Revisiting Saint Anselm

The Ontological proof of the existence of God as propounded by Saint Anselm is one that should be familiar to all serious students of philosophy, of which I endeavor to be one.

It is famous, if not notorious, for being devout and deep while being equivocal and absurd.

Schoolmen and savants, including the famed Emmanuel Kant, accuse it of containing a classical blunder of logic, which is sometimes called the Existential Fallacy, namely, that one cannot define something into existence.

What is often forgotten is that equally famed philosophers, from Descartes to Hegel, including great schoolmen like Alexander of Hales and Dun Scotus, supported it.

I confess I had forgotten, or, rather, never knew of further arguments in St. Anselm’s favor.

Hence, I was taken quite by surprise, when I was reading St. Anselm’s Proslogion to my youngest boy as a bedtime story, to find the argument far more gripping and convincing than when I read it in my callow youth, as a college sophomore.

I am now no longer convinced that we critics of St. Anselm are correct.

The counterargument offered by Gaunillon, a Monk of Marmoutier, in his witty monograph, On Behalf of the Fool, was one I once supported, but now doubt.

St. Anselm’s argument, as usually stated, runs thus: a Supreme Being is understood to be a being than whom none greater can be conceived. Now, if that being of whom no greater is conceivable existed only in the understanding, but not in fact, a being who existed in fact would be greater. It follows, then, that the being of whom no greater is conceivable necessarily has factual existence.

St. Anselm goes on to offer proofs that this Supreme Being is not merely a god, as Zeus or Thor, but the God, the One God, possessing the divine theological predicates of omnipotence and omniscience, compassion, mercy and justice.

St. Anselm’s longest argument wrestles with the puzzle of how a perfect God can be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, since these seem to be mutually exclusive. He writes:

For although it be hard to understand how Thy mercy is not parted from Thy justice; yet is it necessary to believe that it is not at enmity with Thy justice, that it floweth from Thy goodness, that it is not without justice, nay in truth accordeth with Thy justice. For if Thou art merciful only because Thou art supremely good, and art supremely good only because Thou art supremely just: therefore art Thou in truth merciful because Thou art supremely just. 

This sounds like a paradox. But every father understands that sometimes punishing the child improves him more than sparing, and sometimes a show of mercy, as the will and character of the child dictates: the good willed by the father is unchanged.

St. Anselm proposes a reconciliation of the apparent paradox by saying divine mercy and divine justice alike are subordinate to divine goodness.

St. Anselm goes on to propose proofs to show that the Supreme Being moreover is the source and summit in perfect degree of all derived excellencies as life, wisdom, and goodness; that He enjoys that simplicity of indivisibility and primacy which implies omnipresence, incorruptibility, eternity, and timelessness.

Hence the Supreme Being is what all men know to be God.

In all cases, the argument is given that if a being is conceived as lacking any superlative in one of these theological predicates, a greater not lacking that predicate would be conceivable.

Factual existence is merely the first predicate on this list. The argument is the same for all.

The error here is that if we define God as the Supreme Being, a being that necessarily exists, it follows that anyone fitting that definition, if he existed, he would of necessity exist. But if no one exists who fits the definition, then he would not necessarily exist.

The argument, in effect, is reduced to a mere tautology: if God exists, he exists. If not, then not.

Gaunillon of Marmoutier within the same year of the publication of Proslogion published this rebuttal. He phrases it this way:

This being is said to be in my understanding already, only because I understand what is said. Now could it not with equal justice be said that I have in my understanding all manner of unreal objects, having absolutely no existence in themselves, because I understand these things if one speaks of them, whatever they may be?

Gaunillon then pens a reductio ad absurdum using a lost island as just such an example of an unreal object.

For example: it is said that somewhere in the ocean is an island, which, because of the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of discovering what does not exist, is called the lost island. And they say that this island has an inestimable wealth of all manner of riches and delicacies in greater abundance than is told of the Islands of the Blest; and that having no owner or inhabitant, it is more excellent than all other lands, which are inhabited by mankind, in the abundance with which it is stored.

Now if some one should tell me that there is such an island, I should easily understand his words, in which there is no difficulty.

But suppose that he went on to say, as if by a logical inference: “You can no longer doubt that this island which is more excellent than all lands exists somewhere, since you have no doubt that it is in your understanding. And since it is more excellent not to be in the understanding alone, but to exist both in the understanding and in reality, for this reason it must exist. For if it does not exist, any land which really exists will be more excellent than it; and so the island already understood by you to be more excellent will not be more excellent.”

If a man should try to prove to me by such reasoning that this island truly exists, and that its existence should no longer be doubted, I should believe that he was jesting.

Upon reconciliation, I submit Gaunillon’s argument not to be a reductio, but a parody.

Upon rereading St. Anselm I see that he anticipated and preemptively countered this argument, and soundly too. Also, when he later penned an answer to Gaunillon, Liber apologeticus contra Gaunilonem, he repeated this selfsame counterargument: namely, any other being’s existence is derived from God’s, hence is unnecessary in itself, and hence is not amenable to an ontological argument.

Ontology is the discipline of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being, or being as such.

An ontological argument by definition can only ever properly apply to the single greatest being of all beings and the source of all being: a Necessary Being.

In other words, an ontological argument, while erroneous in all other cases, is not erroneous in the case of the being on whom all ontology depends.

When dealing with unicorns or utopias or Lost Islands, an ontological argument is improper. Contrariwise, an ontological argument is the proper instrument to be used to prove the existence of the Ontological Being, if we may so call the being on whom all being as such depends.

Indeed, St. Anselm anticipates and counters this reductio of Gaunillon in his opening definition in Chapter III: “Not only does this something than which no greater can be conceived exist, but it exists in so true a sense that it cannot even be conceived not to exist.”

And, again, “For it is possible to form the conception of an object whose non-existence shall be inconceivable” is distinguished from “any object whose non-existence is conceivable.”

Unlike Vizzini the Sicilian in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, St. Anselm knows full well what the term “inconceivable” means.  It does not mean the words cannot be spoken. We can speak of many unreal objects, from unicorns to utopias to the Lost Island of Gaunillon, but if the words form no coherent conception as a matter of logic, technically speaking, they are inconceivable.

A frumious Bandersnatch is conceivable, even if, before we consult Humpty Dumpty, we may have no conception of that to which these words refer, real or imaginary, nor even if the words refer to anything.

But even without knowing the significance of these words, we do know that a Bandersnatch cannot be both frumious and not frumious in the same sense at the same time. “Both frumious and not” is incoherent hence inconceivable as a matter of form.

A self-contradiction by definition refers to no referent, signifies nothing, and cannot be conceived. One can understand the words taken one by one, but put together, there is nothing to understand.

So it is with St. Anselm. He says “no man that understands what God is can conceive that God does not exist; although he may say these words.”

Upon rereading, Anselm’s argue suffers from an infelicity of expression, despite that he defines his terms quite clearly. This infelicity allows for a mischaracterization of his argument.

Ironically, St. Thomas Aquinas criticized St. Anselm’s argument by two objections: first, not every man will understand the word “God” to signify “that being of which none greater is conceivable.”

Second, even assuming otherwise, namely, that any man will understand the word in that signification , “it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally.”

I call this ironic because the first objection is merely semantic, and can be cured by rewording the argument. Moreover, a close reading of Anselm shows that his “definition” of God as the being whose nonexistence is inconceivable, Anselm employs the body of the argument to show that the traits theology predicates of God of necessity are predicated of this being, meaning they are and must be one and the same.

Granted, the several different conceptions of god which different men define differently may or may not exist. This has nothing to do with Anselm’s argument. Jupiter was born of Saturn was born of Uranus, and so this god may or may not exist. If Jupiter exists, his existence is contingent on what created and sustains him as he is.

But the being who necessarily exists, exists by necessity; the being who exists by definition, by definition exists.

Such a being is uncreated, self-existing, self-sustaining, and not contingent on any other being.

The second objection is one St. Thomas himself contradicts, or, rather, cures elsewhere in his writings. His own far-famed five proofs hold the following:

First, since everything that moves is moved by another, of necessity there exists an Unmoved Mover.

Second, since every effect arises from a cause, the whole sequence of causes and effects of necessity arise from an uncaused First Cause.

Third, since all existent things depend upon prior things for their existence, of necessity there exists one not dependent on any prior, and so is a Necessary Being.

Fourth, since all existent things display gradations or degrees of goodness, of necessity there exists a good which is ideal good, a superlative good, or Absolute Good.

Fifth, since things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, but since whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence, as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer, of necessity there exists a Creator by whom all natural things are directed to their end.

The first four ways are Ontological Arguments. Each rests on the conclusion, following Aristotle, that no actual infinite exists, hence no infinite regression of motions, of causes, of dependencies, or gradations.

Claiming a chain of cause and effect has no first cause, in effect, claims effects arise without cause, which is absurd. The ideas of intermediary causes without a first cause from which they spring is a logical absurdity: as if a tower, by being sufficiently tall, could lack a first floor.

Things said to be infinite, such as numbers added to numbers, exist in potential: one may add a number higher than the last number added by adding another number to it — this does not mean one actually has. Somewhere, as of the time of this writing, there is some real person who has written down the largest number any man ever wrote. No one has taken the infinite time and infinite ink and paper to write down an infinite number of numbers, however.

This fifth way is called the Teleological Argument. A popular version of this, called the Watchmaker Argument, proposes that finding a pocketwatch in the wilderness, by itself, is sufficient proof that a watchmaker made it.

The Teleological argument is often misstated as a claim that the universe is too orderly and beautiful for its designs to have arisen fortuitously or by happenstance, and therefore must have a Designer. The wheels and gears and springs of a pocketwatch are too fine and well made for a  blind natural process to have thrown together so precisely. The counterargument is that humans see designs in things where none exist, and that nature is naturally orderly, and orderly designs emerge spontaneously from within it.

These counterarguments are based on a misstatement of the argument, and, in my opinion, a gross misstatement.

It is not the fact that the pocketwatch is finely made of many parts that act in concert which necessarily implies the existence of a watchmaker. A leaf has many delicate parts which act in concert, as does every organism in nature, but finding a leaf in the wilderness does not necessarily imply the existence of a leafmaker.

But even assuming a leafmaker, without an example of a leaf made by a leafmaker to compare with a leaf arising from blind natural process, and only if experience showed one was clearly more intricate and fine than the other, would there by any clue that a given leaf was or was not artificial. In the case of the all of nature taken as a whole, no observer is in position to compare the whole of created nature with the whole of nature arising from a blind natural process, whatever than may mean.

To the contrary, the argument is that a pocketwatch is a tool or instrument which exists for the sake of an aim, or end, or purpose, namely, the purpose of telling the time. The numerals inscribed on the dial and the regular motion of the hour hand and minute hand cannot be understood unless this purpose is understood. The numerals and hand motions are meaningless, absent this purpose.

One could, of course, count some other regular motion in nature, such as the heartbeat of a frog, to mark the time; but it would be absurd to claim the frog heart existed for the sake of my counting the time with it, rather than for the sake of the circulation of the blood in the frog and the preservation of its life. When I perch a frog on my nightstand to croak me awake in the morning, I am using the frog instrumentally, but the frog has no such purpose in mind. The use is not innate to the frog. But perching a clock on my nightstand is the use innate to the clock.

As said above, an instrument is anything constructed for the sake of serving a given purpose. If one wishes to argue that instruments cannot be distinguished from non-instruments, one must state that no instruments exist, and nothing has a purpose. Such a statement, no matter how carefully constructed, by its own terms would serve no purpose to utter it.

The mesmerism of modern miseducation prompts students mired in its coils not to be able to grasp the self-evident, unless it is phrased in the obscure metaphysical terms of eliminative materialism or rank nihilism. The idea that instruments by definition are instrumental, that is, are ordered toward an end, is one our modern student cannot grasp. He holds that instrumentalism (the property of being an instrument directed toward an end) is never in the instrument, only in the observer. In so doing, the modern student recites words without significance.

The paradox of proposing the existence of uninstrumental instruments was, fortunately, not a mental lapse to which Thomists were prone, nor does St. Anselm fall into it.

The point of the Teleological Argument is not that a pocketwatch is intricately and finely made. The point is that a pocketwatch is an instrument, that is, an object which is ordered toward a purpose or end. This purpose or end was not conceived by the pocketwatch itself, for it is not an intelligent being, and can neither conceive nor imagine, nor plan nor direct its actions toward an end.

Likewise, in nature, a bird’s eye or a wing or the habit of nestbuilding in spring, are directed toward ends, as to see, or to fly, or to provide for the nestlings to come. The bird’s organs and habits are instrumental, that is, directed toward purposes or ends. Such purposes or ends were not conceived by the birds themselves, for none are intelligent beings, and can neither conceive nor imagine. No blind bird, envious of the sharp eyesight of hawks and eagles, designed an eyeball and commanded its skull to bring them forth. No wingless bird, craving to fly, designed a wing and deliberately cajoled its forepaws to assume an aerodynamic shape. No bird invented the art of weaving and nest building.

Darwinians sometimes argue that purposeful behaviors can arise from non-purposeful trial and error, with success being somewhat circularly defined as whatever is successful. This merely offsets the argument by one remove, for it says all successful traits passed through generations of organisms are those whose end is self-preservation or self-reproduction; for it does not answer how the unintelligent molecules in a living body can have the aim or purpose of self-preservation or self-reproduction, whereas those same molecules not in a living body do not. They are reduced to saying these self-evidently purposeful instrumentalities are purposeful by accident, not deliberately: non-purposeful purposes of non-instrumental instruments.

This is not a logical argument, but a mystery of the atheist religion, which cannot be understood by non-votaries. So much for Darwinians.

The five beings discerned by the Five Ways of Aquinas are one and the same: the Unmoved Mover is the First Cause is the Necessary Being is the Absolute Good is the Creator.

For, if not, the Creator neither moves nor causes creation, which is paradoxical, neither are the axioms of reality necessary nor absolute, which is incomprehensible, nor is goodness good, which is absurd.

Using the Thomistic conclusions as a basis, Anselm’s Ontological Argument can be reexamined, and seen with greater clarity; and it is seen that the argument is more difficult to dismiss than first seemed, and perhaps cannot be dismissed at all.

For at first, at least to me, and perhaps even to such literate and studious men as Gaunillon of Marmoutier or Emmanuel Kant, that the Ontological Argument was proposing that God must be real if his non-existence is unimaginable. As Gaunillon correctly points out, any number of unreal things, including an Earthly Paradise perched on a Lost Island, can be imagined without necessarily being real. As Kant points out, existence cannot be predicated of anything by definition, but only if it exists.

But these objections are strawman arguments, for they answer an argument weaker than the one St. Anselm makes. St. Anselm is not defining God as the Supreme Being and arguing that the non-existence of such a being is unimaginable. To the contrary, St. Anselm is defining God as the Supreme Being and arguing that the non-existence of such a being is inconceivable.

Because, despite the claim of Kant, existence can be predicated by definition of a thing whose nonexistence is logically impossible, because such a being would exist by definition. The question becomes whether there is a being whose nonexistence is logically impossible, that is, a Necessary Being.

This may be an open question to a man existing in a cosmos that does not exist, a man whose existence himself is a question he has not yet decided, but anyone else, existing in an existing cosmos, despite Kant, can correctly predicate his own existence as self-evident.

This is because a non-existent man cannot utter any statements at all, so if he utters a statement predicating one thing of another, he exists.

We might say nothing is so merely because someone says so. This is true in general, but there is a clear exception. Anyone who says “I am” proves this is so by saying so. No further proof is needed nor possible: it is self-evident.

It is likewise self-evident that every contingency is contingent on a contingency higher or prior or more fundamental to it, until an axiom is reached: the unmoved mover, the first cause, the necessary being.

If I say “I am” I prove I am (or, at the least, that I was when I said it). But I also prove that whatever gave me existence, or sustains me in existence, or defines my existence, also exists (or did at one time), because I did not give rise to my own existence of myself by myself. My existence is contingent.

The being on whose existence my existence is contingent may also be a contingent being, a father or a demiurge or creative angel, and this being in turn may be contingent on another as an upper story of a tower rests on the lower stories beneath, and depends on them. But if there is a tower, there is a first floor, a base, or foundation upon which the whole rests. It cannot be otherwise. No chain of contingencies can be endless or be circular.

A man can imagine his own non-existence, usually with considerable dread and misgiving. We can even imagine the non-existence of any number of gods if we conceive these gods to be contingent beings, arising perhaps from titans or licked out of primordial ice by cosmic cows.

We cannot conceive of the non-existence of the Necessary Being, however, since the necessary being that being which exists by necessity.

And to conceive of the great chain of contingent beings dependent on no necessary being, or motion without a prime mover, or causation with no first cause, or gradation without superlative, or goodness without a defining Absolute Good from which it takes its form, involves the logical paradox of an infinite regress.

St. Anselm’s argument, if taken as he said it, and later, in his answer to Gaunillon of Marmoutier repeated, is not that an existing greatest being is greater than a non-existing greatest being, therefore the greatest being exists. This argument is easily refuted as Gaunillon refutes it; but it is not the argument Anselm makes.

Rather, the argument Anselm makes is that a being who exists necessarily, that is, once whose existence is contingent on no deeper necessity, necessarily exists. This necessarily existing being cannot be dependent on another, more necessarily existing being, therefore there is no contingency where the necessary being does not exist.

Therefore to conceive of the necessarily extant being as non-existent is a contradiction in terms.

The main body of St. Anselm’s argument goes on to show why this Necessary Being is also the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Absolute, and the Creator, and possesses the theological predicates of omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence, mercy and justice, and all good properties.

If the Necessary Being is defined as that being which exists by definition, then, by definition, the Necessary Being exists. And this all men know to be God.

And if the Necessary Being does not exist, of necessity, neither does any contingency, including this sentence.

But if this sentence does not exist, you are not reading it, dear reader.