May 27, 2015

Can God give an Ontological Argument for God?

Filed under: Arguments for God's Existence — camcintosh @ 11:40 am

RedundancyThe idea of God, by Anselmian definition, implies that God exists, for to exist in reality is greater than to exist in the understanding alone. But if that is so, then what of God’s idea of himself? As a perfect being, God’s idea of himself must be of a perfect being. But if to exist in reality is greater than to exist in the understanding alone, would not the object of God’s thought be greater if it existed in reality than if it existed in God’s understanding alone? If so, then Anselm’s argument might be an argument not just for one perfect being, but an infinite number of perfect beings. Or you might see this as a reductio against Anselm’s argument.

Objection: “That’s trivial; of course God’s idea of himself entails his existence. Have you ever heard of Descartes’ Cogito?” Of course it’s true that God’s thinking of himself entails that God exists. But it’s unclear to me that the worry here can be dismissed so easily. The idea God has of himself is not strictly identical to God. There is a difference between the thinker and the object of thought. So if existing in reality is greater than existing in the understanding alone, then God’s thinking of himself does not merely trivially entail his existence (as the thinker), but the existence of a qualitative duplicate (as the object of God’s thought).

Objection: “There is no difference between existence in God’s mind and existence in reality, so the parallel doesn’t work at God’s level.” Two problems. First, this seem to imply a kind of radical idealism according to which we are all just ideas in the mind of God, which is absurd. Second, surely there is such a difference for God, unless we are willing to say there are no unrealized possibilities even for God; no possibilities God thought of but chose not to actualize. But that seems just as absurd. If there aren’t, is it because God cannot think of any, or maybe because God’s nature compels him to actualize all ‘possibilities’? Either case seems to collapse into a kind of divine necessitarianism: there is one and only one way things could be.

Objection: “The difference between existence in the understanding and existence in reality for us is not the same as it is for God. So the parallel doesn’t work at God’s level.” Again, two problems. First, granted, the difference might not be the same, but so long as there is a difference it seems there is a parallel. Instead of the usual difference between existence in the understanding and existence in reality that is true of us, we can just talk of existence in the understanding* and existence in reality* true of God. Second, while it seems true that existence in our understanding is different than existence in God’s understanding, do we really want to say existence in reality for us is different than existence in reality for God? Here ‘existence in reality’ just means existence simpliciter. Some want to say God’s mode of existence is different from ours, but I don’t. One reason is because every argument for the conclusion “God exists” would then be rendered invalid on account of equivocating on “existence.”

Maybe a closer look at a more detailed version of Anselm’s argument would turn up other premises where the parallel doesn’t work. Has anyone written about this before?



  1. Isn’t one idea of the eternal generation of the Son come from the idea of The Father conceiving of His own Being?

    Comment by VQ — May 27, 2015 @ 11:59 am | Reply

    • Yes, from Augustine onward various psychological analogies/models of the Trinity have been proposed where the Son gets generated in like manner. I’ll have another post up in a few days that talks more about this.

      Comment by camcintosh — May 27, 2015 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

  2. One is reminded of this little comic.

    Comment by Manjuuman — May 27, 2015 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

  3. Maybe God’s idea of Himself is Platonic entity? Some eternal proposition ”God exist”. I believe that it can be escaping route from puzzle that object of though would be greater if it exist in reality and not only in the mind of a thinker.

    I am puzzled with third objection: how difference between different modes of being make unsound some theistic argument? I hope you can elaborate this idea with more details.

    Comment by Milos — May 28, 2015 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  4. I thought that the literature was clear that there *are* two different senses of “exists”: the Russellian sense that countenances quantification of existence within a world, and the Kripkean sense of necessary existence across possible worlds. In other words why it may well be that the first version of Anselm’s argument only commits to the Russellian sense and thus Guanilon’s criticism was warranted, but why that criticism may not apply to Anselm’s second, modal version. Now whether the second version validly concludes just *one* necessary being exists, I have grave doubts.

    Comment by Alan White — May 28, 2015 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

  5. I don’t see why there would be an infinity of perfect beings, or even one divine duplicate.
    If God himself is the object of God’s idea of himself, and God exists in both God’s understanding and in reality, then there is one God and we are done. No need for a duplicate, let alone an infinity.

    Comment by Michael Kremer — May 29, 2015 @ 2:32 am | Reply

    • Yes, this seems right to me, Michael. If the referent of God’s thought of himself is just God himself, then it is just his existence that is entailed, not the object of his thought. I then wondered whether we might get around this if God thinks of himself thinking of himself, so that the referent of the third order thought will refer to the object of the second order thought and not God himself, but it seems that reference here would be transitive and just go back to God himself.


      Comment by camcintosh — May 29, 2015 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  6. There is a neoplatonian strand of some importance in the theistic tradition. In that tradition God is concidered as an immaterial being and the created world consists of ideas in God´s mind. Your comment: “this seem to imply a kind of radical idealism according to which we are all just ideas in the mind of God, which is absurd”,would probably not impress an adherent to such a view.

    Comment by Radovan — May 29, 2015 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  7. I believe others have indeed argued that Anselm’s ontological argument does indeed imply a multitude of perfect beings – see, e.g., B. Leftow (1988), “Anselmian Polytheism”, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 23(2): 77-104, and R. Harwood (1999), “Polytheism, Pantheism and the Ontological Argument”, Religious Studies 35(4):477-491.

    You don’t even need God’s self-reflection for this conclusion – *we* can get this result quite simply. We can go through Anselm’s argument and conclude that God exists – but add a fixed referent to the resultant God, say, God A. Then consider the question again – can we conceive of a perfect entity that ALSO is non-identical with God A? Seems so, and since they’d be greater in reality than in our own minds, they must exist, Call them God B. Iterate ad infinitum.

    (In fact, I think the post’s thought experiment would work better if we thought of God’s conception of a perfect entity *other than* himself)

    One could attempt to get around this by redefining God as unique. So, the definition of God’s nature could change from ‘a being of whom none greater can be imagined’ to ‘a being greater than any other that can be imagined’. But that’s question-begging against the polytheist.

    Alternatively, one could say more generally that uniqueness is a component of greatness, so maximal greatness (perfection) requires maximal uniqueness (being the only perfect one). That’s plausible if God’s perfection is at least in part a relative concept (there’s a sense that one’s greatness as a runner, say, is diluted if millions are just as fast as you are compared with being alone at the top). But if relative status contributes to God’s perfection, then God’s perfection starts to have all sorts of weird implications – e,g,, a maximally perfect God would require humanity to be maximally imperfect. This could be avoided if the relative greatness in perfection only involves uniqueness at the top, not relative differences between entities. This seems arbitrary, though.

    Comment by Owen Schaefer — May 29, 2015 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

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