“AND so, Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you knowest it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak –a being than which nothing greater can be conceived –understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.”
“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 doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”
Anselm of Canterbury Proslogium II
In his Monologium Anselm offers up 65 chapters of technical argumentation giving his reasons for faith in God. Interestingly Anselm -for what ever reason- thought the essentials could be delivered in a more succinct way which was the motivation for writing Proslogium. In the preface to Proslogium Anselm writes, “I began to ask myself whether there might be found a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists, and that there is a supreme good requiring nothing else, which all other things require for their existence and well-being; and whatever we believe regarding the divine Being.” So it is with this goal in mind to provide a single argument to prove that God exists.
This argument which has come to be known as the “ontological argument” isn’t like most arguments in that it calls upon reasons that are a priori or apart from experience. He explains that God is a being that none greater can be conceived of. The key here is to prove that God cannot exist in the mind only, but also in reality. For this we must pay close attention to the second quote from above. At this point the argument looks as follows:
- if that which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone
- then the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived because it exists in reality also
- obviously 1 is impossible because nothing greater can be conceived from that which nothing greater can be conceived
Thus Anselm argues from a reductio ad absudum, that it is absurd to conclude that something can be conceived that is greater than that which nothing greater can be conceived because it exists in understanding and reality. Thus that which nothing greater can be conceived not only exists in understanding but in reality also. Therefor God must exist in reality as well as in understanding.
I have attempted to simplify Anselm’s argument; however its challenge comes in its conceptual nature. But in spite of Anslem’s argument being challenging we find that it isn’t long after that his argument confronts opposition. In fact some of its strongest criticisms come from those who believe in God. This will have to be content for another post.