On the ontological argument

My correspondent of yesterday's blog doesn't seem to get it.

So, while I've dealt with the ontological argument before, this will be a series of three posts in which I deal with the absurd fantasy precepts of the ontological, teleological and moral arguments for the existence of uncle skyfairy.

First, what is the ontological argument?

Taken from the Iron Chariots Wiki, the ontological argument runs:

  1. God is the greatest imaginable being.
  2. All else being equal, a being or entity that exists is greater than one that doesn't.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Sometimes the "greatest" formulation is replaced with "perfect" or a variation thereof. God is perfect, a thing that exists is more perfect than one that doesn't, yada yada yada. As with christianity, there are more flavours than a first glance might suggest.

It was first formulated by St Anselm, in ~1078CE, so it's been around a long time. Longevity does not imply validity, however. Anselm probably patted himself on the back, downed his pen and headed off to ye taverne for a flagon of mead after dashing this one out. Instead of taking the afternoon off, he really should have thought about things a bit more deeply.

The ontological argument seems very persuasive. Until you stop and think about it for a minute or two.

1. Arse-backwardsness

Ontological arguments are touted as proofs of existence. They are no such thing. They are in fact, statements of necessity, but not of the necessity of existence.

They prove, in fact, that existence is a necessary prerequisite of perfection, not the reverse that most theists infer, that perfection somehow implies existence.

The whole interpretation is arse-backward. Our ability to define the attributes of a perfect or maximally great being/entity/object does not conjure such objects into existence. I mean, I can imagine all manner of perfect things in all manner of categories. I really can. Do they exist? Nope. That's one of the things that allows humans to have heroic literature without actually living in, y'know... Middle Earth.

2. Subjectivity

"Great" and "Perfect" are, in truth, incredibly subjective terms, unless you're talking about mathematical or other abstract notions of perfection. Out in the real world, "great" and "perfect" mean different things from different viewpoints. One only has to turn on the Discovery Channel to see that, simultaneously, sharks are the greatest predator, lions are the greatest predator and humans are the greatest predator. Who, in fact, is the greatest predator? Don't ask the internet, it doesn't know. Greatness depends so strongly on a frame of reference that the ontological argument, which includes no frame of reference whatsoever, cannot be taken seriously.

3. Unicorns and wizards

  1. Unicorns are the greatest imaginable form of horse
  2. All else being equal, a being or entity that exists is greater than one that doesn't.
  3. Therefore, Unicorns exist
  4. Shut up


  1. Gandalf the White is the greatest of all wizards
  2. All else being equal, a wizard that exists can totally pwn a wizard that doesn't exist with, like, magic and stuff
  3. Therefore Gandalf exists
  4. But Shadowfax is not an unicorn. Also, shut up.

4. Which god?

The ontological argument, if accepted with the exact logical implications that our christian correspondents wish to bestow upon it, can be equally applied to non-christian gods. Et voila:

  1. Allah is the greatest imaginable being.
  2. All else being equal, a being or entity that exists is greater than one that doesn't.
  3. Therefore, Allah exists.
  4. And mohammed is his Melinda Messenger, or something 


  1. Odin is the greatest of all gods
  2. All else being equal, a god which exists is greater than one that does not
  3. Therefore Odin exists
  4. But isn't overly happy about Thor and Loki.

So how, exactly, do we determine which of these interpretations is correct? Let's imagine that it does imply some kind of god. Which one? Couldn't we, in fact, dispense with this altogether, posit a different kind of god alogether and posit the Misanthrope's Ontological Argument as follows?

  1. God is the greatest of all beings
  2. Greatness implies staying the hell out of my way and not meddling
  3. Therefore god is non-existent

5. Utopia

The ontological argument implies that merely thinking of something perfect somehow imbues it with existence. If this were true, we'd be living in utopia. Every child with a lego set and teenager with a sketchpad has built, in their mind, on paper and with clicky plastic bricks, their dream house. They've agonised over what it needs and imagined how perfect it would be.

So, if the ontological proof is actually true (as opposed to being merely logically valid*), then how come I don't live in a massive warehouse packed with skateboard ramps, climbing walls, bike parking, video game consoles and, to update it to more grown-up tastes, dancing girls? I mean, that would be perfect for me. It would be greater than where I live now, which admittedly suits my needs quite well (though it's a bit light on the dancing girls aspect).


But seriously, this goes hand in hand with the next item. If this greatest possible being exists, as per the christian account, why isn't the world a better place?

6. Perfection? Don't be absurd

That whole "greatest imaginable being" thing? Let's think about that for a second, shall we? The ontological argument, point three notwithstanding, is usually used by christians. Now, the doings of the christian god are well known in western circles, especially to atheists, so let's play a little game. Can you imagine a being which is greater than the christian god?

I don't know about you, but I find that pretty easy.

For one thing, the christian god was a far from perfect designer and custodian of the earth. Frankly, a better god would have managed to do the whole creation thing without having to expel the rib woman. He would have, maybe, put a fence round the magic fruit. A god who can put up a fence is greater than a god who cannot, after all. But let's assume that for some reason, he couldn't put a fence round the magic fruit. Well, why not? Surely a more perfect/more powerful/greater god would not be constrained in this way?

Still, before we get bogged down, let's assume that whole magical garden thing was necessary and part of the plan. Later on we read that the whole kaboodle got a bit out of control and god had to do a bunch o' smitin', including, if the account is to be believed, wiping out everything and starting again with a bunch of animals, plants and people he temporarily stashed on a boat.

Frankly, I'm not having a perfect day if I get as far as lunchtime, then have to delete my entire codebase and start from scratch. As a programmer, I'd be the opposite of perfect. In fact, I wouldn't be all that great at all. I'd fire me. Or at least have a stern word with myself about requirements and planning.

Frankly, there's plenty we could indict yahweh for. And he couldn't even beat iron chariots, which, frankly, any moderately-equipped 18th or 19th century military unit should accomplish with ease. Therefore the Duke of Wellington is greater than god. Also shut up.

As a side note on the plausibility of perfection, I remain unconvinced, despite the frenzied argumentation of a couple of people on facebook, that a perfect circle can exist in reality. Due to the limitations of our physical universe and our inability to measure down below the planck length, any circle we can actually draw in reality is, by necessity, just a polygon with a massive number of sides. Even if it's the size of the observable universe. It just means the number of sides is massive.

Yes, I've really had that argument. Sometimes I despair.

Which brings us to...

7. Disconnect from empirically-measurable reality

Even if we concede that this absurd little argument is somehow logically valid*, that in no way implies that it works in the real, observable universe. We, as storytelling apes, are good at making up tall tales, and frankly this is a framework on which a story may hang and nothing more. There is nothing observable or measurable within or around the argument. It is a thing of pure reason, or as I prefer to think of it, perfect unreason.

As a methodological naturalist myself, I prefer more empirical, scientific data. There is no in-principle reason that many god claims cannot be examined empirically, so I find it telling that theists fall back on closed-room reasoning rather than real-world repeatable evidence

This being the case, the ontological argument is utterly unfalsifiable, and is only useful as a philosophical toy.

It is certainly not a guide to reality.


The ontological argument is a perfect example of the safety-scissors nature of theological argument. If you try really hard you can probably hurt yourself, but overall the paper you're trying to cut is more likely to injure you. It's a moderately interesting diversion, but only a delusional mind could think its in any way a guide to reality.

Also, Gandalf.

Photo: Wikipedia


Tomorrow (or tonight): teleological arguments. Then, later, moral. If I can be bothered. This stuff really is tedious.


* which in itself is a big ask

posted @ Friday, April 27, 2012 12:47 PM


Comments on this entry:

# re: On the ontological argument

Left by mikespeir at 4/27/2012 8:07 PM
I must say you give the argument the respect it deserves.

# re: On the ontological argument

Left by DR at 4/28/2012 2:08 AM
biggest problem with the ontological argument is that it's completely ouroboric... It only works if you assume the conclusion in the premise. It's as circular as anything you could come up with (except the presuppositional idiocies).

# re: On the ontological argument

Left by mikespeir at 4/28/2012 3:05 AM
When you first see the Ontological Argument your thought is, "Nah, that can't be right."

Then you start thinking about it and it's, "Hm. Maybe there's more to this than...."

But then, when you've thought it through, it's, "Yep, that's just crazy."

# re: On the ontological argument

Left by Jason at 4/28/2012 3:35 PM
PSA: Jason G, the twitter theist that sparked this post, has commented here:


Because seemingly, he can't figure out that commenting on post A should be done underneath post A and not post B

# Attack stronger versions next time

Left by Maverick Christian at 4/29/2012 2:08 AM

You don’t seem to have attacked the strongest form of the argument. Take this formulation:

(1) God is the greatest imaginable being.
(2) All else being equal, a being or entity that exists is greater than one that doesn't.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

And one of its parodies:

(1) God is the greatest of all beings
(2) Greatness implies staying the hell out of my way and not meddling
(3) Therefore god is non-existent

These arguments aren’t even deductively valid! And yes, it is possible to come up with a deductively valid ontological argument. You might want to visit www.angelfire.com/.../ontological.html to see a layperson’s introduction to a symbolic logic version of the ontological argument (symbolic logic is awesome because, among other things, you can use it to prove the validity of some deductive arguments).

Parodies of the argument are not, I think, entirely successful. For example, the greatest possible island having necessary existence doesn’t seem possible because islands are compound physical things and physical things are contingent. That said, I don’t the argument (as formulated in the web page I linked to) works very well as a standalone argument because the theist needs to give us some reason to believe “it is possible that God exists” is more plausibly true than “it is possible that God does not exist.” The Leibnizian cosmological argument and the moral argument would help out with that, but the fact remains that as a standalone argument it doesn’t work all that well.

In general, avoiding the strongest versions of the argument is a hollow victory. People who read both sides of an issue will recognize when a critic fails to attack the strongest arguments when they see proponents expounding such arguments that go unaddressed by critics. For example, if I were to critique the atheist’s argument from evil, I’d attack the most convincing form of it I could formulate (if nothing else, I recognize that not doing so would be a hollow victory). And even though I don’t think the argument from evil works as well as some atheists believe, even I recognize it has some evidential force.

If you want to attack a strong form of the moral argument on your web page, you might want to visit maverickchristian.blogspot.com/... so you can critique a version that doesn’t suck (at least not as much) as the version presented in the wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php web page (the Maverick Christian blog does a better job arguing for the first premise methinks). Also, while I initially thought the Euthyphro argument was a really good objection, it turns out to be a horrible objection (as the fourth page of the blog article notes) to the point where even if I were an atheist I would think it’s horrible. In case you’re wondering, if I were an atheist I’d reject the “objective morality does not exist” premise.

# re: Attack stronger versions next time

Left by Maverick Christian at 4/29/2012 7:52 AM

f I were an atheist I’d reject the “objective morality _does_ exist” premise.


# re: On the ontological argument

Left by Jason at 4/29/2012 9:53 AM

Arguing with christians is like shouting knock-knock jokes into a void. Even if the void could answer, it doesn't know the words.

You've seriously looked at the misanthrope's ontological argument, a JOKE, and the first thing that's come into your head is that it's not deductively valid?


# re: On the ontological argument

Left by Jason at 4/29/2012 10:38 AM
In related news, I don't think I"ll be posting on the teleological argument (Darwin killed the most commonly-seen version 150yrs back, natch) and moral argument after all.

I just can't handle the amount of utter fail that will inevitably rain down from the christ-o-verse

# re: On the ontological argument

Left by God at 4/29/2012 3:39 PM
Arguing with fundie atheists on the internet is like playing chess with a pigeon;no matter how good I am at chess, the pigeon is just going to knock over the pieces, crap on the board and strut around as if he had claimed victory!

Atheists, get a real life!

# re: On the ontological argument

Left by Andy at 4/30/2012 7:25 PM
I can't even imagine an eternal and omnipotent god. So how perfect is it, really?
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