Nous

Random thoughts and views of Tim Young

Posts Tagged ‘Anselm

St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument for God’s Existence

with 2 comments

St. Anselm of Canterbury was an interesting guy.  He was born 1033 in Aosta to a well off family.  Though he was a bright and well liked child who stole the affection of his mother, Anselm had a strained relationship with his father.  In his teens, he became intensely interested in religion and wanted to enter the monastery, but was denied.   While in his early twenties, Anselm’s mother died and his relationship with his father became hostile.  Unable to cope with this father, Anselm left his house at the age of 23 and wondered around Burgundy and France for three years.

Around the age of 27 Anselm arrived at a monastery and soon after became a monk.  His brilliance was quickly noticed, and he became popular among his peers.  At one point, they challenged him to prove the truths of scripture by reason alone (i.e. without using the Bible).  Anselm accepted the challenge, and wrote the Monologion.  In this book, Anselm attempted to argue for the existence of God and many of the Christian doctrines without the aid of Scripture. This was no easy task. Ultimately the book is a long chain of arguments that can be tiresome to read.   Anselm would later describe the book as being “knit together by linking of many arguments,” and this fact caused Anselm to be dissatisfied with the work.  It was not that he thought the arguments in the book were false, it was just that they were inelegantly strung together into a long laborious chain of arguments.

As Anselm’s dissatisfaction grew, he became very anxious to discover a new, single, argument that would, in his own words,

require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists, and that there is a supreme good requiring nothing else, which all other things require for their existence and well-being; and whatever we believe regarding the divine Being

Anselm desired a single argument that would prove God’s existence and every attribute associated with him.  Anselm took this very seriously to the point that he became obsessed by it.  He lost his appetite and could hardly sleep at night.  At one point his obsession got so bad that he could no longer pay attention in church which lead him to believe the task was a temptation from the devil!  Eventually Anselm finally did discover his “proof,” and he wrote it in the second chapter of his work Proslogion.

So just what was Anselm’s great argument?  Let’s see his own words,

AND so, Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you knowest it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak –a being than which nothing greater can be conceived –understands what be hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but be does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, be both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

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. 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.

Did it convince you?  My guess is you’re probably still trying to figure out just what the argument is!  Well, it can probably be formulated like this,

(1)   God is by definition the greatest possible being.

(2)    The greatest possible being exists in the mind.

(3)   Either the greatest possible being exists in the mind only, or he is exists in the mind and in reality.

(4)   Assume (for reductio) that the greatest possible being exists in the mind only.

(5)   In that case there could be a greater being viz. that very same being existing both in the mind and in reality.

(6)   But then there could a being greater than the greatest possible being (which would be a contradiction).

(7)   Therefore the greatest possible being exists both in the mind and in reality.

Think on that for a second! 🙂  Do you think Anselm was successful?

_______________

–All quotations are from the preface of Proslogion except for the main argument which comes from chapter 2 of the same work.

Advertisements