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In Our Time: The Ontological Argument

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 10:18, Friday, 28 September 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Ontological Argument. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI

The Ontological Argument


The Ontological Argument is quite a way down the list of subjects with which I would have thought I would get absorbed. But I did. The notion of a medieval Benedictine monk from Italy, via France, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury and sitting down to compose through logic alone a proof for the existence of God, and both proving it to the satisfaction of some people and not proving it to the satisfaction of others, was extremely seductive.

This, I thought, was what medieval monks should be doing. The idea of beginning with an assertion to which, as it were, "the fool in the psalms" - Anselm's starting point - could simply have said "well, I don't take that proposition as anything other than an assertion" (not the prose of Tyndale, but nevertheless I hope you get the gist) is something marvellous.

The thing about other worlds of knowledge is that the more you examine them and the more you get to know them, the more respect you have for them. It doesn't matter very much whether they seem to be way off-key when compared with "modern" knowledge or information. We have different techniques, discoveries have been made, arguments have been worked through, there are different proofs and so on. But the whole pleasure and virtue of history is to get to know it in the time that it was. And that time for Anselm was the Middle Ages and his attempt to provide in pure logic alone - and in just a few words - the answer to the universe is breathtaking. Perhaps even more breathtaking than Professor Higgs' revelation (he described it as this when the idea came to him on the Cairngorms) that his particle, the Higgs Boson, would be his answer to the beginning of the universe.

I would guess that you enjoyed as much as I did the way in which the three philosophers circled around and circled again the subject at hand. They were so complementary as well as being so complimentary. There's a great resolute, calm, courteous steadiness about Professor Haldane; Professor Millican has a crystalline quality of his own and Clare Carlisle proved to be, I hope you will excuse the word, brilliant at enunciating both the proposition and her reservations about it.

I was going to bang on about the odd week that sometimes happens, seeing an arena performance at the O2 of Jesus Christ Superstar; being invited to a concert at the Albert Hall; going to the book launch of a friend who's written something on the Russian archives; managing to get a couple of brisk walks on Hampstead Heath which is under-discussed in these notes but cannot be over-praised; all the privileges of a lucky metropolitan life.

And now we turn our guns on Gerald of Wales who also wrote about Ireland.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number 1.

    Just a word about Inez. Perception means seeing clearly through the transparent nonsense of something (e.g. the Rochdale convictions or Hillsborough revisionism) and there is nothing misleading about geometry in her sense.
    Inez lacked this faculty so she could not validly draw any personal conclusions from it.

  • Comment number 2.

    Does God exist outside of the mind?Does what exists in the mind exist?If it only exists in the mind what is thus greater is the being that exists both in the mind and in reality.To conceive this something exists is not to prove it. The existence of God is not contained within the definition of God (and, as such, evidence for God would need to be found).Kant says, "'being' is obviously not a real predicate" and cannot be part of the concept of something. He proposed that existence is not a predicate, or quality. This is because existence does not add to the essence of a being, but merely indicates its occurrence in reality. He stated that by taking the subject of God with all its predicates and then asserting that God exists, "I add no new predicate to the conception of God". He argued that the ontological argument works only if existence is a predicate; if this is not so, then it is conceivable for a completely perfect being to not exist, thus defeating the ontological argument. In addition, Kant claimed that the concept of God is not of one a particular sense; rather, it is an "object of pure thought". He asserted that God exists outside the realm of experience and nature. Because we cannot experience God through experience, Kant argued that it is impossible to know how we would verify God's existence. This is in contrast to material concepts, which can be verified by means of the senses. In Anselm’s Proslogium he mentions the belief in order to understand.His premise cannot be demonstrated apart from faith. Bertrand Russell observed, it is much easier to be persuaded that ontological arguments are no good than it is to say exactly what is wrong with them. This helps to explain why ontological arguments have fascinated philosophers for almost a thousand years.God like unicorns exist if you think of them (Hume).We now live in an age which is as likely to define the non-existence of God with equal clarity.Science works with concepts like ‘energy’ and ‘force’ and they are validated by experimental reality. They defined a Higgs-Boson through equations and then found the particle exists in reality.Something we can’t do for God.

  • Comment number 3.

    The ontological argument was not presented to prove God’s existence, rather, Proslogion was a work of meditation in which he documented how the idea of God became self-evident to him.God can exist in our mind,but can a greater idea,God in reality and in the mind exist?Why must this greater being be conceived in reality?Just because we define God doesn’t mean He exists.If the perfect being does not exist this defeats the ontological argument.In the Bible it states you have to believe before you can see.What you conceive doesn’t necessarily exist in reality.But as in Anselm’s puzzle,what can be conceived to not exist, must exist.The use of the term ‘no greater than’is to slip existence into the definition of God, a being whose essence involves existence.Only a subject described can be said to exist not a subject named.The ontological argument argues from no empirical premises about the way the world is. Russell said a ‘necessary proposition has got to be analytic. I don’t admit of the idea of a necessary being.’The existence of God is not logically valid.God cannot not exist. Don’t forget that the only thing in the contents of Descartes’ consciousness that led outside himself was the idea of God.If Anselm is right he has found the bridge between pure thought to things.Like Magritte we can say,”Ceci n’est Le Dieu”.Picture an old white haired man with flowing locks,Blake’s God with dividers,the Ancient of Days.Melvyn is it the p word or is it the f word,? "The fool in the psalms" - Anselm's starting point - could simply have said "well, I don't take that proposition as anything other than an assertion",the modern ‘pleb’ could quote it as atheistic abuse and ask for an apology.

  • Comment number 4.

    It is actually presented as a proof of God' s existence. To a woman like Inez the existence of personal perception could have nothing more than heresay (Lilli' s "concept without being" (poosibly, who knows or cares?)). Ther existence (Lilli' s "being") of anything God-given or heaven sent had no basis in the girl' s mentality.

    See, the girls are trapped by a functional handicap and trying to decide on the existence of things, the existence of which can be nothing more than heresay to themselves, and that' s the basis of their eternal hagging of each other.

  • Comment number 5.

    Message 2

    No, I wouldn’t say so. Not sure why the mind has a requirement to function in both a particle and wave-like manner. Maxwell’s 2nd equation comprises two components: Conduction current (particle like) and Displacement current (wavelike). Evolution is analogous to dD/dt within Mawell’s 2nd equation; conduction current – sigmaE - is analogous to creationism (and God).

    Creationism belongs to a universe where a uniform field is realisable – but, of course, a uniform field can never be realised and this why creationists struggle: they attempt to implement a temporal dimension to a spatial concept. One cannot ‘suddenly’ create. Similarly, evolution is a wave-like concept – one cannot assign particle-like language (which is, by definition, spatial in nature) to words such as ‘beginning’ and ‘end’.

    Nature (particle-like) and nurture (wavelike) follows the same argument. They are not independent of each other and we are really considering rate of change and rate of change of rate of change.

    The perfect capacitor can only be created if we eliminate all the fringing field (the displacement current). However, we do this and end up destroying the capacitor, because the capacitor plates would have to be shorted together if we attempted to convert all the dE/dt into E. It’s time that we assigned a new name to a capacitor. The ether doesn’t appear to exist – but it’s presence would solve a lot of problems that cause sleepless nights for engineers!

  • Comment number 6.

    Sorry I was replying to message 2

    "Does God exist outside of the mind" and the first part of the message didn't appear

  • Comment number 7.

    1st of all I’d like to say to Corsy,of course you are right Anselm’s ontological argument is based on logic proof of God’s existence,I was just alluding to the prologue to it.To Lawrence Jones you seemed have strayed a little to far into the world of physics,when the entry I made is dealing with metaphysics(I am not a creationist!).The IOT broadcast made clear the difference between ontological proof and the arguments from design and cosmology,the Proof refers to God alone,not just a thing among others which happens to be ‘best’,but a unique being, existing not contingently but of necessity.The idea of necessity here joins the certainty of an ardent faith.The question is was this a specious way of expressing a personal certainty which is already tacitly concealed in its premises?

    God either exists necessarily or is impossible.Here necessity is conceptual, belonging to a sign-system and not to the world.We cannot think something into being simply from the conception of it,as Anselm seems to be arguing.We cannot conceive God in the sense required by Anselm.The definition of a thing and the proof of its existence are two eternally separate matters.Religious objects of thought are necessarily non-existent.What is greater than this thought?Their existence.

  • Comment number 8.

    I was very interested in the programme, and also in John Thompson's enlightening thoughts here. But can anybody explain Corsy's comments? I've no idea who Inez or Lilli are - were they mentioned in the programme?


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