Anti-realism and the Ontological argument.

Both Anselm’s and Descartes’ Ontological arguments, regarding the existence of God, have allegedly been refuted, most notably by Kant and his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. However, the ontological argument may still have merit if we approach it from an anti-realist viewpoint. Norman Malcolm, who was a close friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein, attempts to address the ontological arguments from an anti-realist point of view. Malcolm considered that the first of Anselm’s arguments fails and goes on to re-state the first argument as follows:

  1. By definition, God is an absolutely perfect being possessing all perfections.
  2. Existence is a perfection.
  3. Therefore God must possess existence.

Malcolm, along with Hume and Kant, rejects the second premise by holding that existence is not a perfection. However, he goes on to develop Anselm’s second argument.

Anselm has two arguments. The first one occurs in the Proslogion II yet the more interesting one may be found in Proslogion III. Malcolm begins by stating that if God does not already exist, God cannot come into existence since this would require a cause and would make God a limited being, which by definition, God is not. Similarly, if God already exists, God cannot cease to exist. Once this is accepted, either God’s existence is impossible or necessary. Malcolm then argues that God’s existence could only be impossible if it were logically absurd or contradictory and, as it is neither, then God’s existence must be necessary. The statement “God necessarily exists”, therefore, can be held to be true. The argument can be explained in the following steps:

  1. Given the statement “God necessarily exists” there are only three possibilities about this statement. Either it is impossible, possibly true or necessarily true.
  2. There is no way of showing that the statement “God necessarily exists” is impossible. It would only be impossible if the statement contained a contradiction and it does not. Therefore, the idea of God’s existence being impossible is ruled out.
  3. The statement “God necessarily exists” cannot be possibly true. It is either true or it is false. Since God is defined as a necessary existent being, then God cannot just possibly exist. A possibly existent being is one which may or may not exist and this cannot apply to God as God is necessary. So therefore, the possibility of God existing is ruled out.
  4. Therefore the last assumption must be true, “God necessarily exists” must be a true statement.

This argument is rejected by John Hick who maintains that the most that can be said is that if God exists, then God exists necessarily. He maintains that if there is a triangle, it must have three sides, if there is a mountain, it must have a valley and if there is a God, the God must exist necessarily. It does not prove the existence of God, rather if God exists then he exists necessarily.

Hick, however, misunderstood Malcolm, mainly due to their misunderstanding of anti-realism. For the anti-realist God is real and God exists. God is not a being or substance and is neither wholly simple and timeless nor everlasting. Instead, God is an idea, a concept within the language shared by certain religious believers. For these people, God’s reality is unquestioned and undoubted. God is the centre of their world. God is that in which they live and move have their being, but God is merely an idea or concept which lies at the centre of the world which they have created and which gives meaning to their life. God has no independent existence outside this form of life. To those, therefore, within the religious form of life, “God necessarily exists” is a true statement, but to those who are atheists or agnostics, the statement is false.

The position of the anti-realist has several advantages. As the Dominican Gareth Moore puts it:

“What value is there in this approach, in seeing God as nothing, not a thing, not a part of the universe? To begin with it avoids all the difficulties and obscurities of the traditional ‘arguments for the existence of God’, and it avoids putting Christianity on such shaky foundations as might be established by these arguments”.

Because anti-realism rejects arguments for the existence of God and any appeal to revelation, it is held to be on firm ground.

“The question whether God exists is not a factual question, a question about what we might find. It is a question whether to adopt the concept ‘God’ into the language or to retain it. For me, the question of the existence of God is the question whether I can find a use for the word ‘God’ in my talk.”

God, for the anti-realists, is nothing but God still exists. God exists as a concept within the form of life of the religious believer. There is, anti-realists argue, no way of establishing correspondence between the statement “God exists” and either the wholly simple or the everlasting God and the answer lies in abandoning correspondence and instead, holding on to a coherency theory of truth. God, anti-realists claim, exists and is real, but only within the language of the community of believers. There is no being or substance called God, rather God is an idea within the religious form of life.

Contributed by Shane Dunne

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