Ontological Argument and the Philosophers by Anselm
Ontological Argument and the Philosophers by Anselm :
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 argument
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 world's
causes or design, and thus may weaken as new scientific advances are made
(such as Darwin's
theory of evolution). We can be sure that no such fate will happen to
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, Boso,
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
ontological argument for the existence of God, presented in both the
Proslogium and Monologium.
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 needs
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 understanding
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, whereas
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
conceive of the idea of God by reason alone (a-priori), as Anselm might.
The argument does not
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 Christian):
"The paradoxical passion of the Reason thus comes repeatedly into
collision with the Unknown...and
cannot advance beyond this point. [Of God:] How do I know? I cannot
know it, for in order to
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 was
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 Being."
(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 Anselm's
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 existence
would be like someone who denied that a triangle had the property threesidedness...
cannot conceive of triangularity without also conceiving of threesidedness...
the mind cannot
conceive of perfection without also conceiving of existence." (Fifth
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 its
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 fantastic
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 existence
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-andwhite,
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 defining
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
"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 without
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 "faith
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 S.
N. Deane. Open Court, La Salle, 1948.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Image Books, New York,
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 University
Knowles, David. The Evolution of Medieval Thought. Random House, New
Lotze, Rudolf. Microcosmus. Translated by Hamilton and Jones.
Southern, Richard. Saint Anselm. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. Westview Press, Boulder, 1993.
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Ontological Argument and the Philosophers by Anselm :