An Examination of the Ontological Argument
The version of the argument that I will be examining is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the ontological argument, the author of which opines that this argument is a “remarkable (and beautiful!) undertaking.” Curiously, the author of the article, one Kenneth Eimar Himma, states the following:
We can prove certain negative existential claims merely by reflecting on the content of the concept. Thus, for example, we can determine that there are no square circles in the world without going out and looking under every rock to see whether there is a square circle there. We can do so merely by consulting the definition and seeing that it is self-contradictory. Thus, the very concepts imply that there exist no entities that are both square and circular.
But Himma thinks that this process of consulting the contents of an idea or notion can work in the opposite direction. He continues:
The ontological argument, then, is unique among such arguments in that it purports to establish the real (as opposed to abstract) existence of some entity.
Indeed, if the ontological arguments succeed, it is as much a contradiction to suppose that God doesn’t exist as it is to suppose that there are square circles or female bachelors.
Generally speaking, this is not a new criticism of the ontological argument. But hopefully my above statement has captured the essence of the causal mischief involved in the ontological argument.
But let’s take a closer look. The following version of the ontological argument is what Himma takes a quote from Anselm to suggest:
1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
6. Therefore, God exists.
Premise 1 is to be rejected because it reverses the proper order in which definitions are formulated for concepts. According to the objective theory of concepts, definition is the final step in concept-formation, not the first. But Premise 1 violates this vital truth about concepts and assumes that one can begin with a definition and then seek out any inputs which might inform the concept so defined. This is a complete reversal. The objective method of forming concepts begins with inputs – inputs from reality. These inputs come first. In the case of concepts denoting concretes, like ‘ball’, ‘rock’, ‘tree’, ‘dog’, ‘man’, etc., these inputs are concrete objects themselves which we perceive – things that we are aware of, things that we discover in reality by looking outward. They do not come from inside us; they are not products of imagination or wishing or emotions. These objects exist independent of consciousness, and the task of consciousness is not to “create” them, but to identify them. Thus we begin with the inputs of which we have awareness, isolate them by means of differentiation and selective focus, unite them according to some criterion of similarity, integrate them into a mental unit by means of measurement-omission, and then – as the final step – formulate a proper definition of the concept by isolating the essentials of the units the concept subsumes. Premise 1 does not follow the objective method of concept-formation which begins by looking outward. Premise 1 (and really the rest of the argument, as we will see) begins by looking inward and stipulating a definition for which it will be argued that, because a concept is so defined, there must be some object, unit, input (call it what you will) “out there” to which it corresponds.
Now let us ask: what inputs could possibly be in mind to provide such a “conceptual truth” with its purported content? What could possibly be their source? Premise 1 does in fact indicate their source: our imagination is the source here. We are to suppose that “it is a conceptual truth” that what is called “God” is “a being than which none greater can be imagined.” Imagined by whom? The argument does not say, and it doesn’t matter: imagination is not a means of gaining knowledge of what actually exists in reality. Presumably the notion “God” is supposed to denote something beyond which no one can imagine; it therefore purports to represent the maximum of what can be imagined by anyone. Think about that for a moment: “God” is supposed to be the maximum of what can be imagined by anyone. Thus “God” is the “concept” which denotes the maximum of man’s imagination. It is often said of man’s potential that “the sky’s the limit.” But with the ontological argument, it is clear that “the imagination is the limit.” Unfortunately, the imagination is also the ontological argument’s standard: it is the imagination which provides the ultimate input and sets the limits here. Premise 1 is saying in no uncertain terms that the imagination is the source and the standard informing the notion “God”.
So right off the bat we should see that Premise 1 is grounded in arbitrariness. Legitimate concepts are not ad hoc. They are not invented from whole cloth. Nor are they just made up because we like them, because we want them to be true, or because we hope they have legitimacy of some kind. Legitimate concepts are formed to identify and integrate things that we discover in reality (and other concepts that have been so formed), not things that are merely imaginary. Legitimate concepts are formed by an objective process (which in part means that the objects they denote exist independent of consciousness and that we must acquire awareness of them by some means of looking outward - i.e., by means of perception), and so are their definitions. By contrast, what Premise 1 offers is an instance of stipulation: “We hereby stipulate that the following is ‘a conceptual truth’.” Does it have any correspondence to reality? I wager that, if it did, the ontological argument wouldn’t be needed in the first place.
So the ontological argument is off to a dismal start. In fact, we do not need to go any further, but let’s continue for the sake of grins. After all, Himma responds to Aquinas’ criticism of the ontological argument (which states that ““not everyone who hears this word ‘God’ understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body”) by suggesting that we
simply delete premise 1 and replace each instance of “God” with “A being than which none greater can be conceived.” The conclusion, then, will be that a being than which none greater can be conceived exists – and it is, of course, quite natural to name this being God.
As for Premise 2 – “God exists as an idea in the mind” – I take this as sufficient confirmation for Premise 4 of my own Proof that the Christian God Does Not Exist, which argues that the, because the Christian god is imaginary, it is therefore not real, which can only mean: it does not exist. Good going, Anselm!
Next we come to Premise 3, which affirms that something existing both in one’s mind (e.g., in his imagination, per Premise 1) as well as in reality, is “greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.” The error here is that it treats something formulated in one’s imagination as a “being,” when in fact it is merely a figment of the imagination. Thus it appears to be an equivocation of sorts. The concern here is to ensure that we distinguish properly between mental content (whether conceptual, emotional, intentional, imaginary, etc.) and mind-independent entities – i.e., things which exist independent of conscious activity, and Premise 3 ignores this distinction by assuming that some item of mental content and some independently existing entity can somehow be one and the same. Moreover, that the first two premises make it clear that the “being” involved here is essentially imaginary in nature, makes Premise 3’s equivocal use of ‘being’ all the more insidious.
The mind is not populated by independently existing entities; there are no “beings” existing in a person’s mind, where “being” here is supposed to denote something existing independently of consciousness, just as there are no ideas floating around outside us. To treat something that the mind conjures up in the imagination as an independently existing entity, as Premise 3 does, entails a contradiction: it is acknowledging on the one hand that the mind conjured it up by means of imagining it – and is thus not an independently existing being, while on the other hand pretending that it has been an independently existing being all along. This contradiction has been smuggled in so deftly that even the argument’s craftsmen probably did not detect it (and given their false understanding of knowledge, they likely could not have detected it). And yet, the preceding two premises seal the accuracy of this objection.
Once this contradiction has slipped by, the premise continues on as if there is some correspondence involved here. Now correspondence is a legitimate concern in epistemology: we want the content of our knowledge to correspond to what’s existing outside independently of our consciousness. But as we saw already in Premise 1, the ontological argument reverses the proper orientation of correspondence. Instead of objective correspondence (in which we look outward at the world, perceive objects and unite them into concepts by means of an objective process), the ontological argument calls for a subjective form of correspondence (in which the thinker imagines something first, projects it into reality, and then attempts to rationalize the affirmation that what he has imagined must exist “out there” – even though he did not discover it by looking outward - he “discovered” it by looking inward). In the final analysis it is really saying: “I have imagined God, and would you look at that? It matches what exists in a supernatural realm that is just as imaginary as the God I imagined!” After all, wouldn’t things be better (“greater”) if what exists outside us matches what we “conceive”? Thus we have: a being that exists as an idea in our minds and in reality outside us is “greater” than a being which exists only as an idea in our minds. Unfortunately, what we imagine in our minds are not actual beings, nor does it have any bearing on what actually does exist.
Perhaps some might attempt to salvage Premise by making it hypothetical. For instance: if something that we imagine as good, for instance, also exists in the world, it would be better than something that we imagine as good and yet does not exist in the world. But here again, the “something that we imagine” is equated with something which also exists in the world, and there is no such thing. Even if I’m imagining my wife, I am still imagining and what I am imagining is still imaginary, even though my wife in reality is very much a real person existing independently of my consciousness. But my wife and what I imagine when I imagine her are obviously not one and the same. Moreover, if the ontological argument acknowledges this truth and revises its Premise 3 in conformity with it, then it would need to acknowledge the fact that we would need some objective method by which to discover the object or state of affairs which our conception is said to match. But the ontological argument makes no allowance for this. On the contrary, it works from the imagination outward – i.e., beginning by looking inward and then finagling its locutions to make it seem necessary to conclude that what is imagined must also exist outside us. It is “greater” for something to exist both in our imagination and outside it, goes the argument, all the while ignoring the fact that the whole thing starts in the imagination. The argument has us first imagine “God” as “the greatest conceivable being,” and then reasons that, given the notion that it is “greater” for something to exist both as an idea in our minds and outside our consciousness in reality, given the stipulation (“by definition”) that “God” is “the greatest conceivable being,” it must exist outside our imagination as well.
Even supposing that we grant the notion that it is “greater” for something to exist both as an idea in our minds and in reality independent of our minds than it is to exist only as an idea in our minds, this would not be without counter-examples. Suppose for example that someone wishes that another person die in a tragic accident. Smith, who is viciously angry at Jones for some reason, can imagine that Jones die of some catastrophic incident, and yet, in spite of taking pleasure in such fantasizing, Smith would not actually want Jones to die in such a manner or at all. Which would be “greater” here: the situation in which Smith merely imagines that Jones die in a tragic accident, or the situation in which Smith imagines this and Jones actually does die under such circumstances? The ontological argument assumes that the latter is necessarily greater, but given the fact that we can derive pleasure from certain fantasies that would not result if those fantasies came true, such an assumption cannot be taken for granted. Some legitimate reason needs to be given for this, but there is none.
And here’s another point to consider: It is not a given that the argument at this point is using the term “greater” in the same context as where it appeared previously, in Premise 1. In Premise 1, the notion “greater” seems to have to do with the capacity of one’s imagination, and is therefore limited by that capacity. In Premise3, “greater” seems to indicate some maximal measure of evaluation (as opposed to capacity of one’s imagination), since it is used in the interest of comparing two different scenarios: an idea one has exclusively in his mind as opposed to an idea in the mind along with some state of affairs to which that idea accurately corresponds. So the notion “greater” seems to be used in two different senses which the formalized argument neither acknowledges nor explains. This will become relevant in considering Premise 5.
Premise 3 also makes no reference to any possible causal connection between the two scenarios it identifies. As we have seen, the only process available here is subjective in nature: i.e., starting out by looking inward and then drawing conclusions about what must exist outside us given certain stipulations involved in what was imagined.
Premises 4 and 5 seem to be saying that we cannot imagine something greater than what actually exists since, according to Premise 3, greatest would entail existence. But in fact we can imagine something greater than actually exists. Nothing in reality at all suggests – let alone guarantees – that what we imagine must therefore exist independently of our imagining. A brief analysis of what imagination is, is in order here. Imagination is essentially the ability to mentally rearrange things that we have encountered in reality – either by directly perceiving them, reading descriptions of them, etc. – into combinations which do not actually exist. For example, I have encountered cats, fish and chickens in my life. So I can combine attributes selected from each of these to come up with the mental image of an organism with a chicken’s head, a cats’ body and limbs, and a fish’s gills, fins and tail. But there is no such organism in reality. It is merely imaginary.
Moreover, imagination allows me to piggyback off of the conceptual process known as measurement-omission - i.e., the principle which states that “omitted measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity” (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 18) – and expand or contract anything I imagine in terms of its attributes’ measurements completely at will. For example, I can imagine a one-inch tall Empire State Building just as easily as I can imagine a 900-foot tall Jesus. Our imaginations are extremely nimble in this regard. Since measurements as such exist in specific quantities, and we can always imagine a measurement greater than any given specific measurement, it is hard to see how one can be confined to some impenetrable “ceiling” suggested by the ontological argument which itself seems entirely imaginary!
Furthermore, one thing we do learn about in rational philosophy is the law of identity. The law of identity states explicitly that a thing is itself, that A is A, that a thing is only what it is, and no more. In other words, the measurement of any actually existing thing’s attributes are always specific and therefore finite. Since the human imagination can always “conceive” of measurements beyond whatever actual things exist (e.g., if the tallest building is 163 stories, I can conceive of one that is 164 stories tall, etc.), the notion that there is some fixed “greatest” beyond which nothing is conceivable (i.e., imaginable) seems entirely wrong. On one occasion, then, we might imagine a “supernatural God.” On another, we might imagine a “superdupernatural God.” And on yet another, we might imagine a “superduperwupernatural God,” and so on. And given that different individuals have differing levels of skills in any area, one individual may very well be able to out-conceive or out-imagine another individual in this area. So any attempt to call something imaginary “the greatest” would be purely arbitrary – there is no objective means available by which the proportions of the imaginary could be measured.
So the ontological argument, as it is presented here, has numerous insuperable problems. For one, it starts out with an arbitrary stipulation which is intended to be accepted as a governing definition going forward. It has no objective basis in reality, and what’s ironic is that, if such a definition did have a basis in reality, the ontological argument wouldn’t be needed in the first place. Premise 1 then is a sort of implicit announcement that the argument is DOA. Premise 2 outright acknowledges the imaginative nature of god-belief and thus has at least some truth value. Premise 3 shows us that the ontological argument works from the vantage of looking inward into the contents of one’s imagination to positing consequences in reality based on looking inward. It seeks to draw conclusions about reality by starting with what we imagine. Premises 4 and 5 ignore the nature of imagination, which is not confined by the limits which the ontological argument seeks to impose on it for the express purpose of drawing its desired conclusion.
Since so many thinkers have apparently been conned by the ontological argument, it must be stressed that whatever exists, exists independent of our conscious activity. Either we discover and identify whatever exists by an objective process - i.e., by looking outward, and thus learn about what exists independently of consciousness, or we don’t, and thus remain ignorant about what exists in reality and consequently remain confined to whatever horrors we might imagine. What we “conceive” of or imagine by any other name, is neither here nor there. Imagination is not a means of discovering and identifying what exists in reality. Reality does not conform to what we “conceive” any more than it conforms to what we imagine. So what we conceive or imagine is in fact irrelevant to what actually exists. There is no substitute for an objective process of acquiring and validating knowledge. Consequently, given these incontestable truths, there is implicit to the very nature of knowledge a fundamental black-and-white nature, an either-or which the ontological argument not only obscures, but also distorts, and it does this by blurring the distinction between looking inward and looking outward. An objective orientation is one which recognizes that what is actual, is actual independently of any cognitive activity we may perform. Reality does not conform to what we conceive. Rather, what we conceive should conform to what we discover in reality. But on the terms of the ontological argument, since correspondence between what is real and what we imagine is ultimately the standard, the entire concept of objectivity is abandoned at the very outset.
The advent of the ontological argument is as explicit an acknowledgement as one should ever need of the fact that the very notion of a god is entirely imaginary in nature, as I have argued. The argument essentially proceeds as if the one forming it had openly confessed: “Yes, I do have no alternative but to imagine my god, but here’s a way that I can make it seem real.” It is as condensed a form of pure rationalism, i.e., deduction without reference to reality, as one is likely to find anywhere.
by Dawson Bethrick