St. Anselm and the Ontological Argument

by Crinis Villa

The following is a brief summary of the ontological argument for the existence of God, as presented by St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Ontology is the theory of being. This branch of philosophy attempts to answer such questions as: What is real? What is the relationship between the mind and the body? Thus Anselm's ontological proof attempts to answer the question of whether or not God is real.

A few things are interesting about the argument. One is that he makes no appeal to sense data, his proof relies on pure reason (In philosophical terms, this is called a priori). Second, he equates the phrase "most perfect" with "most real." (Both of these observations demonstrate how heavily Anselm was influenced by Plato.)

Anselms' argument begins with a reference to fool in Psalms 53:1, " who says in heart, 'There is no God.'" But, according to Anselm, 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 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.... 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... and this being thou art, O Lord, our God.

Since Anselm's argument requires even that the fool can reason the existence of God, try out his argument (presumably, you are not a fool, though to Anselm, it would hardly matter). Imagine the most perfect being you can think of. If you are Anselm, this being resembles the traditional Christian God, that is, one who is all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal, and unchangeable. After you have imagined such a being, ask yourself the following question: Does the being you conceived exist entirely in your head? If the answer is yes, then this being clearly isn't the most perfect being conceivable. A being who exists both in your mind and extramentally would be even more perfect. Therefore, according to Anselm, if it's possible to conceive of a most perfect being, such a being necessarily exists.

This logic is transparently flawed, besides his obvious overstatement that the god he just proved into existence is the Christian one. Before I address that, let me include what a contemporary to Anselm had to say about the ontological argument. Gaunilon made the following objections on the behalf of the fool.

1.It is, in fact, impossible to conceive of "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived." The very project boggles the mind.
2.If Anselm's argument were valid, then it would follow that the mere ability to conceive of a perfect tropical island would logically entail the existence of such an island.

Anselm had the last word. Here is his simple rebuttle.

1.If you understand the phrase "most perfect being," then you already have conceived of such a being.
2.There is nothing in the definition of a tropical island that entails perfection, but the very definition of God entails that he be all-perfect, so it is impossible to conceive of God as lacking a perfection; and since it is obviously more perfect to be than not to be, the bare conception of God entails his existence.

Thus, Anselm's reasons, the sentence "God does not exist" is a self-contradictory sentence. That is why only a fool could utter it.

If God is possible, if the idea of an all-perfect and necessary being contains no contradiction, God must exist, since it would be absurd to speak of a merely possible necessary being, whereas there is no contradiction in speaking of a merely possible beautiful island.

Over 900 years have passed since Anselm described the ontological argument. Many people have refuted it; Some have fervently defended it. Today, there are still those who think the reasoning of Anselm is, more or less, reasonable.

René Descartes, a supporter of the ontological argument, had to adapt it make it work. His main objection was that we cannot know a priori that the idea of God, the idea of infinite and absolute perfection, is the idea of a possible being. There may not be any contradiction in the idea, but this absence of contradiction is not the same as the presence of possibility. It does not demonstrate a contradiction until we have proven a posteriori (through sense data) that God already exists.

Let me clarify. As a human being, we are born without knowledge of infinity and perfection. Thus, if we chose to define God, as Anselm had done, as infinite and absolute perfection, then we are actually appealing to information that is not a priori. Anselm's equation may be correct, but it does not introduce the possibility of God until we can show that the definition of God is defined as Anselm believed.

Descartes thought he provided the necessary proof that God could be known a posteriori, thus validating the proof. I'm not going to provide that proof here, because, as Monty Python so aptly put it, "René Decartes was a drunkin' fart." His entire philosophy makes too many appeals to the existence of Platonic concepts. (read on to find out more about this objection.) It is also important to remember that Descartes wrote his famous work Meditations to distract the Brothers of the Inquisition from his heretical work in physics. (It worked! That's why today we learn about Cartesian coordinates in math class.)

Immanuel Kant also felt that Anselm erred, but not for the same reasons as Descartes. For Kant the major flaw lies in Anselm's grammar. Kant felt that any proof of God's existence must fail, as it must involve improperly applying the notions of space, time, and causality to an external reality which he called "the noumenal world." This other reality is something the human mind is incapable of knowing. He also felt there was no a priori foundation to such notions as 'God' and 'soul.' (Descartes had presume these two ideas were known a priori so that his a posteriori proof could work.) Kant felt that Anselm incorrectly asserted a relationship between what the mind conceives as reality and what the ultimate reality is really like. (Incidently, Kant disagreed with Decartes' famous premise, 'cogito, ergo sum,' or 'I think, therefore I am.', because Decartes tried to use logic to prove existence.)

The last objection in this article is my own 2¢, though it can also be considered a summary of the philosophical thoughts of others without directly appealing to a philosopher in particular.

I think St. Anselm borrowed from Plato without making sense of Plato. While Plato has had a heavy hand influencing philosophy, science, and religion for the past few millenia, this does not make him correct.

Plato argued that there existed perfect, ethereal, unchanging things called 'Forms.' They exist external to the world we observe. Everything in the world is an imperfect reflection of a Form. There is an apple, which comes in many sizes, shapes, and varieties. Somewhere in the heavens is the Form apple, which encompasses everything an apple could be, all sizes, shapes, and varieties. (Granny Smith and Golden Delicious!) To Plato, these were the most real things. The world we observe is but a shadow of the ultimate reality.

Anselm effectively states that the more perfect something is, the more real it is. God then, by definition, is the most real entity in the universe. However, what does Anselm mean by perfect? When I asked you above to imagine the most perfect being imaginable, did you conceive the same thing as Anselm? Anselm intends perfect to mean the same thing as what Plato means by perfect, which is completely indefensible as a foundation for an a priori proof. I do not know, nor can I know what perfection means a priori. (Plato would disagree, but John Locke demonstrated how Plato had erred.)

It becomes obvious that Anselm has superfluously inserted equal signs between concepts which themselves have no meaningful definitions. Because Anselm can create a definition for a 'necessary perfect being' and label it 'God,' it is a non sequitur to presume that his equations are true with any more validity that if I create a definition for a 'perfect necessary tropical island,' and label it 'Île de Shaggy.' If Anselm's proof could withstand this scrutiny, then any god in any religion could become real simply by conceiving it, hardly Anselm's intended consequence.

Anselm deserves much credit for a valiant effort to will God into existence. However other humans have learned that mind over matter is merely metaphorical. No matter how much mental effort I may exert, my tropical island does not appear. The same is true for Anselm's God. If anyone having read this still thinks Anselm proved God, then come to my island and lets talk it over.

Palmer, Donald, Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter, 1994, 2nd Edition

Copleston, Frederick, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Volume II: Medieval Philosophy, 1950

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"In vino veritas, sed in religione non est." - Crinis Villa

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