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.