St. Anselm lived from approximately 1033 to 1109. He was an Italian prelate, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the founder of Scholasticism (which is defined by the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia as the “philosophy and theology of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages”). In addition, he originated the ontological argument for the existence of God.
The ontological argument may perhaps best be described as a group of arguments, all of which claim to derive the existence of God from an analysis of the concept of God. (“Ontology” is concerned with the study of being.) Many philosophers, including René Descartes (1596-1650) and the 20th-century philosopher Norman Malcolm, have written versions of the ontological argument. Whether the ontological argument is valid is still being hotly debated today.
St. Anselm writes down the ontological argument in his Proslogion. He has one version of the argument in Chapter 2, and a second version in Chapter 3. We will examine these arguments separately.
The First Argument
St. Anselm begins this argument by stating what it is that we understand God to be:
And, indeed, we believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
This definition is understood by all, even atheists, whom St. Anselm calls fools:
But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak — a being than which nothing greater can be conceived — understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.
This understanding of God does exist, since both the believer and the atheist understand that this is what God is. However, we still need to discover whether God exists in reality or whether God exists only in the understanding.
To clarify the two kinds of existence, St. Anselm uses as an example a conception of a painting and a real painting:
For it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.
The atheist would say that a conception of God exists in the understanding; that is, even an atheist understands that God is “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” However, an atheist would deny that God exists as an actual being. (Using the Latin phrases, an atheist would say that the conception of God exists in intellectubut that God does not exist in re.)
So far, we have established the existence of one thing: God as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived” exists in the understanding. This is something to which both the believer and the atheist give assent. St. Anselm writes:
Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding.
St. Anselm will examine the consequences of this fact: the fact that a particular conception of God exists in the understanding of both the believer and the atheist. St. Anselm comes to his conclusion that God exists both in the understanding and in reality by the use of an indirect argument. He shows that denying what he wishes to prove leads to an absurdity.
St. Anselm’s indirect argument starts with a premise that he has already established: Our conception of God is of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. He also has showed that this conception of God exists in the understanding.
Next, St. Anselm examines the following statement: “A being than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone and not in reality.” (This statement denies what St. Anselm wishes to prove; St. Anselm wishes to prove that “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in reality.”) On examining this assumption, St. Anselm sees that it leads to an absurdity. If the assumption is true, then this conception that exists in the understanding alone would be greater than the same conception that exists bothin the understanding and in reality.
St. Anselm believes that something that exists in reality is greater than something that exists only in the understanding. Most of us would agree with this. We would much rather have a real $100 bill in our pocket than an imaginary $100 bill. We would also much rather have a real painting by Picasso hanging in our homes than an imaginary painting by Picasso.
In St. Anselm’s words,
And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.
Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.
The Second Argument
We can look at Chapter 3 of St. Anselm’s Proslogionas explaining further that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Apparently, St. Anselm believed that God has necessary existence (though he did not use those words), which means that God necessarily exists. According to St. Anselm and many other theologians, God has always existed and always will exist. In St. Anselm’s words:
And it [a being than which nothing greater can be conceived] exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist.
If we are thinking of “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived,” then we are thinking of a being whose nonexistence is impossible; in fact, we are thinking of a being whose nonexistence cannot be thought of. After all, if we think of a being whose nonexistence can be thought of, then we can conceive of a greater being — a being whose nonexistence cannot be thought of.
Gaunilo: “On Behalf of the Fool”
Gaunilo was a monk who was a contemporary of St. Anselm. Gaunilo read St. Anselm’s Proslogionand thought he detected an error in St. Anselm’s argument. To illustrate the error, Gaunilo used another argument that he believed had the same form as St. Anselm’s argument.
Gaunilo said to think of the most perfect island. Because the island is most perfect, it therefore must exist. Of course, Gaunilo believed that this argument is faulty. However, if Gaunilo’s argument is faulty, then St. Anselm’s argument is also faulty because — according to Gaunilo — it has the same form as Gaunilo’s argument.
However, we can ask if Gaunilo’s criticism is correct. St. Anselm replied in effect that God has necessary existence (though, as stated above, St. Anselm did not use those words). Only God — if God exists — has necessary existence. No island, no matter how perfect, has necessary existence.
We can also ask if the most perfect island is truly analogous to God. The most perfect island is the most perfect among things of the same kind. (The most perfect island is the most perfect among islands.) However, we don’t think of God as the greatest among things of the same kind. (The Judeo-Christian God is not the greatest among gods.) Therefore, the two arguments are not truly similar.
In conclusion, let me say that I leave it up to the reader to decide whether the ontological argument is a good argument.
Note: The quotations by St. Anselm that appear in this essay are from his Proslogion, translated by S. N. Deane.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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