A look at St. Anselm's Ontological argument

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For centuries the debate over God’s existence has been fought both with the sword and with the pen. It is widely known how intense the battles with the sword have been. Few, however, are aware of the depth of the battle with the pen. There are three main types of arguments for God’s existence, which are fought with the pen; the Ontological, Cosmological and Teleological. The last two both involve some form of experience or aspect of the world around us. The Ontological argument is an argument for the existence of God from reason alone or an a priori argument which is defined as valid, independent of observation. In other words, in order for an argument to be an Ontological argument, it must not include any empirical evidence for the existence of God.

The following argument presented by Saint Anselm in the 11th century is an example of an Ontological argument.

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'" (Ps. 13:1, 52:1)? 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.

So we can better understand the origin of this writing, let us quickly take a look at the history of its author and the time period it is written. St. Anselm was born in France in 1033 and became prior at Benedictine abbey of Bec at the age of thirty, after entering the abbey only 3 years prior as a novice in 1060. In 1093 St. Anselm was imported by William Rufus, King of England to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. After a somewhat tumultuous career as an Archbishop, St. Anselm died in 1109.

During St. Anselm’s life the main debate was whether God was so far above human understanding that we could only comprehend Him in general terms or was rational thought and in-depth assessment possible to better understand Him. St. Anselm’s work is a clear indication that he followed the second school of thought. This can be seen in William Rowe’s development of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument:

1. God exists in the understanding.

2. God might have existed in reality (God is a possible being).

3. If something exists only in the understanding and might have
existed in reality, then it might have been greater than it

4. Suppose God exists only in the understanding.

5. Then (by 2, 4, and 3) God might have been greater than he

6. Therefore (by 5), God is a being than which a greater is

7. By 6 and the meaning of ‘God’, the being than which none
greater is possible is a being than which a greater is
possible. But this is absurd.

8. Therefore, by 4 and 7, it is false that God exists only in
the understanding.

9. Therefore, by 1 and 8, God exists in reality as well as in
the understanding.

Many critiques of this argument exist. The two being reviewed were presented by Immanuel Kant, who says that St. Anselm cannot use the word exist the way he does, and the Monk Gaunilo, a contemporary of St. Anselm’s, who offers a counter-example. A new critique will look at premise 3 and whether that premise has truth value or is only true based on an individuals set of values and beliefs or Comprehensive Moral Doctrine (John Rawls, Political Liberalism).

Premise 3 of St. Anselm’s Ontological argument is not a true or false statement. It is a valuation and as such is subject to interpretation. As sentient beings we place a great deal of value in our own existence and this leads us to assume that premise 3 is a true statement. However, with a closer examination of this premise, we come to understand that it is in fact a valuation based on one’s bias and/or experience. For instance, assume we are discussing an atomic bomb. Does the existence of the atomic bomb make it greater than if it did not exist? All the attributes (size, shape, destructive power, etc.) are the same, nothing is different in existence and non-existence, so in what way is it greater? Some may argue that without the atomic bomb WWII would have lasted years longer. This does not make the bomb greater, it simply means that you value the lives saved by its use more than the destruction and lives its use caused.

Another way to understand this is a sort of backwards view. Imagine the Boogeyman from your childhood. Father or Mother would always come in and chase him away and sleep would come knowing that he was gone. How many children have been told not go in the basement (or the garage, shed, woods behind the house etc.) because if they do the Boogeyman will get them? For the most part, the children stayed away. Now, imagine if the Boogeyman existed. Would he be greater then he is? No, of course not, he would have eaten the parents and probably grandparents and eventually the children. It can even be argued that it is better that parents can understand the Boogeyman and that he does not exist. As parents the understanding of the Boogeyman can be used to help them keep children from venturing into a potentially dangerous place. Some things are not greater in existence than non-existence because the existence of said things is a value judgment based on ones personal likes and dislikes or Comprehensive Moral Doctrine. Also the reverse of this is true. Some things are better not to exist like the Boogeyman.

Should God exist in reality, would He be greater then He is in the understanding as St. Anselm would say? No, He would not. Existence will not make something greater than it is in non-existence because none of its attributes will be changed by existence. All His attributes would remain the same; He is still omnipotent, omniscience and omni benevolent. His existence simply makes Him a greater value to man for the immortality He would be capable of granting the faithful. Thus, St. Anselm’s claim that God would be greater in existence is a value judgment which cannot be either true or false, except thru individual interpretation.

One of the more difficult to understand objections to St. Anselm’s argument is presented by Immanuel Kant. Kant’s view on St. Anselms Ontological argument is as follows; “Being is evidently not a real predicate, or a concept that can be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the admission of a thing, and of certain determination in it.” Put another way Kant is saying that when “cat” is said, existence is automatically applied by the understanding of the concept of cat and cannot be applied a second time to make the cat better or greater. However, when a person says “Cats do not exist” that person does not contradict themselves. What is being said is simply that there is no thing (physically) that meets the concept of cat.

A somewhat simpler to understand objection was present during St. Anselm’s life by a Monk name Gaunilo. Gaunilo responded, in On Behalf of the Fool, to Anselm with the counter-example of an island greater than all other islands. He simply stated that if an island of unending abundance in all things can be imagined, that understanding the concept of this island does not in fact mean that this island exists. Therefore, the understanding of a being which none can be greater does not bring that being into existence or make that existence the more possible. This example of an island which none can be greater is a limited argument in that an island is in itself limited. The limitation of this island is in the land mass and features (mountains, streams, grasses etc.). These would by necessity be limited in quantity and any limited thing cannot be used in any kind of true comparison to the nature of an unlimited thing. For example, our ability to enjoy this island would be limited by our short lifespan. Also, humans in general, no matter the abundance of anything, always seem to crave more, more freedom, more fun, more excitement, and more money. No matter the amount gained, satisfaction is never reached. The concept of God includes total satisfaction in all cravings, or the lack of craving more. Gaunilo does have a good point that simply because something can be imagined does not make it exist. However the comparison used is anything but proof that St. Anselm has it wrong in regards to the being that none can be greater than.

Over the centuries many disputes to St. Anselm argument for the existence of God have been presented and some are very hotly debated still today, but none to date has shown that St. Anselm argument is either unsound or invalid. It is possible that some young philosopher will someday either prove this to be a true Ontological argument or prove it invalid or unsound. Until that day, this will remain one of the most debated arguments of the philosophical world.

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