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Is there a convincing version of the ontological argument?
The term 'the ontological argument' refers to a broad family of arguments for the existence of God, all of which share the characteristic of arguing from conceptual or a priori grounds to God's existence. A general ontological argument will inevitably suggest, in some fashion, that when we consider fully the correct idea or concept of God, and what this concept entails, the actual existence of this God is seen to be undeniable. This style of argument for God's existence is traditionally considered to have begun with Anselm of Canterbury, and we should begin our consideration of the argument there, detailing briefly the development of the argument, before moving on to consider the increasingly sophisticated, if ultimately no more successful, ontological arguments of Descartes, and more recently of Plantinga. I intend to show, and thus conclude, that whilst the ontological argument has, over time, been refined and reworked and at times might have appeared troubling to the atheist, it remains even in its strongest forms both intuitively unconvincing and demonstrably false. We might consider that the argument put forward by Anselm was the earliest complete form of the ontological argument. Anselm began by proposing a definition of God as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived', and that we all, even the 'fool' atheist, have such an idea of God in our minds. Anselm's argument from this point runs thus: (1) I can conceive of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. (2) This being exists thus only in my mind. (3) But, an equivalent being that also exists in reality would be greater than the original being. (4) Thus I cannot coherently maintain that such a being exists only in my mind.
The argument suggests that it is incoherent to concede that one can conceive of such a being whilst not conceding that such a being must exist in reality, or else not be 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'. Anselm is thus either positing that existence in reality is a perfection, which must thus be attributed to a being that is defined as such, or that it is possible to conceive of something which is greater than the equivalent something which exists only in the mind, suggesting that anything defined as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived' is by definition not something that can exist only in the mind. The intuitive response to such an argument is typified by that of Aquinas, who suggests simply that, whilst we may give any meaning we like to the word 'God', this meaning simply cannot affect the actual existence of the thing to which the word 'God' refers. It is also arguable that there is a distinction to be made between the statements 'I can understand the constituent words of the phrase 'a being than which nothing greater can be conceived' and 'I can conceive of, as a mental object possessive of some existence, a being than which nothing greater can be conceived', but Anselm appears to equate from one to the other without recognising this. The most damaging criticism it is possible to level at Anselm's ontology, however, is one more general than this. If it were so that the fool conceives of 'a not-really existing being than which nothing
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