Saint Anselm’s Ontological Argument

An ontological argument refers to the type of philosophical exploration in regards to the existence of God. However, when talking about their theories, philosophers also argue about the state of being and existing, beginning with the ideas about how the universe is organized. Despite the complexity of ontological arguments and the variety of approaches to the subject, their exploration is important for understanding the roots of philosophical thought as well as taking specific positions regarding the proposed theories. In this paper, St. Anselm’s ontological argument will be discussed as it laid the foundation for the further explorations associated with God’s existence.

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Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Saint Anselm of Canterbury offers an initial ontological argument within the Western tradition of Christianity; according to him, there is an a priori (proceeding from assumed; deductive) proof that God exists. Within his definition, God is something that cannot be exceeded – anything greater than him can be thought, even in the minds of those people who do not believe that God exists. By arguing that God is the greatest thing to ever exist, the greatest conceivable being (GCB), Anselm invited people to think about a deity’s conception.

In his reasoning, the concept of GCB supposes an idea that the being exists outside of the mind and in the real realm and not inside the mind in the imaginary realm. Therefore, if God is the greatest thing that exists in the minds and perceptions of people regardless of their religious affiliation, it means that he exists in reality. If God does not exist, in turn, something else greater than him can be thought of, which brings us to the same conclusion: the most powerful being in the universe that can be imagined is God.

In its essence, Anselm’s argument to support that God exists lies on the principle of logical absurdity since there are simultaneously nothing more powerful than God and something Greater than God. However, the hypothesis that encourages the appearance of logical absurdity must, therefore, be false. The second hypothesis must be false, and God does exist. The following is a breakdown of Anselm’s ontological argument:

  • One cannot “conceive of anything greater than God” (Himma);
  • If God is “something that nothing greater can be conceived, nothing greater than it can be imagined,” which means:
  • “Nothing greater than God can be imagined” (Himma);
  • If there “is no God then something greater than it can be imagined, which means that: God exists” (Himma).

In the discussion of Anselm’s argument, several popular misconceptions exist. First, the philosopher did not try to make the point that whatever a person can think of exists in real life. One can think of many things, such as ghosts or monsters, but thinking of them does not mean that they exist. Second, Anselm was not trying to argue that believing in something without any doubt makes that thing exist. Third, his point was not that God was unexplainable; the philosopher wanted people to understand the concept of ‘God’ logically explains its existence.

The Argument Against Anselm’s Position

Despite the fact that Anselm’s ontological argument was the first one to exist in religious philosophy, several arguments against it can be made. Taking the position that God exists because nothing greater can be imagined is hard because proving the existence of something is impossible using a priori reasoning (Matthews 2) solely. This criticism was proposed by David Hume, who stated that “there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable unless the contrary implies a contradiction. […] There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction.

Consequently, there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable” (“Hume on A Priori Existential Proofs”). From another perspective, it can be argued that existence does not describe something’s quality (greatness, perfection, and so on), which means that arguing an existence of something (apart from physical objects) is ineffective.

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If to return to Hume’s argument against the ontological argument, for finding out whether an object exists, it is necessary to find specific facts about rather than imagining its existence. This means that thinking of arguments, as proposed by Anselm, is ineffective and will not lead to new knowledge. To simplify the opposition of the two philosophers, Hume supported the matters of fact aspects of knowledge (finding facts) while Anselm supported the relation of ideas (imagining a thing for finding knowledge about it).

Overall, it is hard to argue against the criticism of St. Anselm’s ontological argument because it does not hold much ground in reasonable thinking (“Objections to the Ontological Argument”). The knowledge about the world cannot be imagined; rather, it should be found and investigated. The further exploration of Clarke’s cosmological argument will be presented to oppose Anselm’s approach and provide a reasonable explanation for how the universe works.

While Hume’s opposition to the ontological argument made by Anselm is convincing, Kant was the one whose objections were the most notable. As mentioned by Kant, “existence is not a property of objects, and it is impossible to compare a God that exists to a God that does not exist,” which was done by St. Anselm (Heathwood 346). Thus, according to Kant, existence cannot be considered as a predicate, and this can be illustrated with a simple example that will completely eliminate the ground on which Anselm’s ontological argument stands. For instance, an apple can be described with the help of multiple predicates, such as red, sweet, juicy, fresh, and so on. All of these qualities describe the object and translate into different properties that the apple as an object has, and existence is not one of them.

Agreeing with Kant’s analysis is easier than with Anselm’s because if existence is not an object’s property, then existence should not be considered an attribute of God. Kant proposed that the statement “God exists” must follow either synthetic or analytic logic. In the case of the latter, the ontological argument may exist because the words explaining it were given a specific meaning. In the case of the former, the ontological argument will not work because the existence of a higher deity is not contained in its definition. The overall nature of Anselm’s ontological argument is linguistically complex and often leads to a tautology, which is why Kant scrutinized the initial philosophical approach to explaining whether God exists or not.

In the argument against the ontological argument about the existence of God, one can suggest that there are no valid forms of reasoning to support Anselm’s approach. At best, a logical argument to support Anselm’s approach can only establish that the idea of God is plausible regardless of existence. However, in order to prove that God exists, it is not enough to say that this existence is logically plausible.

To provide an example for this, one can propose to look at the mathematical argument 1=2. It has never been refuted because of its overall complexity, and nobody had ever needed to dedicate time to disprove it. Nevertheless, despite this argument being non-refutable, no mathematician would think that one would equal 2 in any circumstances. Therefore, Anselm’s argument is only plausible but will never be proven because existence will never equal quality.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, it should be mentioned that Anselm’s ontological argument is too good to be true, and in reality, it does not provide a reasonable explanation for the existence of Good regardless of the reasoning behind it. Since it is an a priori approach, if at least one premise involved in it shows to be inaccurate, then the entire approach would fall into pieces. Also, Kant’s suggestion that existence does not equal quality or a predicate of an object leads one to postulate that God cannot be defined into existence.

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Anselm’s argument cannot be enough for explaining God’s existence, which is why philosophers explored new approaches to the infinite questions about the conception of the universe, with Hume’s and Kant’s criticism of the ontological argument dominating the opposing opinions. Overall, despite the opposition to Anselm’s ontological argument and the variety of opinions targeted at disproving them, it is still important to consider and understand as it was the first philosophical exploration of the existence of God.

Works Cited

Heathwood, Chris. “The Relevance of Kant’s Objection to Anselm’s Ontological Argument.” Religious Studies, vol. 47, no. 3, 2011, pp. 345-357.

Himma, Kenneth Einar. “Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence.” IEP. Web.

“Hume on A Priori Existential Proofs.” Philosophy of Religion. Web.

Matthews, Gareth. “The Ontological Argument.Spot Colorado. Web.

“Objections to the Ontological Argument.” Existence of God. Web.

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