Untitled Essay, Research Paper
Anselm’s Ontological Argument and the Philosophers Saint Anselm of Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury, perhaps during a moment of
starvation-induced hallucination, succeeded in formulating an argument for God’s existence
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
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
a step-by-step manner, asking for confirmation along the way, until he arrives at a
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
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
critical eye to see which side was best. Anselm had made up his mind about the issue long
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."
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
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
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
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
Copleston sums it up succinctly (for Anselm doesn’t): "it would be absurd to speak of
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
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
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
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
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
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
Man closer to God. "So, undoubtedly, a greater knowledge of the creative Being is
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
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
"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
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
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
white, cold, non-existent Budweiser. A thing either exists, with properties, or it
Descartes and Anselm would say you are making a logical contradiction by saying "God
exist" because of the fact that this statement conflicts with the very concept of God
property of existence, with Kant, making this sort of a statement involves no
postulating non-existence as a part of a thing’s concept sort of negates any argumentative
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
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
shifted in a certain way. But God is not bound by the constraints of causality; God
existing throughout all time. So in the concept of God is ‘existence’, as well as His
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
trouble and labour wasted. A man might as well expect to become richer in knowledge by the
mere ideas as a merchant to increase his wealth by adding some noughts to his
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
intersections of my life. It seems as if Church dogma these days accentuates the mystery
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
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by N. K. Smith. London, 1933 (2nd
Kierkegaard, Soren. Philisophical Fragments. Translated by D. F. Swenson. Princeton
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.