Among the most famous arguments for God’s existence is St. Anselm’s so-called “ontological argument” in the second chapter of his Proslogion. Anselm contends that God’s existence should be evident to anyone who carefully examines the concept of God. For Anselm, this is the concept of id quo maius cogitari nequit – “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Anselm is right to think that this is an appropriate concept of God. To be sure, there are other appropriate ways to think about God but they should all be compatible with this way of thinking about him. If we can think of something greater than God, then we aren’t thinking about God.
However right Anselm might be about the concept of God (and I use “concept” very loosely here since God, if he is God, must always in some respect exceed our concepts), I think it is less clear that he is right to claim that we can know that God exists just by examining this concept. Critics of Anselm’s argument have not been lacking over the centuries. One of its first critics was a monk named Gaunilo of the Benedictine Abbey of Marmoutier in Tours in France. St. Thomas Aquinas was also a critic of Anselm’s argument, and more recently there is Richard Dawkins.
After I present Anselm’s argument in what follows, it is Thomas’s criticism that I will focus on. I will do that in Part 2 of this essay, which will appear later in CWR.
St. Anselm’s way to the Proslogion argument
Many people know Anselm as an archbishop of Canterbury, a see that he assumed leadership of in 1093. But before that he had been the prior and then the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Bec in France. Anselm had first come to Bec in 1059 to study under the abbey’s prior Lanfranc, a renowned scholar and teacher, and in 1060 decided to take the monastic habit.
After Lanfranc’s departure in 1063 to take over as abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen, Anselm was made prior of Bec and also assumed Lanfranc’s teaching duties. The monks asked Anselm to write a “meditation” for them in which he proved certain things about the “divine essence” by reason alone without any dependence on the authority of Scripture. The result of Anselm’s efforts was his Monologion, which appeared around 1076.
In the first two chapters of the Monologion Anselm argues that a being exists that is the “greatest,” “best,” and “highest” among all existing things. This being is, of course, God. Anselm will then go on in the subsequent chapters to discuss creation, the divine nature, and the Trinity.
After publishing the Monologion – which in the Middle Ages simply meant having copies made of it and circulated – Anselm began to consider whether he might use reason to approach God in a simpler way. He had reached his conclusions in the Monologion by joining together several different arguments and now he wondered whether he might be able to reach the same conclusions by a single argument.
Coming up with this single argument wasn’t easy. Anselm describes his struggles: “Although I often and earnestly directed my thought to this end, and at some times that which I sought seemed to be just within my reach, while again it wholly evaded my mental vision, at last in despair I was about to cease, as if from the search for a thing which could not be found.”1
Despite the difficulty, however, Anselm persisted and eventually discovered an argument that satisfied him. So, in a second book, the Proslogion, which appeared around 1078, he presented the argument to his confrères.
The heart of a fool
Anselm begins his argument by considering the “fool” (insipiens) who in Psalm 14 says “in his heart” that “there is no God.” Anselm believes that reflection on the concept of God should lead the fool to conclude that God exists.
The concept of God, Anselm tells us, is the concept of “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” We can take this articulation of the concept of God to be the first step in Anselm’s argument.
Now, reason would seem to demand that both those who affirm God’s existence and those who deny it have some understanding of what they are affirming or denying. If you insist on God’s existence but have no notion whatsoever of what God is, then on what grounds can you affirm his existence? It makes little sense to affirm that something exists if you have no idea what you are affirming. If I tell you that quarks exist, you would rightly expect me to have some concept of quarks. If I tell you that I don’t know what quarks are, then my claim about their existence would amount to very little if anything. Conversely, it makes little sense to deny that something exists if you have no idea what you are denying. If you deny that quarks exist, then I can rightly expect that you have some concept of quarks.
Anselm tells us that the fool who denies God’s existence, nevertheless, “understands what he hears” when he hears Anselm say that God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. All the better for the fool. If he had no understanding of God, then his denial of God’s existence would not be a denial of anything and, therefore, not a denial at all. In any case, we can take this statement about the fool’s understanding of the concept of God to be the second step in Anselm’s argument.
So, the fool has a concept of God. But because the fool has this concept, Anselm reasons, God exists in the fool’s mind, for “whatever is understood exists in the understanding.” What is Anselm saying? To explain himself Anselm offers the example of a painter. When the painter thinks about the picture he will paint, that picture exists in his mind, but it does not yet exist in reality. Naturally, the painter knows this. If he did not, he would never set his brush to canvas, for he would suppose that for the painting to exist in reality, it would be enough for him just to think about the painting.
Because, then, he has a concept of God, Anselm says that the fool must admit that God exists in his understanding. But this is not the end of the matter for Anselm because his goal isn’t merely to prove God’s mental existence, that is, the existence of the concept of God in our minds. What he wishes to prove is God’s existence in reality. That God has mental existence is just the third step in Anselm’s argument. To come to the argument’s conclusion he needs to take a few more steps.
Faith or reason?
Before we discuss those next steps, I would like to pause for a moment to say something about the origin of Anselm’s concept of God. Anselm appears to regard it as coming from Christian teaching. Consider the following remarks from the beginning of his argument:
Therefore, Lord, you who give understanding to faith (fidei intellectum), grant me, insofar as you know this to be expedient, to understand that you exist as we believe you to exist, and that you are what we believe you to be. And indeed, we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be thought.
There are truths about God that Anselm, like all Christians, accepts on faith. From what he has just said, one of these truths would seem to be that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought. But Anselm petitions God to help him not only believe that this is true but to understand it. He also wants God to help him not only believe that God, as that than which nothing greater can be thought, exists, but to understand this to be the case. In other words, Anselm wants to move from belief in these truths to knowledge of them.
But isn’t there a problem here? If Anselm is taking his concept of God from his Christian faith, in doing so is he not straying from the project of the Monologion of which the Proslogion is supposed to be a continuation? As we saw, it was the purpose of that project to discover what we can know of God by relying on reason alone. Moreover, how can Anselm hope to make any headway with the fool if he introduces an element of faith into his argument? That faith already assumes the reality of God, and this is a reality that the fool denies.
Although Anselm may take his concept of God from his Christian faith, he does not ask the fool to accept this concept on faith. He supposes that the fool finds it intelligible. And it is not at all obvious that the fool would need to assume the truth of the Christian faith to find it intelligible. The concept combines other concepts, namely, the concept of thought and the concept of something being greater than other things. Neither these concepts nor their combination in the concept of God, as Anselm presents it, would seem to be exclusively Christian. Furthermore, it doesn’t even seem essential to Anselm’s argument that it be conceded that its central concept is the concept of “God”. Anselm could offer a valid argument for the existence of something than which nothing greater can be thought without giving that reality (if it turns out to be a reality) a name. Of course, after he has concluded his argument, he could then point out that that than which nothing greater can be thought is what Christians mean by “God.” And he could then note that this fact transforms the argument into one for God’s existence. This would not affect the argument’s validity positively or negatively. That validity would be independent of this later move.
So, my point is that there are solid grounds for holding that in the Proslogion Anselm remains faithful to the project of the Monologion and does not illicitly import anything into his argument that would make its conclusion impossible to accept without adherence to Christian faith.
Going out of our minds
Let’s consider now the rest of Anselm’s argument. In the next step, Anselm tells us that it is better – or greater – to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind. But if that’s true, then, Anselm says, we must grant that God – that than which nothing greater can be thought – exists in reality and not only in our mind.
Why must we grant that? We must grant it for the following reasons. If it is greater to exist in reality but God exists only in our minds, then we could think of things greater than God. And what would they be? They would be whatever exists in reality. This laptop would be greater than God and the coffee I’m sipping would be greater than God too. But it was agreed earlier that the concept of God is the concept of that than which nothing greater can be thought. Thus, we are not in a position to insist that God exists only in our minds and not in reality too. Doing that would force us to concede that we could think of things greater than God; but we cannot make that concession and agree that the concept of God is the concept of that than which nothing greater can be thought.
For some people, it might be tempting to escape from this dilemma by rejecting the concept of God that Anselm has proposed. But there is a steep price to pay for taking this route. Whether or not we believe that God exists we know that the name “God” is properly applied to something that is supposed to be greater than anything else that exists or could exist. Such a reality would have to be something than which nothing greater can be thought. So, it would be entirely unreasonable to reject Anselm’s concept of God. If that is the route we take, then we should not expect anyone to treat us as reasonable participants in the discussion.
Must we now admit that God exists in reality? Anselm would say that we have no other option.
We have gone through the steps in Anselm’s argument in some detail. Here’s the argument in outline:
(1) God is that than which nothing greater can be thought.
(2) We can understand this.
(3) So, God exists in our mind.
(4) It is greater to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind.
(5) If God did not exist in reality, then we could think of things greater than God.
(6) But, as per 1, we cannot think of things greater than God.
(7) Therefore, God exists in reality.
At the beginning of this essay, I called Anselm’s argument an “ontological argument” for God’s existence. Anselm never described his argument in those terms. We owe the label to Immanuel Kant, who had applied it to arguments like Anselm’s that reason to God’s existence from the concept of God. Kant was thinking above all of an argument of René Descartes and it is unclear how familiar he was with Anselm’s argument. In any event, it is now customary to apply the label to Anselm’s Proslogion argument too.
Does Anselm’s argument prove God’s existence?
Commenting on Anselm’s argument, Richard Dawkins tells us that he has a “deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reaches such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world.”2 I completely understand Dawkins’s suspicion. But suspicions are not refutations. So, Dawkins would need to go further if he wished to show us that Anselm’s argument is unsound. He would need to show us either that the reasoning is fallacious or that one or another of the premises is false.
In the second part of this essay, to be published later in CWR, I will consider St. Thomas’s criticism of Anselm’s argument. Many people who read Thomas know of his criticism of the Proslogion argument in the Summa theologiae. It comes a little before Thomas presents his famous “Five Ways.”3 I will be discussing that text but also several other texts from across Thomas’s career where he addresses the Proslogion argument.
1 Proslogion, Preface.
2 The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 82. I have gently altered the syntax of the quote to make it read more smoothly.
3 See Summa theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 1.
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