Over the course of history, many proofs have been created by great philosophers. Three kinds of proofs can be made: direct, indirect, or inductive. A direct proof is the most convincing in that there is no flaw in the logic. Each step in the proof is justified. An indirect proof is one that can be questioned. This is when you assume the opposite of what you want to prove and come up with a contradiction to it. Therefore, what you are actually trying to prove is shown to be true. An inductive proof is when you make assumptions in your argument without true proof. Most of the indirect and inductive proofs derived by philosophers have been criticized over the years and sometimes even proven wrong. A famous indirect proof that remains questioned today is Saint Anselm’s ontological argument. In his work, Anselm proves the existence of God. In this paper, I will summarize Anselm’s ontological argument and why he believes that it is impossible to be an atheist. I will also explain that I do not agree with Anselm’s proof because his argument has been weakened by strong objections from critics such as Gaunilo, Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant.
Saint Anselm was an important Christian philosopher of the eleventh century. In his famous work, ‘Proslogion’, he discussed that God truly exists. Anselm began his book by expressing that God is “something than which nothing greater can be conceived” (Saint Anselm, 40). To put it in other words, it is believed that God is the greatest thinking thing and no one can reach his level of understanding and achievement. Anselm also expressed that a thing exists in the imagination and, in reality, is greater than a thing that exists only in the imagination. He used a painter as an example to show this. He said: “When a painter plans out a painting, he has it in his understanding, but— not yet having produced it— he doesn’t yet think that it exists. After he has painted it, he has the painting in his understanding, and— having produced it— he thinks it exists” (Saint Anselm, 41). This scenario shows that it is greater to have something exist both in the understanding and in reality compared to only in the mind. If the painter did not create what he had in mind, he would not know if he could actually produce it on paper, and so it could not truly exist. Therefore, something that exists both in the understanding and in real life is better than something that is only imagined. Another example to show this is to imagine cooking your favorite meal. Then you actually make it. The question to ask yourself is which is greater, the one you imagined or the one you actually produced and enjoyed? The answer would be the one you produced and was happy with. This is because you had it in your understanding and were able to produce it in reality. Anselm held these ideas in his ontological argument.
Anselm begins his argument by saying that God can either exist in the imagination alone or in both the imagination and reality. He moves into saying that if God existed in both the imagination and in reality, then He would truly exist. But if He existed only in the imagination, then God, the greatest conceivable being, would exist only in the imagination. In that case, the greatest conceivable being is not the greatest conceivable being because of the fact that there would be something greater that existed in both the imagination and in real life. This is a contradiction because as Anselm says, “…something than which a greater can’t be conceived so truly exists that it can’t be conceived to not exist” (Saint Anselm, 41). He means that the greatest conceivable being cannot only exist in the mind as it is the greatest conceivable being who is believed to be above everyone. Therefore, He must exist in both the imagination and in reality. If that is true, then this greatest conceivable being must exist. Since God is believed to be this greatest thinking thing, then He truly exists. With this argument, Anselm proves that it is impossible to be an atheist as we cannot deny the existence of God, the greatest conceivable being.
As much as I would like to fully agree with Anselm’s unique argument, I would have to say that I do not think that it truly supports the existence of God, and therefore I would not consider the idea that atheists could not exist. His logic is clever and has left people thinking, however, I believe that it is flawed because the reasoning is too simple. This is shown through different objections that have risen over the years. These objections have definitely weakened his argument.
An important objection made to the famous argument was said by a monk named Gaunilo. He criticized Anselm’s proof because he believed that one could use his argument to prove the existence of bizarre and non-existing things. Gaunilo tells us to imagine the perfect island that no other island can top. This island is considered to be the greatest conceivable island. Using Anselm’s reasoning, he says that the island must exist both in the understanding and in reality. It cannot exist only in one’s imagination, or else it would no longer be considered the greatest possible island. This would happen because there would be other islands that do exist in both the imagination and in reality, and so they would be considered more excellent. Therefore, the amazing, almost impossible, island would have to truly exist. Gaunilo goes on to say that this is crazy, as it is extremely unlikely for the island to exist as one specifically imagined it. He suggests that the same argument can be held for any other thing. One can prove the existence of basically anything, even if it is clear that it does not exist. Although Gaunilo brings up a valid point, Anselm actually replies to his criticism and clarifies that his argument only works for concepts with necessary existence. He explains that only a being with necessary existence can be considered the greatest. An object, like the island Gaunilo mentioned, would not be considered to have necessary existence, as it can undergo changes and could not reach its perfection. But God, on the other hand, would be considered a being with necessary existence, and so He would be shown to truly exist. Anselm was able to refute Guanilo’s objection and discard arguments that did not show necessary existence. He was able to keep his argument in place by making it more specific, however, it is important to note that if he did not revise his argument, Gaunilo’s objection would have dismissed his proof right away.
One could also favor Anselm’s argument by saying that God is widely considered to be this being above everyone. It has become very common in society to think of the concept of God in that sense. I know that when I think about God, the same image comes to mind. Therefore, Anselm’s argument could prove God’s existence. However, there is a flaw to that, as it is important to think about the fact that not everyone understands God to be this ‘greatest conceivable being’ or at least thinks about God in the same way. A Dominican monk named Saint Thomas Aquinas actually brings this objection up. He says that because people can have different understandings, only those who understand the concept of God, in the same way, would be able to use the argument, while others could continue to deny it. Therefore, Aquinas concludes that Anselm’s reasoning could not truly prove God’s existence. Putting myself in Anselm’s shoes, he would probably respond to that objection by saying that if two people have different understandings or different imaginations of God, one of them would have to be wrong, as they must think about the same being. There can only be one correct understanding. Anselm could say that there can only be this one great conceivable being, and that is God. However, he is generalizing the public’s beliefs in God. He makes the assumption that everyone believes that God is the greatest conceivable being, and builds his argument off of that. Aquinas’ objection does in fact weaken his argument, as it is difficult to prove that everyone has the same understanding of God. This is especially true when there are people who believe in more than one God.
One last objection that lessens Anselm’s ontological argument was given by a German philosopher named Immanuel Kant. In his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, he says that existence is not a predicate. He points out that Anselm makes existence look like perfection. In his ontological argument, Anselm says that something that exists both in the understanding and in reality is greater than something that only exists in the understanding. This shows that he believes that something that exists in both is better or more perfect than something only existing in the imagination. Kant rejects this idea because he says that existence cannot be considered property. He says that something must exist in order to hold properties, not the other way around. Even so, the existence of something does not automatically add a perfect quality, as Anselm expresses in his ontological argument. For example, human beings exist in the imagination and in reality. But that does not make us perfect. We all have our own problems to worry about, and sometimes we do not make the best decisions. Therefore, when it comes to the concept of God, there is no guarantee that God is this ‘greatest thinking thing’ because He cannot be given this ‘great-making property’. If He can’t be considered this greatest conceivable being, then we cannot prove His existence. This objection is strong as it attacks Anselm’s claim of God being at a higher level than everyone.
Overall, philosopher Saint Anselm makes a convincing argument on the existence of God, however, his argument is oversimplified, and therefore I could not trust his proof entirely. Many important objections have risen due to the fact that it was broad and could be interpreted differently. Gaunilo was able to object and say that his argument could be used to prove the existence of anything, even if it was obvious that it could not exist. Anselm was able to quickly clarify what he actually meant and maintain his argument, however, more criticism appeared. Thinkers like Aquinas and Kant began to carefully analyze his ontological argument and question to what extent his argument was valid. To summarize, it is difficult to prove that God truly exists based on Anselm’s argument. We can attempt to trust his argument that God is the greatest conceivable being and therefore He must exist, but we can’t know for sure. Therefore, we cannot deny the possibility that someone can be a nonbeliever in God. Anselm is a great thinker that does bring up unique and powerful points in his argument, but proving something is challenging. It is especially difficult when it is about a major topic like the existence of God, and when an indirect proof is used, because it will constantly be questioned and doubted.
- “Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence”. In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/ont-arg/
- “Ontological Argument (Criticisms)”. In Lumen Learning. Introduction to Philosophy. Chapter 6: Philosophy of Religion. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sanjacinto- philosophy/chapter/ontological-argument-criticisms/
- “Saint Anselm: The Ontological Argument”. In Introduction to Philosophy, 8th Edition, 40-42. Oxford University Press, 2018.