The Ontological Argument
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 3 - Philosophy of Religion
St. Anselm, from Proslogium
Kem Stone - 16 August 2007
We now come to the Philosophy of Religion, one of my main areas of interest, but we begin with St. Anselm’s
ontological argument for the existence of God, in which I have very little interest at all. I have studied this
argument in three separate classes and find it more ridiculous each time. Nevertheless I will offer an exposition of
the argument, along with Gaunilo’s criticism which is included in this text as well, and finally state my own
objection to the argument as it stands.
Anselm’s argument is based on the conception of God as the greatest of all beings—a being than which no greater
can be conceived. He asserts that God exists in the understanding—we can all conceive of a being than which no
greater can be conceived—but goes further to claim that God must also exist in reality because if He existed in the
understanding alone, one could conceive of a being greater than God—one that existed both in the understanding
and in reality—and therefore God’s non-existence is an absurdity. He necessarily exists. This argument can be
stated in many ways, but here is my formulation:
1. God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
2. It is greater to exist in reality than to exist in the understanding alone.
3. If God existed in the understanding alone, a greater being could be conceived.
4. Therefore, God must exist in reality.
Anselm anticipates the objection that God does not have this sort of necessary existence because the non-
existence of God is conceivable, but he attributes this to a misunderstanding between two senses of what it means
to conceive of something. “For, in one sense, an object is conceived when the word signifying it is conceived; and
in another, when the very entity which the object is, is understood. In the former sense, then, God can be
conceived not to exist; but in the latter, not at all” (67). He uses the analogy that one can conceive that fire can be
water in the sense of the words, but in accordance with the facts of what it means to be fire or water, such a state
of things is inconceivable.
The most commonly cited objection to Anselm’s argument comes from Gaunilo, who merely replaces the word
“God” with a “lost island” and shows the absurdity of the claim that anything than which nothing greater can be
conceived must have necessary existence.
1. There is a lost island than which no more excellent an island can be conceived.
2. It is greater to exist in reality than to exist in the understanding alone
3. If this island existed in the understanding alone, a greater island could be conceived
4. Therefore, the lost island must exist in reality
This analogy certainly does seem to destroy Anselm’s argument, but as many have pointed out, it does not
succeed in defeating it entirely.
In Anselm’s reply to Gaunilo, he reasserts that anything than which nothing greater can be conceived must exist in
reality, but explains that this reasoning can only work for God alone, as God is the only being than which no
greater can be conceived. “Now I promise confidently that if any man shall devise anything existing either in
reality or in concept alone (except that than which a greater cannot be conceived) to which he can adapt the
sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him lost island, not to be lost again” (68).
Simply put, we can always conceive of a lost island more perfect than a lost island we have already conceived,
but we can not conceive of anything greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. This being is
God, and by its very essence of anything greater being inconceivable, it must exist.
My own personal objection is simply to deny this premise, upon which the entire ontological argument is founded.
I would assert that there is no such thing as a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. No matter how
great a being I can conceive, I can always conceive of one greater. Even if I conceived of God as a being greater
than the whole of the universe, I can conceive of a being greater than this God, perhaps a God of many universes.
And I can even conceive of a being greater than this God, a God of many Gods of many universes. And so on ad
infinitum. Therefore the notion of a being than which no greater being can be conceived is inherently absurd.
One might object that I am simply ignoring the definition of God as a being than which no greater can be
conceived. But this is merely a concept, which I will admit can exist in my understanding in the same sense that
the concept of wet fire or a four-sided triangle can exist in my understanding. But these are absurdities which by
the very laws of nature or logic can not have actual existence, just as the existence of a being than which no
greater can be conceived is a logical absurdity. Anselm states, “The non-existence, then, of that than which a
greater cannot be conceived is inconceivable” (69), while I would say just the opposite: that the existence of that
than which a greater cannot be conceived is inconceivable.
But beyond all the logical games, I have a far more concrete objection to the ontological argument which will also
apply with equal force to the other arguments for the existence of God that I will be examining. If God really
exists…and I am perfectly willing to grant that it may…its existence can not be proven by simple tricks of logic,
especially one as juvenile as the ontological argument. If the existence of God depends on the validity of a
syllogism, this God can not really be God at all.
Finally and more practically, what do these theologians really hope to gain by proving the existence of God
rationally? In the end, do they not simply wish to guide more people towards a more spiritual life? If so,
constructing proofs is not the way to go about it. I have never heard of anybody who went from atheist to devout
believer based on a proof. The closest I’ve ever heard of a circumstance like that is people justifying their faith by
citing Pascal’s wager—but it is far different to use a practical reason like Pascal’s to justify one’s faith than to
actually adopt a faith because one fails to refute a logical argument. “I can’t conceive of a being than which
nothing greater can be conceived! Someone baptize me now!”