Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Ontological Argument

Saint Anselm of Canterbury was born in 1033 and died in 1109. He was an Italian philosopher and from 1093 until his death was also the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God, which has been a favourite topic for philosophers and theologians since as they try to decide whether he manages to prove the existence of God, and also whether that's even what he was trying to do.

Anselm is also responsible for the most confusing essay title I was ever given: 'The ontological argument is neither. Discuss.' I didn't work out what it meant until someone else explained it to me, by which time I'd written about something else, on the grounds that understanding the question is an important prerequisite for answering it. So here's a challenge: can anyone figure out what the question means (this is a win-win situation - either you get it, in which case you're sharper than me, or you don't, in which case we'll have to have a clever-off some other time to settle the question)?

Anselm says that he wrote his ontological argument in response to a request from some young monks that he demonstrate to them by reason the existence of God. This is important: he's not writing for atheists, and he is writing for contemplative monks, so it could be that he's producing an aid to meditation rather than a reasoning from first principles to prove God's existence. Maybe.

The argument goes like this:
God is that than which nothing greater be thought. It is better to exist
than not to exist, so if God didn't exist, it would be possible to imagine
something greater, and so God must exist.
There's another variation that he wrote, which goes thusly:
God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. It is better to be
necessary than not to be necessary, so God must be necessary i.e. God must
Ways of disagreeing with Anselm
The earliest objection to the ontological argument came from Gaunilo, who argued like this:
Imagine an island greater than which no greater island could be thought. It is
better to exist than not to exist, so the perfect island must exist.
But wait! There's no such thing as a perfect island! Ha! Gotcha, Anselm. It's possible that this argument doesn't work, though: Anselm's implies that we're thinking about a being who perfectly combines all the best attributes, and as an island is limited, maybe his line of argument doesn't apply.

Another key line of disagreement with Anselm was formulated by Immanuel Kant, who basically argued that existence wasn't a predicate like goodness or justice, and so the argument doesn't work.

So, two challenges for you, trusty reader: firstly, can you tell me what my essay title means? Secondly, can you explain why you a) are or b) aren't persuaded? Answers on a postcard/in the comments...


Geoff said...

I guess it means The ontological argument is neither an argument nor ontological in nature. Discuss.

Gabriel Smy said...

It is not ontological in as much as it deals with possibility, actuality and necessity rather than the nature of existence. Charles Hartshorne thinks it should be called the 'modal' argument since it relies on these modal categories. And it is not applicable to all existence (including islands for example); only that which is perfect.

And I guess it's not an argument so much as a proof. And if it is true that he formulated it for monks, then perhaps it is an injunctive proof - to be experienced rather than analysed.

Do I win £5?