St. Anselm, in his Ontological Argument, attempted to prove the necessary existence of God simply by reflecting on the concept of God. By setting up the premise “God exists only in the understanding,” and then going out to disprove this premise, St. Anselm makes a case for the necessary existence of God.
In this paper, I will first explain two of St. Anselm’s logical tools, then state his argument, and then go over each premise he makes. To conclude, I will write about Immanuel Kant’s objection to Anselm’s argument and the best response Anselm could give.
Anselm used a logical tool called Reductio Ad Absurdum (RAA) to prove his theory. RAA sets up an original premise and then sets out to disprove the original premise. Anselm uses this to perfection. His original premise dictates that God exists in the understanding. He then disproves this premise, thus proving that He exists in reality.
It is also important to point out that Anselm used an a priori argument to demonstrate the necessary existence of God. A priori arguments don’t depend on experience with the world. This becomes a factor when taking to account whether Anselm’s theory was an inductive or deductive argument. Because experience isn’t necessary, the Ontological argument is deductive, since all the information you need is right in the argument. In contrast, inductive arguments (which are never valid, hence the importance of this being an a priori argument) depend on what you’ve experienced before.
The following is St. Anselm’s Ontological argument:
(1) Assume God exists only in the understanding
(2) God might have existed in reality, since God is a possible being.
(3) If something exists only in the understanding and might have existed in reality, then it might have been greater than it is.
(4) God might have been greater than He is.
(5) God, then, is a being than which a greater is possible.
(6) It is false that God exists only in the understanding.
(7) Therefore, God exists in reality as well as in the understanding. (Kukla, #2)
When I am thinking about an object, X, I have formed a concept of this object in my head whether or not it actually exists or not. To clarify this statement, I will use Santa Claus. When I say his name, most will picture a husky man with a snowy white beard and reindeer pulling his sled through the sky. Therefore, I understand what the term ‘Santa’ means. I am putting this in quotes because I am talking about the term ‘Santa’ and what it means. I am merely uttering bits of language. Thus, Santa, like God, exists only in understanding.
I can form a concept of X in my head, so it is therefore not a logical absurdity that it could exist in reality. Anything actual must be possible and the thought of X makes it actual. Thus, anything in thought can possibly exist in reality.
Premise (3) deals with the property of existence being a “great-making quality.” Anselm believed that possible things were inferior to actual things. I can imagine that I have $100 in my pocket, but it would be far better to actually have $100 in my pocket. Clearly, having $100 dollars in my pocket instead of it in my thoughts is a better situation. Anselm believed it was simply better to exist in reality than in the understanding. As a general rule, if X has the property of existence, then it is better than X not existing, or existing only in the understanding.
Adding together premise (1) and (3) allows us to arrive at (4). Because X exists in the understanding (1), and could’ve existed in reality, then it follows that it could’ve been greater than it is (3). Thus, X can be greater than it already is.
Let’s tie everything together and replace X with God. If God exists only in the understanding (1), and He could’ve existed in reality (2), then by (3), he could’ve been greater than he is in the understanding (4). Thus, God is a being which a greater is possible (5).
But in here lies the contradiction. Anselm defined God as a ‘being that which none is greater,’ or an omnipotent being. However, we have already come to the conclusion that He can actually be greater by (5). Because none greater can exist than God, he cannot just exist in the understanding, negating (1). We can move to premise (7), which states that God exists in reality as well as understanding.
Anselm’s Ontological argument didn’t pass without some criticism to it. Kant attempted to disprove Anselm’s theory by denying existence as a predicate, thereby making Anselm’s argument both redundant and contradictory.
To prove how Kant made Anselm’s argument redundant, take the sentence, “James exists.” By asserting this existential statement, I am already presupposing that James exists, making ‘exists’ a predicate. By saying “James exists,” what I am really saying is that, “James [exists] exists.” Since we’ve already presupposed existence, to use existence as a predicate here would be redundant.
The negative existential of this will bring about a contradiction. Take the statement “James does not exist.” The predicate in this sentence is “does not exist.” Like in the last paragraph, I will presuppose James exists. Therefore, we have “James [exists] does not exist.” This is clearly a contradiction, making the predicate “does not exist” a fallacy.
Let’s plug this into Anselm’s theory. The predicate in (7) is “exists in reality as well as in the understanding.” However, since we have already said ‘God’, we can put ‘God [exists]’, making the “exists” in (7) redundant. Therefore, we can delete any instance of ‘exists’ as a predicate in Anselm’s argument. Because we have denied the predicate, we are left with a rather flat statement. “God is in reality as well as in the understanding.” This statement is merely an assertion and proves only the possibility of God. “I am the greatest person in the world,” carries as much truth behind it as the previous statement.
William Rowe attempted to argue against Kant’s theory by applying it to our everyday life. Existence, Rowe argued, has to be a predicate because it’s used too often. It would be impossible to communicate about anything in existence if existence wasn’t allowed as a predicate. Furthermore, Rowe said that if Kant’s theory was true, then everything could exist because you can deny the existence of anything. By merely saying the term “aliens”, according to Kant’s theory, I am presupposing the existence of aliens.