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Initially proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury and the Persian philosopher Avicenna in the 11th Century, this argument attempts to prove the existence of God through a priori reasoning alone (i.e. independent of experience, requiring only abstract reasoning). At its simplest, the argument runs as follows: God is, by definition, perfect; in order for anything to be perfect, it must exist; therefore, God exists.In more detail, it argues that part of what we mean when we speak of “God” is a “perfect being”, or one of whom “nothing greater can be conceived”, and that that is essentially what the word “God” means. A God that exists, the argument continues, is clearly better and greater than a God that does not (for example, just an idea in someone’s mind), so to speak of God as a perfect being is necessarily to imply that he exists. Therefore, God’s existence is implied by the very concept of God, and when we speak of “God” we cannot but speak of a being that actually exists: to say that God does not exist is a contradiction in terms.
A variation on this argument was offered by René Descartes in the 17th Century. The Cartesian Ontological Argument suggests that we all have within us the idea of a perfect, infinite Being. But since we ourselves are neither perfect nor infinite, then this idea could not have come from within us. Instead, it must have come from outside of us i.e. from a real perfect, infinite being.
The Ontological Argument is certainly ingenious, in true philosophical style, and it has perhaps generated more philosophical debate than any other in history. As great a philosopher as Bertrand Russell has admitted that “it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies”.
The argument is in essence merely a linguistic trick. In philosophical terms, it commits a “bare assertion fallacy” i.e. the argument is assumed to be true merely because it says it is true, and it offers no supportive premise other than qualities inherent in the original statement it purports to prove. After all, the same ontological argument could be used to prove the existence of any perfect thing at all. For example, a monk called Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm, used the same logic to show that a “perfect island” must of necessity exist, even though such an island obviously does not exist. Anselm counter-argued that a “perfect island” is not really a concept but merely an imaginary idea, but he did not explain why God is not also just an imaginary idea.
The 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued against the ontological argument on the grounds that existence is not a property of objects but a property of concepts, and that, whatever ideas may participate in a given concept, it is a further question whether that concept is instantiated. This equally ingenious counter-argument may be beyond most people’s philosophical ken, and appears to be just as much of a linguistic trick, but it does have the advantage of fighting fire with fire.
Another difficulty with the argument is that it assumes that “perfection” is an objective property on which we can all agree. However, in reality the concept of perfection is a subjective one. Also, certain attributes of God’s perfection are inconsistent and potentially conflicting. For example, God is said to be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, but a perfectly merciful god would forgive us our sins, while a perfectly just god would punish us for our sins.
The Cartesian Ontological Argument variant additionally rests on the assertion that all humans have an innate idea of a perfect, infinite Being. However, this remains a mere assertion which cannot be proven and which Descartes apparently plucked from the air.
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