The Ontological Argument From a Realist Perspective

The following video presents a good explanation of the ontological argument. It also allows us to examine the distinction between analytic philosophy, which the ontological argument is part of, and realist philosophy, which could be represented by the thought of Thomas Aquinas. First, watch the video.

Note that this video does a good job of showing the shallowness of the typical response to the ontological argument. The response has not changed much from the first attempt to refute it. A thinker named Gaunilo proposed the existence of a perfect island; if I can conceive of a perfect island, it must exist. But as this video shows, finite things like islands and unicorns are not what the ontological argument is dealing with.

But more importantly, note the explanation of possible worlds. They are defined as hypothetical situations. In this case analytic philosophy starts with all hypothetical situations (all possible worlds) and argues to existence from that point. The distinction between this perspective and realist arguments is that the realist starts with what is known about reality. The person starting from an analytic position is locked in a thought problem where the goal is to get to the real world. By contrast, the realist starts from something known in reality and argues to conclusions about both reality and concepts. A Christian realist, such as Aquinas, starts with two things: revelation from God and what we know about reality. He then attempts to align both of these with each other and with concepts in the mind. By starting with God’s revelation plus knowledge of reality, then attempting to draw conclusions, Aquinas rigorously evaluated all that he found around him. Thomists have done so ever since, and we believe that the modified realist perspective is the most sound, and fits best with what is known in all fields of modern thought and theology.

I have found that many, if not most, philosophy students today are taught to start from an analytic perspective. They are taught analytic philosophy so much that that they know of no other perspective…they are like fish who never question that the world is made of water, until one day they are brought into the air and find it incomprehensible. Analytic philosophers are not taught realism, or if they are, they are merely taught that we humans cannot trust our sense perceptions enough to prove there is a real world out there. The realist responds with a simple answer: we must start with 1) there is a real world outside of my mind, and 2) I can know something about it. If we do not start with these premises, we will never prove them using philosophy. One philosopher, Rene Descartes, proved to us that if we start within the mind, we are forever stuck there, making futile attempts to get to reality.

I have taken to using the following response to my analytic friends: If a possible horse fell into a possible mud puddle, nothing would actually have to get washed off. As long as we are dealing in hypotheticals, we will always have trouble getting the conclusions back into reality. This is why Thomist realists generally do not use the ontological argument. The reason we usually do not use it is not because we think it is unsound, but because it does not begin with known observable facts in the universe or with revelation from God. Those trained in the analytic tradition are so steeped in hypothetical thought problems that they often do not question the field of play that they have chosen for themselves, as the video above demonstrates.

For more information on the distinction between analytic and realist thought, see The Two Logics by Henry Veatch.

So what are we to make of the ontological argument? While I am not of the caliber of philosopher to claim to deal with all issues around this argument, I nevertheless make my humble response. In a sentence, the argument is not refutable, but I do not think is as strong as its supporters make it. By this I mean that the argument is logically solid and as stated it cannot be refuted. But since it is at its root a thought problem, then its conclusions are thought conclusions. The argument is hanging in mid-air begging to touch down onto reality somewhere, but we never seem to be able to tell whether it has done so. Or if it does, it does so in an awfully slippery manner.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Aquinas, Philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Ontological Argument From a Realist Perspective

  1. alphazulu99 says:

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “Brethren, love me, admire me, adore me. But please, for the love of Baal, stop with the dying for sins bullshit. It’s fucking outrageous and makes us all look like a bunch of goddamn Cro-Magnon lunatics!!”–Jesus Christ, the Lost Gospel

  2. alphazulu99 says:

    Since Jesus and God are one, as the Gospel of John states, does that mean that Jesus impregnated his own mother?

  3. Caleb says:

    I can’t watch the video at my work, so I’ll have to wait to see what it says. But I’m initially perturbed at your distinction between analytic philosophy and realism. can you briefly state what you mean by “realist philosophy”?

    I fear you have juxtaposed the two unjustifiably. The realist, you say, is one who “starts with something known in reality.” Thus, the analytic philospoher, in dealing much with hypotheticals, is one who does not. In fact, the analytic philosopher “does not begin with known observable facts about the universe” at all. By this you seem to imply that hypothetical truths are not real and that the “facts” with which the realist starts are empirical.
    I have two concerns. First, how can you say hypotheticals are not real when (a) nothing unreal can have any properties, and (b) hypothetical propositions clearly have properties (e.g. for instance, they are true or false)? Thus it’s clear to me that hypotheticals are part of reality and one can have knowledge with respect to them. But then your distinction between realist and analytic philosophers is incorrect since analytic philosophers too deal with aspects of reality.
    Second, if, as it seems to me, by “facts” and “reality” you mean something empirical, then why? This move seems unwarranted especially for the theist, who thinks God is the most enduring and important “reality” and “fact” there is, though not an empirical being. Even the animals know (in a sense) of reality, so construed. But it’s a distinct and important thing about us that we are able to transcend mere empirical reality, and discovery many truths, many realities, about the universe which are beyond the discoverings of empirical categories.
    You go on to represent analytic philosophers as not being “taught realism, or if they are, they are merely taught that we humans cannot trust our sense perceptions enough to prove there is a real world out there.” Well, this is blatantly false. Most analytic philosophers are realists with respect to the external world. This is why I think your use of “realism” is misplaced, as many analytic philosophers are indeed realists in many respects (e.g. abstract objects, external world, morality, etc).
    I wonder if we shouldn’t replace your “realism” with “presuppositionalism.”
    Also, I don’t know of any creature “a possible horse”. I suspect you mean, “a horse whose existence is possible.” If so, then re-write your example to, “if a horse (whose existence is possible) falls into a mud puddle (whose existence is possible), nothing would actually have to get washed off,”—which is equivelent to, “if a horse falls into a mud puddle, nothing would actually have to get washed off”— and you should see that it’s false. If a horse falls into the mud, then there is something to be washed off, namely mud! So what’s the problem?
    To say that “there’s a world in which a horse falls into a mud puddle” is just to say that it’s possible that a horse falls into a mud puddle. Possible world semantics therefore rely heavily on modal (logical) intuitions, that is, on intuitions about logical realities. I hardly think we can deny these that these are realities merely on account of their not being empirical.

    • humblesmith says:

      The analytic position, as I understand it, defines beings as bundles of properties. They then appear to make a leap from a bundle of properties to existence, a leap which I’m saying is not defined in their system….or if it has, I haven’t seen it taught, which is entirely possible. I can imagine possible existence of a $100 bill with all the correct properties, but until something is actually existing somewhere, then the properties do not apply anywhere except my mind.

      Plato defined forms as existing somewhere in the universe, and to him they were “real” but separated from any actual instance of the form (what we would call real and actual). Aristotle, by contrast, taught that the form was in the object, and our minds are able to abstract the forms. When Descartes, in the Platonic tradition, started in the mind, he was forever locked in the mind and could not ever get out to anything real. Modern epistemology, in this analytic tradition, has challenged us to prove that what we think we know in our mind actually coorresponds to what is real outside of our minds. It cannot do so, since it has forever separated sensory inputs into the mind from justified knowledge.

      As long as we can say that the premises in our mental problem correspond to what is actually existing in the world, then we can use logic all day long to prove things. But if we start in the mind with things that might possibly be, and never touch on what actually is, then we can always question the conclusion. The realist always includes some known reality about the world, and thus avoids brain-in-a-vat objections, psolipcism, and God-as-immediate-cause-of-everything problems.

      With the horse, if we start with a horse (whose existence is possible) we have only eliminated logically absurd things like square circles or a horse being a non-horse. Possible horses can have any logically possible properties, but actual horses cannot. As long as we know the nature of an actually-existing horse, we can make abstractions and logical conclusions about it even if we have not observed every horse.

      But on an even more practical level, the technical and scientific world lives and breathes empiricism. The more abstract our mental problems that we present to them, the more they will reject them.

      • Caleb says:

        First of all, you can always “question any conclusion,” justifiably so or not. Secondly, I still maintain that possible realities are indeed realities. they are real, they are just not emperical. Again, why should we let the empirical govern our concept of reality, especially when, as theists, we believe the most important reality, God, is not empirical?
        So isn’t it a known reality that we could be brains in a vat? I say, certainly so. And while this question may not be helpful (because no one actually thinks it plausible that we are brains in vats), other more practical questions can receive progress through work in hypotheticals. For that matter, even the brain in a vat question does teach us something practical about knowledge, namely, that even our knowledge that we are not brains in vats is not equivelent to logical certainty, is not infallible, which is important to understand.

        Your final pronouncements on thousands of years of philosophy (plato to descarts) makes me think you’ve been reading too much francis schaeffer…. It was a mischaractarization, as many analytic philosophers have been/are non-platonists, non-aristetilians, and non-cartesians.

        As for the “possible $100 bill”…. i’m not sure i follow what you say “they make a leap from a bundle of properties to existence,” as if they’ve inferred the existence of something from it’s possibility. unless referring to a necessary being, no philosopher worth his salt does this. then you say, “but until something is actually existing somewhere, then the properties (of the $100 bill) do not apply anywhere except my mind.” again, i must beg to differ. i think you’ll agree that “being green” and “being made of paper/cloth” and “representing a monetary sum greater than 99 but less than 101” are not properities your mind has. but then they do not apply to your mind, though they may be believed by your mind about some possible hundy.

        then you say “Possible horses can have any logically possible properties, but actual horses cannot”…. really? so actual horses do not, nay, cannot, have properties like “being able to gallop” or “horsiness” or “grazing free in north dakota” or “being brown”? they do have these logically possible properties.

        • humblesmith says:

          Find a book called “Two Logics” by Henry B. Veatch. This book lays out the differences in more detail than we can go through here.

          The point about possibilities is that once you’re there, there’s no objective way to reign them in. Your illustrations about horses only work when you compare it to an actual horse. For example, the possible horse in my mind can wallow in mud without getting dirty, because he’s invisible, yellow, and made of special goo. As long as the possible world is not logically absurd, we can draw all kinds of conclusions. If you don’t have a real world from the start, you’ll never prove one exists via analytic philosophy.

          But read the Veatch book and we can have more conversations.

          • Caleb says:

            I’m not gonna read that book unless it has lots of pictures and opportunities for coloring.

            At any rate, I don’t think the world exists because of some argument. I don’t think a good argument could be made there, just like a good argument couldn’t be made for the past having existed. I don’t think a horse exists because I first think of a possible world in which on does. Also, there’s no such thing as a possible horse made of yellow goo, and which is invisible, since we know that wouldn’t be a horse. It would be a invisible jello replica of a horse, not a horse. Horses have some of their qualities essentially, that is, necessarily. It’s not possible that they exist without them. Thus, you can’t just attribute by language any attribute to a horse, and conjur an image of something which resembles a horse having that attribute (e.g. a yellow gooy invisible horsly shaped object). You might as well say, “suppose there’s a world in which only two objects exist: the singularity, and a horse.” Well this “world” actually turn out to be absurd, impossible, and thus not a real world at all, since we know a horse couldn’t exist at the singularity. Anyway, possible worlds, for most, is just a semantical framework that is helpful in discussing certain philosophical issues. to say “there’s a world in which there is a horse on the moon” is just to say that it’s logically possible that there be a horse on the moon. There are also importantly distinct kinds of possibilia: logical, physical, nomic (having to do with “laws” of nature”) to name a few.

  4. This is an old argument, with slightly different dressing.

    No amount of thinking about something can create a conclusion that is valid evidence for the existence of a thing.

    Existence is not like other properties, like just, or loving. Your myth hero can be just. They can be loving. You can postulate these predicates because they operate on a conceptual entity, which you are free to manipulate in your mind. Evidence for these properties of the hero can be pointed to in the myth – and you may argue whether sufficient evidence exists within its bounds.

    When you say “My myth hero exists” you enter into a different contract with your audience. It is no longer sufficient to mine the myth text for evidence of “existence”. You must use valid evidence external to the text to demonstrate existence.

    The ontological argument is a zombie argument. It has been put to rest, but despite the fact it moves and walks and pretends it is alive. “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” by Goldstein comes to mind. It has a nice appendix with the full list, which identifies the issues with each one.

    Own up to your faith and say that the only thing that will serve as an argument is faith. Don’t seek solace in philosophy, analytical or realist or whatever. Don’t use the language of science. Don’t borrow from the credibility of other fields to add to your own.

    • humblesmith says:

      While I would agree with you to a point, as the post demonstrates, I think you’re being a bit dismissive. And while I’m not a huge fan of Plantinga, I am forced to tip my hat to the man, for he is no slouch, and presents no easily refutable arguments, as his credibility in the philosophical world demonstrates.

      I can only try to give them a fair defense. If you look at it the way the argument is presented (see the video), they would claim that they are dealing with all possible instances. Further, if you look at the argument and their explanation of it, they are not using Anselm’s form of the argument where existence is an attribute. Rather, they are hinging the argument on whether the conclusion is the case in every instance, and if it is the case in every instance, it is the case in the current one. Their claim would be that this is point where it touches reality.

      So I don’t think it fair to label it a zombie argument and be quite so dismissive. I’ve not read all of Plantinga’s explanations, but I do know he has earned recognition by holding his own with the best of them, and even those who disagree would not label the man an amateur and be quite so quick to skip over it. We should all be careful not to base our conclusions on youtube videos, but by the writings of the best people. As stated and explained, the argument is logically rigorous.

      All that said, as my post showed, I think the only weak spot is the one you and I both mentioned, existence. I generally do not use it because it does not start with something we know in the world.

      As for faith and reason, that is another argument for another day.

      • I’ve watched the video. Honestly, I’m attempting to keep an open mind, skeptically.

        I note that the video starts off with an introduction that invites both theists and atheists to understand the argument. It does not, however, say that atheists will be persuaded by the argument.

        And so the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. If this were a “real” proof, in the sense of irrefutable and effective, any atheists that understood the argument would no longer be atheists.

        This leads me to two possibilities:

        1. It is impossible for atheists to “understand” the argument, as given as as intended to be understood.

        2. It is possible for atheists to “understand” the argument, as given as as intended, but nevertheless they remain atheists after understanding it.

        A proof is not a proof, but rather a mere argument, if it works on only some of the people that have understood it.

        But getting back to the argument. The problem is with transition from premise 1 to premise 2. Premises 3 onward evolve from 2 by definition (God is *defined* as maximally great, so if you sneak him into one hypothetical world, he must, by definition, appear in all).

        In fact, this entire argument is not an argument at all. The entire thing is sneaky framework of definition and first principles. By simply saying

        1. It is possible for a maximally great being to exist.

        You’re done. Everything else follows *by definition*, not logic. You’ve just drawn out your axioms into what appears to be a proof, but it is not. You can use the toolkit of modal logic on any set of axioms, but this does not prove anything outside of the axioms.

        The sneaky part of this philosophical contortion is that to unsuspecting readers the above premise appears as a contingency. But it’s not. It’s already the certainty that you’re seeking to prove. This argument can’t go wrong, which I’m sure is why it seems so appealing.

        Notice how benevolence and all-things-good are snuck in. I can imagine a spiteful and malfeasant god who is maximally great. After all, who am I to say what “great” is? All sorts of Gods can spring forth from this argument. To say it is limited to only proving the Christian God sounds opportunistic, at best.

        I am not a philosophy expert, obviously. This reeks of concept-fixing, though, and stark is the utter lack of any observable external evidence in this argument, which is really the only way existence can be pinned down.

        • humblesmith says:

          As for the ontological argument, I tend to agree with you. But as I’ve said, I’ve not read all of Plantinga, and he’s no idiot. He’s likely anticipated our issues and dealt with them.

          As for your first point, understanding does not equal agreement or belief. The process involves judgment. We can apprehend something, but then have a desire that affects our judgement, and we will then deny the conclusion based on our faults. This happens to humans all the time. I can know that eating too much fatty foods and smoking is bad for me, but my desires are capable of overriding my good judgment, and not letting myself believe it enough to act on it.

        • Caleb says:


          You say that the ontological argument is “not an argument at all” but merely a “sneaky framework of definition” which tricks its readers by drawing out it’s axioms “in what appears to be a proof, but is not.”

          You’re just basically describing the nature of a deductive argument–an argument whose conclusion is implicit in the premises. Thus, one is left to merely draw out the implications of the premises to show that the conclusion follows necessarily. Modus ponens in fact does this, and thus your complaints against the ontological argument could be applied here too:

          1) if p, then q
          2) p
          3) therefore, q

          But you could say, “but p is just defined in such a way that implies the conclusion!” Ya, but that’s the point! Therefore, the key premise is 2)– does p obtain? if so, it’s clear what follows.

          So, as for the ontological argument, the key premise is indeed

          1) it is possible that a maximally great being exist.

          Everything else follows necessarily from the principles of modal logic. But this is no problem for the argument, as it deductive in nature. So what you think of this argument really turns on your intuitions about the possibility of maximal greatness being instantiated.

          Notice, if you don’t think 1) is true (i.e. you think it’s impossible that a maximally great being exists) then by the same logical steps, you’d reach the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. “But this is implied by the denial of premise 1!” one may contest. Maybe so. But that’s why premise one is the key.

          Thus, the argument isn’t “tricky” or pulling the wole over anyone’s eyes. It works like every other deductive argument.

          Furthermore, as you allude, it depends on your intuitions about what it is to be maximally great. Most will find it a hard pill to swallow that being “spiteful and malfescent” could be part of maximal greatness (after all, it seems one who does not have these qualities is better than one who does). Also, I agree with you that the conclusion of the ontological argument is not that the Christian god exists. It is consistent with it, but it does not necessitate it.

    • Caleb says:


      You complain of the lack of observable external evidence in the ontological argument. But let me ask you this, what observable external evidence is there for the idea that in order for an argument to be good, it must utalize observable external evidence? There is none. Therefore, the criterion which requires external observable evidence for a “good argument” is incoherent. Besides, what external evidence is there for the claim that we are not in the matrix? None. Should we then believe that we are in the matrix? No. The point being, much of what we know cannot be supported in the way you require. So you ought not use that criterion for knowledge.

      You mention Goldstein as having put to rest the ontological argument. But Goldstein grossly misrepresents the argument (one can just google the appendix to her book and read it, it’s #2), and thus only attacks a straw man version of it, not to mention virtually every other argument she critiques in there.

      You say that theists ought not use philosophy or science, since faith is their only argument. But come on now… this whole blog attests to the falsity of that claim, since no one has produces anything a kin to an argument from faith, e.g. “I have faith, therefore God exists.”


      As for Plantinga he has a relatively modest opinion of his version of argument (and mind you I still can’t watch the above video due to network constraints, so I’m not sure if we’re even talking about the same thing), stemming from the fact, as I mentioned below, that it’s strength really just depends on what you think of it’s first premise (and I haven’t really seen an argument for this premise… usually people just leave it to the intuitions of the reader). Everything else just follows necessarily from the principles of modal logic, and no one disputes this.

  5. Caleb says:

    Now having watched the video, I feel it may have misrepresented the contemporary version of the ontological argument (or at least, it presents a different version then the contemporary version). The down side is, I think it leads to some misunderstandings. For instance, so far, it seems many commentators have thought that the argument merely defines God as existent. But this is not true. Strictly speaking, it predicates “maximal excellence” to God, not existence, and says that that property is such that it is had in every possible world (i.e. necessarily), where to have that property in every possible world is to be maximally great. Thus, the question becomes, is it possible that maximal excellence is a necessary quality? Or in other words, is maximal greatness possible (premise 1)?
    Here’s a link to a video with Plantinga talking about the argument, which I think will be fairly enlightening.

    • Caleb says:

      Point of clarity, the argument predicates maximal excellence to god, and says that it’s a great making quality to have that property in every possible world. Thus, since, according to the argument, God has that property, and that property is instantiated in every possible world, so is God. So it’s helpful to explore one’s intuitions about if maximal greatness is possible, and, if it’s a great making quality to have maximal greatness in every possible world versus failing to have it in some world.

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