Handout for a talk on the Ontological Argument

given by Mr J.R. Lucas on March 4th, 1998 at

The Centre for Philosophical Studies, King's College, London

Click here for text of talk


Anselm, Proslogion.
R.W. Southern, St Anselm and his Biographer, Cambridge, 1963.
Descartes, Fifth Meditation. See also Discourse on Method, I, 103-104; Replies to Objections, II 18-22, 45-47, 57, 228-229; Principles of Philosophy, I, 224-225; Notes Against a Programme, 444-445; (page references to Haldane and Ross translation).
A.Plantinga, ed., The Ontological Argument, London, 1968.
J.Hick and A.C.McGill, The Many-faced Argument. London, 1967.

Descartes and Kant

Descartes argues that God has every ``perfection'', and hence that of existence: perhaps for every predicate ascribing a perfection, F,G,H, . . . , Fg,Gg,Hg, . . ., BUT it does not follow that Eg, i.e. that God has the property of existing, because the proper rendering of that would be something like (there exists x)(x=g)
Kant: Existence is not a Predicate, but a Quantifier. ``. . . if . . we admit, as every reasonable person must, that all existential propositions are synthetic, how can we profess to maintain that the predicate of existence cannot be rejected without contradiction?''
BUT ``There exist prime numbers between 12 and 21'';
To exist is to be talkable about; do mermaids, centaurs and unicorns exist?
See T.J. Smiley, ``Syllogism and Quantification'', Journal of Symbolic Logic, 27, 1962, pp.58-60; and R. Harré:, ``On the Structure of Existential Judgements'', Philosophical Quarterly, 5, 1964-5, pp.43-52.
Two questions:
(a) What does `ontological' mean?
(b) What does God do for Descartes?

(a) `ontological' from Greek ontos masculine and neuter genitive of on (compare feminine ousa, and its derivative, ousia, substance or essence) present participle of verb einai to be, to exist; esti, is, there is, exists; to on used by philosophers for Being, or What There Is; toi onti in fact, indeed; ontos, really. See Republic V, 490a, and X, 597d.
The word `Being' in English does not sound right: we would more naturally say `Reality'. That word was not available in Anselm's time. Anselm uses the phrase in re to mark the distinction between God merely as an idea and God as really existing. The Schoolmen later coined the adjective realis from res a thing, and the abstract noun `reality' is derived from it.

(b) The part God plays in Descartes' system, once He has got him out of his solipsistic prison, is small. God made Descartes, and can be relied on not to deceive him, but otherwise leaves him alone, to get on with mathematics and natural science on his own. The latter function is really a reality principle. If I believe that there is some reality apart from myself, I have reason enough to reckon that my sense experiences are not all merely the figments of my imagination, but are experiences of something other than myself; they are not mere appearances, but indications of how things really are.
So Suggestion
Descartes' `God' is to be construed as `Reality'.
[in order to make out what a philosopher means, think
(i) what do his arguments for the thesis actually prove?
(ii)} what, in his opinion, follows from it?]
Spinoza, following in Descartes' footsteps, talks of Deus sive Natura. Anselm uses the neuter id quo maius nequeat cogitari; so too do the later Schoolmen; after the word realis had been coined, `God' is defined as ens realissim um (mistranslated as `necessary being'.
If Descartes really means `Reality', how does the Ontological Argument look?
Does it look like proving that Reality Exists?
The Ontological Argument looks better in Greek: to on esti; or in Latin, ens est. These look like tautologies, decidedly difficult to deny.
Could Reality not exist?


The Ontological Argument is valid, but proves something different from what its advocates supposed. A commitment to search for Ultimate Reality rather than a specification of what it was like.
Anselm was arguing with a fool, who was not bothered by the question of God, not a Victorian atheist, like George Eliot, who was ``serious about metaphysics''. Anselm could reasonably argue that the Ultimate Reality existed, and was therefore a matter of ultimate concern. He took it for granted that the Ultimate Reality was personal---the Proslogion was a prayer, in which Anselm addressed God, es Thou art. We cannot take it for granted that the Ultimate Reality is personal.



`Ultimate' is a superlative; ens realissimum. Are we entitled to posit a maximum? Even if we can make sense of `more real than' realius, maius there need not be a most real, realissimum.

The logic of `more real than'

We need to ask four questions about realius, `more real than':
1. Are there gradations of reality---does `realer than' make sense?
(i) Perhaps `real'/`unreal' marks a single contrast, and there are no degrees of reality, no sense on saying one thing is more real than another.
(ii) BUT we sometimes grade hallucinations, illusions, shadows, material objects, scientific accounts, fundamental laws.
2. If so, is the relation `more real than' serial?
(i) We can make sense of one number being greater than another without being committed to there being a greatest number. Hegel seems to suggest that philosophy is a never-ending quest, which never reaches a satisfactory conclusion, but as soon as one system is evolved, begins to generate its antithesis.
(ii) BUT we can envisage infinite totalities as a whole. Perhaps the {\it ens realissimum} is an omega point.
3. If not serial, does it have maximal elements or a single maximum one?
(i) Even if there are maximally real elements, the ordering induced by `more real than' need not be a linear ordering, so that there might be many entities aliquid quo maius nequeat cogitari, each extremal, but along a different branch of being more real than.
(ii) BUT we have ideals of unity. Theory of Everything (ToE), Grand Unified Theory (GUT). It may be possible to argue for uniqueness, perhaps invoking the aid of the Cosmological Argument, the search for an Ultimate Explanation. Plato's characterization of ultimate explanation: hautai gar an ede, hos eoiken, hai pros auto agousai eien, hoi aphikomenoi hosper hodou anapaula an eie kai telos tes poreias these methods leading, as it seems, to a position which, when we had got there, would be a resting place and an end of our journeying. Republic VII, 532c.
Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Dialectic, Bk II, ch.iii, Section 5, A 608-609, B 636-637) says that the Ontological Argument merges with the Cosmological Argument and Mackie (The Miracle of Theism, Oxford, 1982, pp.81-84) more or less concurs.
4. If maximum, then what? Although we may not know what Ultimate Reality is like, there are certain formal constraints; Anselm's argument rules out the possibility of the Ultimate Reality being, like Plato's Demiurge, subordinate to the Forms; or its being merely a matter of happenstance whether God exists or not. Hence the insight that the ens realissimum is necessary (not logically necessary, but necessary in some metaphysical sense); which may well be truek, but is not what ens realissimum means.
The Ultimate should have the superlative virtues of being unique, single, singular, simple---BUT . . . .
One line of argument requires Ultimate Reality to be complete in itself (compare Aristotle's characterization of the Good, autarkes, etc. in Nicomachean Ethics, I.), and hence non-relational. Substance may have qualities, but cannot be related to other substances, or it will in some way depend on them. Leibniz and Bradley. Spinoza. Another line of argument leads to the limit. Leibniz. Ultimate constituents of reality, ur-elements, must be indivisible, atoms, point-particles, corpuscles. And that is all there is. Thesis of extensionality. Anti-holism, Descartes, Discourse on Method, part 2: ``The second, to divide each problem . . . into as many parts as was feasible, . . . The third, to direct my thoughts in an orderly way; beginning with the simplest objects . . . ''
Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, London, 1992, ch.13, and ch.14, pp.431-442. In modern terms, we might talk of a fundamental mode of discourse, anankaiotate glossa, in which the individual variables can be quantified over (Quine: to be is to be a value of a variable) and individual terms have reference.


The Ontological Argument, like the other traditional arguments for the existence of God, suffers from being made more coercive than it can actually be. There are a number of intimations of divinity we have---what is the ground of my being? why am I here? when I consider the moon and the stars that Thou has ordained . . . . which may lead us to believe in a personal God. But these arguments are suggestive, not knock-down proofs. Zealous apologists have attempted to make them into knock-down proofs, and have converted sound, but inconclusive, arguments into putative, but actually fallacious proofs. Click here to return to home page