The Ontological Argument: Anselm

Today I give the first post in my new series on Natural Theology. I plan on discussing arguments for the existence of God, and giving the pros and cons against them. I may follow up on it in later weeks and continue to give different approaches and thoughts on it.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) 1 was an 11th century bishop who started his career as a Benedictine Monk in the Monastery at Bec, and wound up being Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death in 1109. He was, broadly speaking, a Neoplatonist. This was a world-view which he had inherited from Augustine of Hippo, who influenced Anselm greatly. By the end of his life he had published many works on theology, including works on the Trinity 2 and the Atonement, as well as works of Philosophy. In his tract De Veritate he lays the groundwork for a Christian Epistemology based on Neoplatonic ideas. Roughly speaking, he believes there is an absolute truth of which all other truth partakes, and that we come to know by coming to know other truth; and that without we could know nothing.

He is best known, perhaps, among philosophers for two sets of works. The first is the Monologion, is an outline of Theistic Proofs for the Existence of God. After completing that however, Anselm wished to find a single argument that could prove that God existed by definition, and not only that God exists, but that he is the supreme good upon which all else depends and exists. And so he writes his Proslogion, to put forth this argument which he frames thus:

Therefore, Lord, you who give knowledge of the faith, give me as much knowledge as you know to be fitting for me, because you are as we believe and that which we believe. And indeed we believe you are something greater than which cannot be thought. Or is there no such kind of thing, for “the fool said in his heart, ‘there is no God’” But certainly that same fool, having heard what I just said, “something greater than which cannot be thought,” understands what he heard, and what he understands is in his thought, even if he does not think it exists. For it is one thing for something to exist in a person’s thought and quite another for the person to think that thing exists. For when a painter thinks ahead to what he will paint, he has that picture in his thought, but he does not yet think it exists, because he has not done it yet. Once he has painted it he has it in his thought and thinks it exists because he has done it. Thus even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought. And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater. If, therefore, that than which greater cannot be thought exists in thought alone, then that than which greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which something greater actually can be thought, but that is obviously impossible. Therefore something than which greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in thought and in reality.

Anselm starts by defining God as “A being which nothing greater can be conceived.” Using this definition he then puts forth a simple argument, which I will reformulate into clearer terms than the above:

  1. God is a thing which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality than to exist solely in the mind. 3
  3. If God does not exist, then we can conceive of a greater being, namely one that exists in reality, therefore that being must exist and must be God.
  4. Therefore: God exists in reality.
  5. Therefore: God exists.

This argument, for better or for worse, has been talked about for many centuries. Most people suggest there has to be something wrong with it, but they disagree over exactly where the misstep is. It is not exactly obvious.

Even his contemporaries were not pleased with it. Guanilo of Marmoutiers wrote a response to Anselm in his book, Liber De Insipiente, where he basically parodies the argument, trying to show that Anselm is mistaken in his idea that this form of logic can work. If it works, than absolutely anything is possible, is the idea. The parody argument goes thus:

“Welcome to the Lost Island. Fantasy Island.”

  1. The Lost Island is an island greater than which none can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality than in the mind alone.
  3. If the Lost Island does not exist, then you can conceive of an even greater island, then that one must exist.
  4. Therefore: The lost island exists.

This argument, however, seems to miss the mark on its intended goal. It’s goal was to show that if the argument is valid in an obviously false case, then it cannot be used to show the true one with any more certainty. The problem here is that Guanilo did not understand the nuance of Anselm’s position. Anselm first off, postulated a thing of which nothing greater than can be conceived, but Guanilo postulated an Island, which precludes the possibility of the argument being effective at all on it. The argument goes that any thing which is the greatest conceivable thing must exist. The island therefore, can not exist4, because it could be out-conceived by a non-island.5 You might be able to revise it to include something like Premise 1 in Anslem’s argument; which is “The Lost Island is  a thing of which none greater could be conceived.” But then you’d have to justify why an island is the greatest of all conceivable things.

Further, I think Guanilo misses another nuance of the position, that Anselm did not flush out. If we revise the argument to look like this:

  1. A being greater than which nothing can be conceived is a thought which is understood by any who hear it.
  2. In order for something to be understood by a hearer the object being talked about must exist in the mind.
  3. If something exists only in the mind it is inferior to an object that exists both in the mind and reality.
  4. “A being greater than which nothing can be conceived” would obviously be better than a being that existed only in the mind.
  5. Therefore: said being exists both in the mind and in reality.

The key difference is now that “is a thought which is understood by any who hear it.” Anselm, in combination with his idea about truth given in De Veritate, is roughly saying that everyone will at least roughly agree on what the greatest conceivable thing is, even if they don’t like it. Guanilo’s counter-objection does not follow then, because what makes the greatest possible island might not be agreed upon. I for example, like peace and quiet, and would like an island with a steady climate, books and easy to reach fruit. My girlfriend on the other hand, being an active person and a lover of people, might want there to be resorts and dances and events she could go and do and see. My brother might wish for an island with dangerous animals to pit his skills against, or at least seemingly dangerous ones. So it seems much harder to pin down what might make something great. Infinity. Anselm does spend the rest of the Proslogion showing exactly what kind of attributes this sort of thing would have. The following is just the table of contents of the Proslogion:

CHAPTER III: That God Cannot be Thought Not to Exist
CHAPTER IV: How the Fool Managed to Say in His Heart That Which Cannot be Thought
CHAPTER V: That God is whatever it is better to be than not to be, and that existing through Himself alone He makes all other beings from nothing
CHAPTER VI: How He is perceptive although He is not a body
CHAPTER VII: How He is omnipotent although He cannot do many things
CHAPTER VIII: How He is both merciful and impassible
CHAPTER IX: How the all-just and supremely just One spares the wicked and justly has mercy on the wicked
CHAPTER X: How He justly punishes and justly spares the wicked
CHAPTER XI: How ‘all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth’, and yet how ‘the Lord is just in all His ways’
CHAPTER XII: That God is the very life by which He lives and that he same holds for like attributes
CHAPTER XIII: How He alone is limitless and eternal, although other spirits are also limitless and eternal
CHAPTER XIV: How and why God is both seen and not seen by those seeking Him
CHAPTER XV: How He is greater than can be thought
CHAPTER XVI: That this is the ‘inaccessible light’ in which He ‘dwells’
CHAPTER XVII: That harmony, fragrance, sweetness, softness, and beauty are in God according to His own ineffable manner
CHAPTER XVIII: That there are no parts in God or in His eternity which He is
CHAPTER XIX: That He is not in place or time but all things are in Him
CHAPTER XX: That He is before and beyond even all eternal things
CHAPTER XXI: Whether this is the ‘age of the age’ or the ‘ages of the ages’
CHAPTER XXII: That He alone is what He is and who He is
CHAPTER XXIII: That this good is equally Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and that this is the one necessary being which is altogether and wholly and solely good
CHAPTER XXIV: A speculation as to what kind and how great this good is
CHAPTER XXV: Which goods belong to those who enjoy this good and how great they are
CHAPTER XXVI: Whether this is the ‘fullness of joy’ which the Lord promises

A summary then of the properties he believes God to have are
1. Metaphysical Necessity.
2. Self-existent.
3. Perceptive.
4. Immaterial.
5. Omnipotent.
6. Just.
7. Merciful.
8. Timeless.
9. Spaceless.
10. Simple.

While it might be hard to get people to agree on all of these being the greatest possible things, surely at least some of them seem intuitive. Something which is omnipotent and self-existent and necessary, seems greater than something which is impotent and contingent. Justice and Mercy might be omitted from the list, but still it seems like Anselm has something going for him. His argument just might make it out.

Until we get to Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant famously attacks Anselm’s Ontological Argument (and is actually where we get the term ‘ontological argument.’) in his Critique of Pure Reason. In his Critique, Kant levies a series of arguments related to the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments that directly attack the plausibility of the premises of the argument. Analytic judgments are judgments wherein the information of the premise is already inside the premise. (ex. “All bachelors are unmarried.”) They are tautologies and  give no new information about the subject during analysis. Synthetic judgments on the other hand do give us information about a subject. (Ex. “The book is on the desk.”) In our example sentence, we have the subject ‘book’ and the predicate ‘on the desk’ and ‘desk’ is no where contained within the idea of ‘book’ and so we have learned something new about this book, namely it’s relation to the idea of ‘desk’.

After making these distinctions Kant argues that the idea of a necessary being is incoherent. If the Ontological argument is intended to be Analytic in nature, then the statement “God exists” is only true because of the definition we ascribe to the terms. (I.e. “If God exists then he exists.”) but you could easily have an incorrect definition, or believe that God exists falsely. (If bigfoot exists, then he exists.) However, if it’s intended to be a Synthetic statement, then the knowledge required to prove God would be outside of God himself, and is not an a priori judgment then.

This is a pretty detrimental attack on Anselm’s argument as he phrased it. It even takes to task particular attributes of God that Anselm puts forth as being part of the Maximally Great being such as “Not being able to not exist.” Kant claims that in order for a contradiction to arise in a sentence, the subject and predicate must be maintained throughout it. He argued that non-existence then could not be a contradiction with anything, because that would deny the predicate. So there is no way to arrive with a contradiction through non existence.

He concludes his attacks on the argument by concluding that “‘being’ is obviously not a real predicate.” 6 It does not add any information to the definition of something only indicates that it actually occurs in reality.7 He argued that the ontological argument depends on existence to be a predicate and thus it is possible for a maximally great being to not exist and thusly he refutes Anselm.

Can Anselm’s argument survive this attack?

Possibly. 

Immediately preceding Anselm(b. 1033) lived a man the Latinate world came to know as Avicenna(980-1037)8 Avicenna was, and perhaps still is, one of the most important philosophers of the Arabic World. He derived several arguments that showed how there must be a necessary existence, because everything in the universe(even the universe itself) is obviously contingent. Without belaboring the argument too much (since I will be dealing with it later) it seems that Avicenna may be able to rush to his Latinate successor’s rescue.

If, instead of using ‘existence’ as a property of the maximally great being you can show that ‘necessary existence’ is a property of the maximally great being, then you could defeat Kant’s objection. This is because “If a God exists, he necessarily exists.” Because it is in the conditional tense it is still possible to reject this premise, it does have the unfortunate effect of weakening the ontological argument. It can now no longer be used to prove God and all his properties. But it could still be useful as a sort of ‘capstone’ argument in a cumulative case for God.

So sadly, I ultimately think Anselm failed at his goal for coming up with a single argument to show both that God exists and that he has all the properties we believe he does. He does however, come up with a concept of an argument that could unite all the other arguments for God’s existence and serve as a sort of capstone argument. He also succeeds in creating what is known as “Perfect Being Theology” which is taking God’s attributes and stretching them as far as logically possible. So when God is said to be ‘almighty’ we can extend this as far as is logically possible and take him to be this way in the greatest conceivable way. This form of theology is incredibly useful in both apologetics and personal theology.

That does not mean I think it’s the end for the Ontological Argument. As we’ll see there are several modal versions which I think are useful and we’ll look at later, starting with one put forth by Alvin Plantinga.


  1. Sometimes also known as Anselm of Aosta after his hometown, or Anselm of Bec after his home monastery. 
  2. His works on the Trinity are interesting in that they draw on Augustine’s De Trinitate where Augustine uses himself and how the mind relates to itself, to show how a trinity might conceivably exist. What’s fascinating is that a similar line of reasoning is used in Ibn-Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” when Hayy is coming to an awareness of the Unity and Multiplicity of the Necessary Existent. 
  3. I take it then that Anselm probably has a problem with nominalistic existences of entities such as numbers, properties, etc. However, this could also be a reference to Aristotle’s active intellect, which contemporary and earlier Arabic thinkers had thought enabled us to know things by relating the forms of things to particulars. This is farfetched though and is wildly speculative on my part, and I find little in the texts to support it. 
  4. This does not necessitate that the island does not exist, rather that it is possible for it to not exist. 
  5. William L. Rowe: “The Ontological Argument” in Feinberg; Shafer-Landau: Reason & Responsibility, p. 15. 
  6.  Kant, Immanuel (1958) [1787]. Critique of Pure Reason. Norman Kemp Smith (2d. ed.). London: Macmillan @ Co. Ltd. pp. 500–507. (first edition, pp. 592–603 
  7.  For example: Unicorns are not defined as “Non-existent” but they simply do not occur in reality. If you were to find a one horned Horse you could call it a unicorn and not be “Oh, that can’t be a unicorn, they’re non-existent. 
  8. His full name was Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā. 
     
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