The Ontological Argument

Anil Mitra PhD


The first argument to be widely recognized as belonging to the category was that proposed by the eleventh-century monk Anselm of Canterbury. First, Anselm defined God as the greatest possible being we can conceive. He suggested that, if we can conceive of the greatest possible being, it must exist in reality. If it does not exist in reality, a greater being is possible—one which does exist

The assumption that the greatest possible being we can conceive does not exist thus leads to a contradiction and Anselm therefore concludes that on his definition God exists

There are many variations of the Ontological Argument. What constitutes an ontological argument is not agreed upon. However, Anselm's argument depends on the nature of God-the nature of the Being of God-and may therefore be called ontological

I am going to criticize Anselm's argument. Since there are other ontological arguments I reserve judgment at the present for the criticism does not necessarily extend to them. The purpose to the criticism is to show the weakness of the argument. This will pave the way for an ontological argument that depends on Being-as-Being rather than a conception of Being

An error in Anselm's ontological argument is that the conclusion is necessary. However, there is an alternative. It is that the concept 'the greatest possible being we can conceive' is not well formed. I do not say it is ill formed. What is the difference between 'ill formed' and 'not well formed'? The former means what it says. The latter allows that the concept may be modified to become well formed. Today, after the nineteenth and twentieth century history of logical and semantic paradoxes we have become trained to see such errors. Anselm--and more recent others not acquainted with the idea of well formation--would likely have lacked the sensitivity to see the error in Anselm's proof

I may later look at other ontological arguments. Meanwhile, it is relevant to note that my arguments will not depend on the formation of concepts. It is more accurate to say that there will be concepts but we will be careful to make sure that our concepts correspond to the real--and therefore must be well formed