Whether St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument is Philosophically Sound?
Objection 1: It would seem that Anselm’s ontological argument is sound. Anselm was canonized in 1494 and given the distinction of Doctor of the Church in the 18th century. Therefore, since the Church only honors those individuals who promote orthodoxy and do not adhere to heresy, St. Anselm’s ontological argument must be considered by all Catholics as not only philosophically valid but also sound.
Objection 2: Unlike other substances, the Necessary Existent (i.e. God) has existence as its very essence. And, as such, existence must always be applied to God; it is impossible to imagine the Necessary Existent in a state of not existing. Therefore, Kant’s objection that existence is not a predicate is incorrect.
On the Contrary, Immanuel Kant states, “Time and labour therefore are lost on the famous ontological (Cartestian) proof of the existence of a Supreme Being from mere concepts; and a man might as well imagine that he could become richer in knowledge by mere ideas, as a merchant in capital, if, in order to improve his position, he were to add a few noughts to his cash account" (Beck 291).
I answer that, Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God is unsound in the first and third premises, which render the entirety of the argument unsound. Anselm’s argument utilizes a reduction-ad-absurdum approach, whereby Anselm affirms the fool’s claim that there is no God (cf. Psalms xiv. I). Assuming that the fool was correct, then God, that which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in understanding but not in reality. But, it is greater to exist in reality than to exist only in understanding. Therefore, God exists in reality. Anselm’s argument in a more enumerated form states the following:
1. God is that which nothing greater can be conceived
2. God exists in understanding (established in the Psalms)
3. It is greater to exist in reality than in understanding alone
4. If God does not exist in reality, then that which nothing greater can be conceived does not equal that which nothing greater can be conceived
5. Therefore, God exists in reality and not only in understanding
First, one must examine the notion that God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. While such a definition can be theologically orthodox, such a definition is not truly sufficient for the sake of Anselm’s argument. When a person attempts to conceive of this definition, it is impossible to deposit any sort of perceivable reality in his or her mind. No observable color, condition, or state is able to be deposited and as such, the one following the argument does not deposit any real substance in his or her mind.
Thomas Aquinas provides a sufficient objection to Anselm when he observes the distinction between the condition of being self-evident in itself and not to us and self-evident in itself and to us. Since Anselm argues that the existence of God can be known through reason alone and without any observation of the world, it seems that Anselm claims that the existence of God is self-evident in itself and to us. After all, he believes that through reason alone mankind can assent to God, and the existence of God is consequently self evident to all. Thomas argues, “If, therefore the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all,” (I Q. 2, art. 1 responsio) yet, he further clarifies that if the predicate and subject are unknown to some then the proposition is not self-evident in itself and to us.
Furthermore, Aquinas observes the following observation in the proposition ‘God exists’: “Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us…” (I Q. 2, art. 1 responsio).
Therefore, by Aquinas’ logic, Anselm’s argument is insufficient because the initial premise is above the ability of a human being to adequately consider and thereby actually deposit a reality in one’s mind. God’s existence is not self-evident to us, and Anselm’s argument based in large part on definition alone is not sufficient to convert a non-believer. However, in his most blatant rebuttal to Anselm’s definition of God, Thomas states, “Perhaps not everyone who hears this word ‘God’ understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body” (I Q. 2, art. Ad 2) And, consequently, the soundness of Anselm’s first premise in the ontological argument is questionable.
Secondly, Anselm’s usage of a priori demonstration to arrive at the conclusion of God’s existence is lacking in comparison to a posteriori demonstration, thereby discrediting his argument. Similarly, according to Thomas, a thing may be demonstrated in one of two ways: through the causes (i.e. a priori) or through the effects (i.e. a posteriori). In particular, Thomas states, “When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause” (I Q. 2, art. 2 responsio). And, as generally accepted among Christian philosophers, God’s ways transcend the ways of average human beings, making not only God but His ways beyond our reasoning.
Consequently, in respect to God, we understand the effects of God far better than the causes, and through the effects one is still able to comprehend the thing in question. Therefore, Anselm’s method of a priori demonstration is unbefitting since the effects of God are better known, which means that a posteriori demonstration of God’s existence is the superior form of demonstration in this matter. Thomas not only discusses the two ways of demonstration but also utilizes them in order to create several arguments from a posteriori demonstration (e.g. First Mover, First Cause, et cetera).
Anselm’s argument with its a priori approach, forces the observer to posit knowledge of the Christian God to arrive at the conclusion sought by Anselm. Because the argument does not take into account the effects of God’s actions, one is unable to ascertain – through the argument alone – the traits of God such as His generosity, humility, et cetera. Yet, through an examination of God’s observable presence in the world, one may better understand God while at the same time observing the effects of humility, generosity, et cetera, which must be reciprocally applied to God.
Anselm’s argument as a purely a priori approach does not allow observers to conclude anything about God or even to conclude of the Christian God’s existence. Thomas further states that more than “philosophical science built up by human reason” is necessary for mankind’s salvation; namely sacred doctrine is necessary (I Q. 1, art. 1 responsio). Yet, Anselm’s ontological argument does not profess doctrinal matters but seeks to use only a philosophical approach. Boethius later affirms that God alone has true intelligence while humans only possess reason (Boethius 198). And because of man’s limitations, he is unable to understand theological truths and even arrive at the conclusion of God’s actual existence through a priori demonstration alone.
Thirdly, the third premise of Anselm’s ontological argument is called into question by the advent of Immanuel Kant, who stated that existence is not a property. One is unable to talk about something without presupposing its existence. In this way, existence is not like a color, shape, or characteristic, which can be applied to existing things. Simply put, without presupposing a substance’s existence, one is unable to discuss the substance at all. In this way, Kant’s argument that existence is not a property is supported. And, if existence is not a property, it is no greater to exist in reality than to exist in understanding alone. Therefore, assuming the truth of Kant’s initial claim, existing in reality is not greater than existing in understanding alone. And, if Kant’s argument is proven sound, the third premise of Anselm’s argument will be undoubtedly unsound. If Anselm is unable to prove that existing in reality is greater than existing in understanding, then his argument is ultimately unable to reach the conclusion that God exists in reality.
In summation, due to the questionability of Anselm’s definition of God, the less-than-adequate usage of a priori demonstration, and the notion that existence is not a property, Anselm’s ontological argument is revealed to be unsound.
Reply to Objection 1: While the Church confers the distinction of sainthood and Doctor of the Church only on non-heretics, the reception of these distinctions does not imply that the Church endorses the soundness of each of the philosopher’s premises. Unsound premises neither bar an individual from honors bestowed by the Church nor establish the individual as a heretic.
Reply to Objection 2: Objectors need to revise their arguments to consider theories such as the Atomist Theory. According to the theory, everything necessary consists of atoms, which can be neither created nor destroyed. As a result, atoms are by definition eternal, since they possess “…the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life” (Boethius 199). Atoms necessarily exist. Therefore, something other than God can be considered as necessarily existing. And, if all physical things are composed of atoms, all physical things are in some sense eternal. Therefore, the Necessary Existent is not a special exception to the general rule, as Objection 2 would advocate.
- Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, via NewAdvent accessed May 2009.
- Beck, Lewis W. Eighteenth-Century Philosophy. New York: Free Press, 1966.
- Boethius, "The Consolation of Philosophy, Book V." Readings in Medieval Philosophy, Andrew B. Schoedinger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.