• Christopher Tanner

Debunking the Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is yet another common argument for the existence of God that theists often seem to think is a potential “checkmate” against atheists in debate. However, as many atheists are aware, the ontological argument is gibberish. It is essentially trying to define a being into existence, or in some forms, like Plantinga’s modal form of the argument, begs the question. This article will both cover the original ontological argument made by Anselm, and the modal ontological argument used by Plantinga, which seems to be a favorite among theists.

Anselm’s ontological argument (quoted from website) goes as follows:

“It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).

God exists as an idea in the mind.

A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.

Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).

But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)

Therefore, God exists.”


So, the first premise says that God is a being of which nothing greater can be imagined. Putting aside the limits of our imaginations, this premise seems fair, for the purposes of this argument at least. The second premise is also noncontroversial; God is a concept that exists in the mind. The third premise also seems fair: It is greater to exist, than to not exist. The fourth part of the argument is where it becomes problematic. If God does not exist, we can think of something greater than God. Premise five points out that imagining something that is greater than God is impossible. The argument then attempts to resolve the contradiction between four and five by claiming God exist. In other words, theists just tried to think God into existence, which is absurd.

As hinted at earlier, the problem with this argument is part four. Here is the thing: when we are thinking of a God that exists in reality, WE ARE STILL THINKING OF A REALITY THAT DOES NOT REALLY EXIST OUTSIDE OF OUR MINDS! I really do not understand how this is so hard for some theists to understand. There is no real contradiction between parts four and five because we are still only thinking of God, or simulating a reality in which he exists. We are not talking about the reality that we live in, which most likely exists outside of our minds (see my article on presuppositionalism if you want to know why we should accept the universe’s existence as an axiom). If God is the greatest concept one can think about, that does not change the fact that they are still only thinking about it.

Now, to be fair, we rarely see people actually put forth Anselm’s version of the ontological argument any more. It’s pathetically easy to debunk, and lets face it, theists, when given the option, like to hide behind much more complex mumbo jumbo that is increasingly difficult to untangle. Well, theists often find the modal ontological argument to be the right argument for the job. If one does not know how to counter this loaded argument, and is not familiar with the philosophical context behind the argument, it can be very difficult to argue against it. The video hyperlinked above does a good job of untangling the premises, loaded meanings of the words involved in the argument, and putting the argument in its correct form. The premises of this argument (quoted from video above) are as follows:

“It is possible that God (or a maximally great being) exists.

If it is possible that God exists, then God exists in some possible worlds.

If God exists in some possible worlds, the God exists in all possible worlds.

If God exists in all possible worlds, then God exists in the actual world.

If God exists in the actual world, then God exists.”


At first glance, this argument seems very similar to the last one. Possible worlds are normally known as hypothetical worlds, and it seems at first glance that this means we are back to literally imagining things into existence. However, as the video points out, definitions are important, and there are many premises behind just the definition of God that really complicate things. It is assumed that God is maximally great, and that no being can be greater than it. It mentions that God is also a necessary being, which is very important in this context.

I have had arguments with people in which they ask if God is “necessary” in some possible world, and using the regular dictionary definition of necessary, it is easy for atheists to be tricked into saying yes. DO NOT FALL FOR THE BAIT; IT IS A TRAP! “Necessary” in this context means that God has to exist in all possible worlds, including the real world, and by admitting he is necessary in some possible world, you are admitting he needs to exist, which means that the theist just won the argument by tricking you into admitting that God exists. The core of refuting this argument is with premise 1, which means denying God, as defined in this argument, cannot exist. After all, the rest of the argument seems to merely be restatements of premise 1’s definition of God.

moving goalposts

The video attempts to debunk any possibility of saying God cannot exist by arguing that the omni qualities that define God cannot be debunked because examples of logically impossible things are incoherent. However, what the person who made the video does not understand, is that this is exactly the point. In order to disprove God, we need to show that he is logically incoherent. However, if theists constantly redefine God by dismissing all of our criticisms until they reach a definition of God that is coherent and unfalsifiable, they are essentially moving the goalposts constantly and resurrecting the argument with a new definition of God, like a zombie that just will not die. “God can do anything” becomes “God can do anything, except the things we say he can’t do because that disproves our argument”, which kind of defeats the purpose, but still allows them to constantly reinvent the argument.

If we really want to kill a zombie argument like this, we need to do the double tap and find a flaw with the definition of God that essentially kills the argument for good. Luckily, one such flaw exists, and it is the idea that God is defined as a necessary being, ie, a being that has to exist in all possible worlds, or a being that cannot not exist. If God is not a necessary being, then the whole argument falls apart. We can demonstrate God does not exist in all possible worlds simply by imagining a world in which he does not exist. Considering most of us are atheists, we have probably already disproved the idea that God, as defined in this argument, exists. I will go so far to say that almost anyone who is not an absolute gnostic theist cannot use this argument to prove that God exists, because all it takes is the slightest sliver of doubt to demonstrate that it is false. Doubt implies that they can imagine a scenario in which God does not exist, which means by definition he does not exist in all possible worlds.

Now, the person who made the video regarding the ontological argument attempted to cover this idea by shifting the burden of proof and saying we have to have a reason to believe God does not exist. However,what he does not understand is that the burden of proof is not on the atheist to prove that God does not exist, but on the theist who claims that he does. The director claimed, in his definition of God, not that God may exist, but that he has to exist. As mentioned above, simply imagining a world in which God does not exist completely disproves that point, because God no longer exists in all possible worlds under those circumstances.

In conclusion, while theists often claim that the ontological argument is one of the best arguments for the existence of God, in reality, it is absurd. The original form of the argument is literally an attempt to think God into existence, and the more modern modal form, when interpreted in its proper context, becomes a tautology. At best, this argument is a mess of convoluted assumptions intended to confuse atheists not familiar with the inner workings of the argument itself. When properly understood, it is extremely easy to debunk.


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