Belief in God is both coherent and reasonable. This is a fact that those of us who are saved already know. However, with the rise of radical atheism, agnosticism and other non-theistic constructs there has been a new set of attacks against faith and reason. Many of these modern radicals believe that faith and reason do not mix on any level, yet alone a level that allows or facilitates belief in God. In this article we will discover an old but yet very strong link to reason and belief in God. It is called the ontological argument.
There are many philosophical arguments that can be used and have historically been used to prove the existence of God. Though often lumped together with arguments that prove the existence of God, the Ontological argument finds a unique place and purpose among arguments specifically focusing on the reasonable and logical basis for God belief. As stated, this argument is an argument from reason. The argument involves no empirical evidence, therefore it is said to be a “priori argument”. Concepts of God, perfection and existence are prevalent in all its forms. At heart, this argument attempts to establish that it is logically incoherent to suggest that God does not exist. Just as there cannot be a 4 sided triangle, there cannot be logical and coherent thought without affirming the epistemological possibility of God’s existence. In other words for one to imagine a being that does not exist, that being would be imperfect for a perfect being would exist. Needless to say the argument in whatever form is highly controversial and arguments attacking it usually rely on attacking the premise of the argument itself. Surprisingly enough a Christian theologian is the one who has raised the greatest resistance to this argument and replaced it with the argument for God’s future moral judgement.
History Of The Ontological Argument
Historical study finds that this type of argument was first used by Avicenna (980-1037) and presented in the metaphysics section of his book, ‘The Book Of Healing’. It was originally known as the argument for contingency and necessity (Imakan wa Wujub). Avicenna basically set forth the notion that since essence (material) cannot set itself in motion or actualize itself, that there is a necessary agent who gives existence to essence. Avicenna concluded that a chain or regression of beings were the cause of the universe and, I suppose, at any one time the being in charge would be called God.
Later and even more recently, Christian authors and philosophers who have set their hands to this task also and have continued to use many of the same or similar premises or basis set by Avicenna. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Cantebury (1033-1109), is said to be the originator of the ontological argument in proof of the Christian or biblical God specifically. He presented 2 basic arguments, the second of which was reworked after some criticism and is generally stronger that the first. His 2nd argument can be summarized as follows:
By definition, God is a being than which none greater can be imagined. A being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that does not necessarily exist. Thus, by definition, if God exists as an idea in the mind but does not necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than God. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God. Thus, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality. God exists in the mind as an idea. Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality
Notably, Christian philosopher and minister Rene’ Descartes’ (1596-1650), also used and created various forms of the ontological argument and used a variation of the argument as a proof of God’s trustworthiness. At heart he claimed that if one can think, perceive or or logically imagine a perfect, malevolent and necessarily great and superior being, then it/he must exist. One form of his argument can be summed up as follows:
- Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
- I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
- Therefore, God exists.
Quickly, there is a term that must be defined. Necessary existence entails not only the impossibility of non existence but also the independentness of existence. In other words a necessary being cannot, not exist and is not dependent upon the existence of anyone or anything else. A necessary being exists eternally.
Modern Ontological Argument
One of the persons who have developed this concept and argument more thoroughly in modern times is theologian Alvin Platinga. Dr. Platinga provides what is called a modal form of the ontological argument based on logic axiom S5 and the “possibility premise” that a maximally great being is possible. The “possibility premise” receives the most push-back from this type of argument. The argument is summed up as follows:
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Possible World~ this concept is the complete description of reality or a way reality might be. Please understanding that this saying has nothing to do with another planet or universe etc.
Maximal Excellence ~ this concept is descriptive and includes such properties as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. These attributes allow us to define the being as having “maximal greatness“
The toughest part of the argument is getting it out of the gate and understanding the difference between epistemic possibility and metaphysical possibility of the existence of a maximally great being. Dr. Platinga’s version usually is resisted on the basis of being rationally incoherent, but no such incoherence exists. More often the disagreement rails over the confusion of premise and conclusion of the argument. Those who disagree certainly do not wish to affirm that there is a such being who has maximal greatness. Dr. Platinga overcomes this objection with the following sentiment:
“Once you see how the argument works, you may think that asserting or believing the premise is tantamount to asserting or believing the conclusion; the canny atheist will say that he does not believe it is possible that there be a maximally great being. But would not a similar criticism hold of any valid argument? Take any valid argument: once you see how it works, you may think that asserting or believing the premise is tantamount to asserting or believing the conclusion.”
Dr. William Lane Craig points out the difference between metaphysical certainty and epistemic certainty of the argument. When responding to the argument that it may also be possible that a maximally great being does not exist, he responds in the following manner:
“…if God is conceived as a maximally great being (that is, a being which is maximally excellent in every possible world), then His existence is either necessary or impossible, regardless of our epistemic uncertainty.”
In other words the critic retorts that epistemic certainty weighs heavily so as to create a situation where both propositions can be equally true. In other words God may or may not exist. under examination this doesn’t hold muster as both claims are exclusive of one another and metaphysical certainty can only come from one statement. In other words, one or the other statements can be true at the same or any given time, both cannot be true anytime. Therefore, the argument must include metaphysical and not purely epistemic certainty. When this is considered the argument stands.
The Burnett Ontological Argument
Since ontological arguments seem to develop and emphasize various aspects of reason and the nature of God, I decided to take my turn at developing an argument. The following is an argument that I’ve developed using various parts of existing arguments. There are 2 parts to this argument.
A-Perfection must be attributed to the most perfect being possible otherwise it wouldn’t be the most perfect being possible.
B-Necessary being is a perfection which can be attributed to the most perfect entity possible.
C- Therefore necessary being must be attributed to to the most perfect entity possible.
And the second part:
D- If God IS, we conceive of him as a necessary being.
E- By definition a necessary being must BE, his being is independent of any other entity (ie: eternal) and cannot not be.
F- Therefore if God IS he must BE and cannot not BE.
Opposition To The Ontological Argument
Opposition to the argument comes in many forms and by many individuals. St. Thomas Aquinas(1225-1274) thoroughly rejected anything that resembled and ontological argument in his day. 2 of the more popular retorts came from monk Gaunilo of Marmoutier and Christian theologian Immanuel Kant.(1724-1804)
Gaunilo argued, it is possible to construct an argument with exactly the same form as the ontological argument, that purports to prove the existence of the perfect island: the perfect island must exist, for if it did not then it would be possible to conceive of an island greater than that island than which no greater can be conceived, which is absurd. The problem with Gaunilo’s argument is that there is no intrinsic maxim to determine the “perfect island”. One Island may be perfect with 7 beaches and 25 psalm trees. What about an island with 8 beaches and 30 psalm trees? There is no intrinsic standard of perfection whereas with god there is an intrinsic standard or perfections noted by Platinga as maximal greatness.
Christian theologian Immanuel Kant delivered the strongest argument against the Ontological Argument. Kant states that existence is not a predicate (a property that a thing can either possess or lack) Existence, when applied to God, in his understanding, is simply a tautology (something that adds no additional meaning to the subject) According to Kant, when people assert that God exists they are not saying that there is a God and he possesses the property of existence. If that were the case, then when people assert that God does not exist they would be saying that there is a God and he lacks the property of existence, i.e., they would be both affirming and denying God’s existence in the same breath. Rather, suggests Kant, to say that something exists is to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified in the world. Existence, then, is not a matter of a thing possessing a property, existence, but of a concept corresponding to something in the world.
Whether Kant is correct is something that is highly debated, but what is sure is that God, if he exists, is a maximally great being and a necessary being. Although to say that God exists may be a tautology, that doesn’t negate or take anything away from the suggestion, by the argument that he does exist. how that existence comes to be can be considered a separate question.
One of Kant’s greatest arguments was the argument of the justice and morality of God in judgement. It goes like this:
1 Moral behaviour is rational.
2 Morality behaviour is only rational if justice will be done.
3 Justice will only be done if God exists.
4 God exists.
The Ontological argument directly addresses the criticism that belief in God is contrary to reason. As the argument displays, there is reasonable basis to conclude that God exists based upon generally accepted principles and laws of logic and reason. A mistake can be made when applying this argument solely to proving that God exists. This type of application should be avoided. As with any argument for God’s existence, this argument is best expressed when it is combined with other arguments such as the Cosmological argument, the Teleological argument, the Moral argument, the Historical argument, the Prophetic argument and other arguments for God’s existence.
1- Imagination doesn’t create reality. I can imagine a little green monster that doesn’t make it a reality.
It is true that imagination doesn’t create metaphysical reality. However, this type of objection misses the point of the complete argument especially in it’s modern forms. The ontological argument is about using reason to conclude that there is a God or at the very least a maximally excellent being. Remember, by definition a maximally excellent being would be omnipresent, omniscient, and morally perfect. This being would also be Necessary indicating that he would also be eternal. It is a logical contradiction to attribute those attributes to a “monster” by virtue of the name, in other words a “monster” expressing those attributes would no longer be a monster.
2- Anything could exist. This argument only proves that God may or may not exist.
As Dr. Craig points out it is logically incoherent to suggest that both options (there is a God/there is no God) could be true in all possible worlds or circumstances. While it is epistemologically possible that God may or may not exist, it is metaphysically certain that both statements cannot be true as both statements are exclusive of one another. At the very least this argument demands a logical decision and affirms that it is logically coherent to conclude that God exists.
3- Kant killed the Ontological argument. It is nonviable.
Kant did the greatest damage to this argument provided that he is correct in his assertions about existence. Remember, Kant hails that existence only has a relative relationship to what exists in the world and is of no value to a truly eternal being as an eternal being cannot be defined by existence/nonexistence as existence is not a predicate for God. This argument does two things. It expands the concept of God beyond mere human means of logic and reason, which is what we’d expect when trying to describe a maximally great being in human terms and secondly, it does not deny that there is a God, as stated it merely expands the basis of human understanding by which that God may exist.
Special Note On What Kant Doesn’t Address: God communicated through scripture that he IS rather than that he exists. When asked by Moses who he was God simply communicates, “I Am that I Am”. (Ex.3:14) The matter of terminology as it pertains to existence is only valid as a communication tool from men to men for God has never defined himself simply as a being who exists. This would have been a rather advanced concept for ancient people especially since this type of concept was unheard of in the ancient near eastern world. Nonetheless, we may philosophically argue about God’s existence, but God has described himself as one who simply IS. This takes much of the steam away from Kant’s argument if he were correct to begin with.