Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Kant's Objection to the Ontological Argument

(For my MCCC Philosophy of Religion students. This is my last semester of teaching at MCCC. So, for one final time, I will explain Kant's criticism of the Ontological Argument.)

Oral exam question #3: explain Kant's criticism of the Ontological Argument.

Here are the bullet points.

1. Kant says "exists" (or "being") is not a predicate (= "attribute"). For Kant there are two types of predicates: Logical (analytic) and determining (synthetic). This is important since Anselm's OA requires "actual existence" to be a predicate (attribute) of "greatest possible being."

2. A "logical" or "analytic" predicate analyzes the subject, but adds nothing to the concept of the subject. A "determining" or "synthetic" predicate adds something to the concept of the subject.

3. In a subject-predicate statement, "exists" is the "copula" that connects subject and predicate.

4. If "exists" were a real predicate then we would have the absurd situation that "the real contains more than the merely possible." (Use Kant's $100 example here.)

5. Anselm's Ontological Argument fails because it depends on "actual existence" being a real predicate that adds something to the concept of the subject "God."

6. State Norman Malcolm's response to Kant re. "necessary existence." Malcolm agrees with Kant that "exists" is not a predicate. But Malcolm think Anselm meant, not "existence," but "necessary existence." "Necessary existence" does seem to be a predicate. For example: My wife Linda necessarily exists. This statement seems to make an outrageous claim; viz., that my wife Linda cannot not-exist. It attributes necessary existence to her, and thus seems to function as a predicate or attribute.


Kant’s criticism of the Ontological Argument is that "exists," or "existence," is not a "predicate." By "predicate" we mean "attribute," or "quality."

Anselm's version of the Ontological Argument depends on "existence" being a "great-making attribute." But if "existence" is not an attribute at all, then Anselm's argument seems to fail. This is Kant's criticism. "Exists," Kant says, "is not a predicate."

Consider the form of a subject-predicate statement: S is p. 'S' denotes the subject, 'p' denotes the predicate. For example, John's car is red. "Red" is the predicate, or attribute, of the subject "John's car." "Redness" is predicated of "John's car." Or: "redness" is an attribute of "John's car."

In the statement John's car is red, where do we find "existence?" "Exists" is found, says Kant, in the verb "is." "Is" is the "copula" (connector) that connects subject and predicate. The verb "is," in the statement John's car is red, simply posits the existence of John's red car. And, this adds nothing to our concept (idea) of the subject.

Kant writes: "'Being' is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment."

What does that mean? Here is an example to illustrate that "exists" (or "being," "is-ness") is not a real attribute or predicate.

Consider this. I'm going to tell you some things about my wife Linda. I'll do this by making a series of subject-predicate statements, predicating attributes of the subject "My wife Linda."

  • My wife Linda is 5'6" tall.
  • My wife Linda has long brown hair.
  • My wife Linda is a sushi-lover.
  • My wife Linda is a piano teacher.
All these predicates add something to the concept "My wife Linda." But consider this:
  • My wife Linda exists.
That adds nothing to the subject "My wife Linda." It functions more like a tautology: My existing wife Linda has the attribute of existence. That statement is tautological (redundant), which means the predicate simply repeats the subject.

Try this.

You go for a job interview. The interviewer asks you to describe yourself, which is another way of listing your attributes. You respond:

  • I have computer skills.
  • I graduated from Harvard.
  • I have worked for Steve Jobs as his personal assistant.
  • I invented the iPhone.
The interviewer, his eyes wide open and jaw dropping to the floor, is amazed! Probably, he wants to hire you. But then you open your mouth and say...

"Here's one more thing about myself, one more attribute I have that I want to share with you: I exist."

That was a bad move. Because "exists" is not an attribute. And you just lost the job.

Kant further explains this by saying, "The real contains no more than the merely possible." But if "exists" was a real predicate, then the real would contain more than the possible, but that is absurd.

You say to me, “Please go to the bank and withdraw a hundred dollars.” That is, you have in your mind the idea of one hundred dollars. I go to the bank with that idea in mind and make the withdrawal. But upon making the withdrawal I now have, instead of an idea of a hundred dollars in my mind, an actually existing one hundred dollars in my hand.

Is the concept of a hundred dollars in my mind any different than the actual hundred dollars in my hand? If you answer “Yes,” then is it because the hundred dollars in my hand actually exists? In other words, is “existence” a predicate of the hundred dollars I hold in my hand? If you say “Yes” to this, then the hundred dollars in my hand is different than the hundred dollars in your mind. I will have withdrawn from the bank something different than what you asked me to withdraw. I withdrew something that has an extra “predicate” which your idea did not have.

You are thinking of $100. If we then add that the $100 "exists," in asserting that it exists we add nothing to the concept of the $100. The $100 is the same whether it exists or not; it is the same size, the same weight, the same colour, the same value, etc. The fact that the $100 exists, that the concept-of-$100-in-the-mind is exemplified in the world, does not change anything about the concept-of-$100. Therefore “existence” is not a real, or first-order, predicate.

A real predicate adds something to the concept, which is the subject of the judgment. If the actual $100 has a predicate (“existence”) which the idea of $100 does not have, then they are not the same thing. And the thing I withdrew was not what you had in mind. Which seems absurd. I don't wish to say, "Here is the $100 you were thinking about but it has the extra attribute of "existence."

Kant writes:
"A hundred real dollars do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible dollars. For as the latter signify the concept, and the former the object and the positing of the object, should the former contain more than the latter, my concept would not, in that case, express the whole object, and would not therefore be an adequate concept of it. My financial position is, however, affected very differently by a hundred real dollars than it is by the mere concept of them (that is, of their possibility). For the object, as it actually exists, is not analytically contained in my concept, but is added to my concept (which is a determination of my state) synthetically; and yet the conceived hundred dollars are not themselves in the least increased through thus acquiring existence outside my concept. . . ."
(By "analytically contained" Kant means a predicate that adds nothing to the concept of the subject, such as in the statement: John the bachelor is not married. A "synthetic" judgment contains a predicate that adds something to the subject, because it is not analytically contained in the subject, such as: John the bachelor is 99 years old.)

Therefore existence is not a predicate. It merely posits the existence of the concept in mind. As Kant puts it, a hundred real dollars contains as much as a hundred imaginary dollars. 

"The real contains no more than the possible."

For Kant to say that something "exists" is to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified in the world. Existence, then, is not a matter of a thing possessing a property, "existence," but of a concept corresponding to something in the world.

Anselm's version of the Ontological Argument, at this point, seems to fail.

Kant writes of this in his Critique of Pure Reason