Critical Commentary On Anselm’s Ontological “Proof” For The Existence Of God
In this commentary, I shall offer a philosophical analysis of Anselm of Canterbury’s work The Proslogion, paying special attention to his “ontological argument” for the existence of God. I will refer to the text as reprinted in the anthology Readings in Christian Thought (Second Edition) edited by Hugh T. Kerr. All quotes are primary source citations from Anselm and refer to the translation prepared by Eugene R. Fairweather, reprinted in Kerr’s edition.
As Kerr points out in his brief introduction to the “Ontological Argument” excerpt from The Proslogion, the original subtitle of the text is “Faith Seeking Understanding” (Fides Quaerens Intellectum). Anselm has paraphrased Augustine’s original thought, “I believe so that I may understand” (credo ut intelligam). The subtitle reveals the central preoccupation of the text: the relationship between faith and reason. Anselm was a believer in his own faith, but he also thought that faith cannot be blind. Blind faith means I trust that God exists without exploring why. An example of blind faith would be an adult who accepts what others have told him about God without trying to understand for herself what faith in God means.
Faith flows from belief, and I suppose for Anselm, the difference between faith and belief is simply that faith is belief in something greater than one’s self, while belief is a general form of thought that can range from the imagination to the understanding. The way faith operates for Anselm is to say “I believe, but I must also attempt to understand what I believe.”
Anselm makes it clear, however, that first and foremost he believes, his primary motivation to faith, and from this belief, he is then motivated to understand, a quote he attributes to the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 7:9). For Anselm, a desire to know presupposes faith. Anselm’s faith does not come from a source of skepticism, or what we can call doubt. He does not desire to know to be convinced that his faith is true. He seeks to know motivated by his belief “that thou (God) dost exist.”
Faith is this strange idea that we can have knowledge of something we do not completely understand. Perhaps at a basic, everyday level of faith, we trust that when we get up in the morning the floor beneath us will be there to support our body. Or if I ask a friend to join me for dinner, in the space of waiting for him to arrive, I quell my anxiety by having faith that he will show up. In these examples, faith is manifested in a moment of uncertainty, which goes away once I know for sure. The floor is there. My friend arrives. But when we try to have faith in God, we are confronted with two concerns. One, will I ever truly understand, and two, will God arrive and quell my anxiety?
Anselm invites us to contemplate the concept of God’s existence even though he realizes it is a monumental task. For if we understand the idea of a proof, how can we prove the existence of God? For Anselm, at least, the tone of the text suggests someone who evidently has faith in his belief in the existence of God. There is no evidence of uncertainty. On the faith side of the argument, Anselm writes in the first person, and he makes clear his ardent love for God. He begins by writing, “I acknowledge, O Lord, that thou hast created this thy image in me ” By image, Anselm means the image of God, or the idea that God has imprinted his divine photograph on Anselm’s soul. Like a photograph taken years ago, the image fades, and it does not retain it original luster. In a similar way, Anselm worries that the image of God imprinted within him has worn away, and makes it difficult for him to contemplate God’s supreme being. In this opening passage we see the idea of grasping for understanding that was first introduced in the subtitle: “to penetrate thy loftiness,” and “to match my understanding” are phrases used by Anselm to indicate that he wants knowledge of God’s transcendence even though he himself is a finite being who is limited in his ability to know. I understand transcendence to mean that which exists beyond the ability of reason to comprehend. For example, measuring the length of a table is not a transcendent activity, but contemplating the universal nature of “tableness” perhaps brings us to another level of understanding. Anselm is grasping with the problem of understanding a universal concept versus understanding the concrete thing in front of me.
Anselm makes a distinction between “an object in the understanding” and something that exists, independent of our understanding. For example, I can think of something in my mind, for example, the shape of the refrigerator in my kitchen, but this thought of the refrigerator is distinct from the refrigerator itself. Anselm makes the point that there is a distinction between thought and existence, but they are also relational.
Anselm uses to get us to think about how we can relate our thought about God, and ultimately that God exists. Although in the case of the refrigerator, I can verify that my thought corresponds with the refrigerator’s existence. I can go and see the refrigerator and confirm empirically that it exists. But I cannot do the same thing for God’s existence. I can have the thought, but I cannot use my tools of empirical observation to set the record straight. So I am forced to find some other way. Hence, the use of an ontological argument. This is why philosophers have called Anselm’s argument “the ontological argument,” for as The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out Ontological arguments are “arguments, for the conclusion that God exists, from premises which are supposed to derive from some source other than observation of the world.” Anselm will have to rely on reason alone.
Anselm sticks to reason, then, to demonstrate that God exists. First, Anselm defines God. Anselm tells us that God is “a being than which none greater can be thought.” In other words, if I try to think of something, I can be convinced, first, that it exist in my understanding, and if it is a thought of something that which nothing greater can exist, then I must be convinced that the thought “cannot exist in my thought alone.” So if God is a being that nothing greater can be thought, and if in my understanding I can think of something that is so great, nothing can be greater, then it must follow that this “something greater” thing must be God. Anselm argues that if this thought, of something so great that nothing can be greater only existed in the understanding, it would no longer be the greatest, “for if it is actually in the understanding alone, it can be thought of as existing also in reality, and this is greater.”
Even if I try to think of God as not existing, I am still straddled by this idea that I can think of something that is so great nothing can be greater. I think of it as Anselm trying to say that if I catalog all of my thoughts, of everything I seem to know, I can then reach a point where there must be something greater than even the sum total of what I know. So, then, if I can think this thought, that there is something greater than me, greater than the greatest thing I can imagine, then there must be a supreme being, namely God. Even an atheist, Anselm, contends, can think of God. The concept of God is there in my mind, even if I choose not to believe it. For Anselm, the proof is in the existence of the thought, which for him, then, must ineluctably lead us to the conclusion that there must be a greater being.
If we think of how we understand the world through language, it gives us a clue to what Anselm is saying. A child knows a thing, for example, a cup, and he learns to signify the cup with a word, but the child first learns the thing. I can think of a thing when I think of a word to signify it, for example “cup” or “tasse,” and in another sense, I can think of the thing itself. There is the reality I can conjure in my mind, through my rational abilities, and there is the world out there, separate from my mind. If I think of God as not existing, I am confronted with the fact that I can still think it, and this for Anselm is not able to be dismissed. The thought alone by necessity should lead us to the conclusion that God exists.
Anselm’s argument makes sense from the point of view of making a connection between the duality of the rational mind and the empirical world. For example, there is a correlation between thought and the world. I can think about a mountain, and I can also observe a mountain in reality. I can like the painter, think about a landscape, and in turn, craft this thought in my mind, onto a canvas. Language acts as a mediator to signify what I understand, and what exists. However, God seems to be a concept that is beyond just the mere existence of things. Just because I can think of a greater thing, does not for me, indicate that there must be a greatest thing that is therefore God. Anselm presupposes that there must be something even beyond this plane of existence. But how are we to assume that this true. In Anselm’s worldview, there must be something beyond the observable universe. While of course, I agree with Anselm that I can imagine something like transcendence, I do not agree that just because I can think of transcendence as a workable concept, means by necessity, and through the use of reason, that there is an ultimate transcendent being.
For example, there are many concepts that I can think of that do not correspond to something that exists. I can think of the greatest unicorn, or of the greatest birthday cake. I am not sure I understand what Anselm means by “greatest.” Does he perfect? I can try to think of the greatest birthday cake, but would would this greatest birthday cake look like? And why would God by necessity have to have this quality at all? I can think of perfect unicorns, and I know that unicorns do not exist. Horses exist, for sure, and for sure horns exist. So it makes sense where the idea of unicorns derive. I can also conceive of a possible world where unicorns could exist. Why not? It is totally possible that there could be a world where unicorns roam the land, and not horses. Using this logic, it is possible to conceive that there is a supreme being. Why not? But it is equally reasonable to conceive that there is not a supreme being. Both scenarios, in my mind, seem equally possible. The believer, like Anselm, is then in the same boat as the atheist, of “the fool who says in his heart there is no God” (Pss. 14:1; 53:1).
I think Anselm makes an error in assuming just because I can conceive of something then it must by necessity, and by reason alone exist. For something to be conceivable, is to say that it is possible. It gives us something to play with. While I agree with Anselm that the concept of God is conceivable, I do not think that therefore it follows that there then must be a God who exists. So, maybe I can believe in God, or at least agree with the theist that the concept of God is something that I can use, I do not have to necessarily tack on the idea of existence to this belief.
Kerr, Hugh T. Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Oppy, Graham, "Ontological Arguments", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter
2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/ontological-arguments/>.