Anselm, Unicorns, and the Ontological Argument
Pretend for a second that I promised to give you a unicorn as a gift. You are probably skeptical about my ability to give you a unicorn, so I’ll go ahead and give you one just to prove that I can.
I need you to close your eyes and think of a unicorn.
The fact that you are reading this line means you opened your eyes too quickly, so close them again and think of a unicorn for a few seconds.
There you go! I just gave you a unicorn! I gave you a unicorn made of thoughts. I gave you a unicorn that existed in your mind.
But wait a second! That’s not what you were expecting. Surely my gift would be much better if I actually gave you a unicorn in reality and not just in your mind.
What does this little thought experiment have to do with anything? It simply proves that something that actually exists in reality is better than something that only exists in your mind. Hang on to this notion for a second because we will come back to it.
The Ontological Argument
This fall we begin our study on the doctrine of God in our Theological Equipping Class. Our first lesson is on the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence. By using the word “proof” we don’t mean that you mix some chemicals in a beaker and then can see that God exists or something like that. In logic, a “proof” is an argument that builds, step-by-step, on several premises to prove a point. One of the more well known arguments or proofs for God’s existence is called the “Ontological Argument.” Despite the Ontological Argument’s helpfulness in arguing for the existence of God, it is often misunderstood.
Now, if even the thought of reading a blog about the “Ontological Argument” sounds super boring and makes you want to take a nap, just allow me to explain it a little more (and remember that unicorns are involved)!
The Ontological Argument was invented by a theologian during the 11th century named St. Anselm (though he didn’t call it that). The Greek word “ontos” means “being,” so the Ontological Argument is an argument that appeals to the very being of God.Here’s the argument:
Step 1: Think of a being that is so great that you cannot possibly think of a greater being (i.e. “God”).
(Note: If this being is the greatest then it means that this being would have every desirable quality to the highest degree. This being would have love to the highest degree, justice to the highest degree, strength to the highest degree, etc.)
Step 2: Ask yourself this question: “Would this being be better if it existed in reality or just in my mind?”
Well, like the unicorn example, something is better if it exists in reality and not just in your mind.
Conclusion: Therefore, this most perfect being (God) must exist in reality and not just in your mind.
To say it another way: if...
1. You can think of a being so great that you cannot think of a better one
2. It is better for that being to exist in reality than to just exist in your mind...
3. God must exist in reality and not just in your mind.
Whoa, Wait a Second
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “That can’t be right!” “Are you saying that just because I can think of a really good thing in my mind then it must also exist in reality?”Actually, no. You’ve misunderstood the argument.
The argument is not saying that just because you can think of a really great thing that thing must exist. The argument is saying that if you say you can think of a being that is so great that you cannot think of a greater one and then you say this being only exists in your mind, then you have contradicted yourself because you CAN actually think of a greater one, namely, one that exists in reality and NOT JUST in your mind.
Does your brain hurt yet?
To say it another way. You can’t actually think of God as not existing. When you do that you are not really thinking about God. Thinking of God as not existing is like trying to think of a square circle or of 2 + 2 equaling 5. God is not a being that can either exist or not exist (like a cat). God is a being that necessarily exists by definition.
The ontological argument is an argument that says that the idea of a non-existing God is a logical contradiction. If you are thinking about a God who might not exist you are not really thinking about God. If you are thinking about the best thing but also thinking that best thing might not exist then you are not thinking about the best thing.
In the same way that God has love to the highest degree, mercy to the highest degree, and strength to the highest degree, he also has existence to the highest degree.
I’m not convinced
Let’s be honest for a second. This argument is not going to convince a hardened atheist to believe in Jesus. But it’s not designed to. The argument doesn’t convince a lot of people, but (and here is where it’s so interesting) there is no logical flaw in the argument! Logically, it is true (it has two true premises), it is valid (its logical structure commits no fallacies), and it is sound (the argument as a whole works). Therefore, whether we like it or not, we should be amazed that we have a logical proof for the existence of God. Here it is again:
1. If we say that...We cannot think of a better being
2. We actually can think of a better being (i.e. one that exists in reality and not just in our minds).
Then we have gone wrong in our thinking somewhere.
I know that this is already a pretty heady article but for those of you who want to go a little deeper (or hear the argument from a different angle) there is a modern version of the argument put forward by a philosopher named Alvin Plantinga. Before we explain the argument we have to do some prep work with our terms.
In philosophy we often talk about what are called “possible worlds.” Now, don’t get weird on me here. By “possible worlds” we are not talking about scientific dimensions or alternate universes or anything “sci-fi.” In philosophy a “possible world” is simply a way God could have created the world. We are not saying that other “possible worlds” actually exist. They are just a shorthand way of talking about how the world might have been. For example, I could have been named “Jack” instead of “Zach.” In philosophy we would say that there is a “possible world” in which Zach is named “Jack.” We are not saying that world actually exists anywhere; we are just saying that the world could have been that way. I could have had red hair instead of brown hair. That is a possible world. I could have a pet turtle. That is a possible world. There are almost an infinite number of “possible worlds.”
However, there is no “possible world” (or a way the would could have been) that allows for 2 + 2 to equal 5. There is no “possible world” in which there are married bachelors. There is no “possible world” that contains square circles. All this is to say that there are a lot of ways that the world could have been but none that can contain logical contradictions.
To say it another way, God could have created the universe in a lot of different ways but he was not free to create a universe in which he didn’t exist or where he was evil or where 2 + 2 = 5. Because, again, there are no possible worlds containing logical contradictions.
“What does this have to do with the ontological argument,” you ask?
Well, if there is a “possible world” that contains a being who must exist in every possible world, then that being does indeed exist in every possible world, including the real world.
To say it another way: If it is possible that a necessary being might exist, then that being does indeed (necessarily) exist in all possible worlds.
To say it a third way: If there is a possible scenario where there is a “being-that-exists-in-every-possible-scenario,” then that being does indeed exist in every possible scenario.
Plantinga’s idea is essentially the same point that Anselm was making. There is one being in the universe that doesn’t just happen to exist but that must exist by his very nature, and this being we call “God.”
I doubt the next time you are arguing with an atheist online the ontological argument is going to cause them to break down and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But the argument is helpful for a few reasons:
First, it helps us see that there are indeed logical proofs for God’s existence. This encourages our faith. Second, it lets us see that our view of God is often too small. God is a being that is so great he must exist. Third, it lets us see that our worldview is often small and clinical. Philosophical thinking about God helps us question our presuppositions and things we take for granted. Lastly, it means that belief in God is not stupid. As Christianity continues to fade in the West, it is a reminder that there are good reasons to believe what we believe—and that there are many godly men and women who have gone before us, who wrestled with the same questions.
So keep wrestling with this idea. It’s one of those things, like the doctrine of election, that we never fully grasp. But, God’s existence and the Ontological Argument are indeed true.