St. Anselm of Canterbury
1033 – 1100
Ontological Argument for God’s Existence
by Richard E. Noble
Anselm was born at Aosta in Piedmont. He became a Benedictine Monk. He was a prior, and an abbot of Bec. He succeeded Lanfranc as archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He liked to argue with the King at that time. He was a Christian and a firm believer. He liked believing better than reasoning, “I believe in order that I may understand,” he said. He carried that even a step further; he felt that if you didn’t believe you couldn’t understand.
St. Anselm is most famous as originator of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. I think that when anyone first hears this argument, they instantly know that it is wrong, but they don’t know why. There certainly had to exit a better and greater and more perfect argument than this argument as imagined by Anselm.
Anselm claims that even a fool “... is convinced that something exists in the understanding than which nothing greater can be conceived ... 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 no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.
“And it 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 thou art, 0 Lord, our God.”
Did you get that? Wow! This guy is truly that which is greater than that which I have the ability to conceive. But you know nearly all theologians sound like St. Anselm to me. They all seem to hold a capacity that than which is greater than that than which I have the capacity to conceive.
Believe it or not this argument has lived through the ages.
A contemporary of Anselm, another monk from Marmoutier, near Tours, a guy named Gaunilo disagreed. They argued back and forth for awhile. Then Thomas Aquinas rejected the argument about a hundred years later.
Thomas Aquinas said: “Even if it be granted that everyone understands this name God to signify what is said (namely, that than which is greater cannot be thought), it does not follow from this that he understands that which is signified by the name to be in the nature of things, but only in the apprehension of the understanding. Nor can it be argued that it is in reality, unless it be granted that there is in reality something than which a greater cannot be thought - which is not granted by those who maintain that God is not.”
But then came Rene Descartes: “It is no less inconsistent to think of a God (that is, a being supremely perfect) to whom existence is lacking (that is, to whom any perfection is lacking) than to think of a mountain to which a valley is lacking.”
But Immanuel Kant then countered: “I simply ask you, whether the proposition, that this or that thing ... exists, is an analytical or a synthetical proposition. If the former, then by its existence you add nothing to your thought of the being ... If ... you admit ... that every proposition involving existence is synthetical, how can you say that the predicate of existence does not admit of removal without contradiction.”
My God, how true, how very true!
Then Hegel mumbled something to the contrary and others followed. But what the hell is wrong with this argument? Better yet what the hell is this argument? What is the Premise?
Well the first premise is that something that is - is greater than something that is only conceived.
This sounds good when you are thinking strawberry shortcake; it doesn’t sound so good when you are thinking terminal brain tumor or a stick up the ass. To my way of thinking, the thought of a stick up the ass would be greater than actually having a stick shoved up my ass.
To tighten up here, the premise might be that it is greater to exist, in reality, than it is not to exist, or only exist in concept. - To be or not to be, that is the question.
I suppose that first off most of us would say that it is better to be than it would to not be, but under analysis it may be otherwise.
Let’s speak theologically for example. If your being intends that you will end up in Hell for eternity; I would say to not be or to never have been would be a much more rewarding alternative. In which case it would be greater to not exist at all than to exist.
To exist entails both pain and pleasure. To not exist entails no pain and no pleasure. Depending on your tolerance for pain and suffering, if you were given an educated choice in the matter, you very well may have opted for non-existence. Unfortunately we got no such choice. And as Albert Einstein once asked; “Did God have a choice in his own existence?” Could God, if He does exist, not exist if he chose not to? Could God in the beginning have not been and then have chosen to be?
Another problem that I have with this Ontological proof of the existence of God is this: Most definitions of God include a reference to his infiniteness. Infinite in terms to His greatness would mean that there is no end to God’s greatness. In mathematics, for example; is there a number than which no greater number can be thought?
Whatever number you can think of, I can add one to it and have a greater number. Numbers are infinite. So then there is no number than which no greater number can be thought.
In Geometry: is there a straight line that which no longer straight line can be thought? As with the greatest number stated above, so it is with the longest line. Lines are infinite and therefore a longer line than any line contemplated can be conjured. So is there a line whose length no greater can be thought? No.
This is the nature of infinity. If God is an infinite being, then His greatness is without capacity. To say that there is something that exist that which nothing greater can be thought - may be self evident to the fool; but with regards to the infinite or infinity it is not true. Infinite greatness would imply that no matter how great I could imagine God to be - He is greater. So: is there that which nothing greater can be thought?
So the basic premise: that even the fool must admit of a being that which no greater being can be thought - is false. Infinity has no end or capacity.
The second premise: that Existence is greater than no existence, is debatable. It would depend upon the state of said existence and upon the notion that non-existence is even possible.
A non-existence without pain, suffering or angst would in my opinion be greater than an existence filed with pain and suffering; surely greater than an infinite existence of unimaginable suffering - which is promised by many religions to non-believers and sinners.
I’m not a mathematician but ... - Is zero greater than minus one?
So, are there any more premises left to this proposition?
Does infinity exist only in our understanding or in reality?
It certainly exists in our understanding, but as for reality we can only suppose.
The Universe could be infinite - if not the Universe, then Space.
Einstein, as I understand, claimed that space was merely a property of matter. As an amateur philosopher, I find this notion impossible - unless, of course we then claim that it is matter that is infinite. If we say that matter is finite and limited, then space must be infinite. To say that the Universe (both space and matter) is limited is conceptually and logically impossible. Because, if the Universe is limited, it must be limited by something. If we define the Universe as - all that is. Then whatever it is that limits the Universe would be part of the universe and thus the universe would be unlimited. If what limits the universe is limited, then what or where or in what does it exist? This is an infinite regression (or expansion). It tells me that the universe can not be thought of as anything but unlimited or infinite.
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