Does God exist? The ontological argument.
Saint Anselm starts a fire.
The existence of God has long been a lively subject of debate. Theologians, philosophers, scientists, and even ordinary folk like you and I have been pondering this most monumental of questions since pretty much day one. Well, many arguments for and against God's existence have been catalogued throughout Western history, and this lens will focus on one of the most famous: the so-called "ontological argument."
The ontological argument is usually attributed to Saint Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century monk and philosopher (a similar argument had already been formulated a few decades earlier, however, by Islamic philosopher Avicenna). Anselm is credited with birthing the scholastic movement in philosophy, a current that would eventually culminate in Saint Thomas Aquinas' masterful treatises - ones that would inform Catholic thought down to the present day. Anselm laid out his proof of God's existence in his short work entitled Proslogion. This lens will chart the argument through each step and present some of the criticism it received.
(Image credit: Gloria Deo)
Wait, what is "ontological?"
I'll begin with a quick word on what makes Anselm's argument an "ontological" one. Ontology, which is typically treated as a branch of metaphysics, simply means the study of the nature of being. If you are interested in knowing what exists, and what the nature of that existence is, you're studying ontology. Anselm's argument is called ontological because it proceeds from the very definition of God to the proof of his existence. This very classification is also hotly disputed in philosophy, but...we shall press on anyway!
The argument in six steps.
Anselm's argument can be broken down into six logical steps that take him from his definition of God to the proof that God exists. Each step is outlined below.
1. God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
This is Anselm's very definition of God. According to him, God's essence is that He is the greatest of all existing beings. Nothing greater than God can be conceived by human minds.
2. The idea of God exists in human minds.
This is a crucial intermediate step in which Anselm asserts that we do indeed have a conception of God. That is to say, we have some idea of God that exists in our minds, whether or not God actually exists.
3. A being that exists in both human minds and in reality is greater than a being that only exists in human minds.
This is sort of a tricky step. Anselm is asserting that to exist is better than to not exist. This is taken as a first principle, which is a fancy philosophical way of saying Anselm doesn't really know how to back it up. People who are already believers are much more likely to approve of this assertion, because they tend to believe that life and existence themselves are blessings from God. A nonbeliever may be, well...nonplussed.
4. If God were only to exist in human minds, then we could conceive of a greater being - one that exists in reality as well.
You probably see where this is going now. If actually existing beings are greater than beings that only exist in the mind, and we already know God exists in the mind, and we already said that nothing greater than God can exist...oh snap!
5. We cannot be conceiving of something greater than God.
We sure can't, because we agreed to that in step one! Which means...
6. Therefore, God exists.
Boom. See what he did there? God must exist, because if he didn't we could easily imagine a greater, actually existing being. Which is impossible because nothing is greater than God.
One more time with feeling.
Okay, let's recap that. Basically, Anselm is saying this:
"I can imagine a completely perfect being. Existence is a component of perfection. Therefore, God exists."
That's about as stripped down as it gets. If you're still confused, or just want to hear the ontological argument discussed by much better minds, check out the video below. In this clip, author Bryan Magee interviews British philosopher Anthony Kenny about medieval philosophy. The discussion of Anselm's argument begins at 5:50. (Note: the full playlist of this entire series of Magee interviews can be found here.)
An island than which no greater can be conceived.
I said this was a topic of lively debate, didn't I? So, on to the criticism. Anselm's argument drew immediate fire from one of his own contemporaries, a Benedictine monk called Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. All Gaunilo did was to substitute the word "island" for "God" in Anselm's proof. As in: we can imagine an island than which no greater can be conceived (lush trees, sandy beaches, the works). This island would be greater if it actually existed; therefore, the perfect island exists.
The island argument is absurd on purpose. Gaunilo was saying, "Look, this proof is ridiculous. You can substitute almost any word for "God" and that becomes clear." Fortunately, Anselm got a chance to answer the attack, and he had this to say: "An island can never be perfect. When perfection simply means lush trees and pristine beaches, you could always imagine an island with more of those than the last one you imagined. God's perfection manifests in totally different terms. Booyah!" (I may have paraphrased a bit.)
The ontological argument, in some form or another, has been kicked around the world of philosophy for centuries. I'll summarize some of the major developments here in case you want to check them out for yourself later.
Anselm's argument got a major boost in the early 17th century with the support of prominent French philosopher Rene Descartes. German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz also signed on to the ontological argument in the latter half of that century, although he also pioneered some other proofs of God's existence. In the 20th century, Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel put the argument center stage again by developing a lengthy ontological proof using modal logic. Analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga developed a similar proof using the same method.
Among the critics of the ontological argument, Thomas Aquinas stands out. Though he produced five proofs of his own for God's existence, he lampooned Anselm's formulation. According to Aquinas, no human can ever have an adequate conception of God's perfection in the first place, because our minds are simply not up to the task. Philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant also criticized the argument.
Most recently, famed biologist Richard Dawkins attacked the proof in his 2006 book The God Delusion. Dawkins says he feels a "deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reached such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world."
Read it for yourself.
Anselm's ontological argument is contained in a short work called Proslogion. This work has been included in many different anthologies, so I'll recommend the two that I own and enjoy. Oxford World's Classics publishes a volume called The Major Works, which includes the Proslogion as well as many of Anselm's best philosophical snippets. Penguin Classics publishes an edition called Prayers and Meditations, which includes the Proslogion along with many of the prayers Anselm wrote. They're cheap paperbacks, so you can't go wrong by getting them both!
Had you heard of the ontological argument before reading this page? Do you find it convincing? Let me hear your comments and questions!