Ontological Argument


Austin Cline, the guide at atheism.about.com, is quite well known in atheist circles, his website acting as a sort of one-stop atheistic apologetics central where all theistic claims are countered and critiqued. He’s even thrown his hat into the ring of answering theistic arguments which attempt to show the plausibility of God’s existence. Unfortunately, on almost every account, his arguments are lacking. The topic of this article will deal with one of his posts in particular in which Mr. Cline egregiously strawmans the already widely misunderstood Ontological Argument as formulated by St. Anselm.

It should be noted that Mr. Cline doesn’t deal with the newer version of the argument as formulated by Alvin Plantiga, and probably with good reason: it’s irrefutable (for a quick lesson on Plantinga’s version of the argument and to see why no atheist has successfully countered it yet. Instead, he sticks with St. Anselm’s version of the argument which, although defensible in its own right, is thought to be sophistry due to its abstract nature. Here we will go through Mr. Cline’s post and see what is wrong with it. But let’s back up a bit and state St. Anselm’s argument:

“We have a concept of a Perfect Being: Such a Perfect Being must necessarily exist. Why? If he did not exist, then he would not be perfect.”

Or, as Mr. Cline quotes in his article, St. Anselm also formed his argument thus:

“Assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater. Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

Now to be sure, this argument is just about as metaphysical as an argument can be so it is no wonder that so many reject it because it sounds like a word-game. Indeed, Mr. Cline right out and calls it nonsense:

“If you find that to be nonsense, then you aren’t alone. Even one of Anselm’s contemporaries, a monk named Gaunilo, noted that argument allowed for satirical copy-cats:

“We have a concept of a Perfect Island: Such a Perfect Island must necessarily exist. Why? If it did not exist, then it would not be Perfect.

If the Ontological Argument is valid then what?

“Basically, the rebuttal here suggests that if the Ontological Argument is valid, then absolutely every perfect thing we can think of must also simultaneously exist in reality — but we know that that isn’t true. Therefore, there must be some flaw in the argument itself. Anselm and those who accept his argument do not agree with this critique. First, they argue that a “Perfect Island” is not really a concept but merely an imaginary idea — but this just begs the question of why their “God” is not also just an imaginary idea.”

Unfortunately for both Gaunilo and Mr. Cline, neither of them understood the argument. The very fact that Gaunilo used an island, which is a *contingent object*, in his rebuttal argument shows just as much. If an island were perfect then it would have no flaws or restrictions whatsoever. The problem with this is that part of the definition of the island is that it is bounded (and thus restricted) on all sides by water. Thus, a supposedly perfect island would be unable to be surrounded by water, being limitless, in which case it wouldn’t be an island anymore.

It gets worse for Gaunilo’s argument because a perfect island would have to possess great-making attributes such as maximum Goodness, maximum love, maximum wisdom, etc. but attributing these personalistic characteristics to a piece of land is incoherent. Unless of course, one were to conflate the terms “God” and “island” so that they would essentially become synonyms. This problem is faced with all contingent things, whether they be zebras, bricks or jet engines. These attributes can only logically be attributed to the greatest being (technically speaking, according to St. Anslem and other classical theologians, God is Being itself) because only a limitless being can possess the aforementioned great-making properties to a maximum degree.

The old man in the sky

But Mr. Cline holds to the caricatured view of God as an “old man in the sky,” and the fact that he says that “this just begs the question of why their ‘God’ is not also just an imaginary idea’ shows this. He doesn’t understand the theological concept that God, who is Being itself (“God is,” according to Aquinas) is meant to be a sort of grand theory which unifies all contingent beings and all causal relations among them, being the very ground of All. Realistically speaking, it isn’t much different from the theorizing of physicists who are attempting to unite quantum mechanics and special relativity, it’s just that whereas physics deals with the physical, theology deal with the metaphysical. They are sides of the same coin.

The key error, in summation, committed by Austin Cline and others who criticize the classical version of the Ontological Argument is that they believe a contingent thing can take the place of God, hence Gaunilo’s parody. However, as we’ve seen, this error leads to incoherencies which cause the arguments to self-destruct. For the sake of brevity only a portion of Mr. Cline’s post was covered here, but to read a more in-depth critique of his post look here.

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