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Anselm's Ontological Argument
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- Chirag Mehta
- Philosophy: 104 (Sec: 03)
- Martin Bunzl (TA: Walter Dean)
- 26 Feb. 2001
- Grade: A
Anselm's Ontological Argument
- Premise 1: It is possible to conceive of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, namely God.
- Premise 2: It is possible to conceive of a being that must exist, that is, a necessary being.
- Premise 3: It is possible to conceive of a being that may not exist, that is, a contingent being.
- Premise 4: A necessary being is greater than a contingent being.
- Premise 5: Since God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived and a necessary being is greater than a contingent being, God is a necessary being.
- "And it assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist..." - St. Anselm, Proslogium - Chapter III.
The following two stanzas from "The Ballad of St. Anselm" - Charles S. Harris, very clearly describe Anselm's ontological argument:
If that than which nothing greater can be conceived
Can be conceived not to exist,
Then 'tis not that than which nothing greater can be conceived:
This is unquestionable, I insist.
For in that case a being greater can be conceived,
Whose major traits we can easily list:
Namely, that than which nothing greater can be conceived
And which cannot be conceived not to exist.
In other words, Anselm's argument rests on the following five premises:
Conclusion: Therefore God exists.
This argument is both conceptual and modal. The use of the phrase "conceive of" makes it a conceptual argument. Premises two and five refer to a necessary being, classifying this as a modal argument. It is important to note here that Anselm's argument is a priori that is the premises are not empirical but conceptual.
Anselm's God is a God than which nothing greater can be conceived. So even if he does prove God's existence, the God that he has proved is merely one than which nothing greater can be conceived. Actually Anselm's argument belittles the definition of God, since it cannot be derived from his proof whether God is all-powerful, all knowing, and omnipresent or not.
Over the centuries, many philosophers have presented criticisms against Anselm's ontological argument, from Gaunilo to Descartes and Locke to Lotze. Written during the same period, Gaunilo's criticism of Anselm's argument, "In behalf of the fool" is considered a special case since Anselm replied to the same in "Anselm's Apologetic."
Gaunilo argued that just like conceiving about God, it is also possible to conceive of an island, than which no greater exists. Applying Anselm's argument to this "lost island," it can be proved that such an island positively exists somewhere in the world, since necessary existence is greater than contingent existence. Similarly anything, even an impossible thing, can be proved to exist using Anselm's argument. But this is ridiculous.
Anselm in response said that conceiving the existence of an island or any other object is not the same as conceiving the existence God. Gaunilo talked about conceiving of an island than which no greater island can exist. But Anselm's God was a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Anselm conceived of a God which was greater than everything, including the greatest islands, men, and bagels.
Despite the fact that Anselm's argument seems valid, it is not regarded as sound. Using the number example, it can be argued that the first premise is false. Just like there is no last number, it may be possible that there is no greatest being. If the last number is impossible and we imagine the greatest being to be impossible, then Anselm's argument is refuted instantly. However, suppose the first premise is true, then it is possible to conceive of a necessary and a contingent being, so second and third premises hold true.
Hidden within his argument, Anselm takes the fourth premise to be true, that is a necessary being is greater than a contingent being. Is necessary existence a great-making property? This seems very questionable and Anselm does not provide the proof for the same anywhere. In 18th century, Immanuel Kant rejected existence as being a property of a being. As a result, premise five cannot be proved to be true. Therefore it follows that the conclusion is also not true.