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Anselms Ontological Argument

There are many brilliant and creative arguments for the existence of God. Although none
of these claims truly prove Gods existence, they give the seeker a smaller leap of faith into
believing in His existence. In this paper, we will go through and analyze one of these brilliant
arguments, Anselms Ontological Argument. More specifically, we will reproduce his reasoning,
give Gaunilos objection, and give evidence to why both claims are defective. And by doing this,
we will understand how each argument gets its evidence. Again, learning justifications for Gods
existence, like this one, will not give us a yes or no answer to Gods existence. But dont be
discouraged, for there are benefits more important that we will obtain. Not only do these
arguments give us a smaller leap of faith, but we will also respect others beliefs, improve in our
analytical skills, and progress toward validating and creating more arguments.
We will first reproduce and analyze Anselms Ontological Argument. Anselms use of
the terms a priori and reductio ad absurdum will help us better understand his explanation.
Before we approach this justification, we need to come prepared. It is crucial to understand the
literal definition of God. The definition of God in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is the
perfect and all-powerful being.i And many major monotheistic religions agree with this
definition. This is because they believe it is necessary for a greatest being that is all-powerful, all
loving, impassible, eternal, etc., to create the universe and for us to understand it.ii
Now that we know the classical definition of God, we can now understand Anselms use
of a priori in his ontological argument. A priori knowledge means knowledge prior to experience
and is used by rationalists to claim that there is knowledge independent of perception. Examples
of this kind of knowledge is 1 + 1 = 2, a triangles angles add up to 180o, and all bachelors are
unmarried men.iii To Anselm, another example of a priori knowledge would be the definition of

God. Anselm claims that this is a priori knowledge because it is necessary for God and His
characteristics to exist for the universe to exist.iv This is just like how it is necessary for a
triangles angles to equal 180o for the triangle to actually exist. And because we can
conceptualize a triangle with three sides and angles that equal 180o, we thus can conceptualize a
God, the greatest being, that is all-powerful, all loving, impassible, eternal, etc. This is the first
premise of Anselms argument.
So to put simply, the first premise of the Anselms Ontological Argument is that we can
conceptualize the idea of the greatest possible being due to a priori knowledge. But how does
Anselm go from God being conceptualized in the mind to actually existing? To do this, he uses
reductio ad absurdum. This is Latin for reduction to absurdity and is a mode of argumentation
where you assume what you want to prove false as true, and once you prove what you assumed
true as false, then the opposite must be true.iv This leads us to the second, third, and fourth
premise of his argument.
Using reductio ad absurdum, Anselm first assumes what he wants to prove false as true.
He assumes the greatest possible being only exists in the mind (Second premise). He then proves
what he assumed true as false. For something to be greatest, it must exist in reality and not only
in the mind (Third premise). And as a result, he proves the opposite of what he assumed to be
true by reduction to absurdity. The greatest possible being, God, must exist in reality because He
is the greatest (Fourth premise).v Anselms use of a priori and reductio ad absurdum gives a
beautiful explanation that anyone can appreciate, believer or not.
Although one can be amazed and appreciate Anselms reasoning, it does not mean that it
is infallible. Of many objections to his ontological argument, Gaunilo gives a simple, but valid
one. Gaunilo states that just because one can conceive of a perfect being does not mean it exists.

Gaunilo supports this claim by using the greatest possible island objection.vi In this objection,
just simply replace greatest possible being in Anselms premises with greatest possible island.
Like Anselms greatest possible being, one can conceive of the greatest possible island. But does
this island exist? It is hard to believe this kind of island exists because what characteristics does
this island have? Even if one comes up with characteristics of this island, couldnt something be
added to it indefinitely to make it better? And how can it be possible that two different people
think up of the same perfect island? These questions can be applied to Anselms perfect being.
So by using Gaunilos reasoning, we cannot conclude of a greatest conceivable being when we
dont even know of a perfect being that satisfies everyones standards. And just like how it is
absurd to think that this obscure perfect island exists also in reality, Gaunilo argues it is also
absurd to think that this perfect being also exists in reality.
Now that we have discussed these two opposing claims, lets analyze them. In Anselms
Ontological Argument, he states that in order for the greatest possible being to be greatest, this
being must also exist in reality. But this seems like a big leap of faith. Here is some reasoning.
We discussed the definition of God as certain characteristics. But none of the characteristics
involve existence as part of the definition of God. Where in Anselms justification does he
explain existence being correlated with being the greatest or perfect? This is an assumption he
forgets to address. This reasoning is somewhat similar to Kants existence is not a predicate
objection.vii Kant argues that existence cannot be used as a characteristic to describe anything,
and therefore cannot be used to describe God. To simply explain, the state of existence is not
necessary to understand something. For example, I can conceive of a hundred-dollar bill and its
characteristics. I do not need to know that it exists in order for me to conceive it. Even if all
hundred-dollar bills were burnt out of existence right now, I can still conceive of it and

understand it. Kants reason can be translated to God. Just because one can conceive of God and
its characteristics, I do not need to know that it exists in order for me to conceive it. Therefore
saying that a perfect being also exists outside of the mind is irrelevant.
Now lets discuss Gaunilos objection. Gaunilo bases his objection on that the perfect
island is just as obscure as the perfect being, and therefore it is absurd to think it exists under
Anselms reasoning. But there is a flaw in Gaunilos reasoning. There is a very distinct
difference between the perfect island and the perfect being. Gaunilo completely disregards
Anselms reasoning that the idea of God is a priori. Gaunilo should not be able to replace perfect
being with perfect island in Anselms argument when a perfect island is a posteriori knowledge.
This term can be translated to mean knowledge after experience, or can be understood as
opposite of a priori.iii To explain, we do not need to know anything about triangles for the fact
that there angles equal 180o to be true, and similarly, Anselm insists that we do not need to know
anything about God for the fact that He is perfect. But for a perfect island, it requires
accumulated perceptions and experiences to judge what a perfect island is.
And furthermore, when looking at the definition of God, is it clearly understandable from
the definition that God is the greatest being that is all-powerful, all loving, impassible, eternal,
etc. In other words, Gods characteristics are within the definition. But when looking at the
definition of an island in the dictionary, it is described as a tract of land surrounded by water and
smaller than a continent.viii Anselm uses the definition of God to describe a perfect being. So we
should use the definition of island to describe a perfect island. So arguably, a perfect island is
simply a tract of land surrounded by water and smaller than a continent, nothing more.
So which argument is more persuasive, Anselms or Gaunilos? Due to the objections
above and many other valid objections, the answer is neither. We can quarrel indefinitely about

how Anselms argument for Gods existence is flawed. But this does not mean God does not
exist. Just like how we cannot fully prove the existence of God through words, we also cannot
fully disprove the existence of God through words. So what is the use of these explanations other
than to just lessen the risk of our assumptions? Although it is widely accepted that we cannot
effectively prove or disprove God, these thought exercises lead to beneficial skills and merit.
One example of these benefits is when we reason and analyze through these arguments
we develop understanding. The more we learn about these topics, the better we understand why
others believe what they believe. We are all aware of the senseless arguing and the violence it
leads among groups. If more people understood why one group believes a certain thing and
respects that, there would be less disorder. That is what we are doing now with analyzing
arguments. We are seeing the reasoning of both sides and discover that our beliefs are rooted on
our personal values that we should respect, and not rooted on absolute facts.
Not only do we gain understanding, but we also gain argumentative skills. As we
question and analyze claims we are making progress toward a better understanding of
metaphysical and epistemological mysteries. And these skills arent only useful in debates such
as proving to your spouse that youre the right one, but it is valuable for personal evaluation. In
other words, learning argumentative skills not only helps you to argue with others, but more
importantly, with yourself. When one goes out of their comfort zone and starts to test their
beliefs, that is when personal development starts to bloom. Otherwise one could on to believe
that ignorance is bliss.
So because each argument will be susceptible to flaws, instead of asking the question,
Which is more persuasive? I instead ask the question, Which explanation has the more
beautiful reasoning? My answer to that is Anselm, for his clever use of a priori and reductio ad

absurdum, and not Gaunilo for his mistake of relating a perfect island with a perfect being. And
now I have a better understanding of why one might believe or not believe in God, and have
improved in my analytical skills.

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Merriam-Webster dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/god


SLCC. PHIL
PHIL 2350:
2350: Handout
Handout 11
SLCC.
iii
SLCC. PHIL 1000: Chapter 9 Handout
iv
SLCC. PHIL 2350: Handout 2
v
Peterson, Michael, Hasker, William, Reichenbach, Bruce and Basinger, David, Eds. Reason and Religious Belief:
An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Fifth Edition. Pages 8184.
vi
Peterson, Michael, Hasker, William, Reichenbach, Bruce and Basinger, David, Eds. Philosophy of Religion. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Fifth Edition. Pages 135-137.
vii
Anselm, "Ontological Argument" Philosophy of Religion: http://philosophy.lander.edu/intro/anselm.shtml
viii!Merriam-Webster dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/island!
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