One of the arguments put forward for the existence of God is Anselm’s Ontological Argument. This is an argument that tries to “prove” God’s existence by showing us that it is basically impossible to deny that the greatest possible being – God exists.

It is an interesting argument because it tries to get to God using only rules of logic to show us that it’s contradictory to think God doesn’t exist. As such, even as an Atheist, I have to say this is one … dare I say it … impressive argument precisely because it doesn’t need anything empirical. All other opinions start from something – the fact that species exist, or that the universe exists, or that morality exists and builds.

Let’s try to see what the argument is and what are the objections to it that I managed to explore and gather so far. from there. This argument is different. It starts with mere concepts.

The Argument

Anselm defined God as a “being than which no greater can be conceived”. He suggested that even “the fool” can understand this concept, and this understanding itself means that the being must exist in the mind.

Anselm#s Ontological Argument, simplified
  1. It is true by definition that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined.
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God exists only in the mind, then we can imagine something greater than God.
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God – a being greater than the greatest possible being.
  6. Therefore, God exists both in the mind and in reality.

Simplified from:

At the first sight, the argument seems kind of laughable, because it seems to support all different things which can be imagined – and therefore – they would exist also in reality. Or superheroes, like Batman – if we imagine him, he also exists in reality.

But, please do not be so hasty to proclaim this, because it is not quite that simple. Anselm’s argument deals with perfections – that is, nothing greater can be imagined. When trying to ridicule this argument, we tend to forget that the argument is stated that God is the perfect being. By this definition, Batman is not the greatest being because you can always imagine a man better at jiu-jitsu, for example, or richer – with more money.

Gaunilo’s Perfect Island and other similar objections

A bit more powerful criticism along the same lines is the one that a theist – monk Gaunilo offered – that using the same argument you can imagine a perfect Island, which also exists in reality. People when criticising Gaunilo often say that you cannot imagine a perfect island, since you can always add more coconuts, making the island more perfect, so it is not a maximally perfect island. But there is a catch here – this criticism is not as powerful as one might think – or not as powerful as one in the case of Batman.

When it comes to Islands and coconuts or palm trees – it is NOT immediately clear how MORE coconuts = better. There are concepts like „too much of a good thing“ – for example too many coconuts or too many palm trees would actually bother you. So, it seems that the original argument IS vulnerable here.1

1 Paraphrasing Nicholas Everitt – The Non-Existence of God

Of course, you might argue about whether Everit is correct here, but it really seems that just doubling something does not necessarily mean that you are adding „greatness“ to it. Of course, the second version of ontological argument deals with perfections and perfect is only something which has the greatest possible goodness or power, it cannot deal with numbers which can always increase. But, again, it does not seem that just because there is not a maximum number of something this is not perfect, or not maximally „good“ that it can possibly be.

In IT you can have too much security for example. This would lead to a super-secure computer system where for renaming a single file or for changing the desktop background you must enter your password again, and then immediately change it to the new one. Sure, it might have maximum security, but the usability in the real world is practically non-existent. How does that reflect the nature of this computer system? Is it better with more security? This analogy can potentially be extended to the island to show that there can be too much of a good thing.

But, even if Anselm’s argument can escape the mockery of the perfect Island, perfect boyfriend and similar – and as we have seen it is doubtful that it can – worse is yet to come.

Defining into existence

If we return to defining things – just to illustrate a point this time, girls might define perfect boyfriends – as boyfriends who are handsome, funny, who listen, who are gentle and kind, like in Sex and the City and so on. But they cannot add „and he exists“ to make them exist.

Why?

Well, as Simon Blackburn would brilliantly put it in his amazing book „Think“:
You can define a concept, but it is quite another question whether anything answers the concept you define. You can define a perfect boyfriend, but the world decides whether anybody meets it.2

2 Paraphrasing Simon Blackburn: Think – A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy

This is actually a form of argument Immanuel Kant first argued – existence is not a predicate (property). So, Kant would direct his criticism at proposition 3 – „A being that exists in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind“.

According to the variation of Kant’s argument, a girl who to her list of qualities a boyfriend should possess adds „and HE EXISTS“ is actually adding nothing, for adding this to the definition does not change the concept itself – it is not real property. Of course, the perfect boyfriend should exist, but it is the world that is in charge of whether something exists. So, existence does not affect greatness, because existence does not change the concept itself, but argues that concept must have an INSTANCE in the REAL WORLD.

Exists is not a property in the same way “being pink” is. If you talk about the concept of a pink unicorn – and then later to say that it exists actually means to say – the unicorn “has instances” – there is an object – a Unicorn that answers to this definition, so to say God exists would be to say – the idea of god has an instance. If you say „house exists“ – you have argued that an instance of the idea “house” is to be found, but you have not changed the IDEA itself. When you play the same game – when you say god EXISTS – you mean that an IDEA of god has an instance which is to be found. So, it should be clear that existence does not increases the greatness of the idea but rather argues that an instance of the idea is to be found in the real world, meaning proposition 3 fails, so the argument fails.

But, there are other objections as well.

Other objections

There are a lot of other objections and answers to them, we’ll deal with them in some other post. Of course, there are also other versions of ontological argument to consider, so … it is safe to say we have a lot of material pending. Let’s just mention two:

  • The moves from „understanding God“ to „God exists in the mind“, since just because we understand a concept, that does not mean that we can treat it as existing in the mind – it seems there is a gap from understanding to „exists in the mind“, but I haven’t read much about that point. The point is that „EXISTS in the mind“ seems much stronger than understanding something. 3
    3 Paraphrasing Millican (2004), ‘The One Fatal Flaw in Anselm’s Argument’, Mind
  • It is not easy to actually really compare things in mind and reality. You can imagine that you own a fast car (a Ferrari, let’s say) and then someone says that their Yugo is faster because imagined cars do not REALLY move. But they cannot be compared. The argument tries to compare a fast car in the imagination with a car in reality and show that cars, in reality, are always faster, but we can indeed imagine a faster car than the one we have in reality, so there is no contradiction that shows that cars, in reality, are always faster, similar to how there is no contradiction that says you can imagine a MORE perfect being than you already imagined – a greatest possible being. Surely you can still imagine a faster car in the mind – it is not that a car, in reality, can be measured to be always faster than one in the mind. It doesn’t seem true that you can imagine a greater being than god in the imagination, so god does not have to exist in reality to be „greater“. 4
    4 Paraphrasing Simon Blackburn: Think – A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy

Conclusion

The conclusion of all these arguments and criticisms is – on the level of knowledge and based on arguments I have read and explored, it seems Anselm’s Ontological Argument is not enough to convince us of God’s existence.

Of course, this was only the earliest and some would say – weakest version of the argument, so in some next post, I will try to make a similar summary of other ontological and other types of arguments I have encountered so far and the objections to them that I am familiar with.

Please note that this post was simply a summary of the things I have read about this topic so far. I tried to explain to others how I understood these concepts from great thinkers, so if you see any arguments that I failed to present well, or misunderstood, please let me know and I will correct the article immediately. Thank you for reading and make sure to come back as I’ll be doing similar things for other arguments as well.

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