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The ontological Argument - Saint Anselm

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Shianne Donovan

Phil 004
Anselm Response Paper (#4)


The Ontological Argument

        Saint Anselm set out “to throw light on an area of ignorance” (308) when he wrote Proslogion; the eleventh century pietist, in his preface, asserted that his work tackles (and proves!) the existence of God “from the viewpoint of one who tries to bring his mind to contemplate God and seeks to understand what he believes” (308). Cosmological arguments focus on the existence of the universe itself and the concept of causation while teleological arguments are based on the universe’s proposed purpose and design. These, though, lead to uncertain conclusions as they are established through inductive reasoning, synthetic statements and a posteriori propositions. They Anselm’s contention is ontological—that is to say, once we understand the meaning of the idea of God, we can be certain that God exists in reality. Ontological arguments are deductive; upon accepting true premises, the conclusion, therefore, must be true as well—a valid proof. These premises are considered a priori insofar as their truth is assessed prior to experience; they are based on the understanding of the definition of things.

        Anselm’s reasoning takes the form of a proof by contradiction. He begins with the definition that we have of God, “something greater than which we can conceive of nothing” (308). God is an unsurpassable, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-moral being. Anselm maintains that a “fool,” or atheist, understands the definition of God yet illogically denies His existence, and contends that “what he [the fool] understands is in his understanding” (309). This proposes that the understanding reduces to the mind, a place separate from reality. As such, it is one thing for something to exist in the mind and another to believe, or understand, that it exists outside the mind. So, if God is the most perfect conceivable being, then there is nothing greater than God that can be imagined. But, if He is thought to exist solely in the understanding, then he is not the most perfect conceivable being because it leaves room for a still more perfect being as those things with imaginary existence are considered less perfect than those which exist. Therefore, Anselm concludes that God exists.

        In the Prologion’s third chapter, Anselm again begins with the supposition that God is understood as “something greater than which we can conceive of nothing.” This proof, however, introduces a premise of contingency and the sheer necessity of God’s existence. If God cannot be conceived not to exist, then His existence is necessary. Following the definition of God, He cannot be understood as having come into existence or ceasing to exist. These would make God contingent upon something beyond the divine, which negates the very meaning of Him and divinity. Therefore, Anselm concludes that God exists.



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