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The Ontological Argument and the Sin of Hubris

Toni Vogel Carey’s answer to the most argued-over argument for the existence of God.

Commuter conversation normally amounts to nothing much, or nothing at all. So what was my surprise when a sixth-grade teacher seated next to me, seeing me red-penciling a paper, asked what it was, and hearing the word ‘philosophy,’ told me eagerly that his favorite philosophical topic is St Anselm’s Ontological Argument.

Smart guy, he picked the most intriguing of the attempted proofs of the existence of God. Indeed, according to one claim the Ontological Argument has generated more philosophical debate than any other in history. And it did indeed originate with Anselm, abbot of Bec and later archbishop of Canterbury, in his eleventh-century Proslogion.

Among its ups and downs, Duns Scotus and St Bonaventure embraced the argument, but William of Ockham (of Ockham’s Razor) did not; nor did Thomas Aquinas, whose rejection was the scholastic kiss of death. With the dawn of modern philosophy, Descartes recreated and revived the argument, after which Spinoza and Leibniz added their versions of it. Even after Kant dealt the argument a crushing blow in the eighteenth century, it resurfaced in a nineteenth-century Hegelian reformulation. Bertrand Russell went from pro (1894) to con (1946). Meanwhile, the argument attracted twentieth-century followers on the Continent, and in America, philosophers Charles Hartshorne and Norman Malcolm upheld the argument even in the face of the Positivist values-massacre. Now apparently it is a hot topic among sixth-grade teachers.

The trigger for Anselm’s argument is a passage in Psalms (14:1; 53: 1), about the ‘fool’ who “hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Nothing in the argument turns on the selection of this particular fool (any fool will do); but of course, this is the one Anselm would most want to prove wrong and foolish. Anselm actually provides two Ontological Arguments, joined by a shared first premise – one for the existence of God, the other for God’s necessary existence.

First version:

1) Even the fool, on hearing the description “a being than which none greater can be conceived,” understands it. And whatever is understood exists in the understanding. Thus a being than which none greater can be conceived exists in the understanding even of the fool.

2) To exist in reality (in re), however, is greater than to exist in the understanding alone (in intellectu).

Therefore, a being than which none greater can be conceived exists in re as well as in intellectu. Otherwise a greater being could be conceived than a being than which none greater can be conceived, which is a contradiction.

Second version:

1) Even the fool, on hearing the description “a being than which none greater can be conceived,” understands it. And whatever is understood exists in the understanding. Thus a being than which none greater can be conceived exists in the understanding even of the fool.

2) But “it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist.”

Therefore, a being than which none greater can be conceived cannot be conceived not to exist (exists necessarily). Otherwise a greater being could be conceived than a being than which none greater can be conceived, which is a contradiction.

Objections from Gaunilo and Kant

The earliest objection to Anselm’s argument, “On Behalf of the Fool,” came from the monk Gaunilo of Marmoutier, and it was included in some manuscripts of the Proslogion, along with Anselm’s reply. “Of God, or a being greater than all others,” Gaunilo contends, “I could not conceive at all, except merely according to the word. And an object can hardly or never be conceived according to the word alone.” In fact,

“I, so far as actual knowledge of the object, either from its specific or general character, is concerned, am as little able to conceive of this being when I hear of it, or to have it in my understanding, as I am to conceive of or understand God himself: whom, indeed, for this very reason I can conceive not to exist.”

In a second objection, Gaunilo posits a ‘Lost Island,’ abundant beyond anything ever experienced. We can picture this “most excellent” island, and can accept that it exists in intellectu; but we would hardly say that it therefore exists in reality.

Anselm counters that the Ontological Argument can only apply to God; and if anyone can prove otherwise, Anselm will personally find and give him (or her, I suppose) that Lost Island. His thinking is based on the second version of the argument, the notion that God cannot be thought not to exist. This makes sense, because one of the traditional distinctions between God and everything else is that only God’s essence contains or entails existence; we would not say this of an island or mountain, no matter how ‘excellent’ or ‘great.’ But as we know, Gaunilo has already testified that God can be thought not to exist. And Anselm’s rejoinder here is lame indeed:

“If a being than which a greater is inconceivable is not understood or conceived, and is not in the understanding or in concept, certainly either God is not a being than which a greater is inconceivable, or else he is not understood or conceived, and is not in the understanding or in concept. But I call on your faith and conscience to attest that this is most false. Hence…”

It is Kant who christened Anselm’s argument ‘ontological,’ and who provided the other most important objection to it – itself ontological in nature. His contention is that unlike ‘red’ or ‘round,’ ‘exists’ is only a ‘logical,’ not a ‘real’ predicate. Pierre Gassendi anticipated Kant’s point in the seventeenth-century by saying that “existence is a perfection neither in God nor in anything else; it is rather that in the absence of which there is no perfection.” Existence, in short, is not a property or a quality. So it borders on a category mistake to say that existence in re is greater or more excellent than existence only in intellectu, or that existence is part of the essence or definition of God.

The Argument from Hubris

Russell expressed what no doubt most people think, that “it is easier to feel convinced that [the Ontological Argument] must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.” There are three main points where a fallacy might occur: mid-way into the first premise, between understanding the description and understanding the being described (Gaunilo’s first approach); at the second premise (Kant’s approach, and Gaunilo’s in the Lost Island objection); or at the very beginning, with the premise that the fool understands the description “a being than which none greater can be conceived.” I think this is where Anselm (first) goes wrong, and for a very simple reason, one I have not seen mentioned elsewhere, although it is hard to believe that something so elementary could have escaped notice for a thousand years.

Anselm is aware that a description or analysis will generally tell us more about a thing than just a name, and that he has cleverly chosen the particular hook on which he hangs his argument.

“Not irrationally, then, has the hypothesis of a being a greater than which cannot be conceived been employed in controverting the fool, for the proof of the existence of God: since in some degree he would understand such a being, but in no wise could he understand God.”

According to John Hick in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” (id quo nihil maius cogitari possit) represents the culmination of the Christian monotheistic concept of deity. It seems strange, then, that Gaunilo simply replaces Anselm’s description with “a being greater than all others,” and Alvin Plantinga, with “the greatest possible being,” particularly since Anselm’s version is more interesting and ‘informative’ than theirs.

The trouble is, what it tells us is not at all what Anselm needs to show. Rather than a proof of God’s existence in re – or even in intellectu – what emerges is a reason for “doubt, caution and modesty,” as Hume characterizes his ‘mitigated’ form of skepticism, about claiming we have any understanding of the nature and existence of God. To see this, take a closer look at the role played by the fool. What a fool can understand, anyone can understand, fools being, by definition, deficient in candle power and wisdom. Why should we suppose, then, that a being than which none greater can be conceived by the fool is as great as a being than which none greater can be conceived, say, by a smart Philosophy Now reader? And by the same reasoning, why should we suppose that a being than which none greater can be conceived by you, with all due respect, is as great as a being than which none greater can be conceived by a genius like Einstein or a saint like Anselm? Finally, why should we suppose that a being than which none greater can be conceived by Einstein or Anselm is as great as a being than which none greater can logically possibly be conceived – than which none greater could be conceived even by God? For plainly this, and not merely the greatest concept of which the fool is capable, is what Anselm’s argument requires.

The upshot is that Anselm has not shown that he himself, let alone the fool, has an understanding of a being than which none greater can be conceived. More to the point, he has not shown that he understands even his own description “a being than which none greater can be conceived.” For if he did understand it, he would see from the description alone that it is sheer hubris to suppose this being exists in intellectu. Who, after all, would be fool enough to assert that we have an idea the equal of God’s?

The argument from hubris is not proof that we lack any understanding of a being than which none greater can be conceived. But such proof is unnecessary, since doubt is all we need to defeat the Ontological Argument; and by Ockham’s Razor, why do more when less will do? We can allow that perhaps in a revelatory moment even a babe or a fool might have a fleeting glimpse of the true nature of God. Indeed, according to the New Testament their chances are better than most. But Anselm needs more than chances and maybes; he needs fool-proof-ness.


Anselm himself acknowledges that “God is greater than can be thought.” His goodness is ‘incomprehensible,’ the light wherein He dwells is ‘inaccessible,’ and He is “more than any creature can understand.” What Anselm means, though, is that we do not fully understand God, not that we fail to understand Him at all. Otherwise, he maintains, “you would have to say that someone who cannot gaze directly upon the purest light of the sun does not see the light of day.” But thinking back to Plato’s Cave, when it comes to the nature of God, are we in a position to claim even that we see the “light of day?”

Not according to apophatic theology, a Platonistic Christian school that dates from the late fifth or early sixth century. Its view is that God is ineffable, transcending “all reason, all intelligence, and all wisdom;” so any positive assertion about the nature of God would be an act of hubris than which perhaps none greater can be conceived. This is a theology of not-knowing, or paradoxically, of knowing by un-knowing; it is made deliberately confounding, according to Aquinas, so that “the sacred and divine teachings might be hidden from the ridicule of the unbelievers.”

The apophatic writings were originally attributed to Dionysius, an Athenian converted to Christianity by Paul’s sermon on mount Areopagus (Acts 17:34). This attribution was later discredited, but the real author has never been identified, and is referred to awkwardly as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, or by Erasmus’ sassy shorthand, “Dionysius the whoever-he-was.” At any rate, whoever-(s)he-was coined the term ‘hierarchy,’ among other things, and has had considerable and lasting influence. Praised by Aquinas, called “the greatest of theologians” by Nicholas of Cusa, criticized by Luther as one who “Platonizes more than he Christianizes,” Eastern Orthodox doctrine today still retains Pseudo-Dionysian elements. And many, before and since, have expressed pseudo-Dionysian views, some closely related to the Ontological Argument:

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
First Corinthians I: 25

“Our knowledge [of God] consists in knowing that we are unable to comprehend Him.”
Maimonides (1135-1204)

“Absurd to Argue the Existence of God from His Idea…we have no Idea of God. ‘tis impossible!”
George Berkeley (1685-1753)

The difference between Berkeley and Gaunilo is that Berkeley’s denial is quasi-apophatic and categorical, whereas Gaunilo speaks, more modestly, only for himself.


Far from professing apophatic ignorance, preachers assure their congregations on a weekly basis that, among other things, God forgives their sins. And parishioners, in turn, seem to accept unquestioningly that those trained in reputable theological schools and duly ordained as pastors, rabbis, etc., must understand more than the rest of us about a being than which none greater can be conceived. Needless to say, clerics themselves have done little to discourage this trust. Consider Aquinas’ objection to the second version of the Ontological Argument:

“This proposition, God exists, is self-evident per se, for the predicate is in the subject, because God’s essence is His own existence…But because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us.” Aquinas, Summa Theologica (I,ii,2,1)

If the proposition God exists is not self-evident to ‘us,’ how does Aquinas know it is self-evident per se? Some concepts, he says, are “self-evident only to the learned.” Well, maybe so, I wouldn’t know. But if Aquinas has privileged knowledge, wouldn’t St Anselm have the same? And if God’s existence is self-evident per se, that too should be more help than hindrance to Anselm’s argument.

Descartes emerged from thoroughgoing doubt with a “clear and distinct” idea of God as “eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient [and] omnipotent;” indeed, he made use of an Ontological Argument to prove the existence of this being. Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth century provided an even more fulsome list of God’s attributes; and Norman Malcolm in the twentieth insisted that “necessary existence is a property of God, just as necessary omnipotence and necessary omniscience are His properties.” Even Einstein thought he knew a theological thing or two, most famously that God wouldn’t ‘play dice’ with the universe – one of the few points, interestingly, on which he is generally believed to have been wrong. Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Newman, Malcolm, Einstein – these are the good guys, or at least the cognoscenti. What can we expect, then, from charlatans, fanatics, and college sophomores?

Fatal Beauty

Einstein is not the only twentieth-century theoretical physicist to have cosmic religious leanings. The compendium Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists reveals the marked spirituality of Arthur Eddington, Max Planck, Louis de Broglie and others. And then there is Nobel physicist I.I. Rabi and his novel teaching technique:

“Physics brought me closer to God. That feeling stayed with me throughout my years in science. Whenever one of my students came to me with a scientific project, I asked only one question, ‘Will it bring you nearer to God?’ They always understood what I meant.”

The thing to keep in mind about the God of the physicists, however, is that theirs is not the ‘Father’ to whom church-going folks pray. In fact, Einstein considered the concept of a God who takes a personal interest in us and intercedes on our behalf to be the main source of conflict between science and religion. Logos, the pinnacle of Greek thought, is the ‘word’ that in the beginning, according to John (I: 1), was “with God,” and indeed “was God.” The God of Einstein and Rabi is closer to God-as-Logos than to God-as-Father-figure. But there are plenty of other alternatives. Spinoza identified God with Nature; others, with a Prime Mover who pushes a button, sets the world in motion, and then takes early retirement. I am reminded here of a New Yorker cartoon showing an unprepossessing guy on a throne labeled ‘God,’ and a crestfallen-looking new arrival; the caption reads, “You don’t look anything like your pictures.” If even the fool has some understanding of a being than which none greater can be conceived, why is there so little agreement about what this being ‘looks like’?

The traditional objection to the Ontological Argument has been that it defines God into existence. But the fatal beauty of Anselm’s description, I think, is that it defines God out of conception. Einstein explains Anselm’s predicament beautifully:

“The human mind is unable to conceive of the four dimensions. How can it conceive of a God, before whom a thousand years and a thousand dimensions are as one?” Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion

© Toni Vogey Carey 2005

Toni Vogel Carey, a philosophy professor in a former life, is a regular contributor to Philosophy Now, and one of its US editorial advisors.

Finding out more
• Anselm, Proslogion, trans. T. Williams (Hackett, 1995).
• The Ontological Argument, ed. A. Plantinga, intro. R. Taylor (Doubleday Anchor, 1965).
• John Hick, on the Ontological Argument, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.5.
• E.F. Osborn, on Pseudo-Dionysius, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.6.
• Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists, ed. K. Wilber (Shambhala, 1985).

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