Thursday, April 13, 2006


I'm doing some DIGITAL revision for my RS course. The first unit was all done on paper, unfortunately, so you're having none of that, no siree-bob!

But you can have most of the unit 2 stuff; the philosophy stuff atleast, maybe not the ethics.

Anyway, here is the core version of the ontological argument as put forth by Anselm and Descartes, with rebutals from Gaunillo of Marmoutier, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Normal Malcolm and a whole host of friends!


The Ontological Argument

This comes in two main forms, as put forth by St. Anselm of Canterbury and René Descartes! Both of these are a priori inductive arguments!


  • Anselm created this argument as a stopgap between traditional Christian theology and Muslim and Aristotlean theories which were being brought to Europe.
  • Anselm was purported to express God as “that which nothing greater can be conceived” (from Proslogion 2).
  • Anselm tells us that even atheists must have a definition of God (possibly that stated above) in order to express their dismissal of him.
  • He concludes this by saying, therefore, that God exists in the noggin.

  • However, if God is “that which nothing greater can be conceived”, then God must exist in reality as it is argued that existence in actuality is greater than existence in potential. We are told to consider that we have been given a large some of money; surely it is better if the money were actually given to us in real life?
  • He goes on to tell us that this is not enough, as it simply puts God in the same category as every extant being in the universe (like humans, trees, automobiles and toffee bon bons, as well as toffee bon bon milkshakes.) He goes on to prove that God is necessary, which in this instance goes on to illustrate that he can never be conceived to not exist.
  • It is conceivable that something exists which cannot be thought not to exist
    God has to be this if he is “that which nothing greater can be conceived”, as surely it is greater to have always existed than to have been brought from non-existence to existence.
  • A retort was supplied in Anselm’s lifetime by Gaunilo of Marmoutier, a Spanish monk, who created the reply “In Behalf of the Fool”.
  • He argued, using similar ideas, that there, somewhere, is a perfect island! If someone were to suggest it and you were to contemplate it’s existence then its existence must be real. He went on to say that anyone who would believe that is a numpty.
  • However, Anselm never makes associations “of things of a like nature” to God.
    Even if Gaunilo had asked us to contemplate an island “of which nothing greater can be conceived” the argument still poses no threat. A material thing such as that can always be improved upon somewhere, making it “more perfect”- they have no “instrinsic maximum”.
  • Norman Malcolm goes on to develop “Proslogion 3” (written by Anselm originally, and something that Malcolm feels lacks the fault of having existence as a predicate [a quality which something has or lacks]) in which he states that if God does exist then his existence is necessary, but if he does not then his existence is completely impossible, as, to be existent from non-existence then he would have to be created some how, and thus a limited being, and thus not God by our definition.


  • Descartes argues that God is a “supremely perfect being”.
    Descartes goes on to say that we can conclude that God must exist, as existence is a predicate of a perfect being, in the same way that having 3 sides is the predicate of a triangle.
  • We do not need complex logical proofs to prove that a triangle has 3 sides, that’s just the way it is! In the same way, God just exists, as a predicate does not require external empirical proof.
  • He came at it from another way too! He argued that a supremely perfect being must have necessary existence, as necessary existence is a predicate of perfection. So, there is a necessary perfect being.


  • He argues that existence is not a quality that something has, it is merely a statement that it is apparent in 4-dimensional space. He likens this to the idea of the triangle, claiming that if you dismiss the idea of the triangle then you dismiss the idea of three sides, and thus there is no contradiction, and DESCARTES LOSES!
  • He also argues that saying “something exists” doesn’t tell us anything about that thing at all really, neither adding nor subtracted from what that thing is!
  • A predicate, we are told, must give us information about a thing.
  • So, existence may be a necessary part of a supremely perfect being, but it is not a predicate for it to exist in reality.
  • Bertrand Russell develops this with an analogy about cows and unicorns!
  • Imagine a cow and imagine a unicorn. If we say that a unicorn exists and a cow does not, it does not really tell us anything about the attributes of the things in discussion.


  • He says that we cannot take an idea, apply pure logic to it and reach a conclusion that is based purely in the observable universe. This holds weight as most of human existence is based on these ideals.
  • He also came to the same conclusions as Kant, that existence is not a predicate.
  • He actually went on to say that contemplating God as “in the mind” and “in reality” are exactly the same thing. Placing this with his first objection, we can argue that we are simply “thinking about God”, not proving and grounds for his existence.


  • Argues that there are different kinds of predicates: first and second order ones! First order ones tells us about the nature of the thing, and second order ones are concerned with concepts surrounding the things. To say “horses are brown” is a first order predicate”, “there are lots of horses” is a second order predicate.

Russell (some more!)

  • He thinks Anselm uses the word “exist” incorrectly. If it were to be as Anselm uses it then it could be used to syllogisms to prove lots of stilly things! For example, Consider that “very above average people” exist: Batman was a “very above average person”, it could be said; ergo, Batman is real.
  • He says that the term “exist” refers to the idea of a thing, not the property of a thing. In saying that a unicorn does not exist simply means “nothing exists by which we would refer to as a unicorn”.
  • He also says that, in describing something, your intention is to describe it. To say it exists is just an extension of that intention.
  • So, if we consider God to be that which nothing greater can be conceived, we intend that he is the totality of our perceived reality and then some! This can be extended! If any idea can be said to exist, then “that which nothing greater can be conceived” must exist as it is the totality of all ideas.
  • This supports the idea that God is the totality of things and that which nothing greater can be conceived, but does not give him existence in reality.

Brian Davies

  • He argues, in accord with Frege, that existence is a second order predicate, but necessity is a first order one! So, we are presented with “God is necessary, therefore God is”
    However, if we were to say that “a unicorn is a horse with a horn and magical properties. Therefore there must be a unicorn” it would be laughed at! As if it were conceivable that a unicorn existed in order to have that horn.
  • He goes on to mark a difference between the uses of “is”, one in which it is used to define things, another in which it expresses a realisation, or actuality.
  • So, there is a real difference in saying “God is this, this and this” and “God actually IS”.

    Ultimately, ontology pisses me off, as people get hung up semantics too much.


And that's ontology!


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