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The Ontological Argument?


Description and analysis of St. Anslem's Ontological Argument. Also includes a different rendering of the argument.

What is the "Ontological argument" and why is it wrong?

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The Ontological argument was first written by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th C. and attempts to prove the existence of God by reason alone.

  1. God is perfect.
  2. Existence is a positive property, therefore it will be possessed by a being that is perfect.

==> Therefore God exists.


St. Thomas Aquinas (13th C.) owns the most famous put down of this argument; that of "a miserable tautology".

It fails, because statement one, when written fully, is either

a) If anything is God, then it is perfect.

i.e. if God exists it is perfect and it therefore exists, which proves nothing. Or

b) There is a God who is perfect

i.e. assuming God's existence at the start.


Kant, in the 18th C. drew fault with statement two. He claimed that existence is not a 'predicate'. i.e. it does not designate a property. This means that a being can hold all positive properties (i.e. be perfect) and not exist and therefore the argument falls apart.



My personal rendering of the Ontological Argument goes as follows:

  1. God, by definition, is the greatest being.
  2. Humans exist
  3. For God to be greater, more powerful etc. than ordinary human beings, in all reasonableness, He 0must exist.

==> God exists.


Once again this argument is flawed by statement one, because if

a) it should be read as "God, by definition, is the greatest being THAT EXISTS." then God is either the greatest human being or some higher being, we cannot tell which. Or if

b) statement one really means "God, by definition, is the greatest being THAT WE CAN IMAGINE." (as meant by St. Anselm) then we are only saying that if there is a God, it must exist, which is simply the tautology repeated.


For very good and comprehensive notes on the major arguments surrounding the existence of God see Don Mannison's Notes on the Existence of God. These notes also contain the argument as originally formulated by St. Anselm in the Proslogium.


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