29 October 2013

Why Anselm's Ontological Argument is a Big Fat Fail

St Anselm of Canterbury
This is a quickie. There is an argument for the existence of God, formulated by the medieval scholar St Anselm, known as the Ontological Argument (OA). It's pretty well known to apologists and counter-apologists alike, and is widely regarded as being invalid. However, it does pop up from time to time in those head-desking discussions that people occasionally have with those trying to build a case for their particular version of a god being the architect of the universe, and their particular restrictive theology being the formula that the rest of us must live by or risk hell-fire.

Briefly, the argument goes something like this:

  1. God is defined as "that, none greater than which can be conceived"
  2. An entity that exists in reality is necessarily greater than one which exists in the mind
  3. Therefore, God must exist in reality.
It should be clear that this argument is ridiculous, yet it pops up from time to time, and is deployed by apologists with scant regard to its inherent fatal flaws. In premise 1, we're *defining* God. That seems, if nothing else, a little rude. But we'll run with it for now. It's premise 2 that is a great festering fail-monkey. If we "conceive" of something in our mind, it doesn't *exist* in the mind - we merely put a mental signifier on it. If I "conceive" of an Apple Macbook, it is ludicrous to think that I have the position of every atom, the state of every electron, referencable within my brain. If I conceive of America, the America that exists in reality is "greater" than the images in my brain, but then so is pretty much anything.

So if we fully understand Anselm's argument, even the fully-specified physical state of a bacterium that exists in reality is greater than *anything* that we can fully conceive in our minds, yet I don't think any apologists would claim a bacterium is God. Or which one.

Anyway, have fun. Apologists are always coming out with silly arguments like this. My favourite is the Kalam Cosmological Argument from the uber-apologist William Lane Craig. I'll get tore into that at some point too - if only because it's utterly flawed in some very interesting and enlightening ways (which means that Craig may have done Atheism some very big favours).


  1. With you that Anselm's is no proof of anything, but then I thought that was so widely recognised as to not require stating. Not persuaded by your logic tho. I don't think Anselm was suggesting that something which exists in the mind exists as anything more than a conception. Hence you seem to be making his point for him (that something which exists in reality is greater than something which is merely a conception).

    I would consider (after Kant) that his argument is flawed because it's circular, and rests on an assumption that God exists (having the characteristic you have summarised in #1).

    Interestingly, a "strong" atheist position seems to have the same flaw - assuming that all that "is" is material (and 'merely' material), and amenable to assessment by materialist means.

    A "strong atheist" anti-ontological argument thus goes:

    1. All that is real is material, and potentially amenable to detection and measurement.
    2. No gods can be detected using scientific method nor can be proven to exist by logic
    3. Therefore, no gods exist in reality.

    Such an argument is flawed from the get-go on exactly the same basis as Anselm's.

  2. Hi John, Yes - that argument you specify is a fail, if posed as a disproof. Actually I think this gets to the nub of the failure of philosophy alone to be able to say anything interesting about the world, unless it adopts the methods of science (in which case, we call it "science"). But my formulation of Anselm is indeed the classical formulation of the fallacy. Admittedly no modern philosophers regard it as anything other than a fun mistake, but I have had it cited to me as evidence (evidence!!) of the existence of god by a particular pastor who shall remain nameless, indicating his deep ignorance of epistemology, never mind poor reasoning capacity.

  3. Interesting that we agree so much on this (but who's John? ;-)). Still, even science starts out with philosophy, in the forming of hypothesis, and then aspires to test its validity/falsifiability - assuming, of course, that it has capacity to do so…