Refutations: The Ontological Argument (Anselm)

The Ontological Argument, as proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, runs as follows:

  1. By definition, God is the greatest being that can be conceived of.
  2. But if God did not exist in reality, we could imagine a being that had all the other properties of God but that also existed in reality, and this being would be greater than God.
  3. Since God is the greatest being that can be conceived of, this is impossible.
  4. Therefore, God must exist in reality.

Step 1 asks us to imagine the greatest possible being, and call this conception “God”.

Step 2 then asks us to imagine a second being that has all the properties of the first imagined being, but which actually exists. Obviously we are not being asked to assume that God really exists, since this would assume the very conclusion that the argument is trying to reach. Instead, it’s asking us to imagine a being that exists. Then, the argument goes, since actually existing is greater than not actually existing (a claim that itself is dubious, since it relies on an unspecified definition of “great”), the second imagined entity is greater than the first imagined entity.

Step 3 notes that because the first imagined entity was defined as the greatest entity imaginable, we have a contradiction, because we have just concluded that the second imaginary entity is the greatest.

And indeed, we have a contradiction between two imagined definitions of the greatest being. But so what? That has no bearing on what actually exists, it simply shows that it is logically impossible to have two imaginary gods, each of whom is greater than the other. But since contradictions between imagined entities do not imply anything about what actually exists, Step 4 does not follow, and we cannot conclude that God exists. In fact, Step 4 should read:

4. Therefore, God is the greatest being we can imagine existing.

Not a particularly exciting conclusion!

We might also ask if it makes sense to distinguish between the two beings described in the argument: surely when we conceive of anything we are, by definition, imagining it to exist? For instance, when I conceive of a unicorn, I’m essentially imagining what it would be like if a unicorn existed. It therefore makes absolutely no sense to ask me to imagine a second unicorn, but to imagine that this second unicorn actually exists. That’s what I was already doing with the first unicorn.

And if there is no difference between imagining something, and imagining something to exist, then the contradiction in Step 2 of Anselm’s argument disappears. Here is the rather sad state his argument is reduced to:

  1. By definition, God is the greatest being that can be conceived of.
  2. To conceive of something is identical to imagining that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God is the greatest being we can imagine existing.

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