The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God
One important aspect of Philosophy is the study of religion. Mind and Machine is a class at Ashford University that calls for the preparation of this document. The students are asked to construct an essay that includes one of the major themes of Philosophy. This essay will explore the question of an Ontological argument for the existence of God. It will explore the definition of the Ontological argument and then explore positive opinion and negative opinion. This class asks the participants to express personal views. This author will include his views and will present them in a manner that hopefully resembles a well constructed argument. In order to approach the specific idea of the Ontological argument for the existence of God, one must be familiar with its text.
St. Anselm was the Archbishop of Canterbury during medieval times. He died on April 21, 1109 (Knight., 2009). St. Anselm is not as well known as St. Augustine or St. Aquinas however Pope Clement the XI named him a “doctor or the church” in 1720 A.D. and declared April 21, to be his feast day (Knight, 2009). The feast day is the day in the year that the Catholic Church recognizes a particular saint. This recognition of St. Anselm had very much to do with one of his several theological writings. His writings are recognized by the Church as formative and important. He is regarded as one of the eminent philosophers of the Church and this text is entirely devoted to a portion of one of his writings. Knight calls St. Anselm one of the fathers of theological philosophy (Knight, 2009) The profound text spoken of here was written in a document entitled, Proslogium. The following is taken directly from the Proslogium as it was translated by Jonathan Barnes. It should be noted that Barnes wrote a complete text on the Ontological Argument in 1972. The text is The Ontological Argument (1972).
“From the Proslogium
Therefore, Lord, who grant understanding to faith, grant me that, in so far as you know it beneficial, I understand that you are as we believe and you are that which we believe. Now we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be imagined.
Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not? But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying – something than which nothing greater can be imagined – understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding and another to understand that a thing is.
For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his understanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.
Therefore even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because when he hears this he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.
And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.” (Banach, 2011)
The various documents and writings that are in existence making arguments for and against the statement are voluminous. It is however sufficient to say that the statement itself makes an argument for the existence of God that is a priori proof. Generally philosophers can agree that there exists a difference in, or distinction of, proofs. Simply stated they are priori proof and those that are posteriori (Toner, 1909). One can describe posteriori as being inductive or reasoning from that which can be seen. Priori is deductive which is to say that this argument is not made by considering that which one may ascribe to God and or his works. This author has concluded that this type of argument is a radical departure from the types of proofs that are generally available when pondering the existence of God.
One item worth mentioning is the idea of existence. There does not appear to be a single notion as to what existence is. When considering God one ponders the notion of existence. Is the idea of God existing one that can be reduced to an interpretation that is like Michelangelo’s famous rendering at the Vatican? The Holy Bible, the sacred scriptures of a monotheistic religion known as Christianity, states that we humans were created by God in his likeness so one might consider existence from the standpoint of a man. In a different part of The Bible the reader learns that God in fact is different in that we here on Earth can not think like God and therefore can not necessarily understand God as his mind is sufficiently greater as he was the creator of all things.
Perhaps St. Anselm’s proof would have been forgotten during his time. It was immediately challenged by a monk named Gaunilo (Toner, 1909). However before jumping on to the band wagon of naysayers one would be remise in not mentioning those that upheld St. Anselm’s proof. Namely, the philosophers, Descartes and Liebniz (Toner, 1909). Descartes structured the argument in a slightly different manner. Toner presents it in this way, “Whatever is contained in a clear and distinct idea of a thing must be predicated of that thin; but a clear and distinct idea of an absolutely perfect Being contains the notion of actual existence; therefore since we have the idea of an absolutely perfect Being such a Being must really exist.” (Toner, 1909)
The author of the text used in the class for which this paper is written supports the validity of Anselm’s argument by using an example of the construction of a triangle. He does this due to the fact that many have outright dismissed Anselm’s proof for reasons that will be discussed. Mosser states that if a person thinks of a triangle one thinks of a three sided polygon. That is to say that one can’t think of a triangle that does not have three sides or it is not a triangle (Mosser, 2010). Therefore it is said that the essential property of a triangle is three sides. In the same way if one thinks of God, one thinks of a being that exists, and exists necessarily (Mosser, 2010). A chief objection to the Ontological Argument exists therein.
The basis of Anselm’s proof requires that one know of at least the nature of God. This nature supposes that the being that one would be thinking of would be omniscient, omnipresent, and have moral perfection (Harwood, 1999). Harwood uses the term Maximally Great Being, (MGB) in order to describe this being (Harwood, 1999). In a discussion regarding the ontological argument Harwood points out that the Ontological argument may be sound however it does not exclude the existence of more than one MGB (Harwood, 1999). The writings of Harwood point out that when one considers the nature of God that the immediate next state of existence could mean for several entities. This would naturally lead to polytheism which is exactly the opposite of what St. Anselm was trying to prove (Harwood, 1999). As stated previously, St. Anselm’s argument was attacked in his own time.
The monk Gaunilo presented a document known as Reductio Ad Absurdum (Toner, 1909). This author is no Latin scholar however he recognizes the word absurd to be pejorative in nature. That is to say that one would not consider the absurd to be connected to a statement of truth. Gaunilo uses an argument that takes Anselm’s proof and applies it to Islands. If one can think of the perfect island that surpasses all other Islands than that island must necessarily exist (Toner, 1909). The issue here is that the argument can be applied to an infinite number of perfect things thus creating a never ending chain of perfection. Toner states that the argument itself is not sound (Toner, 1909). His supposition is that Gaunilo’s argument applies Anselm’s to finite matters and that clearly Anselm’s argument is only applicable to infinite concepts. (Toner, 1909) However the point that Gaunilo’s argument brings forth is that actual existence is certainly included in any true concept of the infinite, and the person who admits that he has a concept of an infinite being cannot deny that he conceives it as actually existing (Toner, 1909). “One can see that there is causality from contingency to self-existence and thence by way of deduction to infinity.” (Toner, 1909) This author understands this to mean that ultimately the conclusion of St. Anselm’s argument leads to an argument that can only be supported by a posteriori argument. This author is not alone in this thought.
The writer of this document is an active parishioner in the Catholic Church. He reads the Bible and is familiar with the many scriptures that discuss the existence of God. Many of the scriptures refer to a posteriori argument. In the book of Romans St. Paul reminds the reader that God’s wrath will be upon those that hide the truth through their wickedness. For what is known about God is evident to them because made it evident to them. Paul goes on to say that these things are known from creation to now through God’s works. Rom. 1: 18-20. The deductive thought is that one knows God from the evidence of God created by God. The concept is important. The Holy Roman Church declared St. Anselm a saint and recognized the importance of the form of his argument. However, they in fact reject the argument itself. It is not sufficient to believe in God’s existence based on being able to think of God alone.
Mosser sums up Anselm’s argument thusly;
“If we assume, which seems plausible, that the greatest possible being one can think of would deserve to be called “God,” then the being we refer to using the “God” would have to exist. For if the being we are now calling “God” did not exist, it would be easy to think of a greater being; it would be that same being, only one that actually existed. Since you recognize that the being you are thinking of is the greatest possible conceivable being, that being must include existence as part of its nature, Therefore, God exists.” (Mosser, 2010)
This argument, The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God, is one of human reason. There is no science to the claim. This author understands the difficulty in solely using the Ontological argument as a proof for God’s existence. He agrees that St. Anselm’s argument alone does not lead to the evidence of one true God the creator of all things. Harwood’s argument is persuasive. He accepted the validity of St. Anselm’s argument with no rebuff and proceeded to demonstrate how the argument, on its own, could lead to polytheism. This author concludes with a statement from The Holy Catholic Church. The Church states that human reason is in fact capable of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God (CCC 1960) This is possible because we are made in the image of God. However there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty (CCC 37) This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also “about those religions and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.” (CCC 38) It would seem that God has a plan. Reason would do however God also deemed it necessary that Man knows of him by his revelation.
This paper set forth to summarize and explore the Ontological argument for the existence of God as set forth by St. Anselm. The document has explored the argument as well as opinion in support of and against it. The author has expressed his personal view. As stated, there are many volumes written on the subject matter contained herein. This document serves as a primer for the subject. It would be foolish to draw a conclusion solely based on its content. The philosophy class at Ashford University known as Man and Machine has allowed the author to become more acquainted with the specific arguments and theories regarding deeply held religious beliefs. The document herein is an attempt to demonstrate the type of study received in the class.
Banach, D. (2001) Anselm’s Ontological Argument, St. Anselm University Website, Retrieved
April 11, 2011, http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/anselm.htm
Harwood, R. (Dec. 1999) Polytheism, Pantheism and the Ontological argument, Religious
Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Dec.1999) pp. 477-491, Cambridge University Press, Retrieved 4/16/2011 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2008250
Mosser, K.(2010). Philosophy a concise introduction, Bridgeport publications, San
Reference (1995) Catechism of the Catholic Church, Double Day Publishing New York, New
Toner, P. (1909) The Existence of God, In the Catholic Encyclopedia, New York, Robert
Appleton Company, Retrieved April 16, 2011 from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06608b.htm
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (11/2002) New American Bible, USCCB