Anselm’s “Proslogion”: Divine existence

Over the weekend I reread Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion (as one does), partly motivated by my recent interest in thinking about the divine nature. In addition to setting out the (in)famous “ontological” argument for God’s existence, the Proslogion is a hugely important source for the development of “traditional” or “classical” theism in the Christian tradition.

On this reading, I think I got a better understanding of the ontological argument (a term Anselm doesn’t use, by the way, and which was coined, I believe, by Immanuel Kant). Anselm has often been interpreted as saying that since it is better to exist in reality than merely as a concept in the mind, then God, as the greatest conceivable being, must exist in reality, not just as a concept. As was pointed out by Anselm’s first critic, his fellow monk Gaunilo, this argument would seem equally to prove the real existence of the greatest conceivable island.

But Anselm’s argument is quite a bit more subtle than this, and not so easily refuted. Let’s take a look.

In chapter II, Anselm sketches his argument for God’s existence, in reply to “the fool who says in his heart there is no God” (Psalm 14):

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. . . .

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it [i.e., the fool understands the meaning of the word "God" in some sense, even if he denies God's existence]. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Now this does look like the version of the argument I summarized above: that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind, so the greatest conceivable being must exist both in the mind and in reality. And thus it would seem to be vulnerable to the common objection.

But in the following chapter Anselm provides what I think is an elaboration of the argument (rather than a second, distinct argument):

And it [i.e., the greatest conceivable being] assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist;. and this being you are, O Lord, our God.

So truly, therefore, do you exist, O Lord, my God, that you can not be conceived not to exist; and rightly. For, if a mind could conceive of a being better than you, the creature would rise above the Creator; and this is most absurd. And, indeed, whatever else there is, except you alone, can be conceived not to exist. To you alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others. For, whatever else exists does not exist so truly, and hence in a less degree it belongs to it to exist.

Here Anselm qualifies the notion of divine existence in an important way. “It is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist.” In other words, he’s not (just) saying that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind. He’s saying that it is better to have the property of not-being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist than to have the property of being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist. That is, the greatest conceivable being would be one which not only exists, but whose non-existence is inconceivable.

So Anselm’s argument looks like this:

1. God is, by definition, that being greater than which none can be conceived.

2. A being whose non-existence is inconceivable is greater than one whose non-existence is conceivable.

3. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived is one whose non-existence is inconceivable.

4. But a being whose non-existence is inconceivable must exist, by definition.

5. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived (i.e., God) exists.

I think the most questionable premise here is number 2, for a couple of reasons. First, it may be that “a being whose non-existence is inconceivable” is itself not a coherent or conceivable concept. At least it’s not immediately apparent to me that it is without further argument. One could also question Anselm’s entire method of ranking modes of being along a scale of “greatness.” Such ranking entails, it seems to me, a particular view of value that may not be universally shared. So, perhaps needless to say, I don’t think it’s a knock-down argument.

Still, it’s a darn interesting argument, and one that has a lot more going for it than is sometimes supposed. Moreover, Anselm’s understanding of God as “the greatest conceivable being” has been extremely fertile with regard to thinking about the divine attributes. That’s the topic I want to explore in the next post.

About these ads

12 thoughts on “Anselm’s “Proslogion”: Divine existence

  1. I’d say the greatest problem lies with (4) above: just because the nonexistence of X is inconceivable doesn’t mean X necessarily exists. This feels like an attempt to “force” something into existence by mere assertion. To be more plausible, (4) should be rewritten as: “But a being whose nonexistence is inconceivable must be conceived of as existing, by definition.”

    • “X exists” is objective; “X must be conceived as existing” is subjective. It’s all in one’s head.

      I could declare that fire-breathing, universe-creating unicorns (that satisfy all the “omni-” requirements to be considered “perfect” and godlike) must be conceived as existing, but that doesn’t mean our universe was, in fact, created by such beasts.

      • I think what Anselm has in mind is something like “logically necessary” (or at least “metaphysically necessary,” assuming that’s a meaningful distinction). So, it’s not just a matter of how we’re constrained to think about it. I also think he would say that, e.g., a fire-breathing unicorn couldn’t have the other properties that necessarily belong to a supreme being, so such an idea would be self-contradictory.

  2. “First, it may be that “a being whose non-existence is inconceivable” is itself not a coherent or conceivable concept. At least it’s not immediately apparent to me that it is without further argument.”

    Ah, but combine this with Platonic or Aristotelian arguments for God, and you’re really cooking!

  3. Still biting my tongue here, not wanting to introduce objections while awaiting the next installment, but I wonder how or from where Anselm derives “the being than which nothing greater can be conceived” as a formulation. It might even be necessary, or at least helpful, to look at the original texts – Anselm’s and/or his sources – if they are available, since translation can introduce an appearance of imprecision or confusion where the author has striven to avoid them.

      • There is an interesting problem relating to his language: aliquid quo maius cogitari non potest, ut nec cogitari possit non esse. “Maius” is translated as “greater,” and some theological writers do formulate an argument in which “greater” presumes “better” or “more excellent” (Plantinga, but possibly Anselm in his own way also), while others, such as Anselm initially in the development of the Proslogion, seems to treat simply as a magnitude, “more” or “bigger” or even “more comprehensive.”

        Whether being “more” would be the same, at least in discussions of God, the same as “better,” is another question, but, setting it aside, there’s a kind of Sophistic, value-free element to the quantitative argument presented baldly. A being that exists only in the understanding would be not-all-encompassing, since the All contains both mere being and any understanding of mere being. Any being that exists only in the understanding appears in this sense simply less or smaller than a being that exists in or, even bigger, fully and exhaustively comprehends “both worlds.” Regardless of whether or not such a being actually does exist or could exist, or whether this way of thinking about thinking is really thinkable, merely as a matter of notions viewed “non-notionally” or pseudo-objectively, crudely and quantitatively or in terms of the magnitude of that which they are thought to comprehend, the notion of a being that is thought to comprehend the entirety of the understanding and the entirety of being is strictly in this sense being “thought greater” than a being thought to comprehend the entirety of one, but not the entirety of the other.

        This way of putting the matter presumes that there really can be a rigorous division between the understood and the essential, that a comprehension of the understanding in its entirety could exist, or be thought, that was not also a comprehension of the essential in its entirety, or vice versa. Arguably, Anselm was fully cognizant of this difficulty, and his objective is, as it possibly is for all of us, to collapse the distinction of the understood and the essential at the moment that or whenever and as soon as it needs to be collapsed. To comprehend both the entirety of the understood and the entirety of the essential may imply an all-encompassing moment of the indistinction of the two entireties, in other words their unification, all of the universe, both aspects, in a one: To “do that” would reveal a ” greater than” that is simultaneously a “less than,” or a one that is greater than a two. A being for which two is greater than one, and one also greater than two, might be a being greater than a being able to comprehend only the first of the two alternatives, from that selfsame perspective, though not the other. However, from that first perspective, the notion of a one greater than two is simply wrong, leaving us to ask whether a God that was also wrong might not be “greater” than a God that was simply or exclusively right… Taken purely as a matter of this possibly completely inane or foolish perspective, unless we’ve already assented to a presumption of the goodness or excellence of God (the alternative interpretation of “maius”), a God that was evil as well as good would be greater than a God that was “merely” good. Yet some interpretations of divine providence do that that very conception on – and some who do so seem to be driven insane by it…

        You might enjoy this essay, which is I think, illuminating, and also introduces a third level to Anselm’s metaphysics that seems to anticipate a more synthetic or one might even say “deconstructive” perspective. http://www.academia.edu/1394855/What_Precisely_Is_Anselms_Single_Argument_in_the_Proslogion

      • (some server maintenance issues prevented me from proofing that comment fully – I think what was delivered is probably “good enough,” but the sentence “Yet some interpretations of divine providence do that that very conception on – and some who do so seem to be driven insane by it…” should have been “Yet some interpretations of divine providence do TAKE that very conception on – and some who do so seem to be driven insane by it…”

        While I was waiting for the server to finish it’s business, it also occurred to me that you might also want to consult either Parmenides or those TV commercials where the man asks groups of children whether faster is better than slower or bigger is better than smaller…)

  4. I’ve always found “that [being] than which none greater can be conceived” to be problematic, for it puts God at the outer limit of human conception, not in its more properly concept-transcending place. As definitions of God go, it’s rather arbitrary, and trapping God within the anthropic ambit takes God down a notch.

    As for self-contradictory unicorns: I did make an effort to avoid Gaunilon’s mistake by attributing all the proper “omni”s to my mythical beast. Just as it’s meaningful to speak of the eye or mind or hand of God, it’s equally meaningful to use “unicornic” imagery: the horn or hooves or fiery breath of God. Why not an omnipotent, omnibenevolent unicorn (that happens to breathe fire)?

    Sorry if I’m being too flippant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s