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The Religious Significance of the Ontological Argument

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Philip E. Devine
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, North Adams State College


It seems clear that the ontological argument can no longer be dismissed as a silly fallacy. The dogma of the impossibility of necessary existence is seriously threatened by the case of necessary existential truths in mathematics, and as for the claim that the ontological argument must beg the question, since by mentioning God in the premise his existence is presupposed, it is undermined by the fact that we often refer to things—Hamlet for instance— we do not for a moment think exist. The doctrine that existence is not a property (‘exists’ is not a predicate), insofar as it does not reduce to one of the foregoing points, is very murky, for the sense in which ‘red’ is a predicate and ‘exists’ is not has never been clearly defined. Moreover, the way many believers hold that ‘God exists’ is immune to empirical refutation strongly suggests that we are dealing here with an analytic statement, which is just what the ontological argument should be expected to produce. It seems in order, then, to conduct theological discussion under the supposition that the argument is in fact sound.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1975

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Page 97 note 1 Strictly speaking, of course, ontological arguments are not one but many. I will work with the following definition of ‘ontological argument’: ‘An argument to show that something of a certain sort exists is to be called “ontological” when the existential conclusion is purportedly derived solely from premisses concerning what sort of thing it is claimed, in the conclusion, to exist.’ (Ross, James F., Philosophical Theology, (New York, 1967,) p. 141, n.1.Google Scholar)

Page 97 note 2 Malcolm, Norman, ‘Anselm's Ontological Arguments’, The Many–faced Argument, ed. Hick, John and McGill, Arthur (New York, 1967), p. 320.Google Scholar

Page 98 note 1 Malcolm, Norman, ‘Anselm's Ontological Arguments’ The Many-faced Argument, ed. Hick, John and McGill, Arthur (New York, 1967), p. 318.Google Scholar

Page 98 note 2 Hartshorne, Charles, ‘What the Ontological Argument Does Not Do’, Review of Metaphysics, XVII (19631964). P. 608.Google Scholar

Page 98 note 3 The case of J. N. Findlay is instructive. After showing to his own satisfaction that God not only does not but cannot exist, he then urges that we may still worship him. See his ‘Can God's Existence Be Disproved?’ The Ontological Argument, ed. Plantinga, Alvin (Garden City, New York, 1965), csp. pp. 120–1.Google Scholar See also New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Flew, Antony and Maclntyre, Alasdair (New York, 1964), Ch. IV. # D .Google Scholar

Page 98 note 4 I do not equate belief in God with trust in God and the like. The demons who, according to the Epistle of James (2: 19), ‘believe and tremble’ believe in God in my sense. Damnation—since it involves a recognition that one has lost God—is part of the same game as salvation.

Page 99 note 1 I Alston, William, ‘The Ontological Argument Revisited’, in Plantinga, Alvin (ed.), The Ontological Argument (Garden City, New York, 1965).Google Scholar

Page 101 note 1 I use the expression ‘religious system’ to mean ‘the system of beliefs belonging to a religion which contains beliefs (as opposed to one consisting solely of practices)’.

Page 101 note 2 Terms such as ‘kosher’, ‘Pope’, and the like have their primary meaning in the context of such systems of practices, so that (when used in a primary way) ‘this food is not kosher’ implies ‘this food is not to be eaten’. Secondary, estranged uses of the words also exist, of course, but they are parasitic on the primary ones.

Page 102 note 1 Cf. Rees, D. A., ‘The Ethics of Divine Commands’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, n.s., LVII (19561957), esp. p. 86.Google Scholar

Page 105 note 1 Geach, Peter, God and the Soul (London, 1969), P. 128.Google Scholar

Page 107 note 1 Phillips, D. Z., ‘Does It Pay to Be Good?’ in Thomson, Judith J. and Dworkin, Gerald (eds.), Ethics (New York, 1968), should be read in this connection.Google Scholar

Page 108 note 1 It is noteworthy that at least one defender of the ontological argument comes to the conclusion that what the argument proves exists is not the God of Abraham, but another being existing alongside him, and in a different way. (Samuelson, Norbert, ‘On Proving God's Existence’, Judaism, 16 [1967], p. 36.)Google Scholar

Page 109 note 1 I am conscious of a certain difficulty here. The question ‘Why is there anything at all?’ is not on the same plane as the question why lightening and thunder are conjoined in the way they are. Yet it is not of the same sort as ‘What must I do in order to be saved?’ either. It is either (a) a confusion of the sorts of question; or (b) an attempt to transcend them at a higher level. If the latter disjunct makes sense (which is doubtful), we still should expect genuine practical consequences from our answer.

Page 110 note 1 The expression, ‘There's no such thing’, as in ‘There's no such thing as ghosts’, seems particularly well suited to carry the repudiating forces here discussed.

Page 110 note 2 Cf. Prudhon's ‘Property is theft’, which makes no sense as a remark internal to the system of property, but it is to be understood as a repudiation of this institution. (John R. Searle. ‘How to Derive “Ought” from “Is”’ in Foot, Phillipa [ed.], Theories of Ethics [New York, 1967], p. 113, n. 1.Google Scholar)

Page 111 note 1 Refusal of worship is to be distinguished from rebellion, which acknowledges a god's power even while defying him, and from negligence, which is the result of laxity or sloth rather than defiance or repudiation.

Page 114 note 1 ‘Faith, Scepticism and Religious Understanding’, Religion and Understanding, ed. Phillips, D. Z. (Oxford, 1967), P. 78.Google Scholar

Page 114 note 2 ‘Your God is my devil’ is a common theme in disputes among theists. Consider, e.g., Channing's complaint that orthodox believers ‘take from us our Father in heaven and substitute for him a being whom we cannot love and ought not to love if we could’. (‘Unitarian Christianity’, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism [Boston, 1961], p. 72.)Google Scholar

Page 115 note 1 Of course, cases where a man's belief–state is ambiguous are fairly common. Any case where statement is inhibited by considerations of discretion or decorum, and where action is governed by hedging, wi11 provide an example. But belief in God is still peculiar, since ‘I believe in God’ tends to take on a ceremonial or ritual status, and the actions characteristic of belief pervade a believer's whole Life, so that the sources of ambiguity are multiplied.

(Ambiguity of belief is to be distinguished from simple lack of certainty in one's belief, which makes words like ‘probably’ appropriate. Cf. Wittgenstein's remark: ‘You don't get in religious controversies, the form of controversy where one person is sure of the thing, and the other says: “Well, possibly”.’ [Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Lectures and Conversations, ed. Barrett, Cyril (Berkeley, 1967), P. 56.Google Scholar])

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