Debating Anselm’s Ontological Argument: From Kant to Contemporary Scholars
Although faith is a major component of Christianity, Christians and Atheists alike can see the benefit of trying to prove the existence of God from a philosophical viewpoint. The accuracy of the transmission of New Testament text can easily be proven by studying ancient history, writings, and codicology, however proving the existence of God has led to less decisive results. Among the main arguments are the Ontological argument, the teleological argument, and the cosmological argument. For the purposes of time, this paper will focus solely on the Ontological Argument. Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God has been questioned because of his claim that existence is a great-making property, however it remains one of the most influential and arguments for the existence of God to this day.
In order to understand Saint Anselm’s argument, one must first examine the way in which he differentiates existence in the understanding as opposed to existence in reality. In chapter two of his argument he writes that it is “…one thing for a thing to stand in relation to our understanding; it is another thing for us to understand that it really exists” (D4, Anselm). He then goes on to use the example of how a painting only exists in an artist’s understanding before it is created and then exists in reality. Anselm argues that in this way existence is a great-making property, and that in relation to the example the painting in reality would be superior to the painting in the understanding. Anselm begins his Ontological Argument is built on the fact that God can be defined as “a being that than which a greater cannot be conceived” (D5, Anselm). He is clever to begin his argument in this way, because it is a noncontroversial statement that even the most hostile Atheist would concede is true. From this premise, Anselm goes on to assume that this God exists only in the understanding, which again is not a point of contention for Atheists. However, his argument becomes susceptible to criticism when he makes the claim that because existence is a great-making property, and therefore a God who exists in reality would be greater than God who only exists in the understanding. Therefore, since God is a being such that no greater being can be conceived, God must exist in reality rather than only in the understanding. If God is indeed the greatest possible being, as defined earlier in the argument, then by definition he must exist since existence is a great-making property. However, as Phillip A. Peccorino points out “The argument is not that ‘If you believe that god exists then god exists’. That would be too ridiculous to ask anyone to accept that if you believe that X exists and is real then X exists and is real” (Peccorino). Rather the argument proves “what must be thought about the GCB given how the GCB was defined and not whether the GCB actually exists” (Peccorino). Anselm provides a logical argument for the existence of God from a philosophical standpoint, however like all arguments for the existence of God the Ontological argument is subject to criticism. Soon after the publication of Anselm’s argument, Gaunilo critiqued the Ontological argument by writing and publishing On Behalf of the Fool, to which Anselm authored his Reply. Gaunilo replaces God in Anselm’s argument with a “Lost Island”, claiming that the Ontological Argument can be used to prove the existence of anything, regardless of its existence. He writes “…if I accepted this argument, I do not know whom I would regard as the greater fool, me for accepting it or him for supposing that he had proved the existence of this island with any kind of certainty” (D9, Gaunilo). While Gaunilo appears to provide a compelling criticism of Anselm’s Argument, instead of providing a philosophically sound response, Anselm treats his critique like a joke and simply writes that he would “…give it to him as something that he should never lose again” (D10, Anselm). While many scholars conclude that Anselm did not actually answer Gaunilo because he did not take his argument seriously, the question remains whether he did not provide a satisfactory answer because he did not have one. Professor T.J. Mawson provides an objection like Guanilo’s in his book, titled Belief in God: An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion. He writes “It’s easier to spot that something has gone wrong with the Ontological Argument than it is to describe what has gone wrong with it” (126, Mawson). He writes this because as Guanilo points out, given existence as a great-making property, that the argument is logically sound and makes sense. However, because it can be applied in cases such as Gaunilo’s Island, it is faulty since the island in question does not actually exist. Mawson elaborates that “…similar sorts of arguments would also work is sometimes called the ‘Overload Objection’” (127, Mawson). Since according to Anselm God is the greatest being, an argument proving his existence should not be applicable to other things, as a God so superior to everything needs a unique argument. While this is a strong objection to Anselm’s argument, the Ontological Argument is an a priori argument which is not meant to be applied to anything other than the existence of God. In his book, God, Jay Wood writes “…it is not grounded in everyday experience but arises from reflection alone” (50, Wood). In this way, Anselm’s argument is not based on observable characteristics of the physical world, but rather is a rational argument relying on logic as its premise. Additionally, Wood also writes “…it turns on complex reflections about the nature of necessity and the possibility of a necessarily existing being” (52, Wood). Here Wood highlights an entirely different way of framing Anselm’s Ontological argument, focusing on the idea of necessity rather than existence as a great-making property. Since much of the criticism of the Ontological Argument focuses on whether or not existence is a great making property, framing Anselm’s argument in a different light lends him more credibility and challenges the objections to his argument. Another objection to Anselm’s Ontological Argument is provided by author Jordan Jeff in his book, Philosophy of Religion: Key Thinkers. In his book, he accuses Anselm of question-begging, writing that “justified acceptance of Premise 1 presupposes justified acceptance of the conclusion of the argument” (26, Jeff). While it may appear that he is accusing Anselm of arguing that people must believe God exists because the Bible says so, as many ill-informed Christians have, he goes on to develop a deeper objection. After a lengthy examination of existence in the understanding and in reality, Jeff concludes that objects in reality are not necessarily identical to objects in the understanding. He writes ‘…for how could it be that the understanding is perfectly impervious to false conceptions of actually existing objects, and yet at the same time a sucker for incoherent conceptions of objects that do not actually exist” (27, Jeff). Here Jeff provides a compelling argument that thing in the understanding can have contradictory qualities, however it is not possible for such a thing to exist in reality, and it will therefore be different than in the understanding. While this is a strong criticism of Anselm’s argument it fails to take into account that if God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, then he would be capable of doing whatever he wants, certainly including existing in both the understanding and reality. It is possible that God is so far superior to humanity that what may be perceived as contradictory traits are actually made possible by God, as he is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Additionally, while it is possible for an object to be different in reality than in the understanding, it is also plausible, and often assumed that the object will be the same in both the understanding and in reality. Although the criticisms of modern philosophers cast significant doubt upon the validity of Anselm’s argument, perhaps the most compelling objections are evident in the writings of philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his writing, Kant argues that existence is not a predicate, therefore tearing down the essential element of the Ontological Argument. He writes that “…a characterizing predicate is one that is added to the concept of the subject and fills it out. So it mustn’t be already contained in that concept” (G18, Kant). Here he means that in order for something to be a predicate it must add new information to what is already given about a subject. For example, when describing a dress one may characterize it by saying that it is pink, with flowers, has long sleeves, buttons up from the back…etc. All these qualities or traits of the dress would be considered predicates. However, if one were to say that the aforementioned dress exists, this statement would not add any new information about the dress, but rather would affirm what was already implied and assumed. Therefore, existence is not a predicate as it does not provide any new information. If this is true then Anselm’s argument appears to crumble, as it is based on the assumption that existence is both a predicate and a great-making property. Proponents of Anselm’s argument may yet defend it by saying that existence must be addressed in the Ontological Argument, as Anselm is specifically discussing existence in the understanding in relation to existence in reality. One may claim that in the context of the argument existence can be used as a predicate since it is not assumed that God exists, but is rather a conclusion which Anselm is trying to reach logically. However, this is a weak reply as existence still does not add more information about God, and is not therefore by definition a predicate.
While Anselm’s Ontological Argument has been very influential in regard to philosophy of religion, ultimately, it is not a decisive argument. The only way to be certain about the existence of something is to be able to see and test it. Additionally, if God exists and is therefore inherently great, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, it would be logical that he is so far superior to mankind that humans cannot possibly understand him or prove his existence. Additionally, there would be no reason for faith, a central element of Christianity, if one were able to decisively prove the existence of God. In this way, Anselm’s Ontological Argument and similar arguments are valuable because they point people to God and provide evidence for his existence, however it is not possible to prove the existence of God from a purely philosophical standpoint.
Anselm, Sidney Norton. Deane, and Gaunilo. St. Anselm: Proslogium ; Monologium ; an Appendix In Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon ; and Cur Deus Homo. La Salle, IL: Open Court Pub., 1958. Print. Jordan, Jeff. Philosophy of Religion: The Key Thinkers. Continuum, 2011. Continuum Key Thinkers. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk &AN=347313&site=ehost-live. Mawson, T. J. Belief in God : An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Clarendon Press, 2005. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk &AN=186624&site=ehost-live. Peccorino, Phillip A. “Chapter 3: Philosophy of Religion.” The Ontological Argument. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017 Wood, W. Jay. God. MQUP, 2014. Central Problems of Philosophy. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk &AN=846522&site=ehost-live.
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