Arguing for God’s Existence: St. Thomas vs. St. Anselm, Part 1

However right Anselm might be about the concept of God, I think it is less clear that he is right to claim that we can know that God exists just by examining this concept.

Detail from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling: "Creation of Adam" (1510) by Michelangelo [WikiArt.org]

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.

Endnotes:

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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About Joseph G. Trabbic 14 Articles
Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. He has published in various academic journals, including Religious Studies, International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, and New Blackfriars. He is also a contributor to Thomistica.net.

12 Comments

  1. Trabic when initiating his assessment of Anselm touches on the indisputable premise that makes the saint’s argument whether refuted nevertheless continuously provocative. That is the logical terminus from which we cannot proceed further. As the Apostle argues in Romans 1 the gentiles actually had an obligation to believe simply on the data given us in the natural world. How different then is this ontological argument based on tangible evidence from Anselm’s? Nature reveals causes, consequently Aquinas’ argument of causality for God’s existence. Nevertheless the leap from visible causality to an unseen efficient cause is a reasoned logical proposal. Reason doesn’t prove God’s existence, rather reason acknowledges a First Principle who is God.

    Anselm cannot prove God’s existence due to a concept existing in the mind. Otherwise we succumb to pure idealism in which the mind’s ideations are the arbiter of truth [a phenomenon that is widespread throughout the modern world seen in concepts like systemic racism]. Although compare inference [the leap] from an entirely unique mental concept [nothing greater can be conceived] to the rational inference that there must be an efficient cause [the agent by which a thing exists] and it’s found both are rational. And I would submit subject to belief. How then? If reasoned inference obliges the Romans to believe, chastised by Paul for their unbelief, then a parallel logical inference based on an indisputable premise of reason deserves our acknowledgement.

    Anselm’s argument references a reality that many of us experience in ordinary life, simple persons who ruminate on reality, often intuitive due to our inherent prescient knowledge of the transcendent, on appearance [in the mind] of an idea. An interior sense [reason is not rule of truth, rather it is the measure. That implies truth possesses its own intelligibility] of a greater reality [from which nothing greater can be thought]. In the world of ordinary non philosophical men Anselm’s argument does have purchase.

  2. As an addendum to saying that reason doesn’t ‘prove’ the existence of God but rather acknowledges God’s existence, Aquinas presents ‘proofs’ of God’s existence rather than an attempt to prove what is already evident to reason.

  3. Where Hawking and others investigate the intelligibility of the universe, Aquinas got directly and more radically to the question of its existence—versus nothing at all.

    The Big Bang theory, as the current example, explains the workings of a natural process, but does not explain its existence where, instead, there might be absolute nothing. The theory begins after one billionth of a second with the four forces of the universe (gravity, electromagnetic forces and small and large nuclear forces) already existing as an intensely compact and single super force much smaller than a single atom. Disintegration yields simple atoms after three minutes, atomic radiation after 380,000 years, and matter and gravity combining into star formations and our universe, after the first nine billion years…

    Hawking concludeth thusly, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing” (“The Grand Design,” New York: Bantam Books, 2010, p. 180). It’s all about the math. The Pre-scientific myth that maggots arise spontaneously from rotten meat finds a place in the non-metaphysical thinkers of the new cosmology—and their not-so-new finding of spontaneous self-creation. The universe is a giant maggot.

    • If I may Peter, Hawkins and company [do] “not explain its existence where, instead, there might be absolute nothing”. That is related to the weakness of Anselm’s argument, that an idea in the mind, even if indisputably true, remains a logical presumption, an idea sans concrete existence, comparable to imagining a number that exceeds the content of the universe. Whereas Thomas Aquinas reasons from what we know exists, to that which must exist without qualification. Nothingness is as impossible as to theorize that an immeasurable universe is merely the creation of another set of finite causes. As such we understand why God tells Moses, Tell the people [Israelites] I Am. That I Am sent me to you.

      • I either misstated or am misread. The philosophical/theological question is “why is there anything, rather than nothing?” This is the difference between being (the is-ness of things) and essences (the thing-ness) of things.

        My comment is simply that Einstein, for example, stuck with the intelligibility of existence and, partly because he denied a personal God, was more of a monist. (“The eternally incomprehensible about the world is its comprehensibility.”) The universe is God.

        Aquinas, as with Aristotle, contrasts a bit with Plato by also examining the very existence of real things (ex nihilo, or is-ness versus nothingness or zero), something we call creation by a God who is outside the series of causes and effects. So, as you summarize, God—as the act of Being itself—says “I am who Am.” A phrase that Christ, who is One with the Father, also attributes to Himself dozens of times as recounted in John’s Gospel. I think we are saying the same thing.

        But, as I understand it, Hawking theorizes that there is no “nothing” before the front end of existing stuff in time, no need for a physical “beginning.” To show this, he points to collapsing stars (“black holes”) that are so dense and heavy that even light waves do not escape. He proposes that some of these black holes collapse into nothing but do still spin off stray particles after all, which then eventually form new stars and each new galaxy, even today. As an all-encompassing black hole, and when viewed in reverse (as collapsing), the “original” Big Bang of nearly fourteen billion earth-years ago seems to suggest an endless series of such new and self-sufficient endings and beginnings. By these mathematics Hawking intends a “fundamental logic that does not allow for ‘nothing’.” Does not allow for ex nihilo. (Anselm is very peripheral to this mathematical, complete, and yet closed line of reasoning.) In an earlier work, he concluded “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God” (“A Brief History of Time”).

        The irreducible mystery—the mind of God!—is not only how this real stuff works, but that it exists at all (ex nihilo) , rather than not. Yes? A non-mathematical act of infinite self-donation, perhaps.

        • Thanks for your in depth explanation Peter. Nothingness is impossible doesn’t prevent God from creation out of nothingness, meaning not ‘from’ nothingness as if it were a thing, rather a pure act of creation [the biblical creation of Man from the earth is a literary device]. Yes, we are in agreement [Anselm’s proposition on face value is really an exercise in logical sequence that seeks to prove God’ existence from the mind, rather than the opposite reality that the truth of God’s existence is external to and the reason for the mind’s acknowledgement of His existence].
          Hawkings’ idea that there was always something is the ancient idea of an eternal universe. Aquinas vacillated on this difficult question. God [a personal perspective] who is pure act doesn’t act in sequences of time. Therefore, the universe in one sense is immeasurable in respect to time [there were no preexisting coordinates to determine its beginning]. Although eternal [personal perspective] we can only say that it was created. Unlike the Eternal Word who is eternally begotten. Aquinas’ response to those who presumed an eternal universe similar to the infinity of God responds that this merely avoids the logic of causality and the necessity of an efficient cause, who Aquinas identifies as the First Principle, who is God.
          Those who refuse to acknowledge a creator God have made a decision [my contention] not to consider the evidence. As First Principle a creator God alone provides a coherent explanation of the universe.

        • Peter, what you call “thingness” is elicited originally from Ibn Sina [Ibn Sina also taught that what is first evident to the intellect are beings], what we perceive a thing is, for Aquinas, quiddity or form.
          In Essence and Existence the act of the form is what determines what a thing [being] is. It’s essence. Although what a thing [being] or a person is does not suggest the cause of what it is, it’s existence. There is then the First Principle [God] of all things that exist, the act which is called by Aquinas esse, understood as the act of existence.
          So we have a being, or thing, its essence, what it is, the act of the form that provides its quiddity [thingness as some say] or essence, and the final necessary act of existence, esse, which is from God, who is the First Principle of all being. + Much of today’s thought on being deals with its intelligibility and the bracketing of the question of its existence as Edmund Husserl did using the term from Kant phenomenon [as distinguished from the unknowable reality called the noumenon].
          The error of Kant and commonly held is that we perceive a mental image of the thing. Aquinas taught that we perceive the thing itself since the phantasm, the intermediary between thing and person perceiving is not a thing different from the object perceived, rather it’s the immaterial means of conveying the object to the intellect. When we perceive through the phantasm it’s a quasi reflection, not a consequent moment in time.

    • The Big Bang theory, as the current example, explains the workings of a “natural process”, but does not explain its existence where, instead, there might be ‘absolute nothing’

      From my Post via the link below a personal given (Seen) symbolic reflection
      “The black bird entered the ‘Wondrous Tree’ in dry branch entwined he
      With yellow eye and “crack” (Pye π A spiral of death and decay) of wing all was lost nothing still
      I had become as separate thing
      Your seed polluted by that black squawking, squealing, squeaky thing”

      https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/10/03/what-were-up-against-confronting-our-gnostic-empire-of-desire-part-2/#comment-155691

      “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away”

      Revelation 21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

  4. For me, the only argument that really works for the existence of God is an “argument from beauty,” with “beauty” conceived of as the sense of intellectual and emotional pleasure or satisfaction that is experienced when contemplating an eternal life of health and happiness (rather than eternal non-existence or eternal sorrow), and when contemplating a society of solidarity, friendship, peace, and justice (what Paul VI, John Paul II, and Francis have called a “civilization of love,” which to some extent came be experienced in this earthly existence, and then fully in the heavenly existence).

    Philosophical proofs or arguments, in general (on any subject), have never been convincing to me. The filmmaker Orson Welles once said he was “suspicious of philosophy.” Me too. I have noticed that anything can be allegedly proven or established by philosophy.

    –In Chinese and Cuban universities today, their Ph.D. professors of philosophy still “prove” the correctness of Marxism.
    –In Calvinist seminaries, their Ph.D. professors of philosophy still “disprove” many distinctive features of Catholic thought.
    –There are followers of Ayn Rand, who have Ph.D.s in philosophy, who use the methods of Western Philosophy to “prove” that Ayn Rand’s unique philosophy called Objectivism is the one and only correct understanding of life.

    As I see it, science doesn’t prove God either, except in a negative sense of pointing out huge areas in which we have no scientific explanation at all (such as how biological beings came into existence). Such “gaps” in knowledge don’t prove the existence of a creator God, but they do lend a certain credibility to the idea of a creator God as passed down to us from antiquity.

    Okay, well, was that little dissertation of any value to anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

  5. In the journal Science et Esprit (71/1 (2019) appears my essay “Possibilia Non Esse and Number in Aquinas’ Third Way.” Very simply I argue that Aquinas’ ability to prove the non-existence of an actual infinity in anything that can be numbered shows there cannot be an actual infinity of causes. There must be at some point a cause that is first. It is an elegant argument (though difficult to understand without many readings in Aquinas, and the notion of number in Aristotle as well as in modern theorists of number as Drosdek and Cantor, along with Bolzano.) Put plainly, I believe it is Aquinas’ most successful argument, and in the essay I point out how it avoids the conundrums readers have claimed are present in the regressus ad infinitum approach. Aquinas need not take that approach, and I argue in my essay that his treatment of number enable him to avoid it as a stumbling block.

  6. I cannot believe that Christians are still trying to prove God’s existence using authors from a thousand years ago. I would hope that at least some Christian theologians are up to date on modern scientific discoveries in Quantum Physics.

    Proven science has now shown us that our reality is more like a tv picture, with God holding the remote control.

    Science has now observed multiple realities, from two different observers observing the same subatomic particles. In the lab, scientists have mimicked ‘The miracle of the Sun’, where 60000 people witnessed one reality, while the rest of the world witnessed an alternative reality. Wow!

    Physicists have long suspected that quantum mechanics allows two observers to experience different, conflicting realities. Now they’ve performed the first experiment that proves it.
    https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/03/12/136684/a-quantum-experiment-suggests-theres-no-such-thing-as-objective-reality/

    Neils Bohr
    “It is meaningless to assign Reality to the universe in the absence of observation; in the intervals between measurement, quantum systems truly exist as a fuzzy mixture of all possible properties.”​

    Neils Bohr’s ‘ ‘Peek A Boo’ universe, a universe which does not exist when man is not looking at it.
    https://youtu.be/tafGL02EUOA

    Subatomic particles make up everything physical in the universe. Science has proven, in the double slit experiment, that all subatomic particles exist only as a wave of all possibilities. It is only when Adamkind, look, touch, hear, smell, that subatomic particles switch to become specific physical particles, connected together, to make up all that we sense in the Universe.

    Like our Omnipresent to all physical time God, so do subatomic particles carry all possible physical time, presents, pasts and futures in their makeup. It is only one specific, present, past and future, of physical time, that becomes our reality when Adamkind observe it, that become our history. When you look at a star 13.8 billion light years away, it is only at the moment Adamkind looks at the star, that a specific past, present and future comes into existence. When the star is no longer observed, it no longer exists, for all of time, as a collection of physical subatomic particles.

    Albert Einstein
    “Id like to think the moon was there even when I wasn’t looking at it.”

    The universe is just a soup of all possibilities, until Adamkind, conscious observers, open their eyes and senses to see, touch, hear and smell, the universe. Once Adamkind goes to experience our universe, this is when subatomic particles switch into physical particles, joined together to make up our physical universe reality. Different people can have different realities, which do not collapse into a shared reality, until the two different people tell one another what they are experiencing. Once an observer opens their eyes, this is when subatomic particles go back in physical time to make up a specific, past, present and future, reality. How on earth can atheist scientists not see that it takes God to do all this! It is their atheist pride, of course.

    Science has proven, If there was a universe six days before Adam opened his eyes to look at it, it would have to be a six day miracle from God.

    Please visit my thread: “How did an Electron Evolve to Know When Man is Looking at It, and Thus Change It’s Course?”
    https://www.christianforums.com/threads/how-did-an-electron-evolve-to-know-when-man-is-looking-at-it-and-thus-change-its-course.8099425/

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