The Ontological Argument: From St. Anselm to Kant
Mentor:Andrew Howat, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, California State University Fullerton
The Ontological Argument purports to demonstrate that God exists by definition. That is, it follows from the very definition of God as a perfect being that God must actually exist, since a being that did not actually exist would not be perfect. My thesis in this essay is that the ontological argument fails because we cannot conclude the existence of any entity solely on the basis of a definition. I support my thesis by first rejecting the two most famous criticisms of the argument. Gaunilo claims that the ontological argument must fail because otherwise the same form of argument could be used to establish the existence of other perfect entities, like a perfect island. Gaunilo, however, fails to realize that God, as defined by St. Anselm, is not a greatest possible object but the greatest conceivable being. With St. Anselm’s definition of God, it is impossible to conceive of God apart from God’s real existence, whereas it is quite possible to conceive of a perfect island without its being actually existent. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, reasons that because the word ‘exists’ is not a predicate, the conclusion ‘God exists’ does not ascribe existence to God. I demonstrate how existence is in fact an indispensable predicate; for one thing, we need the word ‘exists’ to be able to describe things that are non-existent. Finally, I advance a successful objection to the argument – another, separate criticism by Kant which states that existence cannot be inferred from a definition. We cannot define a concept in any way we choose and then conclude that such a concept exists. Hence, having a mere idea of God as a perfect being does not establish the actual existence of God.