evaluate anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of god.

Evaluate Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the Existence of God.

The Ontological Argument for the existence of God is the only a priori argument for God’s existence; it attempts to show that if you reflect properly on the nature of God you will find that He must exist. The argument was originally laid out by St Anselm in his ‘Proslogion’ and is addressed to the fool of Psalms 14:1: “Truly there is a God, although the fool has said in his heart, There is no God ”. In this way Anselm implies that anyone who has minimal intelligence should be able to see that God exists by definition. Although Anselm’s argument has faced strong criticism through the ages, it remains of philosophical interest today because of its unusual nature and because of the various attempts that have been made to modify the argument so that it works.

In this essay I shall first examine Anselm’s original statement of the argument, the early criticism from Gaunilo of Marmoutier, and a response to this criticism (and to the notion that existence is not a predicate) which can be found in Anselm’s writings. I shall then assess this stronger Ontological Argument in depth, ultimately concluding that at best the argument shows that if God exists then His existence is necessary, but that there is a strong case for believing that the Ontological Argument can tell us nothing about the nature of God.

The first formulation of the ontological argument that I shall be considering can be found in chapter II of Anselm’s “Proslogion” – one of two meditative works that he composed before his election as abbot. For simplicity I shall reduce the argument to the following points :

P1: God is by definition a being such that nothing greater can be conceived. This definition is understood by believers and non-believers.
P2: It is one thing to exist in the mind and another to exist in the mind and reality.
P3: It is greater to exist in the mind and in reality than the mind alone.
P4: A being than which no greater can be conceived can’t exist just in the mind, since if this were the case a greater being could be conceived of which existed both in the mind and in reality.
C: Therefore God must exist in the mind and in reality.

Anselm’s argument faced criticism soon after it was published from the monk Gaunilo of Mortmountier. He attempted to show that Anselm’s argument must be fallacious since its reasoning can be applied to many obviously non-existent entities to ‘prove’ their existence . This can be shown with the example of the perfect island:

P1: The perfect island is by definition an island such that nothing greater can be conceived. This definition is understood by believers and non-believers.
P2: It is one thing to exist in the mind and another to exist in the mind and reality.
P3: It is greater to exist in the mind and in reality than the mind alone.
P4: An island than which no greater can be conceived can’t exist just in the mind, since if this were the case a greater island could be conceived of which existed both in the mind and in reality.
C: Therefore the perfect island must exist in the mind and in reality.

Since such an island obviously does not exist, it seems that for the ontological argument to be successful it must be somehow shown that Anselm’s reasoning applies to God, but not to things like islands.

Before I go on to consider a more resilient version of the Ontological Argument which evades Gaunilo’s criticism I shall briefly consider another influential criticism of this original statement of the argument made by Kant – namely that existence is not a predicate. The doctrine that something is greater if it exists in addition to being conceived of can be called the doctrine that existence is a perfection – a view that was later adopted by Descartes . Anselm’s argument hinges on the idea that if you conceived of a being of great excellence, that being would be greater/more perfect if it existed than if it did not . For Anselm, to exist “merely in the understanding” is to be conceived of but not to exist. As well as the doctrine of existence as a perfection, Anselm’s argument relies on the idea that if you conceive of something that does not exist then it is possible for it to exist, and that it will be greater if it exists that if it does not .

Norman Malcolm questions the coherence of the notion that existence is a perfection. He asks, “My future child will be a better child if he is honest than if he is not; but who would [understand] the saying that he will be a better man if he exists than if he does not? ”
Malcolm’s objection here is similar to Kant’s claim that existence is not a predicate:
“By whatever and by however many predicates we may think a thing even if we completely determine it-we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that this thing is. Otherwise, it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than we had thought in the concept; and we could not, therefore, say that the exact object of my concept exists .”

Both Malcolm and Kant therefore conclude that Anselm’s argument in “Proslogion 2” is fallacious because it rests on the false doctrine that existence is a perfection and therefore that ‘existence’ is a real predicate term. Neither provide a rigorous refutation of the doctrine, and instead provide only a set of observations that appeal strongly to our intuitions, but for me it seems that Malcolm and Kant’s intuitions are correct; however, neither has shown that there is a logical contradiction in denying their claims. In any case, Malcolm believes that another formulation of the Ontological Argument can be found in Anselm’s writings that is not vulnerable to this objection.

The criticisms that I have considered so far are pretty fatal for the Ontological Argument as I have previously stated it, but it looks like a stronger formulation of the argument can be found in chapter III of the “Proslogion” that avoids them. This version of the argument makes two claims: 1) A being whose non-existence is impossible is greater than a being whose existence is possible. 2) God is a being than which no greater can be conceived . It follows from these claims that God’s existence is necessary. Anselm says that “it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not
to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. ”

The argument is summarized by Malcolm as follows:

“If God, a being greater than which cannot be conceived, does not exist then He cannot come into existence. For if He did He would either have been caused…or have happened to come into existence, and in either case He would be a limited being, which by our conception of Him He is not. Since He cannot come into existence, if He does not exist, His existence is impossible. If He does exist, He cannot have come into existence…nor can He cease to exist, for nothing could cause Him to cease to exist nor could it just happen that He ceased to exist. So if God exists His existence is necessary. Thus God’s existence is either impossible or necessary. It can be the former only if the concept of such a being is self-contradictory or in some way logically absurd. Assuming that this is not so, it follows that He necessarily exists. ”

This avoids predicating existence of God by looking at the two possible types of existence that there can be (necessary and contingent) and making a claim about which is greater. So rather than claiming that existence is a perfection, here Anselm claims that “the impossibility of nonexistence is a perfection ”. This conception of God as having necessary existence is in keeping with God as He appears in religion – the God of scripture is almighty and everlasting, and the creator of all things – such a being cannot be thought of as being brought into existence or as depending on anything else for existence. To conceive of anything that is dependent on something else for its existence is to conceive of something lesser than God .

Having outlined what I take to be the strongest formulation of the Ontological Argument that can be found in Anselm’s writings and outlined its strengths (namely that it avoids Kant’s very influential criticism of the argument), I shall proceed to highlight its failings and see whether these issues can be overcome. I shall begin by looking at whether Anselm’s conception of God is in some way self-contradictory.

Malcolm notes that many philosophers follow Kant and claim that existence is not a predicate and that this over throws that Ontological Argument. Malcolm claims that “although it is an error to regard existence as a property of things that have contingent existence, it does not follow that it is an error to regard necessary existence as a property of God.” Once you have grasped Anselm’s proof of the necessary existence of a being than which no greater can be conceived, no question remains as to whether it exists or not, just as Euclid’s demonstration of the existence of an infinity of prime numbers leaves no question on that issue .

But this opens up an interesting question: what sort of objects may exist necessarily? Obviously God is not physical, and this is just as well since all physical objects that exist do so contingently – this follows from the observation that everything existing in the universe depends causally on the existence of the universe itself.

Prime numbers, if they do exist, are usually considered to belong to the same class of existing objects as propositions – they are “mind-independent, extralinguistic abstract entities ”. God’s nature is usually thought of as being metaphysical, and it seems plausible to infer from Malcolm’s comparison that this existence amounts to existence as an abstract object. (If this is not what he is claiming then Malcolm must be positing some other type of object, and if this is the case the onus is on him to explain what this sort of object is and how it exists.)

However, many philosophers (such as Quine ) deny that abstract objects do exist; if this is the case then it seems that that we have arrived at the conclusion that necessary existence is logically impossible, since if the only types of objects that exist are physical ones then there can only be contingent existence. This though, is an open debate in philosophy and it cannot be said for certain whether or not abstract objects exist.

Even if this ‘being than which no greater can be conceived’ does exist, there is no evidence that such a being is God; that is, there is no way of proving deductively that this being is the very same being that created the universe. (I take the claim that God created the universe to be at least as fundamental of religion as claims about God’s nature.)

It could be that some other being that does not answer to this description created the universe – a possibility that is supported by the various philosophical difficulties with this conception of a supreme God (for example the problem of evil and suffering). Similarly, it looks like the argument can be pluralized to ‘prove’ the existence of an infinity of gods – ‘the gods are by definition those beings than which no greater can be conceived’, etc. – and of these beings some, all or none of them may be the God(s) responsible for the creation of the universe. When you consider this option, the response that it is only natural to consider that a being than which no greater can be conceived is God seems less plausible.

So even if Anselm succeeds in proving that ‘a being than which no greater can be conceived’ exists necessarily, he fails to show a priori that this being is God. To make this claim an inductive leap is required. Indeed, Aqunias would argue that we should reject the conclusion of the Ontological Argument since we do not have an agreed definition of God . It seems that even if we accept Anselm’s characterization of God there is no way of knowing whether that characterization is correct, so it seems that God’s existence cannot be proven by analyzing his nature – God’s nature is largely unknowable.

Having looked at whether the notion of necessary existence is coherent, I shall now turn to whether the notion of being that than which no greater can be conceived is self-contradictory. Leibniz attempted to show that the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived is not self-contradictory; he believed that doing so is necessary for the success of the Ontological Argument since “it is tacitly assumed that this idea of the all-great or all-perfect being is possible” in Anselm’s argument . He attempted to define ‘perfection’ as a simple, positive quality in the highest degree, and argued that since perfections are simple qualities they must be compatible with each other. From this he concludes that the concept of a being that possesses all such qualities is consistent .

Malcolm objects to Leibniz’s definition of perfections for two reasons: Firstly, he claims that it is unacceptable to assume that certain qualities or attributes are intrinsically ‘positive’ or ‘negative/privative’ since there is no logical basis for ascribing such qualities to things – this objection seems to rely on something like GE Moore’s naturalistic fallacy, which holds that ‘goodness’ (or in this case ‘positivity’) should not be defined in terms of natural properties, since there is no logical reason for moving from any natural property to the claim that that property is good/positive . Secondly, Malcolm claims that Wittgenstein has shown that nothing is intrinsically simple, and that whatever has the status of ‘simple’ or indefinable in one system of concepts may have the status of ‘complex’ or being definable in another system .

Malcolm goes on to claim that it is unreasonable to hold that a believer in the Ontological Argument is required to show that his conception of God is sound since, although he may respond to specific claims that the notion of a being than which no greater can be conceived is self-contradictory and defend his definition of God on that ground, it cannot be shown in general that the concept is not self-contradictory .

Finally I shall consider the soundness of the conclusion of the Ontological Argument as interpreted by Malcolm. Norman Malcolm concludes from his analysis of Anselm’s Ontological Argument that Anselm has shown that either God’s existence is necessary or impossible. It can only be impossible if there is some logical inconsistency in the notion of a being’s having necessary existence, and assuming this is not the case, Malcolm concludes that God exists necessarily . Hartshorne argues that this conclusion is problematic; the justification for the claim that the notion of a being than which no greater can be conceived existing necessarily is not self-contradictory lies outside of the logic of the argument , and as we have seen Malcolm’s attempts to justify this assumption are weak.

I do not think that Malcolm can safely draw this conclusion from his reasoning; all that follows from his reflections on the conception of God as a being than which no greater can be conceived is the conditional proposition that “If God exists, then He exists necessarily”. It does not seem to me that this proposition entails the existence of anything, and that you may deny its antecedent without contradiction.

Malcolm considers this objection and concludes that it is mistaken to hold that “God exists necessarily” is equivalent to the above conditional proposition . He claims that the notion that you may deny the antecedent of such a proposition can be made explicit as follows: “If God exists (and it is possible that He does not) then He necessarily exists. ” Malcolm argues that this proposition clearly contradicts itself, and that therefore this criticism of his position fails. It cannot be that God’s necessary existence follows from His possible/contingent existence.

I do not think that Malcolm has provided a satisfactory defence against this criticism, since he wrongly assumes that the antecedent of the proposition is making a metaphysical claim – he conflates metaphysical and epistemic possibility. I believe that a correct reading of this conditional proposition is as making a metaphysical claim about the nature of God’s existence (that it is necessary), and an epistemic claim that the only way to know whether God has necessary existence or necessary non-existence is through an empirical investigation of the world. While if it is discovered that God exists His existence will be necessary, it is epistemically possible that He does not exist. This reading of the proposition is based on Kripke’s observation that the metaphysical notions of necessity and contingency are not coextensive with the epistemic notions of a priority and a posteriority, and can be thought of as similar to his discussion on whether his table is made of ice, where he concludes that “though we cannot know a priori whether this table was made of ice or not, given that it is not made of ice, it is necessarily not made of ice. ” It follows from Kripke that some necessary truths may only be known a posteriori, and I claim that the above conditional is one such proposition.

Of course, no knowledge of God may be had empirically due to his metaphysical nature, so my ultimate conclusion here is that it cannot be known whether or not God exists by reflection on the Ontological Argument.

So to summarize my findings: Although I have not been able to show that the notion of something existing necessarily is self-contradictory, I have shown that it is very possible that this is the case. I have shown clearly that Anselm has failed to show a priori the existence of God since an inductive leap is required to move from the being that is the subject of his argument to the claim that that being is God. Finally I have shown that even if Anselm’s conception of God is both coherent and correct, all that can be soundly concluded from his argument is that if God exists then his existence is necessary – the Ontological Argument can provide no insights about whether or not God actually exists.

• Hartshorne, Charles (1961) “The Logic of the Ontological Argument” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58, No. 17, (Journal of Philosophy Inc), pp. 471-473
• Himma, Kenneth Einar (2005), “Ontological Argument, 2c. Aquinas’s Criticisms” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/ont-arg/#SH2c
• Kripke, Saul (2000) “Identity and Necessity”, in Perspectives in the philosophy of language: a concise anthology, (Broadview Press Ltd), pp. 93-126
• Malcolm, Norman (1960) “Anselm’s Ontological Arguments” in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 69, No. 1, (Duke University Press), pp. 41-62
• Oppy, Graham and Scott, Michael (2010) ”Arguments About the Existence of God” in their Reading Philosophy of Religion, (Blackwell Publishing), pp. 67-160
• Plantinga, Alvin (1966) “Kant’s Objection to the Ontological Argument” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 63, No. 19, American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Sixty-Third Annual Meeting, (Journal of Philosophy Inc.), pp. 537-546
• Prior, Arthur (1949) “The Naturalistic Fallacy: The Logic Of Its Refutation” in his Logic and the Basis of Ethics, (Oxford University Press), pp. 1-12
• Smith, Norman Kemp (2007) “The Critique of Pure Reason, t r.”, (Palgrave; 2 Revised edition)
• Williams, Thomas (2007) “Saint Anselm 2.3 The Argument of the Proslogion “, in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anselm/


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