Thursday: 13.November.2003

St. Anselm's Ontological Argument for God's Existence

After dinner last night, while sitting around the fire with a group of learned friends who were sipping cognac and discussing the meaning of life, St. Anselm's Ontological Argument came up (for the existence of God).

Anselm lived about 1,000 years ago (1033-1109) in Canterbury England. Ontology is the study of being & existence. Philosophy can be fun. Anselm's celebrated argument is a mind-bender, which is said to be the most written about philosophical argument ever. It goes something like this:

1. [First premise] One of two options are possible: either God exists in reality or he doesn't (you should have no problem with this part)

2. [Second premise] It is true that the idea of "God" exists in your mind, where you *conceive* of God as the most perfect being possible, or "the being for which none greater is possible", or "the greatest conceivable being". (this should be no problem either)

3. [Third premise] It is certainly possible that God exists in reality. (yeah, still no problem .. similar to point #1)

4. [Fourth premise] I can conceive of a God that exists in reality. (obviously .. similar to points #1 & 3)

5. [Fifth premise] Things that exist in reality are greater than those that exist only in the mind. E.g. the real Eiffel Tower is greater than the one that exists in your mind. A gold coin that exists in reality (preferably in my greedy, little hand) is greater than one that exists only in my mind. The same goes for a winning lottery ticket. This is why people spend their lives trying to "make their dreams come true". Even bad/negative stuff, such as biological weapons, are consider "greater" in reality. (You should have no problem with this part of the argument.)

[Here comes the tricky part. Pay attention.]

6. [Argument part A] Let's assume for a minute that God exists only in the mind (remember point #1). Since it it possible that God exists in reality (point #3), and I can conceive of a God that exists in reality (point #4), then I can conceive of a being greater than the greatest conceivable being. (according to point #5, based on point #2)

7. [Argument part B] But it is not possible to *conceive* of a being greater than the greatest conceivable being. (obviously not .. it's like surpassing infinity .. you can't surpass infinity because infinity never ends .. you should get the "ah-hah" here).

8. [Conclusion] Therefore, only one other option can be possible (according to point #1): God must exist in reality (as well as in the mind). It's actually a pretty elegant argument, if you think about it.

Must've been some good cognac, huh? =) This is from memory, from Philosophy class, many moons ago. I'd appreciate it if one of you Philosophy majors QA it for accuracy. I loved Philosophy class. Tweaked my brain really good. [QA = Quality Assurance] Anselm's argument takes the form of "reductio ad absurdum" .. which means it takes a hypothesis [God does not exist in reality] and shows it to be absurd.

When I was at Franklin & Marshall (F&M), my professor there (Prof Roth, an atheist, most philosophers are atheists) held a big debate with a professor from Notre Dame. Posters were put up all over campus, saying "Come see Prof Roth get his @ss kicked." The prof from Notre Dame had an IQ of about 2500. The auditorium was packed. Prof Roth got slaughtered .. but he is still one of the most entertaining profs I ever had. I really looked forward to that class.

Philosophical debates follow strict rules. I found it very interesting. It's nothing like arguing with a hormonal woman who is suffering from PMS, where logic means nothing.

I've also had a class in Logic .. where you spend time discecting 'arguments'. Lawyers are encouraged to take classes in Philosophy & Logic .. to help them 'argue' more persuasively. Especially enlightening in Logic are the Fallacies.

Other sites present Anselm's Ontological Argument for you. Some of them are:

* Princeton University
* Lost in the Cosmos
* Philosophy of Religion
* Fordham University
* Trinity college

Need more? Here is a:> Google search that includes the terms: anselm, ontological, argument, existence, god

Posted by Rad at November 13, 2003 01:06 PM


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Example to previous comment:

At work I was taking a break after tree planting for an hour on a hot dragging on kind of day. I noticed a spider on my leg. It looked like it had intention and that creeped me out a little. I brought my hand near it. It poised in the en guard position, back end in the air, front legs menacing. The spider was kind of gangly and small, but packed an aggressive stance. I flicked it. On to the ground it went, kind of startled and all in a panic. I guess it had never encountered a high velocity human finger before. It zipped in a straight line across the cut block tundra for a couple feet troubled by obstacles then climbed a little twig and sat still at the top.

After staying there for about 40 seconds all of a sudden it made a bit of a sudden movement and (holly smokes!) it zipped along an invisible thread through the air straight back to the exact spot on my leg where I had flicked it from over a minute ago.

An uncanny feat produced by a gangly spider.

What I could come up with for a logical explanation:

I can not accept the idea that the spider may have shot or slowly streamed its thread with great accuracy onto my leg after it had landed. Way too creepy.

I believe it had somehow instinctively attached the end of its thread before or as I flicked it. It let the thread stream out free and loose as it hurled through the air. The spider flew through the air along a curved line that indicated no existing forces affecting its movement (thread friction or tension).

Even with this phenomenon being conceivably possible I am baffled by the fact that it haphazardly ran over many potentially thread tangling obstacles. The only explanation I can conceive of for avoiding tangles while running would be that the thread was loosely floating in the air above it while it ran.

It then makes sense to guess that while the spider was waiting at the top of the twig it was reeling in its line. The sudden movement momentarily before it started to climb? Anchoring and severing the now taught thread.

If my thinking has led me in the right direction towards an explanation of ‘how’ this spider pulled off its trick, I am still left with the overshadowing questions regarding why and how it chose to take such action.

And only just a spider. I hold these types of occasions sacred in my mind because they represent to me the mysterious depth nature holds. They help me to realize how far my human mind truly is from grasping an understanding of the world that surrounds me.

Posted by: Brandon at November 13, 2003 10:50 PM

This si the first time I've actually understood the argument. Most texts simplify it to:

1. God is defined as the greatest conceivable being.
2. Things in reality are greater than imagined things.
3. Therefore God must exist in reality.

Posted by: MIchelle at November 14, 2003 09:59 AM

Good work. Feep this up and you'll not only believe in God, but understand how to know him. Clue: forget your flaky Californian friends' worldview and hearken back to your Conn. (i.e. Puritan) forbears:)

Posted by: Dan Truitt at November 14, 2003 12:45 PM

Here is the catch:

5. [Fifth premise] Things that exist in reality are greater than those that exist only in the mind. E.g. the real Eiffel Tower is greater than the one that exists in your mind. (still no problem, this is the key part of the argument)

Actually, this is a problem. No logical basis is offered for this statement. This is your "hormonal woman who is suffering from PMS".

I kind of feel like it would be more honest to say that if god can be conceived, god exists, at least in you mind. If someone argued "but that is only in your mind," I would say drop the 'only'. Eg, "it is in your mind", which seems the perfect place for and ineffable being.

cheers, Ben.

Posted by: Ben at November 18, 2003 03:33 AM

While Ben makes a good point that there is no basis offered for the statement that things that exist in reality are greater than those that only exist in the mind, one might also ask for a definition (while we're on the subject) of "reality" ( what defines reality?. . whose reality?, etc ), of "existance" ( who defines what exists and what doesn't? ), and "great" or "greater." While I realize the inherent danger in reducing everything to semantics and possibly endless arguments about the meanings of words, you ultimately can end up here. You either speak in the language everyone understands, or you digress off into an endless pit of a meaningless semantic cesspool ( certainly the stuff of philosophers ). I, on the other hand, am convinced that God does exist and one needs no ontological argument to see it. I am convinced He's revealed Himself to all men by the amazing creation around us - general revelation (the understanding all men have that design requires a designer - a Coke bottle didn't just make itself and emblazon the the word 'Coca-Cola' on its side; someone who understands English did that). I also believe He reveals exactly who He is in holy Scripture, and that if anyone really is serious about wanting to know Him, and know the reason for their existance here, He will allow Himself to be found by that individual. The proof for all of this is overwhelming, but only to those willing to see.


Posted by: Wayne at November 18, 2003 02:19 PM

This may rankle a few feathers, but I would like to compare God to...let's say the letter 'A'. The letter 'A' is a completely human invention. Before the letter 'A' there were bAts and cAts and even bAd Apples, but these things did not need 'A' to be what they are or were. Humans use 'A', and other symbols and words and such to help communicate ideas, knowledge, emotion, yadayadayada.

So 'A' exists in your mind and mine. We could build a big 'A'. We could sculpt an 'A' out of of fine wood, but that wouldn't make 'A' exist anymore in reality simply because we have been taught what 'A' is, what 'A' means to us. If we had not learned, well a big, wooden sculpture of 'A' would look like a big, wooden, abstract sculpture. 'A' would not exist to us.

So we could say 'A' exists in our mind, and we can build effegies of 'A' that exist in reality. But what if I say that 'A' created the universe and the stars and us. And I tell others about 'A' and get them to tell others and so on, until someday 'A' is regarded as a great tool for spelling and the supreme creator.

This may seem ridiculous but my point is this: God may be (I'm not saying for sure) as much of a human invention as is 'A'. 'A' did not exist before we came along and the same may hold true for God.

According to the argument, before beings that could conceive of God existed, God did not exist. That pretty much puts God on the same level as the letter 'A'.

Because it is conceived, does not make it, more or less real.

Posted by: Shannon at November 23, 2003 03:12 AM

I don't think Anselm is saying God exists because we can conceive of him. I think he's saying he must necessarily exist because our idea of him is as the greatest conceivable being, and things in reality are greater. Thus, henceforth, and all those philosophical words, it would be illogical to conceieve of a being greater than the greatest conceivable being.

The letter 'A', whilst it is a pretty sweet letter, is not the greatest conceiavle letter or thing. Thus that argument seems pointless. But I am no philosopher.

Posted by: Monty at November 23, 2003 09:52 AM

But the greatest conceivable thing is very subjective. Just as God and letter 'A' are learned, "the greatest conceiveable thing" is also a learned human construct.

And to reiterate, try reversing the argument. If a supreme being or force or power could not be conceived, then he/she/it does not exist. This would have been the case before humans, or any other being that had the ability to conceptualize, roamed the earth.

Thus, it would go that God did not create earthbound creatures, until they created God.

I'm not a philosopher either, at least by trade, but anyone can do it.

Posted by: Shannon at November 23, 2003 01:12 PM

I think that, if someone refuses to believe in God, no amount of convincing will make him believe. God himself could walk up to him in a red suit and present him with HIS calling card, and he will rationalize it away. On the other hand, if someone DOES (believe), then nothing (even torture) can make him not (believe).

Posted by: Cameron at November 29, 2003 09:01 AM

The silliness of St. Anselm's argument becomes exquisitely clear when you substitute any other concept for "God." For example, suppose a sandwich that is better than any other sandwich you can imagine. An exactly parallel argument proves that this sandwich must exist, and I want it.

Posted by: Phil at March 19, 2004 06:42 AM

You're altering the meaning of the phrase "greatest conceivable". For any item/entity except God, it is impossible to arrive at an accepted definition.

Take, for example, your sandwich. The best sandwich must obviously have tomatoes. But how many slices> 2? At least. 3? Would be better. 4? Better yet? 5? Hey, now we're talking. 6? Uh, Not sure 7? Could be too many. I better check with my neighbor and see what he thinks. Oh, he doesn't like tomatoes. Damn.

No such problem with the concept of 'God': all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent, just, kind, compassionate, etc.

How about the greatest building? a skyscraper. How high would the greatest skyscraper be?

How much vermouth does the perfect martini contain?

Posted by: Misha at March 19, 2004 10:03 AM

I have the answer for you all...I think. I had a philosophy class this semester and felt compelled to argue Anselms theory. I used it to prove the existance of an alternate universe ruled by Pepsi can dwelling mouse pad eating pencils... just read it and see what ya think. LOL
This is my reaction to the theory set forth by Anselm of Canterbury. I feel that his explanation is a clever manipulation of word usage and can be used to prove the existence of any imaginary being or place. This is how I intend to prove this...

I have an idea of an alternate universe that is not bound by any law that we as humans find to be in place in our own universe. This place is called Moomba. Moomba is a universe in which pencils are the dominate species. The pencils reside in Pepsi cans that are 10,000 feet in diameter. The point of their existence in this alternate universe is to find mouse pads and eat them.
Although this idea is ridiculous, I am able to conceptualize it in my head. There for it has an existence in the understanding according to Anselm. Even though this concept is not likely, it is possible.
There is also a supreme being that the pencils on Moomba call Glom. Glom is not known to physically exist and is the topic of much philosophical inquiry, much like our version of God. Glom is a infinite perfect being. The essence of Glom is composed of such characteristics as these:
He is...Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omni-benevolent, Omnipresent, Eternal, the Creator of Moomba, the ruler of Moomba, he is personal, and he is unique.

This is the essential definition of Glom:
Glom is the supreme ruler of the universe of Moomba, and is a being that which no greater being can be conceived.

It is well known that many people do not believe in the universe of Moomba, and think that Glom does not exist either. We will call these people “Amoombists”. They say that Moomba and Glom exist merely in the understanding.

Here is my argument:

(P1) “Glom is the supreme ruler of the universe of Moomba, and is a being that which no greater being can be conceived.”

(P2) If Glom exists merely in the understanding (as Amoombists insist) then it is not the case that Glom is a being than which no greater can be conceived.

( C ) It is not the case that Glom exists merely in the understanding. I.e., Glom exists in reality as well.

Defense of (P1): P1 simply makes a explicit the content of my concept of Glom. It is just a definition of what I understand to be the essence of Glom. Thus it is a definitional truth. I.e., a necessary truth.

Defense to (P2): If Glom exists merely in my understanding, then I can conceive of a being that would be greater than Glom. I.e., I can conceive of a being that would have every excellence that is supposed to belong to the essence of Glom, but would have on extra excellence. The extra excellence would be the property of existing in reality.

If we can conceive of a being that would be greater than Glom, then it is not the case that Glom is a being than which no greater can be conceived.

Taking this argument and presenting it to a group of human beings, who although are intelligent, have never been presented with the Judeo-Christian idea of God, or any other idea of a god for that matter, would than prove to them that not only does Glom exist, but there must be an alternate universe ruled by Pepsi can dwelling pencils, and that universe is Moomba. This is due to the fact that Glom, by definition is the supreme being and ruler of Moomba.

Posted by: Brian at June 30, 2004 09:32 PM

The only problem with your example is the I CAN think of a being greater than Glom. Oops for you.

Posted by: Simon at July 25, 2004 12:13 PM

No... Ooops for you idiot... you just proved my point.

Posted by: Brian at July 29, 2004 11:53 AM

Name-calling makes a point too. But probably not the one you want.

Posted by: McCracken at August 1, 2004 01:32 PM

I noticed you don't have an opinion McCracken...
Jus Not Ejumicated is ya?

Posted by: Sandler at August 14, 2004 09:07 AM

The problem with Anselm's Argument is that he winds up things with God existing. The existence of the Divine implies moral absolutes, which leads to justified guilt on our part (since none of us can live up to divine standards).

And who among us wants to be guilty? That's why we keep going back to not having a God or absolutes and that way we all avoid this whole guilt thing. But that's no good either, because without Absolutes, whatever is right becomes whatever is right for me, and whatever's right for me is right no matter the consequences for anyone else. e.g. if I think it's right to cause you suffering or pain, good for me and too bad for you, and society obviously can't work that way. So we go back to a Divine Law or a Divine Being whose standards we have broken, and we need some kind of a Saviour to save us from a fate that we haven't been able to escape from.

Course, on the other hand, if there is a God who made us even though He must have known that we wouldn't live up to His standards since we are not Gods, perhaps He's interested enough in His creation to help us find a way out of our pickle. I think I know where I could find out more about that...

Posted by: Richard at September 28, 2004 08:00 PM