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St Anselm's Ontological Argument For the Existence of God

The ontological argument offered by St. Anselm attempts the method of a priori proof, which uses intuition and reason alone to prove the existence of God. It can reasonably be argued to be the strongest among the arguments that purport to establish the existence of God through reason. It can also be argued that it is easier to be persuaded that ontological arguments are no good than it is to say exactly what is wrong with them. This article will focus primarily on St. Anselm's version, and attempt to do exactly that-show what is wrong with it. While the ontological argument may very well be the strongest argument for the existence of God through reason, the strongest of a weak set remains weak.

Anselm presents the ontological argument as part of a prayer directed at God. He starts with a definition of God, or a necessary assumption about the nature of God, or perhaps both.
"Now we believe that [the Lord] is something that than which nothing greater can be conceived."
Since I can comprehend this definition, I can conceive of God. Moreover, I can conceive of God not only as existing as a concept in my mind but also as existing in reality, independently of my ideas. Since it is greater to exist both as an idea and as a real thing than merely to exist as an idea, God must exist both in reality and as an idea. By definition, God is that than which none greater can be conceived. Hence, God must exist in reality, or else something greater than God can be conceived.

The two most famous, if not best, objections to Anselm's argument were offered by Gaunilo and Immanuel Kant. Gaunilo objects that the argument is not deductively valid. If Anselm's reasoning were correct, the argument could be modified to show that an island than which no greater island is possible really exists, however, we know that no such island exists, therefore, Anselm's reasoning must be invalid.

Kant appeals to the questionable premise that existence is a predicate. Kant uses an imaginary one hundred dollar bill to illustrate his point, but I will propose a hypothetical situation: Suppose that I go out to buy a six-pack of beer, and as I walk out the door, my friend remembers one more "predicate" that he would like to attach to the beer, "Make sure it's Canadian import!" I agree to my friend's request, but before I am gone, he calls to me again, "Oh yeah, and make sure it exists!" Something is wrong here, but what? Kant says that existence is not perfection because all perfections are predicates, and existence cannot be a predicate. When we say that the beer exists, we do not add anything to our concept of the beer, we merely say that there is something answering to that concept. It follows that no matter how many predicates of a thing we list, we still will not have answered the question whether there is something that possesses all possible attributes. That is precisely what Anselm attempts to do in his argument.

So, are there reasonable replies to these objections? Proponents of the ontological argument think so. Gaunilo's objection shows that Anselm's argument is invalid only if all the premises remain true when "the perfect island" is substituted for "God". But Gaunilo's premise that a perfect island is a possible being is false because the characteristics that make an island great-sandy beaches, warm breezes, babbling brooks, etc.-can be multiplied without limit. Thus, Gaunilo's objection does not render Anselm's argument invalid.

The refutation of Kant's objection is a little trickier, but still possible. Kant may have misunderstood one of Anselm's premises. He takes Anselm to be saying that something that exists both in intellectu and in re is greater than that, which exists in intellect alone. But Anselm may be making a different point. He may be referring to contingent things and necessary things; a contingent thing being something that might either exist or fail to exist, and a necessary thing being something that cannot fail to exist. If the argument is interpreted in this way, it would seem that a necessary thing is certainly greater or more perfect than a contingent thing. Kant believes that Anselm is saying that things that exist are greater than things that do not exist, but Anselm may mean that necessary things are greater than contingent things. This way of understanding Anselm's argument escapes Kant's objection.

So, Anselm's argument refuses to go away when confronted with these two objections, but what happens to it when we really begin to dissect it? Let's begin by defining what Anselm calls God as, "the being than which none greater is possible". So, what characteristics does God possess? Traditional theism holds that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omni benevolent, omnipresent, and eternal. Nevertheless, is it possible for a being to possess all of these characteristics? I argue that it is not.

It is evident to me that God cannot be all-powerful and all-good at the same time as long as there is evil in the world. The traditional theistic response to this statement would be that God has given humans free will, and that lets him off the hook. But does it? Let me give an extreme example: A powerful, evil dictator such as Saddam or Hitler has instructed his secret agents to plant powerful nuclear devices all over the world, all wired up to a red button on his coffee table. There he is, in the ultimate act of vengeance, with his finger poised over the button. What does God do? Does he act to stop the annihilation of his beloved planet Earth, or does he say, "Well, I have given these people free will, so do your worst-nothing I can do about it." Ergo: If God acts, he overrides free will and is ultimately responsible for all the good and evil in the world; or if he does not act, he is not all-powerful and Hitler, Saddam, and the Devil really determine what happens. It is impossible for God to be all-powerful and all good at the same time as illustrated by this example, and blaming humans is not the answer. In any case, humans do not cause earthquakes in which thousands die. Why would God let them happen? I believe that all of this effectively calls into question Anselm's definition of God as "the being than which none greater is possible".

This brings us to another question: Is God an impossible being? It could be argued that God's greatness, like Gaunilo's island, has no maximum limit. If God could be made greater by slightly altering a divine characteristic or two, then there could not be a being than which none greater is possible. However, the most convincing reason for thinking that God might be an impossible being is that the concept of necessary existence may be incoherent. To say that a being necessarily exists is the same as saying that it is NOT possible for that being NOT to exist. This means that if a necessary being is possible, it must exist. The oddness of this assertion leads me to believe that there cannot be necessary things.

Now, let's look at Anselm's premise, which states: "God exists in the understanding". Kant's objection is the most popular when it states that existence is not a predicate. St. Thomas also rejects the question begging nature of this statement in the Summa Theological: "It cannot be argued that it actually exists, unless it is admitted that there really is something than which nothing greater can be thought; and it is precisely this that is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist". Theists and non-theists dispute whether there are perfect beings, or beings than which no greater can be conceived of, thus, this calls into question the indirect subject matter of the premises of the ontological argument, and certainly calls into question whether it is possible for God to exist in the understanding.

In conclusion, we will review some of the points that have been made and point out specifically why this argument fails. Merely thinking about something cannot entail its existence, but that is exactly what Anselm's argument intends to show. As John McEnroe would have said as he was angrily heaving a tennis racket across the court at Wimbledon, "You cannot be serious!" Anselm's argument does provide a clear statement of the concept of God as accepted by traditional western theology and philosophy, but this approach is not sufficient for one with non-theistic leanings. The claim that "I can conceive of a being than which no greater can be conceived" is clearly not analytic. Its truth does not follow from the meanings of the words used to express it. The basic point here is that the ontological argument requires the use of vocabulary which non-theists find problematic when it is used in ontologically committing contexts.

Therefore, the ontological argument fails on many counts. First, it begs the question, as we have seen by Thomas Aquinas' refutation. Second, it makes the bold, unsupported assertion that we can conceive of "that greater than which nothing can be conceived" in the first place. No human being has enough knowledge of God's nature to assert his existence from it. Third, Anselm's argument is equally applicable to qualities which human beings consider negative as well as positive. If God is the greatest being that can be thought of, he must be so in both the positive and negative senses. Thus, God as defined by Anselm's argument is a contradiction in terms. Fourth, what does Anselm mean by "greatest"? Redefining the greatest in all positive aspects, but not in the negative, does not solve this problem. Positive and negative are not the same for all people, hence, "greatest" is not the same for all people. A logical argument about ultimate being must be the same for all people, therefore, the argument is invalid. Fifth, existence is not a predicate. Proponents of the ontological argument can find a way around Kant's objection, but to do so, great liberties have to be taken in redefining exactly what Anselm means in his phrasing of the argument. At the very least, this raises questions as to the strength of Anselm's original argument.

Finally, it can be stated that the ontological argument is a fascinating argument because it has yet to be completely dismissed by all philosophers. But I believe that it eventually will be rejected by all but the most pious, because even if it could be expressed in a different way, it would still fail since we could never gain enough knowledge of God through human understanding to be able to assert his existence. Therefore, Anselm's argument fails from the very first premise.

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