I have to say that I no longer like calling it that. Dialectically speaking “the ontological argument” presents itself as a philosophical dumb bell; heavy and awkward for those who have never carried one. Insofar as ‘ontological arguments’ express a form of arguing that show “God exists” in the real world by successive observations on the very definition or nature of God, there are many ontological arguments. The one we are concerned with is the argument found in St. Anselm’s Proslogion, chapters II-XV.
In other places I have posted the initial “meat” of the argument, that is, chapters II and III. If you think you have the time now I would encourage you to go read it. If you’ve read the chapters before or not, go read it. Both chapters only take up about a page and a half, while the entire book (depending on space, etc.) takes up about 25 or 30. It’s amazing that such a brief presentation has become one of the most discussed arguments for the existence of God. However, as we explore or unpack the argument, we shall see if it is the arguments ‘true’ aim to even do this.
Introducing the Argument
This argument is a special one because before I really ‘lay it out’ I’d like to make space for a few clarifications. This clarification doesn’t bolster the truth of the conclusion per se, but rather better prepares one to have the proper intellectual atire, so to speak. The first point I would really press is that we try as best as possible to subscribe ourselves to how Anselm intended the argument to be expressed. Not every opponent or critic of the argument really respects this point, because there is a tendency to tangle ourselves in the philosophical and metaphysical coherency of the argument rather than digest its dialectic content and richness. Plenty on this will be said later.
Secondly, there is at the same time a responsibility for us to pay attention to the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the argument. After all, if you just returned from reading the Proslogion, and let’s say you’ve read the entire work, did you think Anselm was doing philosophy or theology? Almost everyone’s first inclination is to think that Anselm is devling into something purely rationalistic and philosophical – he is “stuck in the clouds.” Later on we will see how this interpretation is a mistake.
Thirdly, on the topic of interpretation, there is also a mind to how we read the Proslogion. This is really an extension of the last point, but there is a stress to reiterate how we receive the argument and how it is later defended in his Replies to Gaunilo. We are setting Anselm within a historical, philosophical and theological context. To remove him from that or to try to understand him or this reading apart from that context is almost as if meaningless to go on.
Lastly, and this may not even need to be said, but there is a rather long and complicated story behind this argument. If one sat down with a short volume on these arguments, walking as if hand by hand with a historical and topical guide, came to the sum of it all (“The End…”), and closed the book, one might find an elaborate and possibly coherent or tenable way of working to the divine. Almost every major philosopher and theologian has had something to say about it. Anselm spoke of existence in the understanding without notice of how much this argument would almost literally stick and fester in the understanding of many generations to follow.
Proslogion II Stated
Suppose you deny that God exists. In other words, you affirm that there is no God. Anselm asks you to think of God as “something than which none greater can be thought.” That is to say, think of the greatest conceivable being, to which a none greater could be thought. That would be God. Now, does God exist in the understanding? Surely he does, because we understand the description we’ve heard.
However, is existence in reality greater than existence in the understanding? In the case of the greatest conceivable being, this would appear to be so. After all, a greatest conceivable with existence in the understanding only and not in reality would be less greater than a being who existed in both, and that would be a contradiction. Therefore, this greatest conceivable being must exist in the understanding as well as in reality. Therefore, God exists.
This argument from the section in the Proslogion named “That God Truly Exists” or hereafter Proslogion II (PSII), can be stated as follows:
- (i) God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”
(ia) This is understood.
(ib) It is one thing for an object (a) to exist in the understanding and (b) to exist in reality.
(ii) Surely “something than which nothing greater can be thought” cannot exist only in the understanding.
(iia) If it exists in the understanding, it can be thought to exist in reality; which is greater.
(iii) Therefore, “something than which nothing greater can be thought” exists both in the understanding and in reality.
We can take the argument as is (i) through (iii); sub points (ia), (ib) and (iia) are more or less qualifications in support of the premises aforementioned. Before we continue any further exploration let’s move on to the argument in Proslogion III.
Proslogion III Stated
The next argument elaborates on the kind of existence this being has. The greatest conceivable being would also have what’s called necessary existence. In other words, could the greatest conceivable being be thought not to exist? It would appear not to be the case, since a greater being could be conceived that could not be thought to not exist, and that would be a contradiction. Therefore, the greatest conceivable being cannot be thought not to exist.
This argument can be found in Proslogion chapter III (PSIII hereafter) under the section name, “That He Cannot be Thought Not to Exist” and can be schematized as follows:
- (i) This being exists so truly that it cannot be thought not to exist.
(ia) Since, existence which can be thought not to exist is less greater than an existence which cannot be thought to not exist.
(ii) If “something than which nothing greater can be thought” has the possibility of being thought not to exist, a contradiction would arise.
(iii) Therefore, “something than which nothing greater can be thought” cannot be thought to not exist.
If this is your first reading of the argument, I can see how this might seem all very queer. What seems and starts as an innocent thought experiment turns about to be a kind of word magic. I’ll stop here and move right to questions about the argument.
Questions about Proslogion II and III
- Is Anselm trying to prove the existence of God?
One question that seems to slip under our nose and yet one of the most important is: Is Anselm trying to establish the existence of God? This may seem like a silly question but stop for a moment and look at who wrote the book: St. Anselm of Canterbury, a benedictine monk and abbot from the 11th-century. This raises a flag of interpretation that I mentioned before: it is a curious thing that a benedictine monk would set out to prove the existence of God among a community of brethren would hold no such atheistic view.
There is one understanding that (i) Anselm is not necessarily trying to prove the existence of God but establish the kind of existence He has – necessary existence. There is another elaborate view that builds on (i) but assigns a more theological arsinal to the argument: (ii) Anselm is offering a demonstration of that which he already knows to be true, but wants to provide a demonstration which satisfies his dictum from the prayer found in Proslogion I: “Faith seeking understanding.” He writes:
I am not trying to scale your heights, Lord; my understanding is in no way equal to that. But I do long to understand your truth in some way, your truth which
my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand. For I also believe that ‘Unless I believe, I shall
Hence it would be better to say that Anselm is set out to prove the special existence of God, rather than merely establish a ground of being so to speak. Therefore, according to philosopher Anselm Stolz (1933), building on German theologian Karl Barth, Anselm’s argument here is to be understood as a believing Christian, not strictly as a philosopher.
There is something important in the Name of God (“something than which nothing greater can be thought”), says Barth. It is not merely that God is the highest thing man could think of, as if He was invented (contrarily, God is ‘conceived’). We are given one ‘noetic’ requirement, says Barth: to think of this being in the negative (“that than which none greater can be conceived”).
2. What justifies the transition from mere thought, or, existence in the understanding, to existence in reality?
In the reading itself the answer to this question isn’t explicitly answered. However, we have evidence throughout the text, as well as from prior works such as Monologion that there exists a “Great Chain of Being” where reality is thought of in terms of “grades”; things that exist contain more or less perfections or imperfections due to their substantive natures, limitations, and so on. For example, Anselm writes:
Moreover, if someone considers the nature of things, he cannot help realizing that they are not all of equal dignity; rather, some of them are on different and unequal levels. For anyone who doubts that a horse is by its very nature better than wood,
and that a human being is more excellent than a horse, should not even be called a human being. Therefore, since it is undeniable that some natures are better than others, reason makes it no less obvious that one of them is so pre-eminent that he
has no superior.
The doctrine that nature is arranged by graded affinities stems as far back as Aristotle and Plato, yet more expansively and popularly by Plotinus (204-270?) in the second century and later by St. Augustine towards the third and fourth century. While there may be reasoned argument(s) for considering reality being comprised of “grades,” I think the best support lies within intuition.
In other words, we more or less have a general perception of the world that not all things are equal: “If all things were created equal, all things would not be; for multiplicity of kinds of things of which the universe is constituted – first and second and so on, down to the creatures of the lowest grades – would not exist” (Augustine). Hence, we make distinctions about the world according to their substantive natures; that is, the perfections or imperfections/limitations one being has as opposed to another.
It think it must also be said that Anselm, subscribing to a Neo-Platonic view of the world, relates goodness and being. We can therefore distinguish between two kinds of existence: qualified and unqualified existence. The determination of the goodness of a thing rests on what it is good for, or what its purpose in aiming to be good is.
Precisely speaking, whenever we say something is good, its goodness needs to be qualified in some way. God in contrast exists in an unqualified sense (Pros. XXII, “And you are the one who exists in a strict and unqualified sense“). God exists and there’s nothing else to be said about it; no qualifications to make. God exists, period.
2a. Possible Objections: Immanuel Kant and the “Existence is Not a Predicate” objection.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant (who dubbed the term conveniently for us,” ontological argument”) offered a criticism of the argument on the grounds that “existence” is not a predicate or a property that we can ascribe to the description of a thing. For example, suppose I deny that “All triangles have three sides.” Suppose I say they have two sides. I cannot say this because I would be contradicting myself; denial of the predicate here would arise a literal logical mistake.
However, suppose I deny that “God exists.” According to Anselm’s argument, the truth of that statement is packed in the definition or understanding of God. Have I contradicted myself here? Kant says no, because existence is not a real or “determining” predicate. If it were Kant says, we would be working with a totally different concept than what we started with. Predicates are supposed to “build up” or enlarge concepts or subjects, while existence does no such thing.
Resp. #1: Tautological-Existential Propositions. Kant is expressing a narrow understanding of predication that I don’t think limits Anselm, but rather probably requires us to go beyond him to clarify. Existence is unlike other predicates. In fact, understood as a universal predicate existence ascribed to God is essential such that the proposition that “God exists” would be a tautology and “God does not exist” as self-contradictory. However, consider the two sets of propositions: (i) “God exists” and “There is a God,” and (ii)”God does not “exist” and “God necessarily exists, but there is no God.” In either instance, is it justifiable to move from the first proposition to the next? The answer is no, because our concept of the existent-thing in question may not actually align with whether it actually exists. Therefore, I think we can move away from Kant’s objection as illegitimate but I think we are still ‘stuck on the ground’, so to speak. However, there may be rescue from modern developments in modal logic. *In my opinion, Kant doesn’t succeed in undermining the argument but does open careful consideration for important topics.
Resp. #2. Existence-Propositions Say Nothing of Actual Individuals. Statements about existence, when you are affirming or denying the thing in question, they have to do with their propositional function rather than an actual individual. A propositional function is any expression with an undetermined constituent, but then becomes a proposition as soon as the constituents are determined. Let’s draw a line difference between propositions and propositional functions. Essentially, propositions are either true or false. Propositional functions are normally of the form necessary (always true), possible (sometimes true), or impossible (never true). For example, let’s say we’re having a conversation and I say, “I met a man.” You can understand what I’m saying without knowing who I’m talking about, and the actual person isn’t a constituent of the proposition. What you’re actually saying is that there is a certain propositional function that is sometimes true: “I met x and x is human.
Resp. #3: “Existence is Not a Property” Cannot be Held. To say that existence is not a property, or that existence could never be a property seems to beg the question against the argument, since PSIII says there is at least one instance – divine existence – where necessary existence is a property. According to philosopher Charles Hartshorne, “That [existence] is not a property with ordinary things does not prove that it cannot be so with God.”
The Theology Behind Proslogion
As a reading of the Proslogion suggests, Anselm’s theology is presumed and not established. The best example is what Anselm Stolz mentions about chapter 22: “That He Alone is What He is and Who He is.” In this section, Anselm makes several metaphysical points things which can be thought not to exist, and eventually concludes the summum bonum (‘supreme good’):
And you are the one who exists in a strict and unqualified sense, because you have no past and no future but only a present. . . [Y]ou are nothing other than the one supreme good, utterly self-sufficient, needing nothing, whom all things need for their being and their well-being.
The succeeding section (XXIII) almost quite literally immediately begins: “This good is you, O’ God the Father; it is your Word, that is to say, your Son.” The chapter proceeds in an immediate Trinitarian reflection. It’s amazing to me how vast the discussions on Anselm’s argument are (chapters II through IV) and yet it is as if anything past chapter V is completely ignored. The glory of the argument is the work in its entirety.
I hope this was a basic and helpful introductory presentation of Anselm’s argument. Personally, I think it’s one of the strongest and best cognitive ascensions an individual has made to a knowledge of the divine through rational and contemplative reflection. However, this is but a speck of the material that could be covered with this subject. I touched on basic points which I think are essential to understanding and presenting the argument. There are other arguments to consider for God’s existence for sure, but this one I think gives high credence to the proposition “God exists.”