Perhaps the most famous of the many variegated proofs for God’s existence is St. Anselm’s so-called Ontological Argument. The gist of it is as follows: God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”. In other words, if in one’s mind one attempted to contemplate something greater than God, the very definition of what the word “God” entails means that one has not yet come to an understanding of what God is.
The proof follows further on in noticing that that which exists is necessarily greater than that which does not exist. The concept of “God” may exist virtually in one’s mind, but one would immediately notice that merely the “thought” of God would not be as great as the “actuality” of God. In other words, if one can conceive of God in the mind, then one could conceive of God in actuality, which would necessarily be greater.
According to the premises outlined, the very definition of “God” would exist in the mind even of someone who did not acknowledge God’s actuality; the catch being that even that conception entails that God must actually exist, given the preceding premises.
The earliest response to this argument was by St. Anselm’s contemporary, a monk named Gaunilo, who took St. Anselm’s premises and applied them to an island the greater of which cannot be conceived, which, while superficially undermining the argument as a whole, also managed to miss most of St. Anselm’s argument, which would entail that only God can fit the definition of God, which, while somewhat of a tautology, largely escapes Gaunilo’s objection on the basis it is made. For in the island example, one can always conceive of something greater than even the greatest island, for islands (and any thing for that matter) necessarily have properties which can always be conceived of to be greater. As an example, one could imagine the greatest island which is larger than any other island, but that island can always be conceived of as being larger (or whatever other island-making property one might substitute). In the same manner, an island by definition is surrounded by water, and the very definition of “surrounded” entails that no matter how great one conceives of the size of the island (as an example), one must necessarily conceive of a body of water which is greater, which means that an island cannot be conceived of as that which nothing greater can be conceived.
However, even though Gaunilo’s objection ultimately fails, it does open up a rather fatal objection to the Ontological Argument, or at least reveals that the Ontological argument reveals how one must conceive of God for that conception to have God as its referent.
One serious difficulty with the Ontological Argument as articulated in this manner is that it fails to make a crucial distinction between God as a being (and as existent) and any other thing which can be conceived of (and as existent).
If one took the concept of power, one can apply “power” to any being in various degrees. For example, in the game Dragon Age: Inquisition, there is a fair amount of “god” killing. Granted, most video games take place in some sort of Nordic theological playground, where there are gods a plenty with various attributes. In starting out, the various “gods” have far more power. This can actually be calculated in hit points. If one’s starting character’s attributes were set against the end god’s attributes, it would be over almost instantaneously. However, as the game progresses one’s character obtains greater and greater power. The climax of the main story line is to effectively kill the god. In this sense, “power” is used in a univocal sense; the god has power just as the main character has power; the only meaningful distinction is in how much.
This sliding scale of power could of course theoretically be infinitely scaled. One character might have 10 units of power, one god might have 1 billion units of power, and another god might have a mind-boggling amount of power, but in the end it would all be of the same kind of power. In each circumstance each being stands in external relation to power; it is something they possess to one degree or another, but it is the same power of which one conceives.
In a similar way, one could theoretically continue to add numbers upon numbers without end. One might not be able to mentally or physically count to the greatest possible number, but one need not (and cannot). No matter how high the conception of a particular number might go, it is conceptually understood that there can always be a number beyond it. Each number participates in “number-ness” in the exact same way, but merely to different degrees.
This is essentially at least one flaw of the Ontological Argument, for its premises entail adding being on top of being, power on top of power, number on top of number, island on top of island for ever and ever, without the ability to ever reach an end or come to a conception of that the greater of which cannot be conceived, as one is attempting to conceive of one thing (God) as greater than any other thing. For while these conceptions might be hopelessly hazy, by their very nature and by virtue of the univocal application of attributes and properties to the question, one could never actually arrive at that the greater of which cannot be conceived.
Thus, a strong objection to the Ontological Argument is that the argument itself seems to be predicated on a univocal application of “being” to any conceivable being and to God, which will run into the problems discussed above, and thus must be salvaged by a priori applying the definition of God to God alone, which ends up being a syllogistic tautology.
Another example may offer illumination. In the Star Trek series there is a character named Q who is self-proclaimed to be omnipotent and omniscient. However, Q is but one Q among many in the Q continuum, and at several points in the series events occur which call these attributes into question. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Q is stripped of his powers by the other members of the Q Continuum, which of course nullifies the notion that Q is all-powerful, for if he were he by definition could not have been stripped of his powers. Similarly, in DS9 he quips (on the verge of a station core reactor overload) that he’s never seen a space station explode before, which is of course not compatible with omniscience. Likewise, in Star Trek: Voyager, Q is nearly executed by the Q Continuum in the midst of a Q civil war. But far more striking, in another Voyager episode another Q has not only been imprisoned against his will, but wishes to end his existence, which of course opens up an interesting logical contradiction which is resolved by the Continuum removing his powers so he can.
These all suggest that the Q ultimately are not all-powerful nor all-knowing, but it also demonstrates how the Q stand in relation to power in a univocal way to all other beings. In the Q civil war episode, the Voyager crew (with the help of a female Q: Q’s spurned lover!) are able to enter the Continuum and even wield Q designed weapons which can apparently kill Q, thus at least temporally standing in relation to power in the same manner as Q.
The upshot of this very nerd-like obsession with Star Trek is that it becomes easy to see that the approach of stacking attribute upon attribute or being upon being or using univocal language of beings and God as being simply will not work to get us to a conception of God the greater of which cannot be conceived.
Instead, what the limits of the Ontological Argument demonstrate (and this may have been Anselm’s ultimate intent) is that God cannot be a being among other beings. All attempts to conceive of God in this manner will not give us a proper understanding of God (let alone a proof of his existence), for no matter how great our conception, it will always be liable to be circumscribed by a conception that can go beyond, for as long as univocal language is employed, a greater conception is always possible, even if never more than murkily grasped at.
In this sense then our descriptions of God must use equivocal language. God can truly be conceived of as being “powerful,” but not in the way that any other being is “powerful.” For any attribute that might be predicated of God, it cannot be univocally predicated, but rather equivocally. God doesn’t stand in relation to power as something that exists externally to him, but rather must be understood as the source of all power, or in perhaps the least inadequate language, is power itself. God does not have X units of power and other beings X number of units; rather God is power and anything which is powerful participates in that power relative to its being. Likewise, God can be analogously understood as a being, but his “being-ness” is not the same as any other being, but is rather infinitely removed.
As an analogy, one could conceive of the number one and then a number that is conceptually too large to grasp. One might say there is an infinite difference between 1 and whatever this number is, but that would not be accurate, as the distance between the two numbers can be exactly quantified, even if that quantification could never actually be accomplished.
However, the number 1 (in an ontological sense) “participates” in “number-ness.” “Number-ness” is the source of being a number and a particular number, and in this sense “contains” every number that could possibly be conceived. The distance between 1 and the largest number one might conceive is quantitatively vast, but the “distance” between any number and “number-ness” is qualitatively different.
God might be conceived of to analogously exist in relation to all other beings in this manner, as all beings “participate” in God’s being, and no matter how great their “being-ness” might be, it is qualitatively different from God. In fact, we can only speak of God being a “being” in an analogous sense; it would likely be least inadequate to say in a apophatic vein that in respect to all beings, God does not “have” being at all, since it is infinitely distinct.
Thus, the Ontological Argument seems to force the thinker to continuously take an apophatic turn in respect to every conception of God. The more we stack attribute upon attribute and being upon being, until we reach the limits of our mind and intellectually grasp beyond without virtual sight, the more we are forced to conclude that “this is not God” and divest our conception of any attribute, predicate or being of that which we conceive of it so as to say that “God is not this” rather than “God is this.”
Of course, this does not offer the same sort of “proof” as the Ontological Argument, but it does allow us to think of God less inadequately, in the seemingly paradoxical manner that the more we try to conceive of God, the less we grasp and understand and know. One comes to realize that God is ultimately beyond any conception, rather than the perfection of it, for the only way to conceive of God as he is would be to actually be God, as only an infinite mind could comprehend infinite “being.”
No matter how high we count, we will never arrive at infinity.