Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Anselm's Ontological Argument for the existence of God

Anselmus Candiae Genavae, better known as Saint Anselm (c. AD 1033 – 1109) was a medieval Italian cleric, philosopher, and theologian who served as the archbishop of Canterbury. He contributed three major works, namely Proslogion, Monologium and Cur Deus Homo. The work he’s probably most famous for is Proslogion, the one in which he introduced one of the most vexing arguments – Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God.

Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God goes like this:

a) God is that than which no greater can be conceived.

b) For God to be (that which than no greater can be conceived), He must exist in reality as well as in the mind.

The argument deals with the notion that God must have real being and not just hypothetical being because if we’re just thinking of the idea of God that exists in our mind, we are not thinking about the God that Anselm is referring to in his argument. The God he’s defining is the greatest being conceivable, and if we’re conceiving of the greatest being conceivable as not existing in reality, then we can come up with a greater being than the one we’re talking about, the one who does exist in reality. A being that exists is greater than that which is merely imaginary.

Gaunilo’s Objection

Now, despite Anselm’s awkward articulation of the argument, there is actually a good reason for it. Changing the phraseology even slightly runs the risk of missing the whole point. Throughout the history of Western thought, the argument has been the subject of much debate. Initially some, even when presented with Anselm’s original wording, still charged it as a fallacious argument. His chief antagonist at the time, a monk by the name Gaunilo, took up arguments against it. His counter argument was to draw a parallel example and demonstrate it to be fallacious. His argument was that just because we can conceive of the greatest island conceivable, an island no greater than which can be conceived does not mean that such as island exists unless we have the power to conjure up reality just by conceiving it, which is not rational.

Anselm’s Response to Gaunilo’s Objection

What was evident from Anselm’s reply was that he had considered this counter argument. Anselm agreed that the island would indeed demonstrate his argument to be fallacious, but he made the critical distinction that makes all the difference in the world. He countered that the greatest conceivable island is not the highest conceivable being. There is a difference between arguing for that being than which no greater can be conceived as being necessarily conceived as actually existing than claiming that a perfect island, or a perfect horse, or a perfect pizza can, therefore, be thought to exist in reality.

One of the common views is that what Anselm was saying is that you cannot think of being without thinking of being as being. In other words, non-existent being is unthinkable. Non-existent islands are conceivable. But you cannot even have a mental concept of non-existing being. Because being by definition simply IS. It is a necessary logical connection to the very idea of “being” to conceive of it as being.

In his response to Gaunilo, Anselm said that it is impossible for a rational person to have the idea of a possible necessary being, because if a necessary being is only merely possible, then that being is not necessary, but contingent. A necessary being is that which is both logically necessary and ontologically necessary. Because of the impossibility of the contrary (law of noncontradiction – something cannot be its own opposite), we cannot think of being as not being or not existing.