Saturday, May 29, 2010
Anselm's Ontological Argument
St Anselm (1033-1109) was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by William Rufus, successor to William the Conqueror. At that time, there was something of a debate going on in scholarly circles about whether or not theology could be speculative—that is, was there room in theology for philosophizing about God, or was it beyond the realm of analysis? Could the faith be shown to be reasonable? Anselm is clearly in the camp that saw a role for philosophy as a tool for understanding the faith—hence his motto, fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding.
Two of his most important works are the Monologion (1075; the title means ‘soliloquy’) and the Proslogion (1077; the title means, ‘address’), both of which include arguments for the existence of God and both works represent an attempt to unite faith and reason.
In Chapter 65 of the Monologion, Anselm’s asks: if God is transcendent, how can we use reason to understand him? And, on the other hand, if we can rely on reason to understand God, how can we say that he is transcendent? When we speak of God, we seem to be caught in a paradox (it is precisely this paradox that in the 20th century A.J. Ayer seizes upon in his critique of religious belief). Anselm’s answer is that we can speak of God through a kind of analogy; when I speak of God’s wisdom, he is not wise in the creaturely sense of the word, but the analogy allows me to get a glimpse of the truth about God.
Anselm draws a distinction between knowing God’s essence and existence. In God, there is no distinction between essence and existence: God’s existence is his essence. For humans however, we cannot directly infer God’s essence—but we can know of his existence.
In the Proslogion, Anselm writes that God’s existence is necessary. In other words, God’s existence can be deduced from an understanding of what God is: a necessary being. God is necessary by definition, and it is therefore a short step from understanding what God is, to that he exists.
Of course, one may immediately object that Anselm has made a huge leap here in asserting that God is necessary and therefore must exist. But Anselm’s argument is a bit more subtle. For if a critic were to insist that God might not be necessary, Anselm could reply then that the critic does not have a concept of God in mind—for the concept of God is that he is a necessary being.
For this reason, Gaunilo’s counter-argument does not really pose a problem to Anselm’s initial argument that God is a necessary being. Gaunilo’s argument—that by the same logic a perfect island must exist—does not hold water, since an island is, by nature, contingent. God is not contingent: God is necessary.