A Clarification by Way of Elaboration of Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Anselm’s Argument presupposes that God is, as (almost) all men have always thought him to be, that than which no greater can be conceived – the Ultimate Being, along all dimensions of perfection, virtue, & goodness – and goes on to argue that such a being that actually exists, being greater than the mere idea of such a being, cannot but be what we mean by “God.” So, if we are talking about God, we *must* be talking about a being who actually exists. If we are talking about a being who might not or does not actually exist, we are not talking about God in the first place, and so all our talk of that thing (whatever it is) is simply inapt, ergo moot. Since we are in fact talking about God, we must be talking about a being who actually exists. So, in order for us even to talk about him, God must actually exist. The actual existence of God is implicit in the concept of God. This is what Aquinas is getting at in arguing that the existence of God is essential to his nature.

Almost all of Anselm’s critics lose him at that point. His famous Argument – which is perhaps the most famous in the entire history of philosophy – seems to many, if not most, to consist entirely of vain logic chopping; of proving a conclusion by a prior definition, that might with equal reason have been defined some other way.

But hold off for a moment on that entirely natural human reaction, and see where this goes. For, it is possible to think of a being even greater than a maximally perfect being who actually exists: namely, such a being who exists *necessarily.* Most who have grappled with Anselm have taken him in this way. They have assumed without worry that “that than which no greater can be conceived” must be a being that actually *and necessarily* exists (a necessary being is obviously greater than an unnecessary being, which stands in need of some cause or reason other than itself). So is it that the most capable treatments of Anselm’s Argument (both pro & con) have transpired under the order of modal logic: the logic of possibility, actuality, contingency, and necessity.

Most popular approaches to Anselm do not even reach that threshold. This is to say that they do not quite understand what he is saying.

Alright then, to dip into modal logic: the state of affairs in which it is possible that a necessary being might not exist – in which, i.e., a necessary being is not a necessary being – is *obviously* incoherent, and therefore strictly inconceivable; and what cannot be conceived certainly cannot come actually to pass. So, it is impossible. There is no way to bring it to be, either in mere thought or in act (as though thought were not an act).

Consider, e.g., the likelihood that you should ever run into a square circle, or a circular square. Not likely, right? In fact, quite completely impossible. So likewise with an unnecessary necessary being. There is no way either in concept or in actuality to procure a necessary being that might not be.

It is impossible that a necessary being could fail to exist. The idea is strictly inconceivable; so, there is no way that it could be implemented in actuality. There *just is no way* that a coherently conceivable necessary being could fail to exist. This, in just the way that there *just is no way* that a square circle could exist.

The only other option then is that the concept of necessary being is incoherent, ergo impossible. It is not incoherent. Viz., the truths of math somehow or other exist (a big topic) necessarily, so that they are true in – which is to say, somehow operant in – all states of affairs, and so that there can be no state of affairs that can fail to express them, at least implicitly. So, it is false that necessary being – which is at bottom to say, simply, necessity as such – is impossible. If necessary being is actually possible, it must be coherently conceivable.

Which is fortunate, because the entire discourse of modal logic presupposes necessity as an axiomatic term. Indeed, necessity is operant everywhere in logic and math, for it is the mode of the conclusions of valid arguments: they follow from their premises necessarily. If necessity was an incoherent notion, we’d be in big trouble.

Excursus: I am here tabling for later discussion the nature of the existence of logical and mathematical terms and operators. For now it suffices to say in the first place that they do exist somehow, and in the second that they must exist really, and not only as heuristics in the human mind (that being the nominalist position), if they are really to be found expressed anywhere but in the human mind.

Where does this leave us? With two conclusions: that the notion of necessary being is conceivable and so actually realizable, and that the notion of a necessary being that does not or might not actually exist is incoherent, inconceivable, and impossible to realize.

It is then true that God necessarily exists.

8 thoughts on “A Clarification by Way of Elaboration of Anselm’s Ontological Argument

  1. I prefer the simpler argument that if God didn’t exist nothing else would either. You might say its the same argument, but its not because this one is only one sentence and to me its sufficient. Atheists are just evil; denial of God’s existence is merely running from responsibility for their actions. And telling them that up front is more powerful than academic arguments in my absolutely correct opinion. Its the way the Bible does it after all: “The knave has said in his heart ‘there is no God’–they are corrupt and have done abominable works…”

    • Abstract arguments of any sort – including the argument that if God did not exist, nothing else would exist either – are indeed convincing only to very few minds. But then, their primary purpose is to clear away errors of thought about the Faith, which can make it seem quite incredible to those who in their inmost parts are inclined to belief, but still struggle under their weight.

      The OP tries to clear away the error of thinking that our definitions, arguments, and conclusions are just vain word games, having nothing to do with reality. It does this by pointing out that “necessary being who might not exist” is as incoherent as “square circle.” We can string the words together, but when we carefully examine what they seem to mean, it becomes abundantly clear that they can mean, and therefore indicate, or describe, nothing at all. Thus they cannot describe possible states of affairs. The state of affairs in which God does not exist then is impossible. So God exists.

    • Thanks, lookgoodmodest.

      Sanity is *exactly correct.* Madness – incoherence, inconsistency, incompleteness, indefiniteness, contradiction, and so forth – simply *cannot be carried into practice.* Insanity is disagreement with what can be carried into practice. What it ends up enacting is apparent sanity of an evil, ugly, painful and, as incoherent, so ultimately autophagous sort. I.e., insanity that invokes and so masquerades as sanity, for a time, and for half a time, until the comeuppance.

      There is always a comeuppance, for each of us, in all our errant ways; thanks be to God.

  2. A few comments, one critical and two sort of topic-adjacent:

    There’s rather more to the argument than this. God conceptually has a lot of features that e.g. mathematical entities don’t have, such as causal powers. There are arguments to be made that the various things that have to be true of God don’t fit together, so the concept is incoherent and impossible. I don’t say these arguments work — I read one collection of essays purporting to prove God impossible years ago; most of them were remarkably bad — I just say they exist and can’t be tossed out quite so easily.

    It is a point of interest that Anselm’s fork, God is either necessary or impossible, means that either side of the argument has a burden of proof. There are lots of atheists who seem desperate to avoid any such thing; I don’t see any way to pursue that strategy here.

    Some time ago I ran across an academic philosopher, not a mystic himself, who pointed out that mystics have frequently claimed a direct perception of God. Even a false perception of something is at least evidence that the “something” is a possible entity — which, in the case of God, is equivalent to actual.

    • Yeah, there are lots of other ways that we might try to show that the various perfections attributed to that than which no greater can be conceived are incompatible, so that the concept is incoherent. But then, if that concept was shown to be incoherent, all that would have been shown is that it was not an accurate conception of that than which no greater can be conceived – or, what is perhaps more likely, of the various perfections. If for example the incompatibility of perfect goodness with omnipotence were demonstrated on certain definitions of those terms as maximally realized, we’d know that we had not been thinking about that than which no greater can be conceived, but rather about something that strictly speaking cannot be conceived in the first place. But we’d also suspect, not that we had misunderstood the basic notion of that than which no greater can be conceived, but rather that we had misunderstood goodness and power as perfectly and maximally realized.

      If you can disprove the coherence of a concept of God, you have not disproven God, but rather only an idea *that could not have resembled him in the first place.*

      Even a false perception of something is at least evidence that the “something” is a possible entity – which, in the case of God, is equivalent to actual.

      Now that is interesting. Just so. One couldn’t suffer the phenomenon of a mirage if it were not really possible that there was a body of water in the distance. It is certainly possible, as all the mystics attest, to suffer the phenomenon of that than which no greater can be conceived. So it must be possible that an experience of that sort could be verisimilar. And in the case of the experience of the concept of God, that mere possibility would demonstrate his existence; for, among his other perfections, that than which no greater can be conceived must exhibit the perfection of necessary being.

      The genius of Anselm’s definition of God as that than which no greater can be conceived is that it does not at all depend upon the coherence or adequacy of our conceptions of God. If such a concept turns out to be incoherent somehow, well then, there is some greater concept that is not defective in that way. Even if such a concept is coherent and lies within our powers of comprehension, it cannot be adequate; for, in any such case, it is possible for us to conjecture that there is a yet greater concept that lies beyond our powers of comprehension. And, indeed, this is just what the mystics all report about their experience of God: that he is utterly beyond our powers of comprehension.

  3. Used to like Anselm help me when I was getting sober and needed to take that leap. Ah but I was so much older then…
    First I’ll say I still admire the effort of all these brilliant minds to make it all sound sensible I suppose being brilliant yet living in Christendom was a hell of a cognitive dissonance so the effort was self preservation.
    Ok to the argument
    If we are talking about God we are thinking about God since God is beyond our comprehension we are talking and thinking not about God
    You’re welcome Anselm glad to return the favor.
    I’ll suggest alternatives
    Empty yourself to the cloud of unknowing
    Or talk and think about what creation can tell us about god

    • That it is impossible to comprehend God perfectly does not mean it is impossible to know anything about him at all, much less that it is impossible to denote him, so as to think or talk about him. After all, we denote all sorts of things that we understand but little, or not at all. Women, e.g. Ourselves. And so forth. Indeed, is there anything – anything whatever – that you can say with complete confidence, without the slightest jot of doubt, that you comprehend perfectly?

      Not that this means we should not follow your advice to seek God as he reveals himself in the created order, or contemplate the unknowing that so vastly outpasses all that we might ever know. We should.


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