Real by Definition: The Ontological Proof of God

Taking concepts too seriously, and the social necessity of God and idols

Image by Mike, from

Even atheists can form the idea of the greatest possible being, of something that by definition would have to exist in reality rather than just in our imagination, so mustn’t there really be such a supreme being that we God?

This is a sketch of the so-called ontological proof of God first propounded by Saint Anselm, an argument that might better be called “conceptual” or “analytic” rather than “ontological,” as we’ll see. In any case, the argument’s tantalized theologians and philosophers for centuries because it seems at first glance to prove that God exists even though all the argument does is analyze the concept of God.

At the core of this type of argument is the suspicion that the very idea of God is itself miraculous and an indicator that the idea must have a divine origin. If you’re thinking of a mere fiction, you’re not thinking of God — and again, that’s simply by definition. To think of what God would have to be, you’d have to be thinking of something real; specifically, you’d have to be thinking of the greatest real thing. Therefore, to have that idea of God in your head is to affirm that God must be real, so God must really exist. God must then have implanted the concept of him in our mind to supply us with an escape from the clutches of the material plane.

Thinking is a Human Game

Like all the proofs of God’s existence, however, this one goes off the rails. The proof’s main fallacy is instructive since the argument presumes the human-centered outlook that’s central to theistic religions. In short, the ontological argument takes our concepts too seriously.

Concepts, after all, are rules or conventions, and to think in terms of a concept is to play a game in a broad sense. To be sure, thinking needn’t be just for fun; indeed, thinking can be a life-or-death matter. But thinking is game-like in that when you think outside the box, nobody else has to care what you’re doing.

The standard concept of the swan, for example, used to be of a certain large white bird with a long neck that lives in the water, so all licensed thoughts of swans had to follow that assumption; otherwise, you weren’t playing the intersubjective game of thinking about swans. The world didn’t care about that stereotype, though, and went ahead and produced black swans, which were found in Australia.

Our concepts are models that summarize our knowledge of one type of thing or another, and we choose to participate in a collective enterprise when we follow the conventional models in our thinking, which makes our thinking game-like.

Suppose, for example, Tommy’s speaking to Sheila about trees and he says, “Trees can walk just like people can.” Assuming Tommy’s being serious, Sheila would assume he’s working with a nonstandard concept of trees. Any tree which could walk like a person would likely be a member of a strange new type of life form, which means Tommy’s thought that trees can walk is forbidden by the conventional concept of trees. Instead of using the word “trees,” Tommy should have thought up a new word such as “Shrees.”

Take, then, the concept of God and grant the theist everything she wants to include in that concept. God would be the maximally perfect being and would all the perfections. Let’s pretend the notion of God is coherent and let’s grant also that God’s existence is possible. Using some deductive logic, we can string such premises together until we’re forced to conclude that God must really exist.

The argument is deductive and even modeled on mathematical modes of reasoning. This means the argument is actually an analysis of certain concepts, especially the concept of God. So we have certain concepts or mental models that force us to make certain cognitive moves, assuming we choose to play this cognitive game. But just as a child can pick up a chess piece and throw it across the room, as opposed to playing chess by the rules, the real world is quite free to disregard our concepts, models, and games.

Even if we were logically forced to conclude that God really exists, according to some logic and conceptual analysis, that wouldn’t mean God would really have to exist. All that would be entailed is a certain move in a cognitive game. Only thoughts are logically or conceptually entailed, not non-mental events such as something’s coming into existence outside our thoughts. As with all intersubjective games and concepts, the actuality of God’s existence would consist entirely of the fact that our concept of God is evocative.

Thinking is Pragmatic, not Metaphysically-Grounded

Think of the social game in which we suspend our disbelief and treat fictional characters as though they were real. We read about Harry Potter and we mentally model Hogwarts as though it were real, because that’s how fictional stories entertain us. The story remains fictional even though if you’re thinking of Harry Potter, you’re bound to think of his magic wand.

Similarly, there’s the much more fundamental cognitive game in which we form concepts to model the world, and we do so not mainly for the fun of it, but to survive by making sense of our experiences. These concepts can be modified and combined to form the concept of God. Short of empirical evidence that there is such a being, the mere concept of God may force us to concede that such a being would have to be real rather than fictional, by definition.

But the concept as a whole could be fictional all the same. Within the concept, God would seem real, just as within the world of Harry Potter, Harry has a magic wand. But stepping out of the concept and the narrative, we can see the character is fanciful. Indeed, detach yourself emotionally from the thought of either God or Harry Potter and you realize both are fantastic, since those characters themselves are no part of your experience of the world.

Contrary to the rationalist presumption that human thinking can mirror reality, because God created us and wants us to know the truth — which obviously begs the question of theism — our thinking is more like an animal’s desperate flailing to survive in a world that couldn’t care less whether we understand anything at all.

Our commitment to our concepts should be pragmatic, not assumed to be metaphysically grounded. We play certain games because they’re fun and we agree to follow certain social or cognitive conventions because doing so is useful. It may even be socially useful to believe that God exists, but that doesn’t mean the world outside our concepts or our games cares either way or is magically forced to correspond to even our best way of thinking.

The Social Necessity of God

So much for the empirical force of the so-called ontological “proof” of God’s existence. The proof is at best a philosophical meditation on God’s nature as a “necessary being,” but even there the proof misses the point. If anything, God isn’t ontologically necessary, but only socially or psychologically so.

There’s reason to think human societies depend on the worship of God or on something practically equivalent to that worship. The reasons for this are evolutionary and existential or psychological.

The evolutionary reason has to do with the so-called Law of Oligarchy, with nature’s strategy for managing social groups by concentrating power in the hands of a minority. This is why most social species divide themselves into pecking orders or dominance hierarchies, with the alpha ruling over the betas, and the betas ruling over gammas, and so on down the line. Social order is a compromise that prevents a breakout of total war and anarchy: power is distributed according to how genetic strength is showcased in our bodies and behaviour.

We instinctively worship the most powerful humans and fear powerful predators from foreign species. As Ludwig Feuerbach might say, the advent of monotheism was a mental projection of our attitude towards human kings and emperors; we extended the power structure of our tribes and kingdoms to encompass a global and even a universal power hierarchy. Instead of just King of Israel or Emperor of Assyria or Persia, there was the King of all Creation, the Lord Almighty.

In effect, at least, polytheists and monotheists extrapolate from how power is distributed in hierarchies of social animals, to how power should be dispersed in the most general terms. Specifically, natural forces and elements should obey the dominator with the most concentrated power, together with that dominator’s entourage. God and his angels or his fellow gods rule over Creation just as alpha wolves rule the wolf pack and human sovereigns dominate slaves and peasants.

The Existential Necessity of Idols

As for the existential basis of theism, we’re evidently appalled by the godless alternative, the happy-talk of secular humanists notwithstanding. If there’s no God and religions are woefully wrongheaded, the universe is alien and forbidding. We wouldn’t belong in the world as it is but would be obliged to build a more fitting, artificial world for us, because the emergence of life would be largely accidental.

We would have no underlying purpose, we shouldn’t expect justice or fairness from nature, and we’d have to come to terms with the inexorability of the full spectrum of death: death for you and me, death for our families and our nations, death for our favourite books and movies and for everything we love, death for our planet and for the sun and for all things in the universe.

God may be existentially necessary as a coping mechanism to ward off the psychological ills of atheism. More precisely, idols may be thusly necessary. As the theologian Paul Tillich said, “religious faith” can be usefully defined as ultimate concern. If we don’t care about the theistic God, we still care the most about something, and that thing will be especially sacred for us in the Durkheimian sense. We rally around our idols and totems, our memes and mantras because they reassure us with illusions of immortality and deeper meaning. These symbols dispense the content of the mass hallucination that prevents society from disintegrating into chaos.

We worship celebrities and delight in proving that they’re false gods, tearing them down in the tabloids and on social media to prepare for the next fad. “The king is dead! Long live the king!” None of these false gods fully satisfies, because the urge to worship is illegitimate according to the standards that really matter, which are ethical and aesthetic. Worship degrades us as we grovel before beastly dominators, petty bosses and bureaucrats, or before mere phantoms we project in our religious defenses.

As each celebrity disgraces himself or herself, proving unworthy and mocking the evolutionary strategy for distributing power, we can’t let the dream die, not unless we wish to live in the existential wilderness with the spiritual and intellectual elites. The majority aren’t fit for that fate, since they’d rather be happy and temporarily powerful with their delusions. So we cycle through our idols, replacing each in turn and rejuvenating our faith that the world isn’t wholly absurd.

This is the subtext of the Ontological Argument: God is at best a socially or psychologically necessary being, because we’re weak creatures that were never generally prepared to digest the awful truth.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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