|In attempt to prove the existence of God, the Ontological argument begins with a false premise. Premise 1 assumes that the greatest conceivable being (GCB) exists in the mind, which is impossible. This results in a lack of soundness in the argument, and a failure to prove the existence of the GCB. The following reconstruction shows the line of thought leading to the conclusion that God exists.
1. Assume that the GCB exists in the mind alone and not in reality. (assumption for reductio ad absurdum)
2. Existence in reality is a property that makes things greater than existence in the mind alone (Pojman 71). (premise)
3. It is possible to conceive of a GCB that exists in both the mind as well as reality (Pojman 70). (premise, from phenomena)
4. There must be a being that is greater than God which exists in the mind alone. (from 1)
5. Given premise 2, premise 4 results in a contradiction; there cannot be a being greater (which exists in the mind alone) than the greatest (which exists in reality). (from 2 and 4)
6. Given premise 5, the assumption in premise 1 must be false. The GCB must exist in reality as well as in the mind. (from 5 and 1)
The GCB exists. (from 6)
Notice the assumption that the GCB exists in the mind, and not in reality, made in the first premise of the argument. This is crucial, as it provides an even field that may be used to compare the concept given (GCB) in terms acceptable to both theist and atheist alike (Wallace, M. personal communication, February 7, 2007). Premise 2 sets up the upcoming contradiction by stating that existence is a property that is greater in reality than in the mind. The tension between these conflicting ideas can be seen in step 3 when the concept of existence of the GCB is proposed to be conceivable in reality. On one hand, the GCB is proposed to exist in the mind alone. On the other, the concept of the GCB is proposed to be conceivable to exist in reality and that existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind. The contradiction that the GCB in the mind (from step 1) is greater than the greatest in reality (from premises 2 and 3) results in premise 4, for something cannot be greater than the greatest. Premise 5 acknowledges this contradiction and presents a conclusion contrary to the assumption in premise 1. Given that the opposite of the assumption in premise 1 must be true, Premise 7 of the argument seemingly proves the existence of the GCB, or “God”.
The argument appears valid. If every premise was found to be true, the conclusion of the argument must be accepted as true (Wallace, II). The argument would be sound and prove the existence of the GCB. However, this is not the case. Premise 1 is based on the assumption that the GCB exists in the mind and is conceivable, which is impossible.
The main reason why premise 1 is impossible (and thus not true) involves the inconceivability of the perfections of the GCB. Most agree that for this argument, the GCB represents a being in which no greater can be conceived. As will be shown, whatever one might imagine in attempt to conceive of this being, it will not be as great, and not have as many perfections. The more perfections added to the thing imagined, the more closely it will come to the definition of the GCB. However, an equal amount of perfections as the GCB will never be obtainable unless the thing imagined is the GCB itself. This essentially means that the amount of perfections necessary to properly define, and conceive of, the GCB would be endless. The conceivability of the GCB is much like that of the greatest positive integer (Wallace, Section VI). Whenever a positive integer looks as though it is the highest possibly conceivable, it is always possible to add more. For example, consider the perfection of strength. It could plausibly be inferred to mean that the stronger one is, the more perfect they are in this respect. So, if lifting more weight is a good judge of strength, then the amount of weight one is able to lift determines how much perfection they have in strength. Well, if the strongest person is able to lift X amount of weight, it would be easy to add a bit more to this amount and effectively conceive of a stronger person than the strongest. If the strongest could lift, say 500 lbs, it is easy to conceive of an even stronger person who could lift 501 pounds. No matter what number is substituted for X, it is still possible to conceive of a number greater. In this same respect, there is always a greater amount of perfections able to be attributed to the GCB. Once an accurate conception of the perfections GCB is thought to be obtained, it must be revoked and replaced by an even more perfect conception. The amount of perfections is never absolute and may be added to perpetually. Therefore, premise 1 must not be true. To this point, there may be several possible objections.
One possible objection relies on the belief that perfections of the GCB do have conceivable maximums (Pojman, 69). This allows for the conception of the GCB by introducing an amount of perfections capable of being reached mentally. If the perfections have a finite amount, all one must do is think of them together to conceive the GCB. An example given to support this objection refers to the properties of perfect knowledge (one of the perfections). Perfect knowledge concerning the truth of a proposition is stated to have a conceivable maximum, in that it only may admit of, “yes”, or, “no”, answers (Pojman, 70). This objection is interesting, yet it does not save the argument.
The objection, that perfections have a conceivable maximum, is fallacious. This can be seen when considering the perfection of love, for example. It is difficult to conceive of a greatest love in the same way that it is for strength. Once the greatest love is thought to be conceived of, it will always be possible to conceive of a greater. Perhaps the greatest love conceivable for another is stated to be at a similar level to the one that is shared between a mother and child. This still does not accurately represent the greatest love, as even greater is conceivable. For instance, the greatest love conceivable could be stated to be at the level shared between five mothers and their children. This would be even greater than what was previously believed to be the greatest. The perfection of love actually admits of levels of greatness that are beyond the realm of comprehension. This goes contrary to the objection that perfections have conceivable maximums. Given that the perfections of love can perpetually be increased in greatness, the notion that the perfections have a conceivable maximum must be denied, and this part of the objection fails.
When considering the example of perfect knowledge, a similar result is produced: it does not admit of a conceivable maximum. It cannot be asserted that knowledge is in the same finite amount at all times simply because it has been observed that propositions give yes/no answers. It can be seen that answers given may vary immensely in intensity. It may help to consider the veracity of the following propositions: 1) “I would like to eat ice cream now.” 2) “I would like not to die now.” Surely it is commonly believed that the amount to which someone may agree or disagree with these propositions may vary immensely in intensity. In 1, it is conceivable for someone to answer, “yes”, to the proposition given. This may be considered the most intensely true response possible. Yet, in 2, it is conceivable for someone to answer, “yes”, with even more intensity in terms of the proposition given. Therefore, the second positive response can be shown to exhibit even greater intensity of truth than the first. It is continually possible to conceive of a proposition in which a response of greater truth could be conceived. Like the others, it is impossible to conceive of this perfection, as it will always be possible to add more truth to any response given by altering the proposition. Even if it is granted that all propositions admit of an objective yes/no answer, it still remains that the intensity of the truth of these is inconceivable. Based on the result that perfect knowledge does not admit of conceivable maximums, it can be seen that this example does not support the objection.
Given that the objection fails, it must be concluded that the perfections are not conceivable, and nor is a GCB. This conclusion implies that, technically, to even be able to talk about the GCB, it must be conceivable, for conceivability is implied in its title. This does not provide much aid in the struggle to discern truths; it merely asserts that the assumption that the GCB is something we conceive is not true. This may be perceived as one flaw inherent in the attempt to deny conceivability of the GCB, yet the argument remains, in refute of the truth of premise 1.
Pojman, Louis P. Philosophy of Religion. Fourth ed. U.S. Military Academy, West Point: Thomson Learning, 2003.
Wallace, Meg. “The Ontological Argument” Philosophy 134:
Philosophy of Religion. Section IV, July 5th, 2006. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 02-12-07. <http://www.unc.edu/~megw/Phil134S07>
Wallace, Meg. “A Little Bit of Logic” Philosophy 134:
Philosophy of Religion. Section II, January 8th, 2007. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 02-11-07. <http://www.unc.edu/~megw/Phil134S07>