Thursday, June 30, 2011

On the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

The theistic Ontological Argument is at its core an attempt to define God into existence. An a priori theistic case reformulated from its medieval origins and newly popularized by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, the Ontological Argument seeks to prove the reality of a supreme being axiomatically, that is, from the concept alone. The basic “reasoning” behind the argument invites us to imagine a being that is in all ways perfect and maximally great. Existence is a necessary quality that this being must possess, because if said being did not exist, then he/she/it would be less than perfect. God therefore exists, because by virtue of being defined as the greatest conceivable being possible, God cannot be conceived not to exist. It is a delightfully circular argument, in which the axiomatic first premise is equal to the conclusion [1].

Expressed as a syllogism, the classical Ontological Argument for the existence of God is as follows:

1. Let us define God as the greatest imaginable being, a being than which no greater can be conceived.

2. All else being equal, a being or entity that exists is greater than one that does not exist, or one that merely exists as an idea or concept.

3. Therefore, God exists in reality.

This argument was first formulated and expressed in the 11th century by the Benedictine monk St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Proslogium:

[E]ven the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality [2].

Even Anselm’s contemporaries in the 11th century recognized the flaws in his arguments. Most notably, another monk by the name of Gaunilo of Marmoutiers is remembered for his short work In Behalf of the Fool, in which he used Anselm’s reasoning to “prove” via reductio ad absurdum that the “Lost Island,” a maximally perfect island paradise, exists somewhere in the ocean. When we substitute Gaunilo’s Lost Island for Anselm’s God, the syllogism runs as follows:

1. The Lost Island is the greatest imaginable island.

2. All else being equal, it is greater to exist in reality than merely as a mythical concept or idea.

3. Therefore, the Lost Island exists in reality.

Indeed, by using Anselm’s logic, one can “prove” the existence in reality of any number of things, such as unicorns, Shangri-La, Hercules, etc. This is because the argument ultimately reduces to a “proof from definition,” which is a very basic fallacy. Anselm’s argument attempts to demonstrate the reality of a synthetic statement as if it were an analytical statement:
Analytic statements are those which can be said to be true or false by reason alone. For example: "A triangle has four sides", is an analytical statement and it is false because it is against the definition of a triangle. Also analytic is "There is an infinite number of prime numbers". This is true, although it is a lot harder to prove. However, reason alone can do it. No additional sensory information is needed.

There cannot be any discussion about the truth-value of a analytic statement. Either it is true, it is false or one cannot prove either of those possibilities. One cannot differ in opinion when looking at a analytic statement.

Synthetic statements are those that are not analytic. Synthetic statements cannot be answered by reason alone, in addition one needs evidence given by the senses. "An apple always falls to the ground" is synthetic; I can try to prove this by empirical evidence, but I can find no mathematical proof of it. It is impossible to prove any synthetic statement with 100% evidence. Therefore, in the case of synthetic statements, we can do two things: believe them, disbelieve them or suspend judgement [3].

The difference between analytic statements and synthetic statements will become important later on.

Confusing these two types of statements is the inevitable consequence of attempting to prove the reality of anything without any reference to what is known about the physical universe. Thus, to convince one who is consistently impressed by such definition-driven ontological arguments of the existence of unicorns, for example, one need only present the following:

1. Let us define a unicorn as a magical equine being that has one horn, and that exists.

2. Such a being must necessarily exist, given the above definition.

3. Therefore, unicorns exist [4].

The Failure of the Second Premise

According to the Second Premise of the classical Ontological Argument, a being or entity that has the attribute of existence is greater than one that lacks this attribute. But, as many philosophers have argued, existence and non-existence are not attributes of an object; they cannot logically be considered to properties in and of themselves. Most notably, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant noted that “existence” is not a state that can reasonably be associated or tied in with the definition of any object, the way things like “temperature” or “size” can be. Kant argued that the existence of any thing is presupposed by its possessing any properties in the first place. Therefore, “’Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment” [5]. To consider existence as a property of anything is thus to indulge in a useless tautology, i.e. (in this case), “God exists because God exists.”

Furthermore, even if it made logical sense to view existence and non-existence as attributes (which we have seen does not), there is no logical justification for the claim that existence (and, by extension, necessity) is greater than non-existence. As Darrin Rasberry argues,
A brief statement about the classical version of this argument is necessary, particularly about the necessity of "necessary" being an inherently positive quality in and of itself, without regards to its referent in reality. This is not entirely clear; a fantastic counterexample would be certain events in the context of human history, which as an A-time theorist I hold to be necessary facts of existence. Suppose, for instance, that Adam and Eve existed and chose to Fall. Then, unless one is a high-Calvinist, the necessity (by asssumption [sic]) of the Fall would be a negative quality, as opposed to a positive one, as the action in the Fall brought death and damnation to Adam, Eve, and subsequently, to all of us. Therefore, it cannot be established that necessity qua necessity is an inherently positive quality of existence [6].

But perhaps the greatest illustration of the fact that the superiority of existence over non-existence is not at all established by logic is one that goes beyond the implications of necessary versus unnecessary reality and strikes at the quality of existence versus non-existence itself. This illustration is found in “Gasking’s Proof,” a piece of philosophical satire written by the late philosopher Douglas Gasking. Gasking’s Proof brilliantly parodies the Ontological Argument, using the argument’s own premises to turn the argument on its head and “prove” the superiority of non-existence over existence.

(1) The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

(2) The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

(3) The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

(4) The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

(5) Therefore, if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator, we can conceive a greater being – namely, one who created everything while not existing.

(6) An existing God, therefore, would not be a being than which a greate [sic] cannot be conceived, because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.


(7) God does not exist [7].

Ontological Disproof of the Third Premise

Because (as we have shown above) the conclusion of the circular Ontological Argument is exactly equal to its First Premise, a demonstration of the inadequacy and fallacy of that First Premise implies an equal fallacy in its conclusion, an implication that yields profound results for the strong-atheism position (“God cannot exist,” as opposed to the weaker position that “God does not exist”). This conclusion was drawn out by the late philosopher John L. Pollock in his 1966 essay “Proving the Non-Existence of God,” in which he succinctly and straightforwardly demonstrated that the only thing that can possibly imply the necessary existence of anything is the actual existence of the thing in question. If the actual existence of God is not demonstrated independent of mere synthetic conception, we can progress no further than the First Premise, and the Ontological Argument dies after that. Because the concept of God is synthetic rather than analytic in nature, the existence of God is unattainable from the definition alone. Conception in this case cannot instantiate existence, and therefore (contrary to Anselm’s insistence) the statements “God is the greatest imaginable being than which no greater can be conceived” and “The greatest thing that exists is not God” are not contradictory at all. As Victor Gijsbers points out, “The one is a matter of the imagination, the other is a matter of reality . . . If the greatest island that exists is Australia, that doesn’t mean I can’t conceive of Lost Island” [8].

But, as his title suggests, Pollock goes even further than this, presenting an ontological disproof of the existence of God:
The most common analysis of logical necessity is to say that a proposition is necessarily true if and only if it is true by virtue of the meaning of its constituent terms. This means that the proposition that God exists is necessarily true just in case the meaning of ‘God’ requires that He exist, that is, just in the case the definition of ‘God’ entails that He exists . . .

[R]ecall that our concept of God is such that if He exists, then He must exist necessarily . . . But then, simply by modus tollens . . . ~ Eg, that is, God does not exist. Furthermore, this is a conclusion we have proven by logical means, so it is not just true, but necessarily true, that is, [N]~Eg. Thus, it is necessarily true that God does not exist. The existence of God is a logical impossibility [9].

There are certain limitations to Pollock’s case, of course. In particular, Pollock’s use of the concept of perfection as a central part of his case limits the scope of his case, since perfection can only be defined relatively. Pollock’s case for the non-existence of God is therefore is first and foremost an incoherency argument, proving only a contradiction between the consequences of a theological understanding of perfection and the criteria by which logical necessity is established.

However, reviewers of Pollock’s case and of the Ontological Argument tradition have proposed ways in which Pollock’s argument can be applied to the god concept as a whole, without invoking the problematic concept of perfection. For example, Francois Tremblay points out that “Since any hypothetical god would be logically necessary, N(Eg -> NEg) would hold true for any god also . . . If we presuppose that the god-concept is coherent in total and in parts, then N(Eg -> NEg) must hold true. Therefore I see no reason not to apply the Ontological Argument to the god-concept” [10].

Given the blatant circularity of the theistic Ontological Argument and the very basic and elementary logical fallacies it commits, it is somewhat difficult to believe that there are a great many people who favor it in debates with atheists and agnostics. But there certainly are a great many theists who are impressed by it for one reason or another, mostly having to do with their a priori commitment to their god concept which blinds them to the weakness of the argument. This is not an argument that is likely to persuade anyone who is not already a strong theist.

Moreover, the selfsame ontological arguments will probably never persuade the theist who favors it that my skin is green with a spattering of purple polka dots. But herein lies their inconsistency; according to the skewed logic of the Ontological Argument, ideas translate into reality proportional to the greatness of the idea. And since I can imagine that the greatest human beings have green skin with purple polka dots, the statement of the content of that imagination means that my imagination has a counterpart in reality.

For the same reasons that lead me to reject the existence of any naturally green-skinned and purple polka-dotted people, I must also reject the theistic Ontological Argument, and with it the being whose existence the argument attempts to establish.


1. Fatfist, “Pastor Alvin Plantinga’s Ontological Argument for God – REFUTED!” 76, (accessed 30 June 2011).

2. Saint Anselm, Basic Writings 2nd ed., trans. S.N. Deane (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1962), p. 8.

3. Victor Gijsbers, “Is Atheism Based on Faith?”, (accessed 30 June 2011).

4. Thanks to Russell Wain Glasser for this example.

5. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961), p. 504.

6. Darrin Rasberry, “On Plantinga’s Ontological Argument,” Debunking Christianity 17 January 2009, (accessed 30 June 2011).

7. William Grey, “Gasking’s Proof,” Analysis 60.4 (October 2000): p. 369.

8. Victor Gijsbers, “Theistic Arguments: Anselm’s Ontological Argument”, (accessed 30 June 2011).

9. John L. Pollock, “Proving the Non-Existence of God,” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy and the Social Sciences 2 (1966): p. 195.

10. Francois Tremblay, “Ontological Argument for the Non-Existence of God,” 2 January 2005, (accessed 30 June 2011).