The Perfect Existence

The ontological argument

Made famous by St Anselm and Descartes. The argument seeks to prove the existence of God a pirori – that is with out the need to experience God and demonstrate his existence only be the virtue that one can conceive of God.

 In simple terms, Anselm’s argument is as follows:

1.     God is the greatest being that can be conceived

2.     You and I can conceive of a being (i.e. the all powerful, all knowing, all present God)

3.     It is greater to exist then to not exist

4.     Therefore, God must exist.

To unpack these premises, Anselm starts with defining who or what God is. If at any point you can conceive of something better – then the initial thought is not of God.  Secondly, being in existence is better than being something fictional. So if God did not exist, then we could think of a being that is greater than God, but as Anselm says this is impossible, then God exists.

But, if something is perfect, does this mean that it has to exist? Gaunlino says you cannot infer the existence of something by its being perfect. The reply from Anselm is that this argument only works for God, because other than God, northing else has to be perfect by definition. For example a ‘perfect cup of tea’ is not perfect by definition. As demonstrated by the one I am drinking now. As Anselm argues, God MUST be the greatest conceivable being, and he wouldn’t be God if there were other gods more perfect. So to take my tea example, there is a tea that is greater, but that does not stop my tea being a cup of tea.  For Anselm being the greatest conceivable being is an essentially property of God. If its not perfect, it isn’t God. If the tea isn’t perfect, it still exist and is tea as tea is not perfect by definition. 

Hume replies to Anselm, he focuses on the necessity of God’s existence in the arguments. Hume notes that me and your (or cups of tea) exist contingently (so can be true or false) where as God has to exist no matter what. This is reflected in Anselm saying that his argument works only for God, as built in to the premise of the argument is that existence is a necessary part of being the most perfect being.  Hume is not a fan of the argument for necessary existence. He states that are two sorts of knowledge – analytic and synthetic and a priori and a posteriori

A priori = true by definition, we need only to use reasoning and no experience of it, and to deny it would result in a logical condition. It is not logically contradictory to say ‘this tea is not perfect’. In relation to God if he is true by definition – then to contradict his existence would not be possible, however the presence of other religious beliefs and also atheists suggest that we can think of a world where this is no God. Resulting from the idea that we can say God does not exist then Hume is saying that God does not possess existence essentially. Therefore the argument fails as we can think that God does not exist but still have a discussion about God.

(although there are further discussions to be had about this, Hume states that all demonstrable truths are analytic – but there are some Rationalists who argue that there are synthetic a priori – which hear means truths that are true by definition, yet do teach us things about the world also – truths that are demonstrable too, perhaps ‘God exists’ could be one of them)

 In simple terms, Descartes’ argument is as follows:

1.     I have the idea of God

2.     God is the supremely perfect being

3.     Existence is perfection;

4.     Therefore, God must exist

existence is a predicate of a perfection

To illustrate this – an idea of a valley is implied by the idea of a mountain, or the idea of a freshly baked cake is implied by the idea of hot oven. Descartes is not saying therefore that in the idea of mountain contains existence, but a valley cannot exist without the thought of a mountain, in that as Descartes can think of God, the thought is placed there by the existence of God. 

 Kant is the strongest objector to Descartes and holds that things do not ‘have’ existences in the same way they have other properties. He is arguing that Descartes has made a mistake when by arguing that God exists is an analytic truth, for Kant to say something exists is always a synthetic judgment.


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