Anselm is also responsible for the most confusing essay title I was ever given: 'The ontological argument is neither. Discuss.' I didn't work out what it meant until someone else explained it to me, by which time I'd written about something else, on the grounds that understanding the question is an important prerequisite for answering it. So here's a challenge: can anyone figure out what the question means (this is a win-win situation - either you get it, in which case you're sharper than me, or you don't, in which case we'll have to have a clever-off some other time to settle the question)?
Anselm says that he wrote his ontological argument in response to a request from some young monks that he demonstrate to them by reason the existence of God. This is important: he's not writing for atheists, and he is writing for contemplative monks, so it could be that he's producing an aid to meditation rather than a reasoning from first principles to prove God's existence. Maybe.
The argument goes like this:
God is that than which nothing greater be thought. It is better to existThere's another variation that he wrote, which goes thusly:
than not to exist, so if God didn't exist, it would be possible to imagine
something greater, and so God must exist.
God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. It is better to beWays of disagreeing with Anselm
necessary than not to be necessary, so God must be necessary i.e. God must
The earliest objection to the ontological argument came from Gaunilo, who argued like this:
Imagine an island greater than which no greater island could be thought. It isBut wait! There's no such thing as a perfect island! Ha! Gotcha, Anselm. It's possible that this argument doesn't work, though: Anselm's implies that we're thinking about a being who perfectly combines all the best attributes, and as an island is limited, maybe his line of argument doesn't apply.
better to exist than not to exist, so the perfect island must exist.
Another key line of disagreement with Anselm was formulated by Immanuel Kant, who basically argued that existence wasn't a predicate like goodness or justice, and so the argument doesn't work.
So, two challenges for you, trusty reader: firstly, can you tell me what my essay title means? Secondly, can you explain why you a) are or b) aren't persuaded? Answers on a postcard/in the comments...