Ontological argument

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Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God's existence.

An ontological argument is a philosophical argument, made from an ontological basis, that is advanced in support of the existence of God. Such arguments tend to refer to the state of being or existing. More specifically, ontological arguments are commonly conceived a priori in regard to the organization of the universe, whereby, if such organizational structure is true, God must exist.

The first ontological argument in Western Christian tradition was proposed by Saint Anselm of Canterbury in his 1078 work, Proslogion, in which he defines God as "a being than which no greater can be conceived," and argues that such a being must exist in the mind, even in that of the person who denies the existence of God. From this, he suggests that if the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality, because if it existed only in the mind, then an even greater being must be possible—one who exists both in mind and in reality. Therefore, this greatest possible being must exist in reality. Similarly, in the East, Avicenna's Proof of the Truthful argued, albeit for very different reasons, that there must be a "necessary existent".


  • God thus includes the world; he is, in fact, the totality of world parts, which are indifferently causes and effects. Now AR [absolute perfection in some respects, relative perfection in all others] is equally far from either of these doctrines; thanks to its two-aspect view of God, it is able consistently to embrace all that is positive in either deism or pandeism. AR means that God is, in one aspect of himself, the integral totality of all ordinary causes and effects, but that in another aspect, his essence (which is A), he is conceivable in abstraction from any one or any group of particular, contingent beings (though not from the requirement and the power always to provide himself with some particulars or other, sufficient to constitute in their integrated totality the R aspect of himself at the given moment).
  • There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect. If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument.
  • I departed from parental paths significantly and abruptly one Sunday morning when, sitting in the family pew of the Hyde Park United Church and idly twisting a loose button on the cushion beside me, I said to myself, "I do not believe in God." Some months previously... when our minister fell back on St. Anselm's ontological argument to prove the existence of God, he entirely failed to convince me. Quite the contrary, the argument struck me as an abuse of language. Though I duly submitted to the ritual of confirmation... Horton's unconvincing argument had sown doubt in my mind; and for that reason I can assign, on that morning, listening to his more emotional, hortatory rhetoric... the balance tipped, committing me to a secret, personal rejection of the Christian piety my parents held dear.
  • St. Anselm argued that since we can imagine a perfect being, he must exist—because he would not be perfect without the added perfection of existence. This so-called ontological argument was more or less promptly attacked on two grounds: (1) Can we imagine a completely perfect being? (2) Is it obvious that perfection is augmented by existence? To the modern ear such pious arguments seem to be about words and definitions rather than about external reality.
All page numbers are from the October 1980 mass market paperback edition published by Ballantine Books ISBN 0-345-33689-5 (28th printing), Chapter 8, “Norman Bloom, Messenger of God” (p. 152)
  • I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: "Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound!"

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