Friday, January 20, 2012

Anselm's Rational Argument for the Existence of God

I'm reading a book called Belief, which is an anthology of arguments for the reasonableness of faith. It was compiled by Francis Collins, who wrote The Language of God. While I'm not a huge apologetics guy, I do enjoy reading this type of stuff from time to time. Some of it is very mentally stretching for me, making me wish I had taken a philosophy course in college.

I had this moment yesterday when reading a short entry from Anselm of Canterbury. I don't recall reading anything from Anselm before, and while this was just a couple pages long, I could tell I would have an extremely difficult time keeping up with him over the course of an entire book. Do you enjoy apologetics? Do you like to read the classics? What's it like for you to read a book that was written in a time very different from our own?

I'd like to lay out, as best I can, Anselm's rational argument for the existence of God.
"God is something than which nothing greater can be thought." In other words, whatever the greatest thing we can think and imagine in our minds, that is God.

The Bible says, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" But when this person hears the description, "something than which nothing greater can be thought", he gets a picture of that something in his mind, even though he believes that that something does not exist.

However, "something than which nothing greater can be thought" cannot merely exist in the mind, because then everything that does exist would be greater than it. If "something than which nothing greater can be thought" exists solely in the mind, then it is "something than which many greater things can be thought", which is, of course, absurd.

Therefore, it is definite that "something than which nothing greater can be thought" must exist both in the mind and in reality.
As I understand him, Anselm is basically saying that the greatest thing you can think of must exist both in your mind and in reality, because anything that exists in reality is greater than anything that exists only in the mind. So if God is the greatest thing we can think of, he must exist in reality, otherwise he would not be the greatest thing we can think of.

Anselm wrote this about 900 years ago. What do you think? Is it a convincing argument? Does it have a fatal flaw?


Anonymous said...

It's fatal flaw is that it is rubbish.

Assume for a moment that God doesn't exist. Then I imagine god. Then whatever the greatest non-god thing that exists might be, is still greater because it exists (whereas for the sake of argument we've said god does not).

It's this sort of baloney that makes us look like morons in the eyes of the educated atheists out there.

And (I can't resist) I have in my hand a book from another time, roughly 2000 years ago, and I love it.

andy said...

Anonymous...really? To call Anselm's argument rubbish and baloney is quite arrogant of you, especially considering you seem to have missed the point altogether.

His premise is not: God exists. That is his conclusion. His premise is: God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. In other words, the greatest thing a human can think of--that is God.

If you want to call his argument rubbish or baloney, you must prove one of the following:
1) God is not the greatest thing that can be thought;
2) There is no such thing as the greatest thing that can be thought;
3) Things that exist solely in the mind are not necessarily inferior to things that exist in both the mind and in physical reality.

You have failed to prove any of these things, and I must guess that you have failed to understand his argument at all because you are assuming the opposite of what he has proven.

In fact, Anselm addresses your very assumption.

"And certainly this being so truly exists that it cannot be even thought not to exist. For something can be thought to exist that cannot be thought not to exist, and this is greater than that which can be thought not to exist. Hence, if that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought can be thought not to exist, then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is not the same as that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought, which is absurd. Something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists so truly then, that it cannot be even thought not to exist."

Preston said...

Andy -

I don't know that I'd echo the anonymous poster's words, but I admit that based on my understanding of Anselm's words I can't see a good way to use them from an apologetic standpoint.

Obviously I agree that God is the greatest thing that can be thought. But Anselm seems to be coming at the issue from a believer's perspective, and while I can see his argument strengthening the belief of one who already believes I'm not sure if it would help an unbeliever to see the logic of faith.

As you understand it, was the defense of the faith to unbelievers actually Anselm's goal? Or was he justifying the faith to those who already believed? He certainly couldn't have foreseen the sorts of attacks our faith is under in modern times.

Does "Belief" (the book) have commentary (e.g. clarification of difficult concepts for modern readers) on the passages it includes?


andy said...

I'm not sure how often Anslem interacted with the type of atheists we might encounter today. He lived prior to the Enlightenment, so he may have just been preaching to the choir. However, no less an educated atheist than Bertrand Russell was deeply shaken by this argument, though he eventually overcame it. I'm not sure how. Anyhow, that alone tells me this argument is neither rubbish nor baloney.

I'm not saying the argument is bulletproof--no argument is, on either side. I just find it interesting, and it is an old argument that I hadn't yet come across.

The book does not offer commentary, though I would like to see the atheist's rebuttal to this and the other standard arguments for the existence of God somewhere.

Jacob said...

It is brilliant thinking from a mind so far surpassing mine that the name Anselm gives me a headache, but Preston's instincts are right in that it is unlikely to persuade the reasoned atheist. Anselm presupposes the existence of God and argues from "faith seeking understanding." Seen in the sense of a believer in God looking for rational justification for his belief, it's a highly effective argument.

Philosophers have picked through this over the years and pointed out some flaws in his argument. Here are two good examples:

Alvin Plantinga submitted his own version of the ontological argument which he believes is sound, but also seems to say that it doesn't function as a proof but as a justification for belief.

From an apologetic standpoint (and for faith seeking understanding, for that matter) I find the Transcendental Argument for God's Existence to be the most powerful and compelling. Here are a couple debates between atheists and Christians based around this argument:

Though again, the value these arguments have in actually persuading a reasoned atheist is questionable.

Jennifer said...

I have always been interested in apologetic arguments. There is probably some sort of cathartic link to my past here, having grown up in an environment that celebrated everything and nothing all at once (drum circle anyone?). That being said, I have not read Anselm so I am a bit ignorant to all that the text has to offer.

First of all, I think Anselm makes the case that something that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is God. Furthermore,assuming that it is God, what happens if the that-than-which-a-greater-can not-be-thought thought is different for you than it is for me? Does that lend itself to polytheism? And are we merely "making up" God? And also, what are the implications for believing that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is NOT of God?