How The Ontological Argument Proves the Existence of God

sfThe ontological argument for the existence of God takes considerable reflection before it begins to make sense. First formulated by St. Anselm of Cantebury, it is an argument that proves, from reason, that God must exist. You can see a summary of the argument here:http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#13

Many skeptics believe the argument is flawed because they think the logic underlying it can be applied to a host of other areas. The first, and perhaps most famous challenge to St. Anselm’s original formulation, contrived of a “perfect island” to “prove” that the ontological argument proves too much. In a similar vein, a skeptic asked me whether Anselm’s ontological argument could work in reverse – to prove the nonexistence of God. As many apologists know,

The writer referenced an atheist’s blog post which set forth the following syllogism, claiming that it provided proof that God does not exist.
1. God exists if and only if God is the maximally greatest being.
2. If God is all-just, then God is not omni-benevolent.
3. If God is not omni-benevolent, then God is not the maximally greatest being.
4. If God is not the maximally greatest being, then God does not exist.
5. God is all-just
6. Therefore, God does not exist

This argument, with its apparent logical force, is on first glance a bit troubling; after all, if the logic is sound, God isn’t. But as is often the case with atheists’ claims, this argument suffers from premises that are false, and misleading.

When Anselm formulated what became known as the “ontological argument,” he relied on a an interesting premise that may seem false on first glance. He said that the mind cannot conceive of a thing unless that thing actually exists; the thing we conceive, in order to be conceivable, must conform to something in reality. To put it another way, it is not possible to conceive of something that is not itself a real thing.

As mentioned above, critics challenged Anselm by coming up with the analogy of the “perfect island” and arguing that one could easily imagine an island that was perfect, even though no such actual island existed. These critics missed the point of what Anselm was doing. He was exploring the contours of reason, in a sense. He recognized that the human mind came preloaded with this capacity and he was examining its limits. The problem with the “perfect island” analogy is that what Anselm was talking about was not definitions but instead conceptions. What is the conception of an “island”? Well, it’s an area of land surrounded on all sides by water. Anytime we see this, we recognize it’s an island. Perfection is simply not an attribute of an island, so positing a “perfect” island doesn’t advance the analysis; it’s just playing with words.

A modern challenger might say that he can envision a leprechaun or a unicorn, and these don’t exist. But these are simply variations on a things that do exist: a little biped/humanoid with magical powers or a horse with a horn. We are not imagining things that are “unreal,” but simply combining things that do exist, and there is nothing in the conception of “leprechaun” or “unicorn” that requires existence. Perhaps such beings once lived or will live in the future; perhaps they live only in the imagination.

But moving to the conception of God, what do we find? Infinite attributes. That is what we mean when our minds try to approximate this concept. Consequently, the conception “God” is the only one for which Anselm’s definition applies: the being a greater than which cannot be conceived. If we are conceiving of a being with any limitations, then we are simply not yet thinking about God, but about something lesser. Since “necessary existence” is a feature that is greater than contingent or possible existence, the true conception of God is of a being that must necessarily exist.

So, Anselm concludes, if we can conceive of God – and we can – he must necessarily exist, because we are not capable of conceiving of things that do not exist, and God’s attributes must include necessary existence.

But can this proof be reversed on itself to prove the opposite? Let’s see where the challenger’s argument goes wrong:

1. This seems a bit tortured, but the point is correct. To qualify as “God,” the being under
consideration must be maximally greatest.

2. This is where the argument begins to break down. Justice and benevolence are not things or qualities of things. It isn’t like saying that if God is “all red” then he is not “all blue.” Justice exists only as a descriptor of the quality of a relationship. The same is true of benevolence. These qualities only make sense to the extent that they relate to the way one human being treats another. We wound’t admire a lion for its sense of justice, or a whale for its benevolence toward fellow creatures. So, God is not “all just.” He is “perfectly” just. He does the right thing with regard to each individual. God is not “all” benevolent. His acts of kindness toward us are perfectly balanced. Consequently, for God there is no conflict between any of these attributes for he correctly applies them in his relationship to us. More on this in a moment.

3. This premise is simply false. The mistake is in the unspoken assumption that “maximally greatest” means having the most of something, as if “benevolence” was a thing that could be collected and weighed. When understood as a function of relationship, we can see that “omni benevolence” would not be a “maximal” attribute but would be a limiting one. If I confront a rapist who is attacking a defenseless old person, the quality of “omni benevolence” would presumably prevent me from stopping him, as I would be required to do some charitable act toward him. But doing so would simultaneously cause harm to the victim, so I would be left with, not a maximal greatness, but a defect. God embodies perfect benevolence. He bestows it were it belongs, and metes out justice where that is appropriate, always achieving a balance that cannot be improved upon.

4. This premise is true. To be God, as Anselm notes, maximal greatness is necessary. The flaw is in failing to grasp what “greatness” actually means, and in failing to see that the supposed “greatness” of “omni benevolence” is actually a limitation.

5. This is true, though I would state it as “perfectly just.” I’ll accept “all just” in the sense that there is no part of God, and no attribute of God, that is unjust. In fact, the whole notion of just – how one person treats another – is merely a reflection of God’s perfect nature.

6. The conclusion is doomed, for the reasons set forth above.

Posted by Al Serrato

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Email

Tags: , , ,

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. Harvey Meale says:


    I wanted to bring up a few points in regard to your take on the ontological argument.

    You state in (2) that justice and benevolence aren’t qualities of things. Immediately, this looked a bit odd to me so I quickly sought for a definition of benevolence. Here’s what I received when typing “define: benevolence” into Google.

    >”the quality of being well meaning; kindness”

    This is clearly a major contradiction to your statement about benevolence not being a quality something can possess. I’d suggest this may need to be revised or in the very least justified.

    Justice and benevolence aren’t both descriptors of the quality of a relationship. Justice, sure. Story checks out. But benevolence isn’t the same thing and most certainly is a characteristic we can assign to a particular thing.

    I agree that perfect benevolence or omni-anything is hard to grasp because the very notion of “perfection” itself exists nowhere in nature. But I’m not the one making claims about something that is “perfect” in multiple ways and suggesting I know the nature in which this being operates.

    You mention god’s acts of kindness to us are perfectly balanced. I would love to hear about your explanation for the display of a perfect balancing act attributed to the gratuitous suffering that happened during the holocaust.

    Can you stand there as a god fearing Christian and suggest that there was a perfect divine balance here? If you do, would you be so kind as to explain how a “perfectly just” being made use of their benevolence here?

    In regard to (3), I’m wondering why you’d be required to do a charitable act toward the rapist if your religion condemns it. But I can see why this notion of omni-benevolence may not apply here. In that case, god cannot be “perfectly just” if he refuses to intervene.

    “God embodies perfect benevolence. He bestows it were it belongs, and metes out justice where that is appropriate, always achieving a balance that cannot be improved upon.”

    Explain, using either the case of the rapist or one of the atrocities from the holocaust, just how he has bestowed or meted out justice here. Or better yet, explain how you are certain his allotment of justice couldn’t have been ever so slightly improved upon.

    I could go on, but I think you ought now to have enough on your plate. Please, convince me.

    • Al says:

      Thanks for weighing in. I would start by saying that benevolence relates to the actions of a human being; it isn’t the quality of a thing. A car is not benevolent, nor is a rock. Only moral actors can make choices which can be described as benevolent. And I didn’t mean to suggest that “I know the nature in which this being operates.” That would be amazingly arrogant of me; I was simply offering some reflections on my understanding of the ontological argument. Now to your main point – asking me to convince you that evil on earth is a reflection of God’s benevolence. I can’t do that because I didn’t set out to do that in my original piece. When I talk about meting out justice or acting with mercy I’m talking about the after life, not life on Earth. Yes, there is evil in this world, and yes there are hardships. Any thinking person can see that. The Christian explanation for this is that we are living in a fallen world, in which beings with free will – like the rapist or the Nazi – can act to hurt others. God allows this to occur, because he can’t, logically, both prevent it while allowing free will to exist. What he does as a response to these actions, however, are a different matter. This doesn’t provide much comfort to those suffering now, although it provides more comfort than the naturalistic explanation.

Leave a Reply