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The Ontological Argument

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Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post. Today I’ll be offering a snapshot of the life and thought of Saint Anselm, who was an important philosophical theologian of the Medieval period, and produced an interesting argument for the existence of God.

Who Was He?

Saint Anselm was a monk, abbot, philosopher, and theologian of the Catholic Church, who lived between 1033-1109 AD. He held the office of archbishop of Canterbury (the post held by leaders of the Church of England) between 1093-1109, and is remembered for his rational and philosophical approach to the Christian faith.

What’s the Big Idea?

Anselm is most famous for espousing what is commonly known as the ontological argument for the existence of God. The world ‘ontology’ basically means ‘being’, and so God’s being is the focus of the argument.

Imagine, says Anselm, the greatest, most perfect being of which you can conceive. If the being you think of has every possible desirable attribute of greatness, but not existence, it is not the greatest most perfect being possible, because a being that had all the same attributes plus existence would necessarily be greater. Therefore, argues Anselm, the greatest, most perfect possible being (which is God) must exist.

My Reflections

I’ve never found the ontological argument to be very convincing. It feels to me to be more like a philosophical trick than a convincing argument. Is it really the case that the greatest possible being of which we can conceive must exist? I’m not convinced of the veracity of this argument.

It seems to me that there are much more compelling arguments for the existence of God. For instance, the fact that miracles happen, and the fact that God speaks to people and reveals Himself in dreams and visions. Of course, if you haven’t experienced the reality of God then philosophical arguments will seem like an enticing way of trying to understand whether or not God exists.

I do believe there is some merit to philosophical arguments for the existence of God, but I feel there are much stronger arguments than Anselm’s ontological argument. For instance, the so-called ‘teleological argument’, which says that God is revealed in the fact that the universe displays design and purpose, is far more convincing to me.


Progressing through the Medieval period, in next week’s philosophy post we’ll be taking a look at the theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, and exploring why he is still considered to be one of the key figures in the history of the Catholic Church. Thank you for reading!

26 comments

  1. Hello Steven! Really interested in this post since my dear niece attends St Anselm College in New Hampshire. Thanks for informative post – good for me that Google dictionary is so handy! ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If God is an ultimate and perfect being, then to exist as a mere idea falls short of this perfection. Close your eyes and imagine the perfect chair: consider comfort, style, functionality. Now with it firmly in mind, sit in it. If you fall to the floor it is less than perfect. Similarly a perfect god must by definition of His perfection exist.

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  3. Given that I majored in a liberal arts subject, I’m no stranger to the obscure, but I’m honestly confused by this lol. I’m interpreting the argument as “if I can imagine a perfect God, that God must exist.” That makes no sense to me. Am I understanding it correctly?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I read it a few times, but I am still not on board. Right now, I can imagine what I would consider a perfect piece of cake, but the cake in my mind doesn’t necessarily exist as I imagine it? I guess I am not thinking deep enough yet.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think it’s a tricky argument, and even when I feel I understand it, it’s not all that convincing (to me, anyway). The argument seems to equate perfection with existence, which I’m not persuaded is the case πŸ™‚

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  4. Steven,
    I studied the ontological argument in my Philosophy class this past spring, but had no idea it was first produced by St. Anselm! I was taught that RenΓ© Descartes furthered it’s popularity – this was good to know. I agree that the teleological argument and even the cosmological argument are much more convincing. Thanks for a great read!
    In His Joy,
    Emily 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “It seems to me that there are much more compelling arguments for the existence of God. For instance, the fact that miracles happen, and the fact that God speaks to people and reveals Himself in dreams and visions. ”

    Are subjective perceptions of miracles and an inner voice reliable means of determining a universal truth?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Our personal experiences are certainly valuable to determine our subjective preferences and perspectives (which cereal we prefer, who we choose as our mate), but can they be used to determine universal truths? Let me give an example:

        A poor, uneducated farmer in a third world country has seen the sun rise in the east and set in the west all his life. In his experience, the sun revolves around the earth. In this instance, are the farmer’s experiences reliable? Are his experiences and perceptions of those experiences reliable evidence for determining a universal truth (something that is true for all people, in all places, at all times)?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Gary,

          I certainly see your point, but I’m inclined towards the view that everything I’ve ever known has been through my own subjective experience. Even deductive reasoning is experienced subjectively. I don’t believe in a kind of Platonic realm of absolute truths. I think the only thing which I can say resembles absolute truth is my present moment experience; whatever is manifesting in my awareness.

          You may not agree, and I respect the fact that philosophers differ greatly on this one πŸ™‚

          Good to meet you and thanks for following!

          Steven

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  6. Hi Steven. I always appreciate your philosophical posts. πŸ™‚ I agree that Anselm’s arguments aren’t the best arguments for the existence of God. I personally don’t use them. The Thomistic ontological arguments for the existence of God, for instance, are much more cogent and meaningful. They deal with the here and now, which is the most empirical reality we have. For instance, the Big Bang and other arguments are a bit abstract, yet I must have an explanation for why I continue to exist right now. There must be an infinite and transcendent Ground of Being at the source, otherwise existence is impossible. This Source is what philosophers call “God.” But, as you alluded, no matter how sound the philosophical argument, it only gets us as far as a God of philosophy. This is where I think personal encounters and the transformation of the human soul becomes more beneficial and meaningful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mel! Interesting that you mention the Thomistic arguments, as Aquinas is the subject of today’s philosophy post, which I’m working on right now!

      I agree with you that we should focus on what our present-moment experience tells us about reality, and that there must be a ground of being, which is God. There must be a self-existent something (in my view, a self-existent everything, because I don’t believe God has boundaries to His being).

      Personal encounters are very important, although where you and I might differ is that I believe everyone’s experiences are directed by God, and those who hold beliefs outside of the Christian faith are also being used by God as part of His plans for creation. So if someone is a Muslim is this moment, it’s because that’s where God wants them to be.

      Thanks for reading and commenting Mel, I love how deeply you think about these things!

      Liked by 1 person

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