The Ontological Proof and Why I Think It’s Cobblers

I should probably lay a card on the table at this point. Whenever I’ve seen a theological ‘proof’ of God’s existence, I’ve always been overwhelmed by a sense of ‘Huh? That’s it?’. I know I’m not alone in that, and I also know that people are religious for all sorts of reasons and very, very few of those reasons are directly because of theological reasoning. I suspect, although obviously I can’t prove, there are more people who become agnostic, atheist or who stay away from religion because of theology, at least of the armchair variety, than those who become religious from a cold start because they were swung by an article by a theology professor. I know there’s a category of thoughtful person who finds a pre-existing religious belief strengthened by a well reasoned theological argument.

Now, I am not so arrogant to think that I’m cleverer than St Anselm. He was an extraordinary man who clearly had no truck with mysticism or obscurantism, and was keen to apply rational argument to theology. In the comments on Pharyngula and this blog after my Above Us Only Sky post, it’s clear that a lot of people assume the default value for humanity in the past was ‘superstitious chump’. Anselm is not some Dark Ages witch doctor. Step one: accept he’s smarter than you and thought about this longer than you have.

Here’s a paraphrase of his Ontological Argument for the existence of God, from the Proslogion, so dating from about 1078. For a thousand years, theologians have agreed that this argument, or at least one very like it, is one of the better proofs of God’s existence:

1. God is defined as ‘a being than which nothing greater can be conceived'.

2. Everyone understands the statement ‘God exists’, even if they do not agree with it.

3. So, everyone holds the concept of God in their brain. God ‘exists’ in at least that form.

4. I know what you’re thinking: things can exist in the imagination that definitely don’t exist in reality. This is obviously true.

5. And now you’re thinking ‘this is a complete cheat – you told me you were going to prove the existence of God, and this is some poxy thing about how God exists in our imagination, isn’t it? I wanted something real and if we only imagine a thing, it isn’t as good as if that thing is real. I can imagine a big pile of money, but I can’t spend imaginary money’.

6. But here’s the thing: so you accept we’ve got this God in our imagination and basically all his attributes are set to Infinity. God is the greatest being that can be imagined. And you’re thinking: ‘nothing can be imagined that’s greater than that, surely, by definition, that’s as far as we can take this?’. Well … there’s one thing greater still, and that’s that God, the one any fool can imagine, but now imagine He actually exists. Actual God Like That > Imagined God Like That. You just said that yourself, remember?

7. See that definition I gave in (1)? I just proved God exists.

I think I’ve represented Anselm’s argument fairly, if a little chattily, and I think I understand the argument. It is, after all, an argument designed by a clever man so that any fool can understand it.

Now, I know I’m not alone in this, I don’t read that and go: ‘Wow, the scales have fallen from my eyes, case closed, God exists’ … I go, ‘no, hang on, that’s got to be a load of old cobblers … hasn’t it?’.

Now, some people might go ‘Anselm’s the authority, this argument has been around for a thousand years, I agree it seems a bit dodgy, but who am I to argue?’. But that isn’t engaging with the argument, and Anselm was a clever man, and presumably he wanted people to engage with the argument, to try to scale its impregnable walls.

And that accounts for two of the reasons I like the idea of theology.

  1. I want to know all these arguments and understand them, because when someone cleverer than me tells me something and I don’t understand it, I’m keen to learn.
  2. They want me to argue with them, they’re inviting me to.

That second one is, truth be told, probably my main motivating force. I want to test these ideas, challenge them, smack them around a bit. And the fact remains: Anselm is cleverer than me, but I don’t find this argument satisfying at all. It’s … silly. Isn’t it?

So then I thought ‘why is it silly?’. Instinctively, it feels like sleight of hand – some bit of wordplay or bait and switch. And it gets my mind racing …

It’s surprisingly hard to explain what the flaw in the ontological argument actually is. It’s not any of the ones that look obvious. We can quibble with the definition of God in (1) and say “well, OK, this ‘greatest imaginable being’ exists, but that doesn’t mean he gave stone tablets to Moses, sent his only son down to Earth, dictated anything to Mohammed, and/or did whatever barmy thing it is that Mormons believe”. This is an extremely good point (and Anselm goes on to explain why it has to specifically be the Christian God), but ultimately it’s nitpicking, given that the ‘greatest imaginable being’ exists. I mean, if it’s not your God, it’s something that could steal your God’s lunch money. OK, this God might not be Jesus’s dad, Mr Dawkins, but if we can demonstrate He exists, you were more wrong than the Christians were.

The main objection over the years seems to be that ‘existing in reality’ is not necessarily superior to ‘existing in real life’. But I find that rather dispiriting. I understand the argument that ‘the perfect woman’ or ‘the best meal’ or ‘the greatest movie’ can all be imagined, and that the fun is in the argument, rather than the actuality. What would ‘the perfect woman’ be like? Well … different people are going to have different answers to that, to put it mildly, and I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to suggest that it rather depends on who you are and what you want from life. It’s entirely subjective. I don’t think it’s possible to have one universally agreed ‘perfect woman’ that exists. But I think that were the existence of a perfect woman possible, it would be better if she existed. I think existing is ‘greater’ than non-existing. Not necessarily ‘better’ in the sense of ‘more advantageous’ – it would be bad if the greatest virus we can imagine, for example, existed – but I think, instinctively, an actual thing is ‘greater’ than an imagined thing.

I think we agree that ‘the imagination’ and ‘real life’ are different things. It’s obviously more complicated than that – what each of us, individually, call ‘reality’ is our aggregated mental construct of sense data and blah blah so what counts as reality is more problematic than we usually blah blah – but Anselm, I and very probably you (unless you’re feeling particularly bloodyminded) would agree that ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ are antonyms for the sake of this argument. The point of the Proof, if you like, is that this God crosses to our side of the ‘reality barrier’.

So what else do I think? Well, it looks like we can quibble with (2). I can conceptualise stuff without any great clarity – I can imagine, say, ‘the next novel by Umberto Eco’, but I don’t even know the title, let alone the contents. It may never be written. Am I really ‘conceiving’ the novel, or is it just some sort of mental placeholder?

And it looks like choices have to be made – God can’t have conflicting attributes, he can’t be infinitely contemplative and infinitely impulsive. He can’t be both the greatest fighter and the greatest pacifist. There are non-divine attributes he can’t possess – he’s not the greatest worshipper, or the greatest non-divine being. Meanwhile, any attempt to go ‘oh, God can be everything and nothing, he’s so wonderful he is both the hottest and coldest thing possible simultaneously’ has the disadvantage that you can only possibly think that if you’re a simpering idiot who doesn’t know what very easy words mean. Anselm would hate you.

Another obvious objection: I could be completely wrong about what ‘greatness’ is, and the God in my head might have all sorts of attributes He shouldn’t. A lot of what the Greek and Norse gods got up to was reprehensible by today’s civilised standards. As St Yoda of Dagobah put it, ‘Great warrior? Wars not make one great’. Anselm has a bit of sleight-of-hand here: yes, ‘you’ are imagining that God, but the God in question is the greatest that ‘can be conceived’ … not just by you, but by anyone. You can be wrong, without implications for God. More than a little slippery, I think, but allowable.

This God’s existence seems to be dependent on the existence of something imagining it. Even the creationists concede that there was some time after the creation of existence but before beings with imaginations came along. So how did God exist then? But God wins that on a cunning loophole – at the beginning, he’s the only being who exists, so he’s unarguably the greatest thing that can be imagined, he just keeps it that way until He gives something else an imagination. I’m only sort of 85% convinced that argument makes any sense, even in its own terms, but if you accept the basic set up, I guess you have to accept that’s what happened. 

But, for me, (6) feels like the place where the shenanigans must be. If I can imagine a horse that, say, runs at a hundred miles an hour, and then it turns out that in real life there’s a horse that runs at a hundred miles an hour … well, it’s not the same horse, is it? It’s not my horse, but with one extra property, that of ‘existing’, stapled to it. It’s a different horse. It’s a coincidence, not something I conjured into existence. Isn’t that a problem?

So I went back and looked at the definition in (1). God’s defined as the greatest thing ‘that can be conceived’. The definition specifically says, then, that this is the biggest God that exists ‘in the mind’. That’s the only realm which the definition concerns itself with.

Imagine Anselm had asked ‘what’s the biggest volcano on Earth?’, and you’d answered, perhaps after checking Wikipedia like I did, ‘Mauna Loa’, and he’d said ‘a-ha, but Mount Olympus on Mars is much bigger’. You’d say ‘you said on Earth’, and he’d check his notes and say ‘Er … yes. You’re right. Sorry’. The existence of the biggest volcano on Earth has no bearing on volcanoes on Mars, and vice versa.

The sphere of Anselm’s definition of God is the imagination, the realm of mental conception. Real life is outside that jurisdiction. So let’s reword it to take into account the God Anselm actually wants to prove: ‘God is the greatest thing that exists in the imagination’ or ‘God is the greatest thing that you think is real’. But this wasn’t meant to be me dreaming of a really fast horse, it was meant to be about finding that horse in real life. We’re trying to find a God that, to put it crudely but in a way that I think we all understand, ‘crosses the reality barrier’, and this doesn’t do that. Anselm’s God exists – in our mind as the greatest being we can conceive plus imagining it also exists. An imaginary big sack of money is good, it’s even more fun if we imagine what we could spend it on, that’s even better … but it doesn’t mean we can spend that money.

And this satisfies me, because I think it hits on my key problem with the Ontological Argument. Even if we had concluded the proof holds, we can’t ‘spend’ Anselm’s God. What’s changed? Do we know what He wants, or how we should change our life? When we talk to Him, does He now talk back? We’ve hacked His password, so do we get to read his files? No.

And that’s the real ‘huh, that’s it?’ about the ontological proof: even if it’s true … it gives me no indication of how the universe is different or how I should moderate my behaviour. It doesn’t let me cure any sick kiddies, or paint better pictures, or interact better with other people or let me know if God wants women to be priests or what his definition of ‘marriage’ is. There’s an implicit second clause to that sentence that’s also needed: ‘God exists, so … ‘.

And I’m going to stress this – for a thousand years, a biographical dictionary’s worth of the great minds of humanity have looked at the ontological proof and most have concluded that even if it’s wrong, it’s logically consistent. I don’t think I crushed it in an afternoon and so we can forget about it, now. I don’t even think I came up with anything a freshman philosophy student couldn’t demolish in two minutes.

I do know that there’s a modern variant of the Ontological Proof, as seen in, say, the works of Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga, like Anselm, defines God as ‘the greatest’ (he phrases it ‘maximally powerful’). But, Plantinga recognises the obvious problem: you can’t be the ‘most hot’ and ‘most cold’. A God that had the greatest possible values of every attribute would find many attributes cancelling themselves out.

But Plantinga and the people who defend his Proof say that when we talk about God’s attributes, we talk about his potential. God can’t be both the hottest and the coldest, but he could be whichever of the two, if he wanted to. Whatever contest you have, God would win.

This is an example of what I call the ‘except God argument’.

Philosophers like Aquinas and Leibniz found another Proof, the ‘first cause’ argument utterly compelling:

  1. It is a given that everything has a cause.
  2. Anything without a cause can not exist.
  3. God does not have a cause.
  4. Something must have set everything in motion, and so existed before the ‘first cause’. The only possible qualified being is God.

Now, looking at that, you might spot that if (2) is true, and the definition of God in (3) is true, then the only possible conclusion is ‘God can not exist’. Instead, the theological tactic runs: ‘God is the only exception to this rule’. Not only that, the fact God is the exception to the rule is what makes him God. Leave aside the circular logic, which is what most people get bogged down in, just note this: no other being gets this privilege – they are measured by what they are and do. I admit I don’t understand why. I can imagine, say, a stone that might be the coldest object on Earth or the hottest, depending on where it happened to be. I wouldn’t point at that stone and say ‘this is both the hottest and coldest stone on Earth’.

Plantinga’s argument is merely an ‘except God’ argument. As soon as you say there’s one exception to the rule ‘anything without a cause can not exist’, why not just make the exception a single particle, a fluctuation in the quantum foam – or for that matter a magic singing pig? If you’re allowing one ‘uncaused cause’, then why not two or three of them? Why not fifty?

That said, I doubt my argument is original or all that robust. Anyway, even if I had somehow managed to blow up Anselm’s Death Star with a fluke shot, or somehow found a fatal flaw in the life’s work of Plantinga, a man reputed to be the greatest living theologian, I wouldn’t have disproved the existence of God.

All I did was identify why I found the Ontological Argument dissatisfying. I can now articulate my nagging doubt. And that’s something I can see as useful.


12 responses to “The Ontological Proof and Why I Think It’s Cobblers

  1. Excellent analysis! =:o}

    Like you, I find myself suspecting I must be missing something, but then I’ve never accepted the existence of God either *could* be proven or needed to be proven. The pattern of his interaction as indicated by the bible is that he makes himself known when he wants to, to whom he wants to, in the way that he wants to. Convincing people of God’s existence was never meant to be part of an evangelist’s job; *explaining* who he is, what he wants, and what he offers was the job that was delegated to us.

    As for the “First cause” proof, if anyone tried that on me today, I’d stop them at point 1: “It is a given that everything has a cause.” – “You clearly haven’t been paying much attention to modern physics, have you?”. The evidence is strongly stacking up that what we traditionally think of as “causes” for things are actually merely “catalysts”, i.e. circumstances that make the spontaneous occurence of a particular “effect” much more likely than it would be in their absence.

  2. Also: I think that possibly the greatest benefit of “theology”, when we (all too rarely) actually bother to try to do it, is to force us to re-examine what we’re doing when we dare to try to employ this thing we call *language*.

    And I think that God/YHWH – The ultimate Communicator, as well as the ultimate Creator – thoroughly approves of that endeavour, and of all the tiny Champaigne-enriching bubbles of enlightenment it creates. =:o}

  3. Pingback: Linkblogging For 06/01/12 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  4. One of your paragraphs starts by saying “The main objection over the years seems to be that ‘existing in reality’ is not necessarily superior to ‘existing in real life’.

    Did you mean to write “existing in the imagination” instead of “existing in real life”? Or am I missing a distinction here?

    As for the ontological argument, supposedly ‘a being than which nothing greater can be conceived’ must exist on the basis that existing imagining + existing is greater than only imaging. So why isn’t it reasonable to conclude that a perfect woman, ‘a woman than which no other greater can be conceived’, must exist? Or a perfect horse, perfect shrub, perfect golf club, perfect anything?

  5. When something is created, the creator will always leave a fingerprint or echo. Whether it is done intentionally or unintentionally, the style or design of the originator can always be determined. If you search for proof of God’s existence from this perspective, I believe God can be found.

    Consider the following postulates:

    I doubt therefore I think.
    I think therefore I am.
    I am therefore order is present.
    Order is present therefore God exists.
    God exists therefore I doubt.

    If you want a further explanation of this proof, I have a 13-page treatise on my proof. This treatise can be found on my website:

    …and good luck in your quest for a deeper meaning of our Creator.

  6. “Order is present therefore God exists.”

    There’s your problem. The ‘therefore’ is a huge leap, and you seem to be confusing the sort of baseline ‘order’ (the existence of coherent systems of numbers, logic, sets of basic particles and so on) with ‘organisation’, the way atoms become a thinking being (which we can explain without appealing to creationism).

    It’s pretty easy to demonstrate the flaw in your argument:


    I randomly typed that string of numbers, so there is no intentional order to them, therefore God doesn’t exist.

    The assertion is often made that the baseline order of things is down to God, but it’s not necessarily so. It’s certainly not a ‘therefore’. For one thing, if the universe was created by God to foster beings who would appreciate order, He designed a remarkably inefficient means of going about it.

    Order could easily be imposed by a lesser being than God. Again, easy to demonstrate:


    I just placed my random numbers in order.

    Where does the baseline order come from? It’s the wrong question. We are reasoning beings. This universe therefore has to be one with conditions that allow reasoning beings. Perhaps entirely incoherent, chaotic universes could exist (by definition, we could not model them). Reasoning beings could not exist in those universes. By definition, we can only exist in an ordered universe.

    Saying that the universe was created to allow reasoning beings is the same fallacy as a sardine thinking the sea was built to give sardines something nice and wet to swim in.

    • Your argument and logic have merit because it is just part of a larger scheme. Ontology is like an onion where there is layers within layers.

      By sequencing an apparent random series of numbers, you have created order from chaos. There are many ordered sequences for these numbers. The real question is why did you choose these random numbers and then felt it necessary to place these numbers in that particular order?

      Similarly, random events have occurred to create our oceans. This set of environmental conditions is conducive for The Spark of Life to take a toe-hold. Evolution is constantly seeking the most efficient and effective path. Sardines are the outcome of this timeless process. So, why do oceans and sardines exist?

      For all people to discover absolute proof that God does exist will never happen. Free will and free thought prevent universal acceptance of God’s existence. Neither you nor I will be able to provide a perfect argument or solution because we don’t observe and understand all things in our universe. In the absence of perfect knowledge, I only hope that this discussion brings us closer to the truth.

      Geo. Brown

  7. “So why isn’t it reasonable to conclude that a perfect woman, ‘a woman than which no other greater can be conceived’, must exist?”

    Well, OK. Let’s pick a slightly less contentious idea, a ‘perfect meal’. A universally applicable ‘perfect meal’ manifestly doesn’t exist. It has to be perfect *for* – perfect for me, for you, for the occasion, for the needs of the person who’s eating it. At a very basic level, the perfect meal for my dog is not going to be the perfect meal for a vegan.

    Now there might be an exception, I suppose, some sort of ‘food of the gods’ that’s perfect for all occasions. But let’s find some evidence for those gods before we start ordering take out from them. To say that God could create ‘a perfect meal’ is to defer and obscure the question, not to answer it. Would that be the perfect meal, say, to regularly feed a family of four on a low income budget? No, not if only God can magic it up.

  8. Interesting article. As an aside, there’s a splendid book on the history of St Anselm’s piece by the philosopher/historian Dr Scott Matthews, titled “Reason, Community, and Religious Tradition: Anselm’s Argument and the Friars”, which parallels the work of the philosopher of religion Professor John Clayton (who also wrote a great article titled ‘The Otherness of Anselm’). Matthews argues (if memory serves) that Anselm never set out to write a ‘proof’ at all, but rather a prayer, and that modern readings tend to miss the context behind Anselm’s Proslogion. None of which invalidates the debate that you have engaged in with this article, but it does ‘flesh out’ the background behind why Anselm thought what he thought.

    A very interesting article!

  9. BobbyTheEndearinglyPhallicParsnip

    My argument with it is this: the concept of god that springs to mind when he comes up as being that cannot be surpassed is a god that, theoretically speaking, very much does exist in reality. He may only exist in reality in the confines of the imagination, but the shenanigans in (6) make it abundantly clear that’s okay for the purpose of the discussion. Therefore, you neatly sidestepped the crux of the argument.

    The other (more important) thing is that even if your imagined perfect god was conceived as not being real and placing him in reality makes him paradoxically greater than the greatest thing that could ever exist, that doesn’t automatically collapse the waveform and reveal he was standing behind you all along. It just means you didn’t imagine the concept of ultimate god-man properly on the first try, and have now adjusted to the proper meaning.

    It kind of falls down on ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ being antonyms for the purpose of the discussion, and the unspoken assumption that the logic of the former never makes mistakes. As you fairly conclusively proved, both of these propositions are absurd outside the rigid structure of the argument.

    At very best he theoretically proved the existence of god. Internally the logic works impeccably, but the premise it’s seeking to prove isn’t one that exists solely for the sake of that argument. It’s a brilliant thought experiment and a ridiculously confusing puzzle from inside its own internal logic, but not much of a solid argument outside those lines. It’s an argument that has to trick you into playing by its narrowly-defined set of rules before declaring victory.

    That said, pretty much all of our atheist arguments do exactly the same thing.

    • This is an interesting thread. However, the discussion is in generalities. My belief is if a Supreme Being and Creator does exist, that Being must have left a fingerprint of His/Her/Its work. There must be an echo.

      I welcome you to visit my web blog which explore this hypothesis:


  10. ” It’s an argument that has to trick you into playing by its narrowly-defined set of rules before declaring victory. That said, pretty much all of our atheist arguments do exactly the same thing.”

    Oh, there are definitely atheist arguments that lack rigour, or which hit the limitations of language or knowledge. This is probably the subject of a much longer post, but I think that there is – currently at least – an intractable barrier of human limitation that makes theism or atheism essentially an aesthetic choice – which universe would we *like* to live in? Um … explainable rather than capricious, please. I really would prefer my life to be soulless atoms banging together than be about sitting some entrance exam where you fail if you feel that it’s not right to discriminate against women.

    As I said, the ontological argument never gave me that ‘ah yes, elegant’ feel that a lot of scientific theories do. It feels like a trick. I think it fails the aesthetic test, too: I’d be happy to bet there’s not one person on the planet who is religious *because* of the ontological argument.

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