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The Anselm Ontological Argument Philosophy Essay

In this paper I will argue that Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God is indeed adequate for establishing the necessary existence of the Greatest Conceivable Being. In order to accomplish this, I will argue that Anselm's premises are sound, and that his conclusion rightfully follows his premises. I will also defend Anselm's argument by demonstrating that objections to Anselm's argument are unconvincing. My focus will be on Gaunilo's objection to Anselm's argument. Essentially, Gauinilo's objection is that Anselm's argument can be altered to prove the existence of any concept simply by using the definition that the concept is greater than all other concepts which can be conceived - this will be refuted.


Before I begin my argument I will reconstruct the a priori ontological argument put forward by Anselm to prove the existence of the Greatest Conceivable


Anselm begins his argument by introducing “the fool”, a reference to Psalms 53:1. This fool “has said that in his heart, [that] there is no God”, or denying the existence of God. Anselm states that even this fool, “when he hears of this being of which I speak - a being-than-which-nothing- greater-can-be-thought - understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to actually exist” (Anselm 15). Essentially, Anselm makes the claim that even “the fool” is forced to concede that the concept of the Greatest Conceivable Being exists in the mind, because he has been told of it. In order to prove the existence of God, Anselm adopts the fool's position for his A priori argument. Anselm does not believe the fool's position to be correct, but uses it to show that if God exists in understanding, or the mind, then He must exist in reality.


Anselm declares that it is one thing for an object to exist in the mind, yet another to understand that it actually exists. To this end, Anselm moves on to give an example of how something can exist in the mind and in reality. The example of a painter is brought forward by Anselm. Before a painter creates a picture, claims Anselm, he has an understanding of what the painting will look like in his mind. Upon completion of the painting, the painter will understand that it exists in his mind, for they had the image of the painting before he created it, and in reality, because now they can see the painting before themselves with their own eyes (Anselm 15).


Anselm next defines God as a being-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived. Anselm follows this definition with the premise that if a being exists in the understanding, but not in reality, then a greater being can be conceived (Anselm 15). To assert this point Anselm argues, “For if [The Greatest Conceivable Being] exists solely in the mind alone, it can be thought of to exist in reality as well, which is greater” (Anselm 15). Utilizing the idea that if a being exists only in understanding then a greater being exists, Anselm reaches the conclusion that a greater being than God can be conceived. Anselm does not believe that this conclusion is accurate, however, stating that it is “obviously impossible”. By reaching this conclusion, Anslem is trying to show that if one understands God to be the Greatest Conceivable Being and only exist in understanding as a concept, but not reality, then the conclusion opposes the premises.


Anselm's case is essentially that because the definition of God is not in question, “the fool” must be mistaken in assuming that God only exists as a concept. Therefore, Anselm reaches the conclusion that God must exist in both concept and in reality.


I will now move on to offering a critical assessment of Anselm's ontological argument. To accomplish this task, I will examine both the validity, and the soundness, of Anselm's premises. In order to do so, a condensed form of Anselm's argument is required.


Essentially, Anselm's premises can be construed as such:

  • God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived

  • We can conceive of a being than which none greater can be conceived - God exists in the understanding,

  • To exist in reality and in the understanding is greater than to exist in the understanding alone. Therefore,

  • God necessarily exists in reality.

According to chapter two of Writing Philosophy, a valid argument is “an argument that has a form such that if it's premises were true, it's conclusion would be too.”


There is nothing to suggest that Anselm's argument is invalid. Provided that the premises are sound, the conclusion does indeed follow. However, while the ontological argument may be valid, it remains to be shown that it is sound. A sound argument is one which is both valid and contains true premises (Chapter 2, Writing Philosophy). In order to show this, the individual premises of the ontological argument must be evaluated.


Firstly, The truth of premise B] depends on the acceptance of Anselm's definition of God (premise A] ) as "that than which none greater can be conceived." If we are to accept Anselm's definition of God to be plausible, then premise B] is sound because we have accepted the concept and have the idea in our understanding. If we do not accept the definition, then we are not able to proceed to evaluate the rest of the argument. This is not to say that Anselm's definition of God is a controversial one, indeed it is a commonly accepted monotheistic interpretation of the nature of God (Mark C. Smith, January 18th Lecture).


Secondly, premise B] is sound because existence of such a being is logically possible. No fault can be found with postulating the existence of such a being as defined by premise A].


Finally, Anselm's assertion that “to exist in reality and in the understanding is greater than to exist in the understanding alone” is necessarily sound by our acceptance of his definition of God. By accepting premise A], as we must in order to evaluate the argument, we must concede this it is necessarily greater for God to exist in reality.


As a result, we can see that Anselm's ontological argument is both valid, and sound, from an examination of it's premises. Anselm's conclusion that God exists in reality logically follows the premises, given their soundness and validity.


In order to demonstrate that Anselm's argument is indeed adequate for establishing the necessary existence of the Greatest Conceivable Being, objections to the argument must first be examined and then refuted.


One of the more potent objections to Anselm's ontological argument is that of the monk Gaunilo. The objection raised by Gaunilo is that the same logical reasoning used by Anselm to prove God's existence can be used to prove things certain do not exist. Gaunilo puts forth this objection when he argues about the existence of the “Lost Island”, a conceivable perfect island.


Gaunilo's proof of the perfect island follows the same logical reasoning as Anselm's. He starts with the premise that the idea of a perfect island can be conceived of by the mind. The perfect island is by definition an island than which no greater island can be conceived, and that if a perfect-island exists in as an idea in the mind but not in reality, a greater island than the perfect- island can be conceived (Gaunilo 17). Using a similar argument as Anselm, Gaunilo has shown that the perfect-island must exist in both the mind and in reality for the same reasons that God must exist in the mind and reality. According to Gaunilo, if one accepts Anselm's argument as being valid, one must accept the similar perfect-island argument as being valid as well. Both arguments would appear to valid since if the premises are true then both conclusions must be true. The only critical difference between Anselm's argument and Gaunilo's argument is the use of the perfect-island in place of God. As a result, if Anselm's method of reasoning is deemed appropriate, then Gaunilo's must be appropriate as well. Gaunilo however states that this “proof' of the existence of a perfect-island is implausible, or “doubtfully real” (Guanilo 17). Gaunilo contends that it is only the definition of “a-concept-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived” that allows Anselm and himself to prove the existence of God and the perfect-island respectively. By proving one of the concepts, the perfect-island, to be implausible, Gaunilo feels that the other concept must follow suit (Gaunilo 17).


I will now move onto a refutation of Gaunilo's objection to Anselm's ontological argument.


The major fault with Gaunilo's objection is that that by proving the existence of a perfect island, using an argument of the same structure as Anselm's, he has tampered with the definition of an island. This error becomes apparent when considering what the nature of a perfect island would be. In order for the island to be perfect it's characteristics must be perfect as well. Any variation from this “conceivable” perfection would make the existence of a greater conceivable island possible. Furthermore, the perfect-island could be made greater in a measurable fashion if it was to have a slightly increased landmass - this reasoning would persist until the perfect-island becomes infinitely large. An infinitely large island, however, is impossible. An island, by it's very definition, must be surrounded by water, and something that is infinite in size cannot be surrounded. Moreover, a perfect island presumably has an abundance of lush trees and pristine beaches. The more of these that an island has, the better the island would conceivably be. However, there is no defined maximum number of trees or beaches that an island could possibly have; for any one conceivable island, there is another, even-more -perfect-island with one more exotic fruit tree and one more white sandy beach. As a result, there is no island than-which no-greater-can-be-conceived - the more trees and more beaches that are conceived, the more perfect the island would be. Therefore, the perfect-island moves towards infinity in it's characteristics once again. The concept of the perfect island is therefore flawed, causing Gaunilo's objection to be adequate to impair Anselm's ontological argument.


In conclusion, Anselm's logical a priori ontological argument is adequate for establishing the necessary existence of the Greatest Conceivable Being. The premises of Anselm's ontological argument were demonstrated to be sound when examined in the context of Anselm's definition of the Greatest Conceivable Being. Moreover, Anselm's argument was shown to be a valid argument, with a conclusion that follows from the premises. Gaunilo raised an objection to the ontological argument on the grounds that Anselm's argument can be altered to prove the existence of any concept simply by using the definition that the concept is greater than all other concepts which can be conceived. However, this objection was shown to be inadequate on the grounds that the concept of the perfect-island is flawed when conceived with Anselm's argument. Therefore, Anselm's ontological argument is convincing, despite Gaunilo's objections, and is adequate for establishing the necessary existence of the Greatest Conceivable Being.


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