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Issue 05 – Saint Anselm 2021

The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

On the ontological argument.


I have always liked Saint Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. I don’t remember when or where I first learned of it, and I can’t remember a time when I did not know all the usual objections to it as well—it has the quality of being both beautifully simple and incomprehensible at the same time. The argument runs like this: God is understood as that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Furthermore, that which exists is greater than that which does not exist. If you can conceive of God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived, but He does not exist, then you are not conceiving of Him properly: something greater still could be conceived which does exist. But it would be absurd for God to be both that-than-which-nothing-greater can be conceived and that-than-which-something-greater-can-be-conceived, so God must exist in order to be God. Therefore God exists.

I am not a trained philosopher, and even if I have represented Anselm’s intricate argument correctly here, smarter people than I have objected to it; indeed, as I experienced myself, it is almost impossible to learn of the argument without learning the standard objections to it. There is the Perfect Island objection, the Kantian objection, and of course Saint Thomas Aquinas’s objection: he agreed that if we could truly know God’s essence, we would know that He must exist; but we cannot know God’s essence in this life, and must demonstrate His existence through knowledge of things that we can know. Some of these objections are strong, to be sure, and I am convinced by Saint Thomas’s objection in particular. But still I like the argument.

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