Theistic Arguments: Anselm's Ontological Argument

Anselm was a theologian fron the 11th century. In 1078 he wrote his famous book 'Proslogium', in which he presented an argument for the existence of God that is now known as Anselm's Ontological Argument. In my honest opinion it is quite preposterous, but as it has been very influential I'll discuss it. And I'm certainly not in bad company: among the opponents of Anselm are Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, whereas people like René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz have presented arguments similar to Anselm's. One of those is discussed in Descartes' God-claim.

Anselm's Ontological argument goes like this:

1. God is the greatest thing that can be conceived. (Axiom)
2. If God did not exist, something greater than god would exist. (Axiom)
3. But no greater thing than god can be conceived. (Axiom 1, repeated)
4. Because 2 is in contradiction with 1, 2 cannot be true. Therefore, God must exist.

In other words:

1. Someone who doubts the existence of God at least knows what God is: the greatest thing that can be conceived
2. It is greater to exist outside the mind then just in the mind.
3. Therefore someone who doubts God says that something greater can be thought of than God.
4. This is in contradiction with the definition of God, and therefore cannot be true.
5. Hence God exists.

If it doesn't seem to make sense, read it over a couple of times. If it still doesn't seem to make sense, don't worry. It was probably not meant to. The arguments against Anselm are very numerous, and I'll give them now.

Analytical statements and Synthetic Statements
The most basic criticism of Anselm's argument is that he tries to prove a synthetic statement as if it were an analytic statement. He tries to prove the existence of something without any reference to the world. It seems reasonable to assume that it is impossible to prove whether something does or does not exist from it's definition alone. As the Encarta puts it: "one cannot infer the extramental existence of anything by analyzing its definition".

Existence as Attribute
Kant reasoned that 'existence' is not an attribute of an object, like 'temperature', 'size' etc. According to Kant existence is not something that can be associated with the definition of an object. For instance, take the definition for 'quircle': A quircle is a circle that exists. Now it seems impossible for us to reach any other conclusion that that a quircle, and thus a circle, exists, for that's what the definition tells us. But this is obviously not good reasoning, for we could prove that anything exists, using this method. We conclude that 'existence' is not an attribute that can be used in a definition. Therefore the existence or non-existence of God cannot have anything to do with the definition of God, and Anselm's Ontological Argument fails.

Is God the greatest thing that can be conceived?
What is greater than a huge birthday cake? Two huge birthday cakes! A very bad children's joke that can be applied to everything, and has through the years been applied to many things, suddenly gets a philosophical meaning. What is greater than God? Two gods! Surely this is true? But by definition, if two gods are greater than God, then God is not the greatest thing that can be conceived, which is a contradiction. Let me write it down:
1. God is the greatest thing that can be conceived.
2. Two Gods are greater than God.
3. 1 and 2 are in contradiction.
If we agree that 2 is true, we must see that 1 false. But if God is not the greatest, than something else is the greatest, and the argument just continues infinitely. We must agree that 'X is the greatest thing that can be conceived' is a meaningless sentence, and Anselm's argument breaks down.

Example of Application
Let us apply Anselm's argument to another case. Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm did this, claiming that 'Lost Island' was the greatest island he could conceive of. It had anything anyone could ever want, and was just the very greatest island that could exist. By applying Anselm's argument we would have to conclude that it does in fact exist. Does it? Uh, no... If you think this does not disprove the validity of Anselm's argument, but merely proves that Lost Island exists, then I would ask you to apply the reasoning to 'Positive Atheism's Ultimate Argument', which is the greatest argument that proves that God does not exist...

Conceiving vs. Existence
Anselm states that 'God is the greatest thing can be conceived' and 'The greatest thing that exists is not God' are contradictory. I say that they are not. Whether or not God exists, I can still conceive of Him. The one is a matter of the imagination, the other is a matter of reality. I claim that there is no contradiction anywhere. If the greatest island that exists is Australia, that doesn't mean I can't conceive of Lost Island. Anselm's argument doesn't make sense, since it uses a contradiction that simply is not there.

Good, Evil & Perfection
Perfection is 'the ultimate Good'. But does this exist? Are Good and Evil things we can define objectively? Because if we can't, 'perfection' is a meaningless word, and Anselm's argument once more becomes meaningless. It is not my wish to use this article for a discussion of Good & Evil, but before we can even begin discussing Anselm's argument, someone must prove that Good and Evil are objectively definable things.

There are at least six major arguments against Amselm's, and all of them have to be adressed before his can be accepted.

Victor Gijsbers