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What if God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore nothing can be conceived to be greater? Or what if everything else can be conceived to exist, but not God? If this understanding of God is true, He must exist not just hypothetically, but in reality.[1] Herein lies the great philosophical puzzle of St. Anselm.

The ontological argument for God’s existence has kept philosophers on their toes for the better part of 900 years. The argument is a favorite when it comes to philosophical parodies. Introductory philosophy professors will more than likely receive a few laughs when stating St. Anselm’s argument to the class for the first time.[2] Richard Dawkins wrote, “But goes the argument, a being that doesn’t exist in the real world is, by that very fact, less than perfect. Therefore we have a contradiction and God exists!…Nur Nurny Nur Nur. All atheists are fools.”[3]

At the same, while freshmen philosophy students may laugh at it, few will be able to state why they laugh.[4] Moreover, none of the critics have provided a sufficient and conclusive refutation.[5] Non-theist philosopher, Graham Oppy stated, “It is a controversial question whether there are any successful general objections to ontological arguments.”[6] This means that there is a possibility that ontological arguments are on a firmer footing than one might first imagine.[7]

Modern Day Arguments

Modal versions of the ontological argument are those which concern the possibility or necessity[8] of God’s existence, or perhaps His attributes. This corresponds to the possibility and necessity of God’s existence in possible worlds. Thus if it is possible that God exists in a minimum of one possible world, then He exists necessarily in all possible worlds.[9]

For example, a married bachelor is logically impossible and cannot exist in any possible world. Some may perhaps argue that if unicorns are possible in some possible world, then why wouldn’t they exist in all possible worlds? The reason unicorns would not exist in all possible worlds if they existed in some possible world is directly tied to the fact that they are contingent beings and not a necessary being. Numbers, geometrical shapes and absolute truths—(All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.)—are logically coherent and necessary in all possible worlds. Therefore, they can’t fail—given their nature—to exist in any possible world and are necessary to all possible worlds. Alvin Plantinga states, “What this argument shows is that if it is even possible that God, so conceived, exists, then it is true that [H]e does, and, indeed, necessarily true that he does.”[10]

Conclusion

The ontological argument doesn’t appear to be going away and continues to radiate with contemporary philosophers. What Robert Maydole, Alvin Plantinga, and others have set out to do is to show that there are at least some ontological arguments that are sound and don’t beg the question.[11] In conclusion, the ontological argument will convince some as it once did with Bertrand Russell, that “something else is needed.”[12]

 

Footnotes

[1] Anselm, Proslogion, chs. 2-5; Guanilo, On Behalf of the Fool; Anselm, Response to Guanilo, Assessed March 4, 2014, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.asp http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-gaunilo.asp

[2] Thomas W. Cathca, “The Ontological Argument Works! (Sort of)”, Theology Today 61 (2004): 213-6, assessed March 2, 2014, http://ttj.sagepub.com.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/content/61/2/213.full.pdf+html.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2006), 104.

[4] Catcha.

[5] Alvin Plantinga, “Ontological Argument,” Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed., William Lane Craig (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 180.

[6] Graham Oppy, “Ontological Arguments,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), ed., Edward N. Zalta, assessed March 2, 2014, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/ontological-arguments/.

[7] Robert E. Maydole, “The Ontological Argument,” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, eds., William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Co, 2012), 553.

[8] Necessity-meaning there is no other possibility.

[9] Oppy, 4.3.

[10] Plantinga, 182.

[11] Maydole, 586.

[12] Ibid.

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