The Ontological Argument

Well, after reading through the various arguments for the existence of God in The God Delusion, and Richard Dawkins’ debunking of them, if there is one thing we are both in full agreement with it is the ridiculousness of the ontological argument. If you have stumbled upon this post whilst searching for a coherent description of the argument, well at least we could start by providing one. Especially as, in my own experience, most descriptions on the web seem to lack a little in terms of clarity.

The argument was first put forward by Anselm of Cantebury, a Benedictine monk and philosopher. Here is his version of the argument taken from Wikipedia and paraphrased for clairty:

When we hear the words “that than which a greater cannot be thought”, we understand what the words convey (i.e. God), and what we understand exists in our thoughts. Therefore, God can exist in our thoughts.

He either can only exist in our thoughts or both in thought and reality. But he cannot exist only in our thoughts, because if he existed only in our thoughts, then we could think of something greater i.e. his actual existence.

Since we could think of God as existing both in thought and in reality and it is a contradiction to suppose we could think of something greater than God, then God must also exist in reality.

And, for comparison, here’s Descartes version from Wikkipedia (no paraphrase necessary):

1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.

2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.

3. Therefore, God exists

To me, it looks as though there are a few steps missing from the reasoning. But if, as Richard Dawkins says, Bertrand Russell was convinced, at least for a while, then this argument must pack something of an intellectual punch. For those who might want to wrestle with it a bit further, as I understand, it all boils down to this: the premise is that perfection is a part of the concept of God, and a (non-stated) assumption is that perfection necessarily entails existence, so the logical conclusion is that the concept of God requires God’s existence.

If it were not for the respect we must show for the durability of the argument, the credentials of those who advanced it and the difficulty it subsequently caused other noteworthy philosophers, I would be simply tempted to declare the thing a complete nonsense. Russell apparently showed the flaw in the reasoning to be the assumption. Personally, I would have questioned the premise, something I actually did in a previous post (see [link id=’195′]) when we discussed the difficulties inherent in defining our terms.

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