Anselm’s Ontological Proof for the Existence of God based on General Revelation

Anselm’s Ontological Proof


In dealing with the question of naturalistic proofs for God’s existence, we must not fail to discuss Anselm and his Ontological argument.  Anselm predated Aquinas by about 200 years, so clearly, Aquinas is responding to Anselm’s idea that the reality of God’s existence could be proven by looking at General Revelation.  It is worth noting that through history there have been many, including people like Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant who have felt they have undone Anselm’s argument, but in reality, these critiques fall short of refuting Anselm’s proof—hence it is still discussed today.  Again, this is not designed to prove the God of the Bible, but simply that God, as an infinitely greater being, does exist.  He was simply seeking to develop the language of Psalm 14:1, “The foolish one says in his heart that there is no God.”

  1. Anselm begins by presenting a definition of God.  God, he says, is a being greater than which no greater being can be conceived.  Again, this argument is not designed to prove the God of the Bible, but that there is a God who is infinite and above all else.  One might take issue with Anselm’s definition, suggesting, as many today do, that we can have a plethora of Gods depending on culture and preference, yet, why would one bother worshipping one God of many, who is at best equal to others and likely less than some?  This hardly seems like the definition of a god worthy of worship.  The one worthy of worship and veneration is the one whom above which there is no other.  Why accept a cheap counterfeit when you can have the genuine article?
  2. Given this definition, Anselm argues that there are only two possible candidates for “God.”
    1. This infinitely perfect being exists, but he only exists as an idea.  Yet, what is greater than an infinitely perfect God who exists as an idea?  It is an infinitely perfect God that exists in reality.
    2. Thus, the second candidate is an infinitely perfect being, greater than which none can be conceived, that does exist in reality:  God.


Objections to Anselm:

The two most regularly cited objections to Anselm’s argument come from Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm and Kant, more than 700 years later.  Briefly, their arguments were similar, but distinct.  Gaunilo argued that he could think of many things greater than which no other could be conceived.  He suggested, as an example, an island, arguing that he could conceive of the perfect island but just because he could conceive of it did not imply that it existed or that he should seek it out.  Anselm replied that he had committed the logical fallacy of equivocation, in other words, using the same term in different ways to refute an argument.  Gaunilo and Anselm were both speaking of that which was perfect, but were not using them in the same way, hence Gaunilo’s argument did not carry any weight.  In the case of the island, Gaunilo was defining “perfection” in terms of the best representative of a given class of objects—namely islands.  Anselm was not positing God as the best member of a class of beings, but as the being par excellence, who is not a member of a class, but a class unto himself. 

Kant approaches the argument from a slightly different angle and criticizes Anselm for making the concept of “real existence” a primary quality of value.  His suggestion is that the existence or non-existence of something does not make it qualitatively better or worse, but simply different.  This can be approached from two angles.  First, from a philosophical view, even if existence is not a primary qualitative attribute, it is still an attribute of something.  If the idea of God is, as Anselm posited, a being which nothing greater can be conceived, the simple addition of the secondary attribute of existence is still an addition to the being and is, by definition, greater.  Thus, Anselm’s argument still stands.  The second approach is a practical one.  The existence or non-existence of something is a qualitative attribute and cannot be refuted as such.  Even Kant would have to concede that were he hungry, the existence or non-existence of food on his plate or in his cupboard is a qualitative difference of first priority.  Let us assume one goes to a restaurant and orders an expensive meal, and let us assume that the waiter brings out an empty plate claiming that such is simply the non-existent form of the meal—the meal consisting as an idea in the patron’s mind—how do you think that even Kant would respond when the bill for the meal is brought?  Surely we must concede, that the existence and non-existence of an object is a qualitative measure of primary importance, and thus, Anselm’s distinction between an infinitely perfect God that exists as an idea and an infinitely perfect God that exists as reality stands.

About preacherwin

A pastor, teacher, and a theologian concerned about the confused state of the church in America and elsewhere...Writing because the Christian should think Biblically.

Posted on April 21, 2008, in Apologetics, Pastoral Reflections and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Your explanation of Kant’s objection belays a rather limited exposure to it. Likely, your exposure was limited to responses. What you list here is only the second half of the argument. The beginning of his objection challenges the very assesment that existence is not at all a predicate. He claims, instead, that existence is merely a precondition for something to have qualities or predicates. “The proposition, God is omnipotent, contains two conceptions, which have a certain object or content; the word is, is no additional predicate-it merely indicates the relation of the predicate to the subject. Now if I take the subject (God) with all its predicates (omnipotence being one), and say, God is, or There is a God, I add no new predicate to the conception of God, I merely posit or affirm the existence of the subject with all its predicates – I posit the object in relation to my conception.”

    Thus, your example of first response fails, because existence is not an attribute at all, qualitative or otherwise, according to Kant. Rather, Kant argues that in order for something to have attributes, it must first exist. Because no contingent attribute may explain itself, (A concept borrowed from Aquinas’s Cosmological Arguments – Frankly, a better argument for the existence of a God, even if it proves nothing of the nature of God), existence cannot be an attribute, but rather a necessary condition.

    Kant’s objection is that Anselm attempted to use predicates to create existence, rather than using existance to create predicates.

    Your assesment of the Argument between Anselm and Gaunilo also leaves something to be desired. More accurately, Guanilo felt that Anselm’s logic could be used to prove the existence of many a ridiculous. For example, let me submit to you the following proof:

    I begin by presenting a definition of the Punicorn. The Punicorn, I say, is a unicorn greater than which no greater unicorn can be conceived.
    Given this definition, I argue that there are only two possible candidates for “Punicorn.”
    This infinitely perfect Unicorn exists, but he only exists as an idea. Yet, what is greater than an infinitely perfect Punicorn who exists as an idea? It is an infinitely perfect Punicorn that exists in reality.
    Thus, the second candidate is an infinitely perfect Unicorn, greater than which none can be conceived, that does exist in reality: the Punicorn.

    With a little study you will see that it is the exact same text you gave for Anselm’s Ontological argument, translated into first person and replacing “God” with “the Punicorn” and “being” with Unicorn. You see that Anselm’s logic proves the existence of the Punicorn, which of course does not exist. This was Gaunilo’s objection: Anselm merely defines God into existence, which is not a philosophically rigorous Proof.

    Anselm’s response, of course, is just as clear. Anselm would respond with the assertion that Guanilo’s concept of a Pisland (and my definition of a Punicorn) is nonsense – is unintelligible. What makes one Island better than another Island? Abudance of Fruit? Size? Softness of sand? But those things have no limit! No matter how soft you imagine sand to be, I can imagine softer. No matter how many fruit you can count, I can imagine one more. No matter how large an Island you can describe, I can describe one larger. Thus, we cannot, in fact conceive of a Pisland, or a Punicorn.

    What saves God from this same fallacy? Knowing everything is finite. Doing Anything is finite. You can’t know something more than everything. You can’t make better than the best decision. God is the be all end all of everything.

    Aquinas had an objection you may want to look into, as well as a more solid proof. I feel it is telling that Aquinas, who spent his own life trying to develop a proof for the existence of God, also rejected Anselm’s proof.


    • Frank,

      I appreciate your critiques as well as your comments. And yes, you are right, most of my contact with Kant’s rejection of Anselm is through secondary reviews and grad-school lectures. You need not tell me the value of dealing with original sources–they are on my reading list, but there are only so many hours in the day. In terms of my own teaching, while I do think these kinds of proofs are of intellectual value, I don’t place a great deal of stock in them as none of the proofs of God’s existence from General Revelation can get you to the God of the Bible without the use of the Bible, so I hold them to be confirmatory and not foundational.

      That being said, let me place a few things on the table for the sake of discussion, and let me deal with your comments in reverse order. Guanilo’s objection (as well as your Punicorn) is guilty of the logical error of equivocation. Guanilo’s island and your Punicorn are each members of a class. Yet, God is not a member of a class of God’s, nor is Anselm arguing that the God of the Bible is the greater than other supposed gods (which is where Kant’s discussion of the predicate comes in), but Anselm is simply positing the existence of a being greater than which no other being exists–in other words, God is in a class of his own–a class par excellence. The argument only works in this form.

      In terms of Kant, you are raising (or I guess, Kant is raising through you) an important philosophical question. In most arguments, Kant is right, existence is a prerequisite of having attributes and if we leave it there, Anselm does seem to be positing the prerequisite from the attributes, which is backwards. Yet, I would suggest that when dealing with ontology only, existence must be seen as an attribute–in fact, it is the only attribute that moves something from theoretical definition to actual existence.

      An example of this comes out in an article I was reading recently on Craig’s articulation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Craig has as his goal to prove that the universe cannot be a result of an infinite chain of events (and thus has a transcendent creator). Since that which exists must be measurable/definable, infinity must remain nothing more than an abstract concept. Now this definition breaks down when applied to God as he is transcendent, but what he is essentially doing is suggesting that when dealing with ontology, existence becomes a real attribute–in all other forms of argument, existence becomes the prerequisite for attributes.

      For Kant, God was not so much an objective reality, but more of a convenient, subjective reality. If God is real and objectively revealed, then we have an obligation to him as our creator–this obligation Kant rejected. And I suppose that this brings us back to where we started. These kinds of proofs are useful to confirm what the Christian knows to be true, but one must be careful not to put too much stock in them–the Bible needs to be our beginning point, and of course, it presupposes the existence of God.

      Blessings, and thanks for the thoughts. I will have to do some more reading in Kant this summer–too many books, too little time!



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