On Philosophy

January 31, 2007

Another Look At The Ontological Argument

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

I have previously discussed the failings of the ontological argument, so I won’t repeat myself here. Instead I will simply focus on an objection the most common objection to the ontological argument. So, to refresh your memory, here is the ontological argument in three statements (Anselm’s version).

1. There is some thing than which nothing better than can be thought (on a scale of goodness) that exists at least in our minds. (At the very least the previous sentence should put the idea into your mind if nothing else has.)
2. For things that are good it is better to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind.
3. Thus if the thing which nothing better than can be thought existed only in our minds then it would not in fact be the best, since we could think instead of something that did exist in reality, which would be better. Therefore, by contradiction, it must exist in reality.

But, the objection goes, you could apply this argument to the best anything, say the best unicorn, and deduce that the best unicorn must exist, which is ridiculous. (Because if the best unicorn didn’t exist in reality then we could think of a unicorn that did exist, which would be better.) But some reply to this and say that by qualifying our argument over a kind of thing (unicorns) we have introduced something problematic that didn’t exist in the original, and that the original, based on an absolutistic comparison, can still be held to be correct even if the version that proves the existence of the best unicorn isn’t. There are a number of responses to this, for example by pointing out that the argument is already restricted to a kind, beings (excluding, for example, properties). But instead I will simply construct an unqualified version of the argument that again proves something ridiculous. It goes like this:

1. There is some thing than which nothing worse than can be thought (measured by how much human suffering it causes) that exists at least in our minds.
2. For things that are bad it is worse to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind.
3. Thus if the thing which nothing worse than can be thought existed only in our minds then it would not in fact be the worst, since we could think instead of something that did exist in reality, which would be worse. Therefore, by contradiction, it must exist in reality.

But this is absurd, since if the worse thing did exist my life would be full of suffering, which it isn’t. Now some will say that I have simply proved the existence of the devil, and that since we have already proved that god exists it is god that prevents us from being in a state of constant suffering. To this I reply that certainly something would be worse if it could overcome god’s will and harm us anyways. Thus this thing, if it can be prevented in any way from making us suffer, is not the worst possible thing, and thus not the thing shown to exist by the modified argument.

So again the ontological argument (actually an argument in the same form as the ontological argument) can be shown to prove things to exist that clearly are non-existent. And unlike the argument for the existence of the best unicorn we have not introduced any additional qualifications about the best of a kind of thing, and so the response that defenders of the ontological argument used against that counterexample is not available.

(By the way, the real problem with the ontological argument, in all of these versions, is that it assumes that whether an idea has a real counterpart or not can affect how the idea compares to other ideas. This is a bad assumption, obviously I hope, and it is what allows the “contradiction” to be derived from the first and second statements.)

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve always reasoned the ontological argument this way. Tell me if I’m doing something wrong.

    Let’s suppose the universe consists of Socrates, a chair, a toilet, several ham sandwiches, and a very large box filled with oxygen. (To be sure, this is a short-lived state of affairs, since Socrates would run out of air or sandwiches at some point. Let’s also suppose that Socrates does not require water–at least not any more than he would consume from the sandwiches.)

    Socrates finally thinks of “some thing than which nothing better than can be thought”. But in fact, Socrates is better than that “some thing than which nothing better than can be thought” because Socrates exists. The logic of the ontological argument forces us to conclude that, in this universe, Socrates is God (assuming Socrates is, in fact, better than the ham sandwiches, etc.)

    All the ontological argument does for us is labels the greatest thing in the universe “God”, even if it’s Socrates saying, “I may not be omnipotent, but at least I exist.”

    Comment by Philip L. Welch — January 31, 2007 @ 12:36 am

  2. I think Anselm would say that we are supposed to be considering all possible things, so that there is a possible god in that universe that is better than Socrates (perfect in fact, and thus not Socrates, since Socrates is imperfect), and then the argument would show that this possible universe does in fact include god, must include god, if it is to exist at all (meaning that to stipulate a universe without god would be to stipulate an impossible universe).

    Comment by Peter — January 31, 2007 @ 12:54 am


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