Anselm and the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God states that God must exist because He is the greatest being that can be conceived. If this being does not exist in reality, but is merely an idea, then he is not really the greatest conceivable being because he lacks a trait that contributes to greatness: being. If He only exists in the idea, but not the reality, then a greater being can be conceived, one that exists in both idea and reality, therefore the God existing only in reality would not be a being nothing greater than could be conceived. As Anselm states, “there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality,” (39). This being is so great that He cannot even be conceived not to exist at all.

The implicit assumption in this theory is this: It is greater to exist in reality and understanding than only in the understanding or only as an idea. Anselm writes, “suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater,” (39). It is better for a thing to exist in reality so that we can understand it. We cannot understand something to be until it exists both in the understanding and the reality. “When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it,” (39). God surely exists in the understanding and must by reason exist in reality as well. Since this is so, it proves the existence of a being greater than which nothing can be conceived.

Out of this arises a tough question. The imagination can work up all sorts of ideas, but just being conceived doesn’t make them true. A fellow monk named Guanilon challenged Anselm’s theory by asking why his conception of the greatest conceivable island doesn’t conform to Anselm’s ideas. Why wouldn’t the island have to exist based on Anselm’s theory? “Since it is more excellent not to be in the understanding alone, but to exist both in the understanding and in reality, for this reason it must exist,” (42). Surely, this reasoning if faulty. Clearly, the island does not have to exist. Anselm’s response was that his argument applies only to necessary beings and not contingent ones. God surely is not a contingent being or else He would not be God. God is contingent only on the fact that He must exist because nothing greater than He can be conceived to exist. Guanilon’s answer to this was that Anselm was engaging in a circular argument meant to show that God’s existence is necessary. If His existence is necessary, then he must therefore surely exist and nothing greater than he can be conceived.

Anselm states that existence must be among God’s attributes because existence is better than non-existence. If He didn’t exist, then he’d be inferior and something greater than He could be conceived; therefore He must necessarily exist. Someone who questioned God’s existence would be making a contradiction because that person would be saying that it is possible to conceive of something greater than a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. This would prove that God exists and that He’s necessary. Kant says there are two senses of necessary being. One states that X is a necessary being if X necessarily exists. The other states that X is a necessary being if X’s properties are all necessary. We say God is necessary because all of his attributes are essential while none are accidental. One of those attributes is that He exists in the reality as well as in the understanding. If this is so, then His existence is necessary in both cases: that his properties are necessary and that it’s necessary for the universe that He exists.

Anselm’s ontological argument seems to be circular reasoning as Guanilon pointed out. It all fits a little too pat. Anselm seems to be arguing that merely thinking that a being greater than which cannot be conceived makes the existence of that being true. He makes this the exception to the rule that says we can imagine many things which don’t necessarily exist in reality. Why should it only be true concerning a greater power? Why does that have any difference? Even if God is necessary and His existence proves that point, why does it have to be true that if I don’t admit there’s a greater power, I have to conceive that there must be a greater being than which can be conceived? Why must there be? Why can’t there be no greater being and allow me the argument that I can’t conceive of a greater being? There seems to be no real reason why I should not be able to conceive of a greater being other than just that Anselm says this is the rule that disproves the theory. Anselm’s theory doesn’t answer the question of why I must need conceive of a greater being than that which can be conceived. Why do I have to believe of any great being at all? Why must there be a being which created all? Maybe the universe is just a merry accident that had and has no design and plan. If so, where does this greater conceivable being exist? If he didn’t create the universe, it doesn’t automatically assume that a greater being than that being did create it. The universe doesn’t have to have been created by a being so therefore that being doesn’t necessarily have to exist. It is at this point that I disagree with Anselm’s proof of existence of God.

I don’t believe his theory does prove that God exists. Just because I can understand that a being exists doesn’t necessarily make it so that a being exists. It’s the same argument as with the perfect island and I don’t understand what makes it a different kettle of fish simply because we’re talking about the existence of God. That’s an easy way out of the trap Anselm put up for himself, but it doesn’t go to the core of the problem. Instead, it skirts the issue with fuzzy logic.

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