceivable being must exist in the mind and reality.

Descartes’ Ontological Argument

  • René Descartes formulated an ontological argument within the scope of his wider philosophical system.
  • He considered existence to be a predicate of God, much like any other attribute (like omnipotence, omniscience, etc.).
  • According to Descartes, God has all perfections, and since existence is a perfection, God must exist.
  • Critiques of Descartes’ argument often focus on the cogency of treating existence as a predicate.

Gödel’s Ontological Argument

  • Kurt Gödel was a leading logician and mathematician who offered a modern spin on the ontological argument.
  • He used a form of modal logic (dealing with the notions of possibility and necessity) to present his argument.
  • Gödel’s argument uses the premise that positive properties (ones it is better to have than not) are necessarily positive in all possible worlds.
  • According to Gödel, if the concept of God is logically consistent, then God must exist in at least one possible world, and therefore in all possible worlds, including our own.
  • Gödel’s argument is often discussed in the context of its formal logic and its reliance on modal axioms.

Critiques of Ontological Arguments

  • Many philosophers, including Immanuel Kant and Gaunilo, have criticised ontological arguments.
  • Gaunilo, an 11th-century monk, used the analogy of a perfect island to critique Anselm’s argument, questioning the idea that understanding or conceiving of something entails its existence.
  • Kant criticised Descartes’ claim that existence is a predicate. He asserts that existence does not add anything to the essence of a being.
  • Kant’s central critique, encapsulated in his phrase “Existence is not a predicate”, has been one of the most influential responses to the ontological argument.
  • Some modern philosophers question if our conception of a ‘greatest possible being’ is coherent, or merely a linguistic construct.

These points should equip you with a clear understanding of the ontological argument, its main proponents, and key critiques. Remember, it’s not about accepting or rejecting the argument but more about understanding the logic, principles, and issues at play.