Untitled Essay Research Paper Anselm

Untitled Essay, Research Paper

Anselm’s Ontological Argument and the Philosophers Saint Anselm of Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury, perhaps during a moment of

enlightenment or

starvation-induced hallucination, succeeded in formulating an argument for God’s existence

which has

been debated for almost a thousand years. It shows no sign of going away soon. It is an


based solely on reason, distinguishing it from other arguments for the existence of God

such as

cosmological or teleological arguments. These latter arguments respectively depend on the


causes or design, and thus may weaken as new scientific advances are made (such as


theory of evolution). We can be sure that no such fate will happen to Anselm’s Ontological

Argument (the name, by the way, coined by Kant).

In form, Anselm’s arguments are much like the arguments we see in

philosophy today. In

Cur Deus Homo we read Anselm’s conversation with a skeptic. This sort of


form of argumentation (dialectic) is very much like the writings of Plato. The skeptic,


question’s Anselm’s faith with an array of questions non-believers still ask today. Anselm

answers in

a step-by-step manner, asking for confirmation along the way, until he arrives at a

conclusion with

which Boso is forced to agree. This is just like Socrates’ procedure with, say, Crito.

Later philosophers have both accepted and denied the validity of

Anselm’s famous

ontological argument for the existence of God, presented in both the Proslogium and


Anselm did not first approach the argument with an open mind, then examine its components

with a

critical eye to see which side was best. Anselm had made up his mind about the issue long

before he

began to use dialectic to attempt to dissect it. "Indeed, the extreme ardor which

impels him to search

everywhere for arguments favorable to the dogma, is a confession his part that the dogma


support, that it is debatable, that it lacks self-evidence, the criterion of truth."

(Weber, V)

In chapters 2-4 of his Proslogium, Anselm summarizes the argument. A

fool is one who

denies the existence of God. But even that fool understands the definition of God, "a

being than

which nothing greater can be conceived." But the fool says that this definition

exists only in his mind,

and not in reality. But, Anselm observes, a being which exists in both reality and in the


would be greater than one that merely exists only in the understanding. So the definition

of God, one

that points to "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived", points

toward a being which

exists both in reality and in the understanding. It would be impossible to hold the

conception of God

in this manner, and yet deny that He exists in reality.

The argument was criticized by one of Anselm’s contemporaries, a monk

named Gaunilo,

who said, that by Anselm’s reasoning, one could imagine a certain island, more perfect

than any other

island. If this island can exist in the mind, then according to Anselm, it would

necessarily exist in

reality, for a ‘perfect’ island would have this quality. But this is obviously false; we

cannot make

things exist merely by imagining them.

Anselm replied, upholding his argument (in many, many words) by saying

that they are

comparing apples and oranges. An island is something that can be thought of not to exist,


the non-existence of "that than which a greater cannot be conceived is

inconceivable." (Reply, ch..

3) Only for God is it inconceivable not to exist; mere islands or other things do not fit

this quality.

Copleston sums it up succinctly (for Anselm doesn’t): "it would be absurd to speak of

a merely

possible necessary being (it is a contradiction in terms), whereas there is no

contradiction in speaking

of merely possible beautiful islands.

St. Thomas Aquinas rejects the argument, saying that the human mind

cannot possibly

conceive of the idea of God by reason alone (a-priori), as Anselm might. The argument does


make sense by itself, and must first provide an idea of the existence of God with an

analysis of God’s

effects (a-posteriori), to which Thomas turns. I think there is evidence in Anselm’s

writings that he

would disagree, saying that the idea of God is an innate one given to us by God, and needs

no other

revelation to bring it about. "Hence, this being, through its greater likeness, assists the

investigating mind in the approach

to supreme Truth; and through its more excellent created essence, teaches the more

correctly what

opinion the mind itself ought to form regarding the Creator." (Monologium, ch. 66) Although St. Thomas was obviously a believer, he was not swayed by the

idea of reason

alone being sufficient to prove God’s existence. His objection of the human mind’s

capability to

ascertain God is echoed by other philosophers such as Kierkegaard (who was also a


"The paradoxical passion of the Reason thus comes repeatedly into collision with the


cannot advance beyond this point. [Of God:] How do I know? I cannot know it, for in order


know it, I would have to know the God, and the nature of the difference between God and

man; and

this I cannot know, because the Reason has reduced it to likeness with that from which it


unlike." (Kierkegaard, 57)

Anselm disagrees, and explains why illumination of God through rational

discourse brings

Man closer to God. "So, undoubtedly, a greater knowledge of the creative Being is

attained, the

more nearly the creature through which the investigation is made approaches that


(Monologium, ch. 66)

Descartes restates Anselm’s argument for his own purposes, which

include defining what

sorts of knowledge is around that is grounded in certainty. Most later philosophers tend

to use

Decartes’ formulation of the argument in their analyses. Required for Descartes’ project

is God, who

granted humans the reasoning capability with which we can cognate truths. The form of


argument he uses involves defining ‘existence’ as one of God’s many perfections.

"Existence is a part

of the concept of a perfect being; anyone who denied that a perfect being had the property


would be like someone who denied that a triangle had the property three-sidedness…the


cannot conceive of triangularity without also conceiving of three-sidedness…the mind


conceive of perfection without also conceiving of existence." (Fifth Meditation)

Several philosophers ask what properties necessarily should be ascribed

to God, and if

existence is one of them. Lotze asks how a being’s real existence logically follows from


perfectness. This deduction, Lotze says, satisfies our sentimental values that our ideals

must exist.

"Why should this thought [a perfect being's unreality] disturb us? Plainly for this

reason, that it is an

immediate certainty that what is greatest, most beautiful, most worthy, is not a mere

thought, but must

be a reality, because it would be intolerable to believe [otherwise]. If what is greatest

did not exist,

then what is the greatest would not be, and it is not impossible that that which is

greatest of all

conceivable things should not be." (Lotze, 669) The mind can contrive wonderful and


things. Where is the fallacy in thinking of a perfect, unreal something?

Descartes’ formulation which ascribes ‘existence’ to a most perfect

being leads us to the most

famous objection to Anselm’s argument, from Kant. Kant has a problem with treating

‘existence’ as

a property of a thing, that it makes no sense to talk of things which have the property of


and others which do. Consider the plausible situation of asking my roommate Matthew to get

me a

beer. "What kind of beer?" he replies. "Oh, Budweiser. And a cold one, at

that. Also an existing

one, if you’ve got any," I might specify. Something just seems amiss.

For Kant, when you take away ‘existence’ from a concept of a thing,

there is nothing left to

deal with. It makes no sense to talk of an omniscient, all-powerful, all-good God, nor of

a red-and-

white, cold, non-existent Budweiser. A thing either exists, with properties, or it

doesn’t. Where

Descartes and Anselm would say you are making a logical contradiction by saying "God

does not

exist" because of the fact that this statement conflicts with the very concept of God

including the

property of existence, with Kant, making this sort of a statement involves no

contradiction. For

postulating non-existence as a part of a thing’s concept sort of negates any argumentative

power that

the concept’s other qualities might have had. A concept of a thing should focus on its


qualities, such as cold and Budweiser, rather than on its existence.

Anselm’s original reply to Gaulino might be applicable here in a

defense against Kant.

Perhaps it is possible to deny the existence of mere things (be they islands or

Budweisers) without

logical contradiction, but in the case of a most-perfect being, ‘existence’ must be part

of its concept.

Perhaps it is possible that an island can be said not to have existed, maybe if tectonic

plates hadn’t

shifted in a certain way. But God is not bound by the constraints of causality; God

transcends cause,

existing throughout all time. So in the concept of God is ‘existence’, as well as His

various other

attributes. So to say "God does not exist" is contradictory, after all.

Kant counters this with a devastating blow. He reduces the ontological

argument to a

tautology:"The concept of an all-perfect being includes existence."

"We hold this concept in our minds, therefore the being must exist."

"Thus, an existent being exists."

Even if we grant the argument numerous favors, letting it escape from

plenty of foibles, in the

end, it still doesn’t really tell us anything revealing. "All the trouble and labour

bestowed on the

famous ontological or Cartesian proof of the existence of a supreme Being from concepts

alone is

trouble and labour wasted. A man might as well expect to become richer in knowledge by the

aid of

mere ideas as a merchant to increase his wealth by adding some noughts to his

cash-account." (Kant,


Anselm’s argument was not designed to convince unbelievers, but to be

food for believers

like Gaunilo who wished see what results the tool of dialectic will bring if applied to

the question of

God. While today the argument seems weak, or even whimsical, it is a brave attempt to go


dogma in explaining God. The argument "must stand or fall by its sheer dialectical

force. A principal

reason of our difficulty in appreciating its power may well be that pure dialectic makes

but a weak

appeal to our minds." (Knowles, 106)

I think I stand with St. Thomas and Kierkegaard in this matter, for it

seems that a purely

logical argument of God’s existence is somewhat out of place. One must be in a position of


seeking understanding", in an a-posteriori state of mind to appreciate an a-priori

proof such as this.

This is somewhat odd and unsettling, for I tend to agree with logically sound arguments at

all other

intersections of my life. It seems as if Church dogma these days accentuates the mystery

of God,

staying away from reasoning such as Anselm’s to attract followers. For to have faith in

the mystery is

what is admirable. One should not be tempted to attend church smugly because it is

illogical not to.

Anselm. Proslogium, Monologium, Cur Deus Homo. with introduction by Weber, translated by


N. Deane. Open Court, La Salle, 1948.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Image Books, New York, 1994.

Honderich, Ted (editor). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, New

York, 1995.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by N. K. Smith. London, 1933 (2nd


Kierkegaard, Soren. Philisophical Fragments. Translated by D. F. Swenson. Princeton


Press, 1962.

Knowles, David. The Evolution of Medieval Thought. Random House, New York, 1962.

Lotze, Rudolf. Microcosmus. Translated by Hamilton and Jones. Edinburgh, 1887.

Southern, Richard. Saint Anselm. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. Westview Press, Boulder, 1993.


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