Saturday, May 24, 2008

Saint Anselm's "Ontological Argument"

Saint Anselm of Canterbury. "The Ontological Argument", 1077. In Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 4th ed., edited by John Perry et al., 78-79. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

This relates to yet another philosophical project I am tackling this summer. The goal is to read a broad range of introductory readings to provide a more solid base and better speak the language of philosophy. As always, I encourage your thoughts and wisdom.

Anselm’s argument for the existence of God breaks down as such:
1. A being may be imagined which none greater can be conceived.
2. Existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind alone.
3. If we imagine a being that exists only in our mind then it is not a being which none greater can be conceived.
4. A being which none greater can be conceived must also exist in reality.
5. Therefore, God must exist because He is a being which none greater can be conceived.

This argument seems valid but Anselm makes a couple of assumptions that makes me question its soundness. First, there is no proof that existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind alone (premise 2). Einstein’s theory tells us that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. It takes light from the sun approximately 9 minutes to reach Earth yet our imagination can take us to the sun instantaneously thereby making our mind more powerful than the limits on matter. In addition, all religious belief entails a belief in some form of dualism because of the immaterial nature of the soul. If we maintain our mind within our soul after we die then the mind is greater than the reality of physical substance. This is problematic for Anselm because premise 2 is key to his argument.

Secondly, Anselm also assumes that there is some sort of inherent value difference between beings that allows us to objectively use the term “greater”. Am I greater than my cat? He lives a plush life, does not have to work, or worry about matters I address in my blog. Maybe our more highly developed cerebral cortex is a curse rather than a blessing. Anselm’s argument does not get off the ground unless someone can show that greatness actually exists.

The last problem with Anselm’s argument has to do with the problem of omnipotence. If God can do anything then He can make a being greater than Himself. It is then conceivable that there is a being greater than God, which allows God not to exist in reality but only in the mind according to Anselm’s argument. This is the weakest and most paradoxical problem of Anselm's argument that again relates to the problem of “greatness”.

I will leave this with a similar paradox and nod to The Simpsons. “Could God microwave a burrito so hot that He could not eat it? Homer can be so deep.

Best Wishes,

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