what i learnt in ph2211.

Define God.

God is a being greater than which no being can be conceived.

Agree? This is Anselm’s conception of God. He’s this 11th century Christian theologian.

This series of argument for the existence of God is going to blow your mind. I’ve been fighting the excitement since about 5pm last evening.

Let God be the abbreviation for the statement “a being greater than which no being can be conceived”.

1. God exists in the understanding.

You have to agree with this statement because you can’t think about God without having the concept of God in your mind, even just to say “God does not exist”.

2. God might have existed in reality.

This takes a bit of explanation. What it means is that God is a possible being. A possible thing is something that is not a contradiction. To give a reverse example, an object cannot be completely round and completely square at the same time, that object is not a possible thing.

(Note to self: this point might be attackable if God can be proved a contradiction?)

For the moment, this point seems fair so, agreed.

3. If something exists only in the understanding and might have existed in reality, then it might have been greater than it is.

To understand this, you need to see that existence is a great-making property. Something that we conceive to be great is only as great as it is in our imagination. If it exists in reality, then it would be greater than it is in our imagination. Note the concept of greatness is an abstract, not literal.

This is a very important point and it is what makes this argument brilliant. You have to agree with this. If something is great only in our imagination, it isn’t all that great because in fact, it doesn’t even exist.

This is the turning point. We’ve granted statements 1, 2 and 3 right?

4. Suppose God exists only in the understanding.

This is the Atheist’s stand, which Anselm calls the fool’s belief.

5. God might have been greater than he is.

God might have been greater than he is IF he also existed in reality (statement 3). But in 4, we have supposed he only exists in understanding.

6. God is a being than which a greater is possible.

Because we have supposed in 4 that he only exists in understanding. We have supposed that he doesn’t exist in reality and that makes him less great than he would be if he did. This is in contradiction with the definition of God, which is a being greater than which no being can be conceived i.e. it is impossible for any conceivable being to be greater than he.

7. The being than which none greater is possible (“God” in our agreed definition) is a being than which a greater is possible (statement 6).

This is obviously a false conclusion because it doesn’t equate mathematically. But it is the conclusion we have been led to with the Atheist’s supposition in 4.

8. It is false that God exists only in the understanding.

We are forced to agree with this because we have seen in 7 that the conclusion therein is false.

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

Brilliant, eh? The way I see it, we would have to disagree with the definition of God and come up with another or prove that God in itself is a contradiction. The actual argument is found in chapter 2 of Anselm’s Proslogium. Statements 1 to 9 were rephrased by William L. Rowe in his book Philosophy of Religion. That was the Ontological Argument.

Personally, I think we could come up with another definition of God to counter that but the argument itself is flawless. If you’re not sold, try replacing God in the argument with something that we know does not exist in reality e.g. Santa Claus (as put forth by the lecturer). You’ll see that the argument only works for God or the being we’ve described as that which is greater than any being conceivable.


5 responses to “what i learnt in ph2211.

  1. Anslem’s Ontological Argument is certain valid (in that the conclusion follows from the premises) but it is also a very easy argument to deflate.

    For instance: What is greater that one? The easy answer is more than one. What is conceivably greater than one God then? Two Gods. This contradicts premise one so it cannot be true.

    It also isn’t limited just to God. God, in this argument, is the greatest being that can be conceived. But, if you follow the logic through with other things, then you run into problems. For instance, I can conceive of city, let’s call it it city-X that contains everything a person would ever need in their life to fulfill their wants and desires. City-X is the greatest city that I can concieve of. Insert that into Anslem’s argument and then you have to concede that city-X must exist.

    Lastly, it simply does not follow that conception = existance. Anslem tries to force the conclusion thus:

    1. God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.

    2. It is greater to exist in reality and in the understanding than just in nderstanding.

    3. Therefore, God exists in reality.

    It’s a forced conclusion go from conception to existance.

    Like I said, it’s a valid argument, but it’s got too many holes!

  2. The problem with your conception of 2 Gods being greater than one is the definition of God aforementioned. God = a being than which a greater cannot be conceived. And somehow the idea of 2 beings being equally great is problematic.

    Your second point is similar to Gaunilo’s criticism. He uses the idea of a great island to show that the argument is flawed because a great island could not exist. I personally find this criticism weak, for the same argument i might use for Anselm’s God. The definition of a great city is in itself a bit of an impossibility because for one, it is very subjective, there isnt a true measure. For example, I might conceive of greatness in a city as one with an exciting nightlife (then again, how do you measure nightlife), someone else might feel otherwise, eg. that the city should be quiet at night but bustling in the day?

    I do agree that upon further reflection, Anselm’s argument is leading. Rowe, in fact, gave his thoughts as a final criticism at the end of the chapter, which i find the strongest. We might have granted more than we intended by granting his first 3 statements. Therefore, my counter to Anselm would take place somewhere in his 2nd statement or his definition of God but i’m still thinking!

    Thanks for your comment, Doulos! (: (:

  3. Any time. I’m 2 short semester away from my B.A. in Philosophy, so any time I get to actually use it is a good time in my book!

  4. Anselm’s ontological’s arguments are valid in that the premises assume the conclusion however false premise implies true/false consequences are logically true.

    As with all statements made in premises, the categories are considered stable including the language that is used and the phrasing of the questions.

    In destablizing a concept, statements cannot be used through reasoning. Concepts such as ‘being’ and imagination are taken too lightly. There is no reason to believe that being would be greater than imagination.

    I think that as a system of ideas, Anselm was internally coherent and rational. However rationality can be achieved from flawed methodology, premises and assumptions.

    If I assume that people are racially different, then people are biologically separate from species to species, then some species are obviously more capable than others in surviving, then those who are higher on the food chain can abuse those below because they arent fully human anyway.

    Social Darwinism is a rationally coherent system, if we accept its premises.

  5. i agree with you, joshua. i didnt get round to writing a followup but anselm’s argument can quite easily be debunked. hmm maybe ill write that now haha

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