Author: Andrew Chapman
Category: Philosophy of Religion
Word Count: 1000
The Abrahamic conception of God is that he’s awesome—all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, creator of the universe, self-existent, and a host of other properties that make him not just very, very great, but the greatest that there is or could possibly be.
“This is all fine and good,” say non-theists, “but this is a description of a being whose existence we don’t affirm.” However, a famous and powerful argument for God’s existence known as the Ontological Argument purports to be able to show that God’s being the greatest possible being entails God’s existence. The mere definition of God proves his existence.
Anselm’s Ontological Argument
While there are different versions of the Ontological Argument, I will here focus on one of the earliest: that set forth by St. Anselm.1
As we’ve already noted, God is the being than which no greater can be conceived. This is Anselm’s somewhat unwieldy description of God, which I will abbreviate BNGC. By definition, BNGC is the greatest conceivable being. If you think you’re conceiving of God and you can possibly conceive of a greater being, then you weren’t initially conceiving of God. Simple enough.
Now, certainly you can conceive of God. To conceive of something is just to think about it clearly and distinctly; you’ve been doing that since the beginning of this essay. So we know, at least, that God can exist in conception, i.e., can be conceived. Even the atheist should admit this. What the atheist is denying, and what the agnostic is refusing to affirm or deny, is that God existsin reality. So we have an intuitive distinction between a thing that existsmerely in conception and a thing that exists in realityas well as in conception.
Now here’s the meat of the argument: Assume that the atheist is right, that God doesn’t exist in reality, but merely in conception. But then there would be another possible being, a God who exists not merely in conception but also in reality as well, who is greater than BNGC.2 That is, there would be a possible being who is greater than the being than which no greater can be conceived. But no being can be greater than the being than which no greater can be conceived—that’s a flat-out contradiction! So our original assumption, that God doesn’t exist in reality, but merely in conception, must be false, since any assumption that entails a contradiction must be false. Therefore, God must exist both in conception and in reality. Therefore: God exists.3
The Ontological Argument is remarkable in that it reasons from premises containing only definitions and logical laws to perhaps the grandest philosophical conclusion there is. We can know that God exists merely by reflecting on the concept of God.
Many people, however, have been uncomfortable with the purported fact that we can prove the Almighty’s existence so apparently simply. Numerous critics, theist and non- alike, have criticized different aspects Ontological Argument. Here, I will look at just two of the most influential criticisms: those provided by Gaunilo of Marmoutiers and Immanuel Kant.
Gaunilo was a monk and a contemporary of Anselm’s. In his “Reply on Behalf of the Fool,”4 Gaunilo has us imagine another really awesome thing: the island than which no greater can be conceived—let’s call it ‘INGC.’ This island has all the amazing-making properties you can think of: pristine white-sand beaches for lounging, warm water for swimming, and not a tourist in sight. But certainly such an island’s existing only in conception would entail a contradiction, since then there would be a possible thing greater than the INGC, namely, the existing INGC. Therefore, the INGC exists. And, of course, since we have picked island arbitrarily, we can run the same argument for any object: a building, a mousetrap, a horse, whatever you please.5
What Gaunilo has shown, then, is that, using Anselm’s form of reasoning, we can prove the existence of all sorts of bizarre entities, entities that clearly don’t exist. Accordingly, concludes Gaunilo, there must be something fatally wrong with Anselm’s reasoning.6
Which do you prefer, coffee or existing coffee? Notice that this is different from the question of whether you prefer coffee or no coffee at all. No coffee isn’t coffee while both coffee and existing coffee are coffee just the same! If it seems like we’re verging on Lewis Carroll-style nonsense here, you’re right, and this is exactly Kant’s criticism of the Ontological Argument.
According to Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, what’s gone wrong with Anselm’s argument lies in the distinction between a thing that existsmerely in conception and a thing that exists in realityas well as in conception. According to Anselm, there are two different sorts of things: those that exist merely in conception and those that exist in reality as well as in conception. But an existing thing and its non-existing counterpart aren’t two different sorts of thing—one merely exists and the other doesn’t. While it is certainly true that some things exist and others do not, existing does not make a thing a different kind of thing from its non-existing colleague.
The upshot of this, says Kant, is that existence is a very special type of property, one not suited for the type of argument Anselm is running. Since there is no difference between the group of objects falling into the class God and those falling into the class existing God, an existing God can be no better and no worse than a mere God. There’s simply no relevant difference in kind between a God who exists and a God who doesn’t.
Of course, Gaunilo and Kant have not had the last word in this debate. Powerful arguments have been mounted in response to Gaunilo’s and Kant’s criticisms of the Ontological Argument. Additionally, increasingly complex versions of the Ontological Argument have been developed and debated. One thing that’s certain is that the Ontological Argument, whether sound or unsound, is a fascinating and powerful attempt at a proof for the existence of God.
1Two other famous formulations of the argument are Descartes’s formulation from the conception of existence as a perfection and Alvin Plantinga’s so-called Modal Ontological Argument.
2Which is greater, a God who exists merely in conception or a God who exists in reality as well as in conception? Think of all the things a God who exists in reality as well as in conception can do that a God who exists merely in conception cannot do: He can create worlds. He can listen to prayers. He can be the ultimate source and ideal form of goodness. He can reward virtuousness and punish vice… Those all seem like great things, and a God who exists merely in conception can do none of them.
3You may remember this type of argument or proof from your geometry courses where it was called an indirect proof. Philosophers and logicians call this a reductio ad absurdum, or a reduction to absurdity. The strategy, as you have seen, is to assume the opposite of what you are trying to prove, show how that assumption entails either a contradiction or some other form of absurdity, and then to reject the original assumption.
4“The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1)
5It’s important to note that we’re not merely talking here about the greatest actually existing island, mousetrap, horse…, but the greatest possible island, mousetrap, horse… It is plausible that for any type of existing object, one of the ones that exists is the best one (in terms of whatever makes that sort of thing a good one of what it is). But it is another thing altogether to talk about the greatest possible or greatest conceivable such object.
6Notice that Gaunilo’s argument is also a reductio ad absurdum: Assume that Anselm’s reasoning is valid and an absurdity results. Therefore, Anselm’s reasoning must be flawed.
Anselm, St., Proslogion, in St. Anselm’s Proslogion, M. Charlesworth (ed.), Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Descartes, R., Discourse on Method and The Meditations, translated with an introduction by F. Sutcliffe, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
Gaunilo, “On Behalf of the Fool”, in St. Anselm’s Proslogion, M. Charlesworth (ed.), Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Oppy, Graham. “Ontological Arguments.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 08 Feb. 1996. Web. 27 June 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/>.
Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.
About the Author
Andrew is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder, an MA in philosophy from Northern Illinois University and a BA in philosophy and a BM in bassoon and sound recording technology from Ithaca College. He specializes in epistemology, metaethics, and the history of philosophy (especially Kant and the 20th Century Anglophone and Phenomenological traditions). When not philosophizing, Andrew is skiing, hiking, listening to great music, or playing the bassoon.
There are a number of common arguments for the existence of God. But most of these arguments are not as effective as many Christians would like to think. Let’s consider a hypothetical conversation between a Christian and an atheist.
Christian: “Everything with a beginning requires a cause. The universe has a beginning and therefore requires a cause. That cause is God.”
Atheist: “Even if it were true that everything with a beginning requires a cause, how do you know that the cause of the universe is God? Why not a big bang? Maybe this universe sprang from another universe, as some physicists now believe.”
Christian: “The living creatures of this world clearly exhibit design. Therefore, they must have a designer. And that designer is God.”
Atheist: “The living creatures only appear to be designed. Natural selection can account for this apparent design. Poorly adapted organisms tend to die off, and do not pass on their genes.”
Christian: “But living creatures have irreducible complexity. All their essential parts must be in place at the same time, or the organism dies. So God must have created these parts all at the same time. A gradual evolutionary path simply will not work.”
Atheist: “Just because you cannot imagine a gradual stepwise way of constructing an organism does not mean there isn’t one.”
Christian: “DNA has information in it—the instructions to form a living being. And information never comes about by chance; it always comes from a mind. So DNA proves that God created the first creatures.”
Atheist: “There could be an undiscovered mechanism that generates information in the DNA. Give us time, and we will eventually discover it. And even if DNA did come from intelligence, why would you think that intelligence is God? Maybe aliens seeded life on earth.”
Christian: “The Resurrection of Jesus proves the existence of God. Only God can raise the dead.”
Atheist: “You don’t really have any proof that Jesus rose from the dead. This section of the Bible is simply an embellished story. And even if it were true, it proves nothing. Perhaps under certain rare chemical conditions, a dead organism can come back to life. It certainly doesn’t mean that there is a God.”
Christian: “The Bible claims that God exists, and that it is His Word to us. Furthermore, what the Bible says must be true, since God cannot lie.”
Atheist: “That is a circular argument. Only if we knew in advance that God existed would it be reasonable to even consider the possibility that the Bible is His Word. If God does not exist—as I contend—then there is no reason to trust the Bible.”
Christian: “Predictive prophecy shows that the Bible really must be inspired by God. All of the Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ, for example, were fulfilled. The odds of that happening by chance are very low.”
Atheist: “A low probability isn’t the same as zero. People do win the lottery. Besides, maybe the Gospels have embellished what Jesus did, so that it would agree with the Old Testament prophecies. Perhaps some so-called prophetic books were actually written after the events they ‘predict.’ Maybe certain gifted individuals have abilities not yet understood by science and can occasionally predict the future. It certainly doesn’t prove the Bible is inspired by God.”
Christian: “I have personally experienced God, and so have many other Christians. He has saved us and transformed our lives. We know that He exists from experience.”
Atheist: “Unfortunately, your personal experiences are not open to investigation; I have only your word for it. And second, how do you know that such subjective feelings are really the result of God? The right drug might produce similar feelings.”
It should be noted that all the facts used by the Christian in the above hypothetical conversation are true. Yes, God is the first cause, the designer of life, the resurrected Christ, the Author of Scripture, and the Savior of Christians. Yet the way these facts are used is not decisive. That is, none of the above arguments really prove that God exists.
None of the above arguments really prove that God exists.
Some of the above arguments are very weak: appeals to personal experience, vicious circular reasoning, and appeals to a first cause. While the facts are true, the arguments do not come close to proving the existence of the biblical God. Some of the arguments seem stronger; I happen to think that irreducible complexity and information in DNA are strong confirmations of biblical creation. And predictive prophecy does confirm the inspiration of Scripture. Nonetheless, for each one of these arguments, the atheist was able to invent a “rescuing device.” He was able to propose an explanation for this evidence that is compatible with his belief that God does not exist.
Moreover, most of the atheist’s explanations are actually pretty reasonable, given his view of the world. He’s not being illogical. He is being consistent with his position. Christians and atheists have different worldviews—different philosophies of life. And we must learn to argue on the level of worldviews if we are to argue in a cogent and effective fashion.
The Christian in the above hypothetical conversation did not have a correct approach to apologetics. He was arguing on the basis of specific evidences with someone who had a totally different professed worldview than his own. This approach is never conclusive, because the critic can always invoke a rescuing device to protect his worldview.1 Thus, if we are to be effective, we must use an argument that deals with worldviews, and not simply isolated facts. The best argument for the existence of God will be a “big-picture” kind of argument.
God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists
The Bible teaches that atheists are not really atheists.
The Bible teaches that atheists are not really atheists. That is, those who profess to be atheists do ultimately believe in God in their heart-of-hearts. The Bible teaches that everyone knows God, because God has revealed Himself to all (Romans 1:19). In fact, the Bible tells us that God’s existence is so obvious that anyone who suppresses this truth is “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). The atheist denies with his lips what he knows in his heart. But if they know God, then why do atheists claim that they do not believe in God?
The answer may be found in Romans 1:18. God is angry at unbelievers for their wickedness. And an all-powerful, all-knowing God who is angry at you is a terrifying prospect. So even though many atheists might claim that they are neutral, objective observers, and that their disbelief in God is purely rational, in reality, they are strongly motivated to reject the biblical God who is rightly angry with them. So they suppress that truth in unrighteousness. They convince themselves that they do not believe in God.2 The atheist is intellectually schizophrenic—believing in God, but believing that he does not believe in God.3
Therefore, we do not really need to give the atheist any more specific evidences for God’s existence. He already knows in his heart-of-hearts that God exists, but he doesn’t want to believe it. Our goal is to expose the atheist’s suppressed knowledge of God.4 With gentleness and respect, we can show the atheist that he already knows about God, but is suppressing what he knows to be true.
Exposing the Inconsistency
Because an atheist does believe in God, but does not believe that he believes in God, he is simply a walking bundle of inconsistencies.
Because an atheist does believe in God, but does not believe that he believes in God, he is simply a walking bundle of inconsistencies. One type to watch for is a behavioral inconsistency; this is where a person’s behavior does not comport with what he claims to believe. For example, consider the atheist university professor who teaches that human beings are simply chemical accidents—the end result of a long and purposeless chain of biological evolution. But then he goes home and kisses his wife and hugs his children, as if they were not simply chemical accidents, but valuable, irreplaceable persons deserving of respect and worthy of love.
Consider the atheist who is outraged at seeing a violent murder on the ten o’clock news. He is very upset and hopes that the murderer will be punished for his wicked actions. But in his view of the world, why should he be angry? In an atheistic, evolutionary universe where people are just animals, murder is no different than a lion killing an antelope. But we don’t punish the lion! If people are just chemical accidents, then why punish one for killing another? We wouldn’t get upset at baking soda for reacting with vinegar; that’s just what chemicals do. The concepts that human beings are valuable, are not simply animals, are not simply chemicals, have genuine freedom to make choices, are responsible for their actions, and are bound by a universal objective moral code all stem from a Christian worldview. Such things simply do not make sense in an atheistic view of life.
Many atheists behave morally and expect others to behave morally as well. But absolute morality simply does not comport with atheism. Why should there be an absolute, objective standard of behavior that all people should obey if the universe and the people within it are simply accidents of nature? Of course, people can assert that there is a moral code. But who is to say what that moral code should be? Some people think it is okay to be racist; others think it is okay to kill babies, and others think we should kill people of other religions or ethnicities, etc. Who is to say which position should be followed? Any standard of our own creation would necessarily be subjective and arbitrary.
Now, some atheists might respond, “That’s right! Morality is subjective. We each have the right to create our own moral code. And therefore, you cannot impose your personal morality on other people!” But of course, this statement is self-refuting, because when they say, “you cannot impose your personal morality on other people” they are imposing their personal moral code on other people. When push comes to shove, no one really believes that morality is merely a subjective, personal choice.
Another inconsistency occurs when atheists attempt to be rational. Rationality involves the use of laws of logic. Laws of logic prescribe the correct chain of reasoning between truth claims. For example, consider the argument: “If it is snowing outside, then it must be cold out. It is snowing. Therefore, it is cold out.” This argument is correct because it uses a law of logic called modus ponens. Laws of logic, like modus ponens, are immaterial, universal, invariant, abstract entities. They are immaterial because you can’t touch them or stub your toe on one. They are universal and invariant because they apply in all places and at all times (modus ponens works just as well in Africa as it does in the United States, and just as well on Friday as it does on Monday). And they are abstract because they deal with concepts.
Laws of logic stem from God’s sovereign nature; they are a reflection of the way He thinks.
Laws of logic stem from God’s sovereign nature; they are a reflection of the way He thinks. They are immaterial, universal, invariant, abstract entities, because God is an immaterial (Spirit), omnipresent, unchanging God who has all knowledge (Colossians 2:3). Thus, all true statements will be governed by God’s thinking—they will be logical. The law of non-contradiction, for example, stems from the fact that God does not deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). The Christian can account for laws of logic; they are the correct standard for reasoning because God is sovereign over all truth. We can know some of God’s thoughts because God has revealed Himself to us through the words of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ.
However, the atheist cannot account for laws of logic. He cannot make sense of them within his own worldview. How could there be immaterial, universal, invariant, abstract laws in a chance universe formed by a big bang? Why should there be an absolute standard of reasoning if everything is simply “molecules in motion”? Most atheists have a materialistic outlook—meaning they believe that everything that exists is material, or explained by material processes. But laws of logic are not material! You cannot pull a law of logic out of the refrigerator! If atheistic materialism is true, then there could be no laws of logic, since they are immaterial. Thus, logical reasoning would be impossible!
No one is denying that atheists are able to reason and use laws of logic. The point is that if atheism were true, the atheist would not be able to reason or use laws of logic because such things would not be meaningful. The fact that the atheist is able to reason demonstrates that he is wrong. By using that which makes no sense given his worldview, the atheist is being horribly inconsistent. He is using God’s laws of logic, while denying the biblical God that makes such laws possible.
How could there be laws at all without a lawgiver? The atheist cannot account for (1) the existence of laws of logic, (2) why they are immaterial, (3) why they are universal, (4) why they do not change with time, and (5) how human beings can possibly know about them or their properties. But of course, all these things make perfect sense on the Christian system. Laws of logic owe their existence to the biblical God. Yet they are required to reason rationally, to prove things. So the biblical God must exist in order for reasoning to be possible. Therefore, the best proof of God’s existence is that without Him we couldn’t prove anything at all! The existence of the biblical God is the prerequisite for knowledge and rationality. This is called the “transcendental argument for God” or TAG for short. It is a devastating and conclusive argument, one that only a few people have even attempted to refute (and none of them successfully).5
Proof Versus Persuasion
Though the transcendental argument for God is deductively sound, not all atheists will be convinced upon hearing it. It may take time for them to even understand the argument in the first place. As I write this chapter, I am in the midst of an electronic exchange with an atheist who has not yet fully grasped the argument. Real-life discussions on this issue take time. But even if the atheist fully understands the argument, he may not be convinced. We must remember that there is a difference between proof and persuasion. Proof is objective, but persuasion is subjective. The transcendental argument does indeed objectively prove that God exists. However, that does not mean that the atheists will necessarily cry “uncle.” Atheists are strongly motivated to not believe in the biblical God—a God who is rightly angry at them for their treason against Him.
The atheist’s denial of God is an emotional reaction, not a logical one.
But the atheist’s denial of God is an emotional reaction, not a logical one. We might imagine a disobedient child who is about to be punished by his father. He might cover his eyes with his hands and say of his father, “You don’t exist!” but that would hardly be rational. Atheists deny (with their lips) the biblical God, not for logical reasons, but for psychological reasons. We must also keep in mind that the unbeliever’s problem is not simply an emotional issue, but a deep spiritual problem (1 Corinthians 2:14). It is the Holy Spirit that must give him the ability to repent (1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Timothy 2:25).
So we must keep in mind that it is not our job to convert people—nor can we. Our job is to give a defense of the faith in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures (1 Peter 3:15). It is the Holy Spirit that brings conversion. But God can use our arguments as part of the process by which He draws people to Himself.
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