A2 RE 2002 paper and suggestions for how to answer the questions

  1. a) Clarify the key concepts of the ontological argument for the existence of God. [12]


  • The ontological argument revolves around the definition of the word God. Do we all mean the same thing by the term? Anselm defined God as ‘the greatest being imaginable‘, and it was he who argued that, ‘one cannot think of God as not existing.‘ Indeed he said existence is crucial to the very idea of God, he called him, ‘That than which no greater can be conceived.‘ [2]
  • This kind of argument is called an a priori
    one, this means that it is based on a general principle before the evidence: for example we know the principle of gravity and therefore don’t need to throw an apple in the air to know it will come down. It is also regarded as a
    one: for example it can be inferred by previous experience that if something has happened in enough instances before it can be presumed it will happen again under the same circumstances. [2]
  • So what does this mean for the existence of God? We know that things we can imagine do exist therefore if we can imagine God then he must exist! This aspect of Anselm’s argument is based on the idea that reality is greater than the imagination therefore it is logical to assume that if God is the greatest thing we can imagine he must exist in reality because to exist in reality de re
    is greater than to exist only in the imagination de dicto! [2]
  • Other philosophers like Descartes have gone further to explain that just as a triangle to be a triangle has to have three sides and three angles, so God to be God must exist. [1] The 20th century philosopher Norman Malcolm called God a necessary being, the only being whose existence is not contingent upon others (as we are upon our parents) for existence. [1] And Paul Tillich almost a century earlier spoke of God as the ultimate reality: people could disagree about what he was like but couldn’t disagree that he existed. [1]
  • Alvin Plantinga had a most interesting idea, that this is just one of an infinite series of realities (universes), and that everything must happen somewhere sometime therefore in one of these realities God must exist but if God is the greatest being imaginable he cannot just exist in only that one reality (because if he did he wouldn’t be the greatest imaginable!) therefore he must exist in all! [1]
  • The main problem is that an atheist such as Hume would argue that the argument is worthless since all it does is define terms and we can’t all agree on those. Others have suggested that belief if a God is a mere projection of our desires. In fact the ontological argument does not so much argue for belief in God as what sort of God. [1]


b) To what extent if any is this argument a proof for the existence of God? [8]


  • Proof is of course the key word and if such is demanded for belief in the existence of God then we might as well quit now!
  • What could possibly constitute
    proof? Usually it is observable, repeatable, concrete, and
    externally verifiable. But by the very nature of G
    od w
    e can
    not conduct any experiment by which we could externally verify his existence. Indeed if we could do so would we have a God who is worthy of our worship? Or wouldn’t it actually change God’s nature? Religion although having discrete, externally observable practices is essentially an experiential phenomenon, such that it affects different people in different ways and no two people’s experience is identical. Therefore it cannot be said that this argument offers proof in any usually accepted sense of the word.
  • So is
    probability sufficient? Very little in this world is absolutely provable even as Hume suggests the connection between cause and effect may in reality be unfounded
  • How then, can this argument offer any sort of proof at all? Well the benefit of this particular argument is that since it is not based on experience so long as the premises can be agreed on as logical then the conclusion which follows must equally be logical too, so as such it appeals to the pure theoretician who enjoys the purely cerebral variety of argument. The argument is based in the meaning of the word God and so long as that meaning can be agreed on it would be illogical to claim God’s non-existence. This could make it quite a strong argument.
  • Anselm, who is the philosopher most often connected with the ontological argument, believed first and then concluded that he did not need faith alone: God’s existence could be known by reason too. And that his existence is a necessary part of the idea of God.
  • However, many have felt subsequently that the leap from existence in mind to existence in reality is too great. Gaunilo a contemporary of Anselm‘s scathingly suggested that if this were the case then anything we can imagine can exist including (most famously) the perfect island, (or unicorns, dragons, fairies etc!) and of that triangle of Descartes’ as Norman Malcolm commented, although we can see it in our mind’s eye and it is a logical necessity for it to have three sides and angles, it doesn’t actually have to exist in reality! It is therefore not a factual necessity – so too with God!
  • Immanuel Kant
    disagreed that the term God must necessarily include the need for existence; yes it could include goodness, wisdom etc but having agreed on those qualities doesn’t necessarily mean he has to exist. After all, having money in your pocket is better than a potential winning lottery ticket! However as Norman Malcolm pointed out the situations are not exactly parallel merely analogous!
  • This is playing religious language games! Using here the meaning of the word ‘be’ in two separate ways as if they are interchangeable! God can indeed be ‘wise / good’ but he doesn’t have to ‘be’! (I.e. exist!)
  • So to return to the question – how far is this argument proof? Simply, a non- believer will never be convinced by it but a believer may have their faith strengthened by its rationality. On the other hand the atheist can not destroy faith in God by dismissing this argument. The atheist will probably only be able to agree that if there were a God then he would have those qualities ascribed to him generally but would never be forced to agree that he must therefore exist!


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