The Ontological Argument for God (“OA”) is not only infuriating in itself—the hauteur of thinking you can demonstrate the existence of something by logic (and bad logic) alone, without any reference to observation!—but also by its persistence: that generation after generation falls for this philosophical scam. The OA embodies the worst aspects of both theology and philosophy, which it straddles.
In case you don’t know how it runs, the OA goes roughly like this (there are several variants):
- God is the greatest being conceivable.
- One of the qualities of the greatest being conceivable is existence in reality, for something that exists is surely greater than something that does not exist.
- Ergo, God must exist.
If you want to hear this claptrap dissected in extenso, listen to a new 43-minute program hosted by Melvyn Bragg on BBC Radio 4 :”The Ontological Argument.” Here’s the BBC precis:
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Ontological Argument. In the eleventh century St Anselm of Canterbury proposed that it was possible to prove the existence of God using reason alone. His argument was ridiculed by some of his contemporaries, but was analysed and improved by later thinkers including Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Other philosophers have been less kind, with the Enlightenment thinker David Hume offering one possible refutation. But the debate continued, fuelled by interventions from such heavyweights as Immanuel Kant and Kurt Gödel; and it remains one of the most discussed problems in philosophy.
With: John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews; Peter Millican, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford; Clare Carlisle, Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London.
Actually, I recommend listening to this if you have time, because it’s largely a critique of the OA, and it’s incumbent on every atheist learn something about this important but impotent weapon in the arsenal of Sophisticated Theology™. And kudos to BBC 4 for taking up such an arcane topic. The discussion is quite clear and absorbing.
It starts off very badly, though, when Bragg introduces the enduring popularity of the Ontological Argument in this way:
“The young Bertrand Russell experienced a philosophical ephiphany on the way to the tobacconist, declaring, “Great God in boots—the Ontological Argument is sound!”
He fails to mention that the older Bertrand Russell totally rejected the argument on the grounds (adduced earlier by Kant), that “existence” is not part of the definition of any entity (i.e., existence is not a “predicate”), but after an entity is defined, then you can go out and see if it does exist.
Dr. Carlisle makes the telling point that you can prove the existence of anything with this tomfoolery, conceiving of “the most perfect island” or “the most perfect pizza”, and then then adding existence as part of each entity’s perfection. Ergo, we have a new island and a great pizza. Theologians, of course, then come back and say that God is the only entity for which existence must be a predicate. That’s hilarious!
In the end, it’s simply impossible to prove the existence of anything through the power of thought alone. One needs to observe the thing! At least for the OA, then, science beats philosophy and logic as a “way of knowing.”
To learn more about the OA, read the section on “Ontological arguments” at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.