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Does God exist? The ontological argument.

Updated on August 1, 2012

Saint Anselm starts a fire.

The existence of God has long been a lively subject of debate. Theologians, philosophers, scientists, and even ordinary folk like you and I have been pondering this most monumental of questions since pretty much day one. Well, many arguments for and against God's existence have been catalogued throughout Western history, and this lens will focus on one of the most famous: the so-called "ontological argument."

The ontological argument is usually attributed to Saint Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century monk and philosopher (a similar argument had already been formulated a few decades earlier, however, by Islamic philosopher Avicenna). Anselm is credited with birthing the scholastic movement in philosophy, a current that would eventually culminate in Saint Thomas Aquinas' masterful treatises - ones that would inform Catholic thought down to the present day. Anselm laid out his proof of God's existence in his short work entitled Proslogion. This lens will chart the argument through each step and present some of the criticism it received.

(Image credit: Gloria Deo)

Wait, what is "ontological?"

I'll begin with a quick word on what makes Anselm's argument an "ontological" one. Ontology, which is typically treated as a branch of metaphysics, simply means the study of the nature of being. If you are interested in knowing what exists, and what the nature of that existence is, you're studying ontology. Anselm's argument is called ontological because it proceeds from the very definition of God to the proof of his existence. This very classification is also hotly disputed in philosophy, but...we shall press on anyway!

Proving God is not quite this complex...
Proving God is not quite this complex...

The argument in six steps.

Anselm's argument can be broken down into six logical steps that take him from his definition of God to the proof that God exists. Each step is outlined below.

1. God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.

This is Anselm's very definition of God. According to him, God's essence is that He is the greatest of all existing beings. Nothing greater than God can be conceived by human minds.

2. The idea of God exists in human minds.

This is a crucial intermediate step in which Anselm asserts that we do indeed have a conception of God. That is to say, we have some idea of God that exists in our minds, whether or not God actually exists.

3. A being that exists in both human minds and in reality is greater than a being that only exists in human minds.

This is sort of a tricky step. Anselm is asserting that to exist is better than to not exist. This is taken as a first principle, which is a fancy philosophical way of saying Anselm doesn't really know how to back it up. People who are already believers are much more likely to approve of this assertion, because they tend to believe that life and existence themselves are blessings from God. A nonbeliever may be, well...nonplussed.

4. If God were only to exist in human minds, then we could conceive of a greater being - one that exists in reality as well.

You probably see where this is going now. If actually existing beings are greater than beings that only exist in the mind, and we already know God exists in the mind, and we already said that nothing greater than God can exist...oh snap!

5. We cannot be conceiving of something greater than God.

We sure can't, because we agreed to that in step one! Which means...

6. Therefore, God exists.

Boom. See what he did there? God must exist, because if he didn't we could easily imagine a greater, actually existing being. Which is impossible because nothing is greater than God.

One more time with feeling.

Okay, let's recap that. Basically, Anselm is saying this:

"I can imagine a completely perfect being. Existence is a component of perfection. Therefore, God exists."

That's about as stripped down as it gets. If you're still confused, or just want to hear the ontological argument discussed by much better minds, check out the video below. In this clip, author Bryan Magee interviews British philosopher Anthony Kenny about medieval philosophy. The discussion of Anselm's argument begins at 5:50. (Note: the full playlist of this entire series of Magee interviews can be found here.)

Gaunilo's objection.

An island than which no greater can be conceived.

I said this was a topic of lively debate, didn't I? So, on to the criticism. Anselm's argument drew immediate fire from one of his own contemporaries, a Benedictine monk called Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. All Gaunilo did was to substitute the word "island" for "God" in Anselm's proof. As in: we can imagine an island than which no greater can be conceived (lush trees, sandy beaches, the works). This island would be greater if it actually existed; therefore, the perfect island exists.

The island argument is absurd on purpose. Gaunilo was saying, "Look, this proof is ridiculous. You can substitute almost any word for "God" and that becomes clear." Fortunately, Anselm got a chance to answer the attack, and he had this to say: "An island can never be perfect. When perfection simply means lush trees and pristine beaches, you could always imagine an island with more of those than the last one you imagined. God's perfection manifests in totally different terms. Booyah!" (I may have paraphrased a bit.)

Further developments...

The ontological argument, in some form or another, has been kicked around the world of philosophy for centuries. I'll summarize some of the major developments here in case you want to check them out for yourself later.

Anselm's argument got a major boost in the early 17th century with the support of prominent French philosopher Rene Descartes. German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz also signed on to the ontological argument in the latter half of that century, although he also pioneered some other proofs of God's existence. In the 20th century, Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel put the argument center stage again by developing a lengthy ontological proof using modal logic. Analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga developed a similar proof using the same method.

Among the critics of the ontological argument, Thomas Aquinas stands out. Though he produced five proofs of his own for God's existence, he lampooned Anselm's formulation. According to Aquinas, no human can ever have an adequate conception of God's perfection in the first place, because our minds are simply not up to the task. Philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant also criticized the argument.

Most recently, famed biologist Richard Dawkins attacked the proof in his 2006 book The God Delusion. Dawkins says he feels a "deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reached such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world."

Read it for yourself.

Anselm's ontological argument is contained in a short work called Proslogion. This work has been included in many different anthologies, so I'll recommend the two that I own and enjoy. Oxford World's Classics publishes a volume called The Major Works, which includes the Proslogion as well as many of Anselm's best philosophical snippets. Penguin Classics publishes an edition called Prayers and Meditations, which includes the Proslogion along with many of the prayers Anselm wrote. They're cheap paperbacks, so you can't go wrong by getting them both!

Had you heard of the ontological argument before reading this page? Do you find it convincing? Let me hear your comments and questions!

Have your own say!

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    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 2 years ago from Australia

      Lets not forget that Kurt Godels math proof of God not been faulted by either super computers or any other maths experts.

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      I should, perhaps, point out that Dawkins' statement is self-serving. He is CLAIMING that belief in God is not based on a single fact. The mere fact he is unaware that the belief in God is based on a good MANY facts doesn't make his view correct.

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      I wasn't familiar with this argument. This is a good explanation. Thank you.

    • AstroGremlin profile image

      AstroGremlin 4 years ago

      Descartes recapitulated the ontological argument in the Meditations, calling existence a "virtue" that a perfect being would have to possess. Hadn't heard of Gaunilo's objection, but it reveals the semantic crux of the argument and how it turns on the tautological definition of "perfect" as including the property of existence. Nice to know that the perfect apple pie, pizza, etc. have to exist!

    • KReneeC profile image

      KReneeC 5 years ago

      I have never heard of the ontological argument before this page. (If I did, I do not recall ;] ) But I now understand and can't quite wrap my finger around it! Blows my mind! Excellent lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Good article, thank you for the interesting read. :)

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 5 years ago

      Well done.

    • Thrinsdream profile image

      Thrinsdream 5 years ago

      Great read. I tend to go with a let it be and each to their own on this subject, but I do love to watch the way the world turns. With thanks and appreciation. Cathi x

    • YsisHb profile image

      YsisHb 5 years ago

      "Blessed are the poor in spirit,

      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

      Blessed are the pure of heart,

      for they shall see God"

      There is an ontological abism between man and God. Ask Socrates if you don't believe me.

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 5 years ago

      Honestly I have never heard of ontological argument..this is well written, informative and interesting. I personally believe there is a God, He not only lives in my mind, but also heart and soul...this is hard for someone to understand unless they have the experience. Since no one can really prove there isn't a God, I can't prove there is a God, but my Faith in Him sustains me....it is a Choice!

      a ~d-artist Squid Angel Blessing~ on this lens

    • jstarley profile image

      jstarley 5 years ago

      I'm an ontologicalist and I didn't even know it-ist. This is a fasicnating subject. It seems like I read something about the ontological argument in one of Karen Armstrong's books, but I never really dug to find out what it is. Thanks so much for sharing...I feel smarter now.

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 5 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      I remember hearing in a vague way about the ontological argument, but didn't know it had a name or who started it. Very interesting lens.

    • esvoytko lm profile image
      Author

      esvoytko lm 5 years ago

      @David Stone1: "[I]t's an entity far too great for human minds to get a fix on."

      That's actually precisely what Aquinas said, and why he rejected Anselm's argument.

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 5 years ago from New York City

      People will chose what they wish to believe, for any variety of reasons. It will be somewhat illogical and subjective, pro and con, and they will cling to it like life depended on it.

      It's the biggest "So, what?" of all. Objectively, whether or not there is a god, it changes nothing. We still have to live our lives, where whether it's DNA-inspired expansion or an ineffable breath of life. Ultimately, it's still up to us. Beliefs are crutches in place of truths we don't or can't know.

      Lots of hot air for nothing on this baby.

      BTW, I'm sure there is a god of some sort. And if there is one or some of all or whatever, it's an entity far too great for human minds to get a fix on. Give us a few million more years of evolution and better computers to extend us, and we might know.

    • Scriber1 LM profile image

      Scriber1 LM 5 years ago

      Well written and wonderfully thought provoking regardless of belief. I really enjoy reading your insightful lenses and look forward to many more!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      very very much interesting question, i must say....

    • NoYouAreNot profile image

      NoYouAreNot 5 years ago

      Wow, this needs careful reading -- and it's much too late tonight!

      I'll be back ;)