Anselm’s ontological argument, which appears in his Proslogion, is frequently misunderstood. For reference, the argument basically breaks down like this:
- God is a being than which none greater can be imagined.
- A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, all other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
- Therefore, if God exists only in the mind, we can imagine something that is greater than God (i.e., a God who exists in reality).
- And, therefore, God physically exists in reality, not just as a concept in the mind.
This thing gets trotted out on a fairly frequent basis by Christians who smugly think they’ve made atheists look foolish by proving that God exists. And you’ll just as frequently see atheists respond to this by claiming that Anselm’s argument makes no sense because he’s presupposing the existence of God. He’s just begging the question!
In reality, everybody involved in that discussion is radically misinterpreting Anselm’s intent.
Anselm’s argument presupposes the existence of God because he was dealing with a very specific ontological question of whether or not God was possessed of a physical reality or if he existed only in the human mind.
He argues that God must exist physically and not just in the mind, because God must be greater than any alternative we can imagine (by definition). And if he existed just in our minds then we could imagine him doing that AND physically existing, and therefore he can’t exist only in our minds.
But the entire argument is based on the supposition that God (as defined as “thing which is greater than anything else we can imagine”) actually exists. As such, it can’t tell us anything about the actual existence or non-existence of God. Only that, if God is a thing which is greater than anything else we can imagine, then we can be absolutely certain he doesn’t just exist in our minds.
Similarly, one could say, “Let us accept that a Star Destroyer is the coolest ship that we could possibly imagine. Do Star Destroyers physically exist or are they only imaginary creations of our brains? Well, a Star Destroyer that actually existed would be much cooler than one which is only imaginary. And since we can imagine a Star Destroyer that actually exists, it therefore follows that Star Destroyers do physically exist, by definition, since Star Destroyers are the coolest ship that you can possibly imagine.”
If you already accept that God / Star Destroyers actually exist and you’re simply trying to put some boundaries on what that existence means, this argument is useful. But the minute you try to use this argument to “prove” that God and/or Star Destroyers actually exist, you’re left with a meaningless tautology.
Anselm’s Star Destroyer