Arguments for the Existence of God: A Look at St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument for God and why it Fails

St. Anselm, philosopher and theologian of the Catholic Church, attempted to construct an ontological (of or relating to existence) argument for the existence of God—specifically, a God whose qualities resemble that of the Catholic God. Anselm argues that because we can think of God (denoted in his argument as the greatest conceivable being), we would be contradicting ourselves to say that God does not exist, for existence would surely be a quality of the greatest conceivable being. In this paper, after explaining the terminology and arguments used by Anselm, I will employ a proof by contradiction to demonstrate that Anselm’s argument forces us to accept the highly improbable conclusion that all possible beings exist. Lastly, I will present one possible objection to my conclusion and a response.

In order to understand Anselm’s argument, we must understand a handful of his vocabulary terms and stances. First, things can either a) exist in thought alone or b) exist in thought and in reality. Some things that exist in thought alone would include fictional characters, like Tony the Tiger or Frodo. In contrast, things such as the Pacific Ocean or Donald Trump exist both in thought and in reality. Second, Anselm argues that there exist properties that make some being better than those that do not possess these properties: these are called perfection-making properties. Examples include knowledge, wealth, and power. Possessing these qualities would surely make that thing better. This is an assumption of Anselm’s that I agree with. Building on this, Anselm remarks that existence must also be a perfection-making property. For example, owning a million dollars would surely be better existing in thought and reality, rather than just thought alone. Therefore, existence in reality is a property of a thing that makes it better, or more perfect. I will also accept this claim. Third, we must keep in mind that “possible” simply refers to that which has no internal contradictions, or is not logically impossible (Himma Finally, it is helpful to understand what a proof by contradiction argument does. An argument of this form assumes that its conclusion is false, and thereby demonstrates that thinking its conclusion is false necessarily forces a logical contradiction. If demonstrated successfully, the originally-assumed false conclusion must actually be true. I will use the very same form for my argument, but first we must understand his. Anslem’s argument goes as follows:

  1. A being is God if and only if it is the greatest conceivable being. (I accept his definition.)

  2. God exists in thought but not in reality. (Here, Anselm is assuming his conclusion is false.)

  3. Existence both in reality and in thought is greater than existence in thought alone.

  4. We can conceive of God’s existence in reality and in thought. (I will also agree to this as it fairly easy to uphold; one simply must consider the greatest possible being have all power, knowledge, and any other perfection-making property.)

  5. So, we can conceive of a being which is greater than God (Remember, in (2) Anselm assumed that God does not exist.)

    Given this concept of God specific in premise (1), it follows from (5) that:

  6. We can conceive of a being which is greater than the greatest conceivable being.

    But (6) is contradictory. So, the assumed premise (2) must be false. It then follows that:

  7. God exists in reality as well in the understanding.

(Cover and Garns 127-128)

Again, to reiterate, just as Anselm assumed premise (2), I will assume that his entire argument’s logic prevails. Now I will show the disastrous implications of such an argument.

Consider some set of possible beings. In it there exists some amount of beings that are possible. “Beings” here refers to some thing or object—it needn’t be God-like or even person-like. “Possible,” as stated above, implies conception without logical contradictions. So, let’s take the same steps that Anselm uses, except instead of using “God,” the greatest conceivable being, let’s use “the second greatest conceivable being,” which would clearly be only second to God himself (premise 1 from above). This 2nd Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) needn’t be explicitly defined or have all of its details outlined. We only have to accept that God has the maximum qualities that create perfection, and the 2nd GCB does not have these qualities to the same degree but more so than any possible being besides itself. Next, assume this 2nd GCB doesn’t exist (just as Anselm took this position in premise (2)). I accept premise (3) as well as premise (4). While on (3) I simply need to agree with his premise, for (4) I offer the following justification: one must simply consider the maximum perfection-making qualities for God, and give the 2nd GCB those qualities but to a lesser degree. This can be arbitrary so long as this being remains the 2nd GCB. But, as premise (5) stated, because we can conceive of this 2nd GCB existing in reality (one mustn’t think too long to imagine something less than perfect), it follows that we can conceive of a being who is a) not God, for this being in question is imperfect, and b) greater than the 2nd GCB. But this is contradictory, so (2) must be false: in fact, the 2nd GCB must exist in reality as well as in thought.

Here, using Anselm’s argument, we have proven the existence of another being, namely one that is 2nd only to God. But we haven’t reached a problem yet—we must go further. Imagine if I repeated the same argument again, only this time for the 3rd greatest conceivable being. This time I would, assuming that this being didn’t exist, be able to conceive of a being that is not God, not the 2nd GCB, and is greater than the 3rd GCB. This is again a contradiction and the 3rd GCB must exist! If you constructed such an argument infinitely, you would be forced to conclude that there are in fact infinitely many beings that exist in thought and reality, and therefore all possible beings exist. I will take the following assumption to be reasonable through common sense instead of arguing it in my paper: quite simply, it is ludicrous to think that all possible beings exist! This means that unicorns, a new Tupac album, and a season two of Firefly exists (If the cultural references fly over your head, just stick to unicorns). Most, Anselm included, would agree that this is an illogical conclusion. Assuming Anselm’s proof of God to be valid necessarily generates a ridiculous conclusion that contradicts our very basic understanding of the world that not all possible beings exists; thus, his argument cannot stand true.

One possible objection Anselm would raise is to my fourth premise, which argues that we can conceive of the 2nd GCB existing in thought and in reality. Anselm believes that we can clearly conceive of God because we know that God would have all of the perfection-making qualities to the highest degree, full stop. Anselm might ask: what criteria establishes a being as only 2nd to God? Which perfection-making properties are more important than others? Would this being only 2nd to God have infinite or finite degrees of perfection? If we can’t determine this, how can we conceive of a 2nd GCB? To this objection I have two responses.

First, I challenge Anselm’s assumption even he knows the exact criteria in order to conceive of such a being. How could we even possibly know? If there exists a God who is all knowing and all powerful, surely there is some quality that factors into God’s criteria for perfection that we know nothing about! But Anselm doesn’t seem troubled by this, and simply argues that one must conceive of all perfection-making properties and assign the highest degree of them to God. While he does purport to know some of the properties (wealth, power, knowledge), he obviously doesn’t know all of them lest he be God himself. Similarly, I don’t know all of the criteria that would factor into the 2nd GCB. If I am to be wrong on the basis of not knowing all of the perfection-making properties, then Anselm is too and I have still successfully undermined his argument.

Second, I challenge that we even have to know the exact criteria in order to conceive of such a being. As an analogy, imagine eating the best sandwich of all time. You might know what kind of jam and which bread you want, but yet you still would have trouble answering more specific questions like: how many milligrams of sodium do you want in your sandwich? Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that you can conceive of this best sandwich of all time existing in thought and in reality. Placing this in context of the 2nd GCB, I have agreed to Anselm’s general understanding of perfection-making properties, just to a lesser degree. I don’t need to know how many toes my 2nd GCB has or how many hairs lie on his skin—I can conceive of this being existing in thought and in reality and that is enough to demonstrate how Anselm’s argument fails.

In conclusion, I have taken Anselm’s own structure for arguing for the existence of God, and used it to show that Anselm must also accept that all possible beings exist. As myself and Anselm included would likely agree that this is a very troubling conclusion, it only makes sense that Anslem’s original argument does not work. I have also looked at one possible objection and shown that it fails on the faulty assumptions that we have to or even can know all of the properties of a being. Thus, Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God fails.


Works Cited

Cover, J. A., and Rudy L. Garns. Theories of Knowledge and Reality: An Introduction to the Problems and Arguments of Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. Print.

Himma, Kenneth Einar. “Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Seattle Pacific University, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.



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