This is an extract of our Ontological Argument document, which we sell as part of our Metaphysics Notes collection written by the top tier of Cambridge students.
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Can we see that God exists just by reflecting on the meaning of the word 'God'?
In this essay I will argue that we cannot see that God exists just by reflecting on the meaning of the word 'God'. I will focus my argument on the fact that existence is not a predicate, and then, as such, that ascribing the characteristic of existence to the concept of God does not grant him necessary existence. Ontological arguments try to determine God's existence by means of a priori reasoning, that is reasoning independent of the state of the external world. Since I can conceive of a being than which no greater could be conceived, it follows that such a being must exist, because otherwise I could think of a greater one, who did. But we might as well look at the argument a different way. Descartes is saying that, for God to be perfect, he would require to be existent. If God would require to be existent in order to be perfect, then surely that would undermine the whole argument that He was the greatest thing I could conceive, because I could just as easily conceive of one who didn't require any such thing. The fact that he required anything at all would be an imperfection. Douglas Gasking draws the amusing observation that 'the most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence' and so concludes that a creator who could overcome this handicap would be a being greater than one who could not. Obviously this isn't intended to be a proof of God's non-existence (even if God did create the world whilst not existing, it doesn't follow that he couldn't have done so whilst existing) but it at least provides a good demonstration of the bizarre kind of reasoning on offer here. The proponent of the ontological argument takes existence to be a necessary part of our concept of a god. As such, it makes no sense to say god does not exist, any more than saying that an existent thing is non-existent. But this is surely a matter of phrasing, and we could just as easily say that "there is no god/existent deity". Descartes is saying that God is necessarily existent in the same way that a triangle is necessarily three-sided. Just as if a shape doesn't have three sides it can't be a triangle, if a being isn't real then it can't be God. But this doesn't really tell us anything about whether or not we have a God (or a triangle) in the first place. Saying that triangles come with three sides tells you neither that there is such a thing as a triangle nor that there is anything that is three-sided. You could just as well do without either. Suppose I have a concept of a monster in my mind, which I'm calling the monkey-toad. For something to be a monkey-toad, I require that it is half monkey and half toad. Anything that is only monkey, I will still define as a monkey, and anything that is only toad, I will still define as a toad. Nothing that is not precisely half of each can amount to my conception of a monkey-toad. So what have I achieved with this? I have defined my monkey-toad, and I have set bounds to my definition. I haven't actually said anything about whether or not there must now be such a thing, merely because I defined what one would be. As Hume famously said, "you can't define something into existence". It should be noted that if Hume is right on this, then the entire ontological argument falls down, as this is precisely what it tries to do. But perhaps my monkey-toad argument is missing the point. There are clearly differences between the things I ascribe to my imaginary monster and those that the ontological
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