Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Critical Appraisal of Anselm’s Ontological Argument


One of the most powerful arguments for the existence of God can be found in Anselm’s work, “Faith Seeking Understanding.” This work was later retitled Proslogium by Anselm, which means, A Discourse. The Proslogium is actually a prayer or meditation on God and the divine attributes. In it Anselm sets out an argument for the existence of God that is still recognized by many, as the most insightful and intellectually challenging argument of it’s kind by many philosophers and theologians. In this meditation, Anselm begins by acknowledging that God gives understanding to faith and humbly requests that God graciously grant him understanding as to the nature of the divine being. And so, Lord, do thou, who dost give understanding to faith, give me, so far as thou knowest it to be profitable, to understand that thou art as we believe; and that thou art that which we believe.[1] Now, what kind of being does Anselm, presumably speaking on behalf of the Church, believe that God is?And, indeed, we believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.[2] From this Anselm argues that there is then a being than which none greater can be conceived that exists in the understanding. However, Anselm then acknowledges that it is one thing for something to exist in the understanding and quite another for it to exist in reality. The move is from our understanding a being than which none greater can be conceived, to the existence of such a being at least in our understanding. For if we can understand something, then it at least exists in the understanding. Even the fool is convinced of this much.

Anselm’s next move is to claim that a being than which none greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone. For if it can exist in the understanding alone, then it can be conceived to exist in reality, which is greater. Now, if that than which none greater can be conceived actually exists in the understanding alone, then there is a being in reality that is greater than that which cannot be conceived because to exist in reality is greater than to exist in the understanding alone. But this is clearly impossible. From this position, Anselm moves to his conclusion that there is a being than which none greater can be conceived and this being exists both in the understanding and in reality. And this being we call God.

Anselm then moves to the premise, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that than which nothing greater can be conceived. This very idea is a clear contradiction in Anselm’s mind and therefore, it is obvious, as the argument goes, that the being than which none greater can be conceived exists and it is inconceivable for this being not to exist. God cannot be conceived not to exist. God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. That which can be conceived not to exist is not God. No one who understands God’s being truly can truly conceive that God does not exist.

Malcolm understands Anselm as saying that “something is greater if it is both conceived of and exists than if it is merely conceived of.”[3] The issue here is whether or not the statement can be taken at face value. Why does a thing’s existence in reality make it greater than it’s existence in the understanding alone? Anselm seems to be saying that existence in this world is greater than existence only in concept. The assumption is that existence is a perfection of sorts. However, Malcolm defends Anselm by claiming it isn’t existence per se, but necessary existence that is a perfection. It is the logical impossibility of the being’s non-existence that makes it a being than which none greater can be conceived. The atheist’s denial of God shows that God at least exists in the atheist’s understanding. Hence, the atheist is already on the slippery slope of the ontological argument the moment he denies God’s existence.

I think there are some seriously flaws in the ontological argument that are worth observation. The first issue I have with the argument is that is seems to rest on subjective grounds. The idea that there is a being greater than which none can be conceived rests on the ground of the subjective imagination of each individual. How can we tell if my conception and your conception are the same? Moreover, how can we tell whether my understanding of maximal greatness is the same as your understanding of maximal greatness. It seems that some idea of maximal greatness must exist prior to the argument, and hence, the argument is actually assuming what it endeavors to prove.

Additionally, it seems to me that one must assume God priori to arguing for God as far as the ontological argument goes. The concepts of omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection obviously have their source in God rather than to lead us to the conclusion of God. One has to wonder if we could ever get to the ontological argument apart from presupposing God from the start. I am very doubtful.

Moreover, it seems to me that as human beings, we must acknowledge that our understanding is finite. Our ability to conceive of a being is naturally limited. Who is to say that our concept is the proper judge of God as a being than which none greater can be conceived? It would seem that the human understanding would naturally place some limits on the being of God and that there could be a being that is actually greater than God but that the human mind would not be able to conceive. The incomprehensibility of God demonstrates this to be the case. It seems then that a finite mind cannot be trusted as the source for discovering the most infinite of being we call God.

The greatest weakness in Anselm’s argument is the fact that it depends on human contemplation. Thinking, as it were, is a subjective experience. The act of contemplation differs from person to person. So long as the argument is at the mercy of finite human contemplation, I could imagine that just about any sort of argument could be made using the form of the ontological argument regardless of how absurd it might be. Thinking that God exists in the understanding, and in the actual world is still a mental act. Mental acts are limited to mental images. A human’s ability to create mental images is a weak argument from which to argue for God’s existence. Gaunilo’s lost Island is a good example. My ability to conceive of the perfect lost Island does not at all mean that such an island exists or must exist. This leads me to my last point. The ontological argument, grounded in the mind of man as it is, is grounded in the depraved mind of depraved men. The argument assumes a neutral disposition of the human mind where the God of Christian theism is concerned and we know that Scripture affirms that no such neutrality exists. And if Scripture affirms no such neutrality exists, then such neutrality is impossible. Moreover, God is not something very broad as the ontological argument imagines, but rather, He is a being that is very specifically something and unless we speak of that narrow God spoken of in Scripture, then we are speaking of no god at all.

In the end then, it seems to me that the ontological argument only works with the Christian mind that has already had God revealed to it in such a way that to think of the non-existence of God is simply impossible. In other words, the ontological argument works, but only within a distinctly Christian, and presuppositional framework.





[1] Saint Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury and Sidney Norton Deane, Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix, In Behalf of the Fool, by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 7.
[2] Ibid, 7.
[3] Baruch A. Brody, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, ©1992), 101.


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