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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.