This essay concerns the ontological argument for God’s existence. It will provide an elaboration of the argument as it exists in the work of Anselm and Descartes and point to one major difference between them.
The Ontological argument is an a-priori argument for the existence of God. It attempts to prove that God’s existence is logically necessary and that it does not need to be proven from experience but can proved by simply analysing a set of propositions and statements. Anselm presents this argument in the following way. Anselm begins by giving a definition of God as a being ‘than which nothing greater can be conceived.’ (Anselm, 2008. 295) God is understood to be something absolutely perfect which cannot be improved upon or made more perfect in any way. Anselm then uses the example of a fool who understands that this definition of God but refuses to accept that such a being exists and Anselm maintains that ‘what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.’ (Anselm, 2008. 295) In giving the description Anselm assumes that it is possible for objects of understanding to have positive existence within understanding. That is, he conceives of the understanding as a space like the outer world where things actually exist.
Anselm then states that; ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding along: then it can be conceived to exist in reality, which is greater.’ (Anselm, 2008. 299) Here Anselm makes the claim that the realm of the understanding is inferior to the realm of objective reality. It is impossible that a completely perfect being could be restricted to such a realm. Therefore he writes; ‘if hat than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding along, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible.’ (Anselm, 2008. 300) Anselm argues that if God existed only in the understanding that it would be possible to conceive of Him existing within physical reality, and that to make this conception would be to conceive of a being which is greater than God. This is a contradiction in terms because of the definition given of God at the start of the argument. Therefore, it can be logically concluded that God must exist in physical reality. He concludes the argument by stating that; ‘Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater an be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.’ (Anselm, 2008. 300)
Descartes also has a version of the ontological argument. This occurs in his fifth meditation. Descartes writes that God is always conceived as a supremely perfect being and that we have a clear and distinct idea of his existence (57). Descartes suggests that, if God was to not to exist then he would not be a supremely perfect being, that is he would not posses perfect existence. This would be a contradiction, similar to Anselm’s. As such, Descartes claims that God must necessarily exist. The main difference between Anselm and Descartes’ version of the ontological argument in they understand their contradiction. For Anselm, if God did not exist, then he would exist only in the imagination, and so he would be the highest being conceivable, and for Descartes if He did not exist then it would lead to a logical contradiction. As such, it can can be argued that Descartes presents an almost geometrical and purely logical from or argument which is more refined than Anselm’s.
In conclusion, this paper has explained the ontological argument based on versions of it given by Anselm and Descartes. It claimed that the major difference between their two versions of the argument is in the fact that Descartes purely logical and geometrical whereas Anselm’s relies on a specific view of the imagination.
- Anselm of Canterbury. The Major Works. Edited by G. R. Evans. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
- Descartes, Renee. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.