Ontological argument

In Mormon thought, God is a self-existing being. Joseph Smith said: 

We say that God Himself is a self-existing being. Who told you so? It is correct enough; but how did it get into your heads? 1

Richard Swinburne defines x as existing of ontological necessity if: 

there is not at any time any cause, either active or permissive, of its everlasting existence 2

According to Richard Swinburne’s definition, God as taught in Mormonism is ontologically necessary. However is God “logically necessary”? The Ontological argument aims to prove God’s existence as being logically necessary without the need for verification from experience. There have been numerous forms of the argument as explored below:

Forms of the argument

The argument has a long history, with some of the main proponents noted below. 

1. Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm is credited with forming the first ontological argument in the 11th century as outlined below: 

1. God by definition is that which no greater thing can be conceived

2. We can conceive of God (e.g. the concept of God is coherent) in the mind

3. It is greater to exist in the mind and reality, than to exist only in the mind 

4. Therefore God exists in the mind and reality

2. Rene Descartes

Descartes in the 17th century offered a simpler example of the argument as follows:​

P1. I have the idea of God – a supremely perfect being

P2. A supremely perfect being does not lack any perfection

P3. Existence is a perfection

C. Therefore God exists

This version of the argument introduced the concept of existence being a perfection which has been widely objected to. 

3. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 

Leibniz built on Descartes’ argument in the 18th century to tighten up the idea of existence being a perfection: 

1. God is a being having all perfections. (Definition)

2. A perfection is a simple and absolute property. (Definition)

3. Existence is a perfection.

4. If existence is part of the essence of a thing, then it is a necessary being.

5. If it is possible for a necessary being to exist, then a necessary being does exist.

6. It is possible for a being to have all perfections.

7. Therefore, a necessary being (God) does exist. 3

Objections 

1. Gaunilo of Marmoutiers

Gaunilo was a monk and contemporary of Anselm who criticised the ontological argument. He contended that the reasoning used by Anselm was absurd because it could also prove the existence of a perfect island of which no greater island can be conceived. The counter argument would take the following form:

1. The perfect island by definition is that which no greater island can be conceived

2. We can conceive of this island in the mind

3. It is greater to exist in the mind and reality, than to exist only in the mind 

4. Therefore the perfect island exists in the mind and reality

Gaunilo’s objection is considered to be unsuccessful and was responded to by Anselm himself. The criticism being that the ontological argument is only applicable to something in which no greater can be conceived. The properties of an island can be surpassed by something which is not an island. 

2. David Hume

Hume argued that analytical statements (such as the ontological argument) can only describe ideas, not what exists in reality.

“I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no Being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.” 4

3. Immanuel Kant

Kant’s critique of the argument relates to the claim that existence is a predicate which can be a perfected. Kant argued that existence is not a predicate and therefore the ontological argument fails. A predicate is a property that something can have or not have, but we cannot have existence in the same way we can have for example, blue eyes.  

Contemporary arguments

Since the critiques mentioned above, the ontological argument still remains contested.

1. Norman Malcolm

Malcolm accepted Kant’s critique that existence is not a predicate or perfection but this does not refute all versions of the argument including Anselm’s version. Malcolm builds on Anselm’s argument claiming that necessary existence is a perfection:

1. Either God exists or does not exist.

2. God cannot come in or out of existence

3. If God exists, he cannot cease to exist.

4. Therefore, if God exists, his existence is necessary.

5. Therefore, if God does not exist, his existence is impossible.

6. Therefore, God’s existence is either necessary or impossible.

7. God’s existence is only impossible if the concept of God is self-contradictory.

8. The concept of God is not self-contradictory.

9. Therefore, God’s existence is not impossible.

10. Therefore God exists necessarily.

The objection to this argument is that all we can conclude is that if God exists, he exists necessarily, we have still not concluded that God does in fact exist.

2. Alvin Plantinga

Plantinga formulates a modal version of the argument along the following lines:

P1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists

P2. Therefore a maximally great being exists in some possible world

P3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world

P4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world

C. Therefore a maximally great being exists in the actual world

However Blake Ostler argues that God does not exist in every possible world:

…the notion that God exists of logical necessity in the sense that God exists in every possible world is false. God (as conceived in the classical tradition…) does not exist in those possible worlds where there are vast amounts of unjustified evils 5

We are also able to construct a counter modal argument:

P1. It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist

P2. Therefore a maximally great being does not exist in some possible world

P3. If a maximally great being does not exist in some possible world, then it does not exist in every possible world

P4. If a maximally great being does not exist in every possible world, then it may not exist in the actual world

C. Therefore a maximally great being may not exist in the actual world

  1.  Joseph Smith, lds.org. 1844. King Follett Sermon. [ONLINE] Available at:https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/05/the-king-follett-sermon?lang=eng. [Accessed 10 August 2016].[]
  2. Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994[]
  3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2016. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. [ONLINE] Available at:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/leibniz/. [Accessed 14 June 2016].[]
  4. Dialogues concerning natural religion: By David Hume, Esq;. Hume, David, 1711-1776[]
  5.  Blake Ostler. 2016. Moral Obligation and Mormonism A Response to Francis Beckwith. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/publications/reviews-of-the-new-mormon-challenge/moral-obligation-and-mormonism-a-response-to-francis-beckwith. [Accessed 11 August 2016].[]