I must admit, right off the bat that this philosophical argument for God, in its “simplistic” form is one of my least favorites, though when seen as a set of arguments for God, it makes much more logical sense. As with the other two philosophical arguments I’ve already blogged on: The Teleological and Cosmological, this argument is presented as a “general” support for God, not religion specific.
St. Anselm is kind of the “go-to” philosopher for the Ontological Argument, and it revolves around that idea of God, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Then, through different logical arguments winds up with the conclusion that God must then exist.
If God is defined, not as just a definition, but as a being that is the most perfect being in existence, or the greatest being possible, then the argument goes that He does indeed exist. Why? Because God is the greatest or most perfect being, and it is greater to exist than to not, therefore God must exist.
To put it simplistically; which would you rather have a million imaginary dollars, or a million real dollars? Which is greater?
The big argument against the Ontological argument for God comes in the form of a question; Is existence a “predicate?” A predicate is a defining property or, if you like, a defining characteristic or attribute. Does the fact of existence actually add anything meaningful to the idea of God?
Well…that is a good question if we stop at Anselm’s first argument, but if we continue to look at his arguments it becomes clear that there is logical reason to see God’s existence a predicate. This “second” argument of Anselm’s revolves around this notion; God is a greater being if He cannot not exist; if His existence is necessary. If His existence is necessary, then it would indeed be a predicate.
Basically the logical idea boils down to two possibilities; since God is not a limited being, either His existence is impossible or it is necessary. The existence of God is not impossible, therefore because of His nature and the nature of existence, His existence is necessary.
To put it in the words of Norman Malcolm (1963), “If God, a being a greater than which cannot be conceived, does not exist then He cannot come into existence or have happened to come into existence, and in either case He would be a limited being, which by our conception of Him He is not. Since He cannot come into existence, if He does not exist His existence is impossible. If he does exist He cannot have come into existence (for the reasons given), nor can He cease to exist, for nothing could cause Him to cease to exist nor could it just happen that He ceased to exist. So if God exists His existence is necessary. Thus God’s existence is either impossible or necessary. It can be the former only if the concept of such a being is self-contradictory or in some way logically absurd. Assuming that this is not so, if follows that He necessarily exists.” (Knowledge and Certainty: Essays and Lectures)
Breathe. Take your time and read it over again slowly…it definitely is a logical argument that can confuse if read too fast. The first time I read the Ontological argument it felt as though someone was trying to pull the wool over my eyes, or just simply put one over on me. It takes some time to really grasp the logical argument in all of this.
Scriptural backing for this philosophical idea from a Christian perspective? I find the most compelling parallels in the very names of God, such as I AM that I AM, and also titles such as “The Almighty.” The first shows God’s self-existence, and the second shows His supremacy over all things created.
Genesis 17:1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God…
The idea of God as the ultimate being is readily apparent as well:
Revelation 1:8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
His necessity is also clear, when we read of Him being The Creator of all things;
Isaiah 40:28 Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
So, both we as humans define God in a certain way even just on a philosophical level, and God Himself has revealed to us that He is indeed the greatest being possible, that His existence is necessary, and that He does indeed exist.