Malcolm’s argument (‘Anselm’s ontological arguments’)

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© Michael Lacewing

Malcolm’s ontological argument

This handout follows the one on ‘Historical Ontological Arguments’. You should read that handout first.

Malcolm’s argument (‘Anselm’s ontological arguments’)

Norman Malcolm agrees that the claim that ‘existence is a perfection’ is false. And so Descartes’ ontological argument fails, and so does Anselm’s version as he initially presents it. However, in Ch. 3 of the Proslogium, when Anselm takes himself to be explaining his argument, in fact he provides a different argument, says Malcolm. Anselm says that a being whose non-existence is inconceivable is greater than a being whose non-existence is conceivable. It is not existence that is a perfection, but the logical impossibility of non-existence. Necessary existence is a perfection.

We can show that necessary existence is part of the concept of God. ‘God is the greatest possible being’ is a logically necessary truth – it is part of our concept of God. Therefore, God’s existence cannot depend on anything – because a being that depends on something else for its existence is not as great as a being whose existence is completely independent of anything else. So God cannot depend on anything for coming into existence or staying in existence.

Suppose God exists. Then God cannot cease to exist – nothing can cause God to cease to exist. In that case, God’s non-existence is inconceivable. So if God exists, God exists necessarily. Suppose God doesn’t exist. Then if God came into existence, God’s existence would then be dependent on whatever caused God to exist. This, we said, is impossible. So if God does not exist, then God’s existence is impossible.

  1. Either God exists or God does not exist.

  2. God cannot come into existence or go out of existence.

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

  4. Therefore, if God exists, God’s existence is necessary.

  5. If God does not exist, God cannot come into existence.

  6. Therefore, if God does not exist, God’s existence is impossible.

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

Malcolm now adds two further premises to complete the form of ontological argument he finds in Anselm’s Proslogium, Ch. 3:

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

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

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

  4. Therefore (from (7) and (10)), God exists necessarily.

Malcolm’s reply to Kant Malcolm agrees with Kant that contingent existence is not a property, but argues that Kant does not show that necessary existence is not a property. Kant discusses the claim ‘God exists’, but he doesn’t satisfactorily distinguish it from the claim ‘God exists necessarily ’. The two claims are not equivalent. To say that ‘God exists necessarily’ is to unpack the concept of God. It tells us more about what the concept ‘God’ is a concept of. So it is an analytic judgement, not a synthetic one. Not all claims about what exists have the same kind of meaning.

Kant accepts that it is part of our concept of the greatest possible being that such a being would exist necessarily. But what this means is that ‘if God exists, then God exists necessarily’. And this doesn’t entail that God exists. In other words, the claim ‘if God exists, then God exists necessarily’ is compatible with the possibility that God doesn’t exist at all.

Malcolm responds that this is confused. If we accept that ‘God exists necessarily’ is an analytic truth, derived from our concept of God, then this rules out ‘it is possible that God doesn’t exist’. ‘God doesn’t exist’ is necessarily false.


One objection to Malcolm’s argument is that he has not shown that premise (9) is true; is the concept of God coherent? Malcolm admits that he can think of no general proof that it is. But there should be no presupposition that the concept is incoherent, so the argument is sound unless we can show that the concept of God is incoherent.

A second objection targets the inference from (3) to (4) (a similar objection can be made for the inference from (5) to (6)). Malcolm may have shown that if God exists, God’s existence does not depend on anything, and God cannot cease to exist. But that is not the same as saying that God’s existence is necessary. There are two confusions here.

First, even allowing that necessary existence is a property, Malcolm’s argument only shows that if God exists, then God’s existence is necessary. If God doesn’t exist, then it is false that God’s existence is, in fact, independent of anything else, because God doesn’t, in fact, exist. Nothing has that property of necessary existence. In his response to Kant, Malcolm rejects this, claiming that ‘God exists necessarily’ is an a priori truth derived from the concept of God. But we cannot derive this claim from the concept of God; we can only derive the weaker claim that ‘if God exists, God exists necessarily’.

Second, the form of words ‘God exists necessarily’ confuses two distinct claims. The first is that there is a form of existence – necessary existence – which God has. This is why Malcolm says necessary existence is a property. And it is what Malcolm tries to establish by the argument that God’s existence can’t depend on anything. The second is that it is necessarily true that God exists. This is the conclusion of the ontological argument. Malcolm claims that we can infer that

  1. ‘God exists’ must be true from

  2. the fact that the concept of God entails that God’s existence does not depend on anything.

But this doesn’t follow; it confuses two meanings of ‘necessarily’. Not depending on anything characterises the nature of God’s existence, if God exists; but existence does not characterise God.

We can argue, therefore, that Kant is not confused. He does not accept the claim that ‘God exists necessarily’. He only accepts the claim ‘If God exists, then God exists necessarily (i.e. without dependence on anything).’ This conditional claim is analytic. But it is compatible with the claim ‘It is possible that God does not exist.’

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