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strengths and weaknesses of the ontological argument

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Introduction

Examine the strengths and weaknesses of the classical ontological argument. The ontological argument is an a priori argument for the existence of God, first put forward by St Anselm of Canterbury in 1078 (notably, the then Archbishop of Canterbury- a devout believer) . Anselm attempted to prove, by use of reductio ad absurdum, that God's existence is logically necessary, using the definition of the term 'God' itself. Anselm took the word 'God' as effective shorthand for "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". Anselm said that existence in re (in reality) is greater than existence in intellectu (in the mind). He then went on to argue that, if God merely existed in intellectu, then it would be possible for a greater being to be conceived- this would be a logical impossibility, as God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Therefore, God must possess all perfections, and existence being a perfection, God must therefore exist in re, as well as in the mind. Gaunilo responded to Anselm's argument, using reductio ad absurdum to claim that if the logic of the argument were applied to anything other than God, its conclusion would be ridiculous. ...read more.

Middle

Kant responded to Descartes' version of the argument, claiming that existence is not a predicate, as Descartes seems to see it. Kant said that when we say that X exists, this does not tell us anything about X- existence of something does not add to our understanding of that thing- we must establish its existence before we are able to say what it is like, and not the other way around. Kant draws on Descartes' claim that denying the existence of God is like denying that a triangle must have three sides: he agreed that if a triangle exists then it must have three sides, but argued that we cannot ascribe existence a priori to either the triangle, or to God- God's existence is therefore separate from His existence, with no real consequence. Kant believed that existence cannot be proved de dicto in the way that Anselm's and Descartes' arguments try to prove it, and maintained that empirical evidence is our only means of drawing any reliable conclusions about the universe. Both Anselm and Descartes assumed that we, as humans, are able to understand and define God using everyday language- a huge point of contention for believers. ...read more.

Conclusion

Hume also raised this issue against the argument, claiming that it is impossible to define something into being. In conclusion, the ontological argument can be viewed as a logically sound, deductive argument, which if one accepts the premises, proves God as a logical necessity; the argument also does not rely on empirical evidence, which can often be unreliable. Gaunilo's criticism of Anselm's argument has a major flaw, undermining its validity, and Anselm also attempts to address the position of the atheist, whilst Descartes uses a starting premise likely to be accepted even by the atheist. But, the argument views existence as a predicate- Kant disputes this, claiming that existence should be seen as something separate from definition, as the existence of an entity does not further our understanding of that entity. The argument also assumes that we God is understandable and definable in human language, and Aquinas disagreed with this idea, saying that Anselm's definition of God cannot be shared by everyone. Furthermore, both Kant and Aquinas have argued that God can only be proved by empirical evidence, and have criticised the argument's jump from definition to reality. Ultimately, the ontological argument may be a valid argument to a believer, but it is unlikely ever to convince an atheist of God's existence. ...read more.

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