205. Somebody's Perfect: Anselm's Ontological Argument

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The most famous argument in medieval philosophy is Anselm’s proof for the existence of God. But how was it supposed to work?



Further Reading

• G.R. Evans, Anselm and Talking about God (Oxford: 1978).

• J. Hick and A.C. McGill, The Many-Faced Argument (New York: 1967).

• B. Leftow, “The Ontological Argument,” in W. Wainwright (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: 2005), 80-115.

• N. Malcolm, “Anselm's Ontological Arguments,” Philosophical Review 69 (1960), 41–62.

• P. Millican, "Anselm," in G. Oppy (ed.), Ontological Arguments (Cambridge: 2018), 19-43,

• A. Plantinga (ed.), The Ontological Argument (Garden City NY: 1965).

• K.A. Rogers, The Anselmian Approach to God and Creation (Lewiston: 1997).

• N. Wolterstorff, “In Defense of Gaunilo’s Defense of the Fool,” in C.S. Evans and M. Westphal (eds), Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: 1993).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Ontological Arguments

In Our Time: The Ontological Argument


T. Franke on 4 January 2015

The "lost" island of Gaunilo

The "lost" island of Gaunilo did cost me my Sunday afternoon and evening, but I have it now: IMHO this "lost" island is not inspired by Plato's Atlantis, although many known authors say so (without giving any reasons), but I am pretty sure that the stereotypical saying of "lost Atlantis" derives from here! Interesting Web link: Were Anselm and Gaunilo one and the same person? https://books.google.de/books?id=txII0sskiKsC&lpg=PA351&ots=rqpshlsDVx&…

T. Franke on 7 January 2015

Philosophical vs. Traditional God

Another aspect of the Ontological Argument is that it "only" (if any) gives proof of a so-called "philosophical" god, not of any traditional God, like the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", as the Judaeo-Christian(-Islamic?) tradition usually says. I wonder whether the Middle Age philosophers were aware of this aspect. A philosophical god is so different from a traditional god that it may be questioned to call him/it "god". The whole thing reminds me of Plato's legendary discourse "On the Good" as the highest principle, which was never written (by intent), and which only few of his students allegedly did understand.

In reply to by T. Franke

Peter Adamson on 9 January 2015

Which God?

Yes, that's an excellent point, which of course arises in other traditions too - one objection to the naturalist theories of God found in the Islamic and Jewish traditions too is that it demoted prophecy as a way of knowing about the divine. In an upcoming episode on the Victorines I make the point that in Christianity especially, there is a lot of theological pressure to emphasize certain historical events (the fall of Man, the Incarnation) as central in any correct view of the world. And natural theology is not going to tell you, for instance, that God was incarnated specifically as Christ at a certain time and place - we know this only by revelation, testimony, miracles, etc. On the other hand it's interesting to see that even early scholastics, like Anselm, wanted to go as far as they could in the direction of using reason to establish the need for some such event, hence his project in "Why God Became Man?" where Anselm tries to show on rational grounds alone that God MUST become incarnate. He and others also think that you can get to the Trinity using only reason. So that would get you very far or even all the way towards a specifically Christian account of God.

Tolkien Fan on 11 January 2015

Tolkien the inherently good nature of creation and orcs

This is sort of a random question and might belong in the last podcast but here i go:

does Anslem's insistence that existence is good constrain god's power unnecessarily. I was thinking about Tolkien and how his justified having orcs to kill by having them (and cave trolls) be perverted beings created essentially by the devil and thus removed from grace. Wouldn't Anslem's proof be forced to concede that this sort of creation is impossible and thus god is unable to create a necessarily damned being?

In reply to by Tolkien Fan

Peter Adamson on 11 January 2015


I think so, yes, but there are two issues here that we need to keep separate. The first is one you mention: going back to Augustine (and further to Plotinus) you have the idea that being is in itself good. Thus nothing can be without being, to some extent, good. If orcs fail to meet that criterion then they could not exist - though actually this may not be so obvious. Perhaps orcs are "good" in the sense of being well-designed and highly functional (they built Grond, after all, the greatest battering ram in history), and evil only in their freely chosen actions - which to be honest would make them like humans in the state of original sin, according to Augustine and Christians after him.

So that leads us to the second issue of free choice, which I indeed addressed in the last podcast. Anselm would not believe that the devil could create inherently perverted beings: this is not just because only God can create, but also because nothing can be evil without having had the opportunity to choose whether or not to be evil. (Evil entails moral responsibility, which would be absent if one had no free will.) He even considers, and dismisses as untenable, the idea that Satan might have been created with no motivation for justice: had he lacked this entirely, he would have had no choice but to be evil.

One last, more speculative thought: even if orcs are now in a "fallen" state and always evil, perhaps through seduction rather than creation, it might be that the arguments of Anselm in "Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo)" would imply that God would have to offer them redemption, as He did in the human case.

Next week: elves!

Taco on 19 January 2015


I highly recommend A. D. Smith's "Anselm's Other Argument" and Charles Hartshorne's "Anselm's Discovery: A Re-examination of the Ontological Proof for God's Existence". I didn't see either of these in your further reading, but I think these are the best on the subject.

In reply to by Taco

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2015

Anselm reading

Ok, thanks! I actually saw references to both of those in my reading on it. Of course the literature on this is vast so any brief list is just going to give people a tiny window onto it. Really the ones I listed are the ones I read in working on the episode, I can't pretend that they are a well-considered selection of everything there is on this topic.

Denziloe on 7 February 2015

I like Anselm's argument

I like Anselm's argument because it's obviously wrong but a bit of a puzzle to work out how. I think there are two fatal errors.
The first error is boring because it's simply a logical mistake: Anselm conflates "the idea of God" with "God". Of course, these aren't the same thing (the idea of a chair is not a chair), and so the argument isn't sound; he establishes that the idea of God exists in the mind, but later uses the proposition that God exists in the mind, which is unsound and false.
The second error is more interesting because it shines some light on the relation of logical arguments to the real world. Given the approach that Anselm adopts — namely defining God as something with a property (being greatest) and then using a logical argument to deduce the statement "God exists" — his argument actual has a large amount of redundancy. He could have simply used the following argument:
1. By any sensible definition of "God", God is something with the property (among other properties) of existence.
2. Therefore, God exists.
That is actually a correct argument. The subtlety lies in what the correct interpretation of the statement "God exists". To explain by way of analogy, consider the following argument:
1. A unicorn is a creature which, by definition, has the property (among other properties) of being horned.
2. Therefore, unicorns have horns.
Again, this is true. But clearly it doesn't demonstrate that any unicorn horns exist in the real world. The correct interpretation of the final statement is that all unicorns have horns. Or in other words, any unicorn which really exists has a horn. Similarly for the first argument, the correct interpretation of the final statement is that all Gods exist. Or in other words, any God which exists, exists. This doesn't mean that any Gods do actually exist. It simply asserts a particular property which we demand, by definition, must apply to any Gods that may exist.

Jonathan Ziegler on 1 May 2015

Gaunilo's 2nd objection

Did Anselm (or anyone else) respond to the second objection of Gaunilo that you mention in the podcast. I think this is what you referring to as being an open question, so maybe I've answered my own question.

In reply to by Jonathan Ziegler

Peter Adamson on 2 May 2015


I guess you mean the objection I quoted:“it must first of all be proved to me that this same greater than everything truly exists in reality somewhere, and then only will the fact that it is greater than everything make it clear that it also subsists in itself”. As I say in the episode I think the objection is right but of course there is a huge amount of literature on the ontological argument and not everyone would agree with me! Anselm does respond to Gaunilo but I don't think he really satisfactorily deals with this point. I like the discussion in the Williams and Visser volume (see the further reading for episode 203), and they use the reply to Gaunilo as a kind of key for understanding the original argument, so I would recommend that as a good place to start reading on this.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jonathan Ziegler on 2 May 2015

That was it, thanks!

That was it, thanks!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Michael on 11 April 2016

The Williams and Visser

The Williams and Visser volume is in the recommended reading for episode 204, not 203. Took me a bit to find it, so I thought I'd help out future comment-section readers.

In reply to by Michael

Peter Adamson on 12 April 2016


Oh right - sorry about that. It's because for this episode I put up bibliography specifically about the argument, and the other episode page has the more general Anselm bibliography.

Henry Griffiths on 13 May 2015

Ontological Proof

Building on earlier comments, there does not seem to a great deal of purpose in 'proving' God's existence. Having found this proof what do you do with the 'knowledge' gained? Do you do anything differently to what you did before when you did not know of God's existence? Is there any teleological point to the whole exercise  other  than giving frail humanity  someone/thing to praise and blame ( and providing a supremely good reason to slaughter fellow human beings who have come to the same strategic view about the existence of God as you but who, inexplicably, live their everyday lives utterly differently to you)?

If one wants to 'do' something with their simple knowledge of God's existence then there needs to be flesh on the bare bones: and it is easy to see how the paraphernalia of rituals, exclusivity, obedience, commitment etc appear on the scene.

Also, after all those years of peace ( perhaps since the early evening of 22 October 4004 BCE) , does God really want people prying into his private life? He, and humanity, managed perfectly alright before some under employed scibbler decided that there should be some sort of union between God and Man. 

In reply to by Henry Griffiths

Peter Adamson on 13 May 2015

Proving God's existence

That's an interesting point. Two answers leap to mind for me, or at least types of answers. First, the proof for God's existence doesn't just tell you that God exists but also certain things about God, e.g. that He is perfect or created the world; so it has a wide-ranging impact on your whole belief system, rather than just giving you one new belief. Second, it has practical consequences: you might for instance conclude that a perfect being deserves to be worshipped and thus spend a significant amount of your time doing that from now on. I think that on both fronts, the consequences are somewhat more abstract and minimal than (say) the consequences of accepting a particular religious tradition, with all it entails (sacred laws, forms of religious ritual, etc). But I don't think that the philosophical proof of God would be "inert" either in terms of your other beliefs or your practices.

Henry Griffiths on 13 May 2015


I quite take your points but, given that someone has found/proved the existence of God, is there any real 'telling' going on. Unless God is directly directing the finder, isn't the active principle on the side of the finder who has tabula rasa as to how the philosophical God is translated into the, or a, religious God? And there is a lot of rasa to be had!

In reply to by Henry Griffiths

Peter Adamson on 14 May 2015

More on God

Well, what I was thinking was precisely that even if you don't try to connect the "philosophical" God to the God of any particular religious tradition, discovering that the philosophical God exists could have significant consequences. Take Aristotle as an example: he has barely any commitment to traditional Greek religion, but his belief in a God who is really just a pure intellect moving the celestial spheres is totally central to his metaphysics, turns up in his ethics and even has implications for his biology (he says that species perpetuate themselves in an effort to imitate God's eternity). As I said, in practical terms you might also conclude that even a "philosophical" God deserves our worship. So, even if there are some philosophical conclusions that don't have much impact on the rest of one's beliefs and actions, I don't think this is one of them!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Henry Griffiths on 21 May 2015


That pretty much puts the matter to bed although I cannot entirely shake the thought that the cosmos, however ordered or sustained, does quite nicely without our interest in God. Indeed, worshipping an onnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God seems as otiose as the Marx Brothers requiring the approbation of, say, Calvin Coolidge!


My regards to Hiawatha.

Marrion Malone on 9 October 2015

Cause of goodness

God is the cause of goodness. Somebody's perfect God is, the source of God is good. God is all powerful and just. that which is greater than we can perceive is God.

Bob S on 30 July 2021

A Contradiction

Hoping to be even better armed for my next series of bar bets, I am revisiting this terrific podcast (and the books), and just noticed something about Anselm's ontological argument that is flat-out contradictory. It's similar to a flaw that I've seen mentioned in connection with one of the proofs by Descartes.

Anselm is said to be a negative theologian, at least to the extent that he denies "that we can grasp God's nature fully with the finite resources of the human mind." But he then states, as the initial premise of his ontological argument, that "this thing than which nothing greater can be conceived at least exists in the Fool's mind, even if it does not exist in reality." That premise can't possibly be true in Anselm's scheme of things, since he just told us that God cannot be fully conceived in anyone's mind. (One can be asked to assume that there's such a thing as an undefined, "ineffable being," but that certainly doesn't advance the argument.)

Further, since the negative concept of an ineffable being, by definition (or, rather, by its intrinsic lack of a definition), has no specific content, there's no way to get to the next step of the argument: Anselm's assertion that "if God existed only in the mind, it would be easy to conceive of things better than Him". Since Anselm has already told us that his concept of god cannot exist in the mind, he's arguing from what he himself claims is a false assumption.

The ontological argument therefore fails from the get-go.

Unless I'm missing something.

In reply to by Bob S

Peter Adamson on 30 July 2021

Not so fast

Yes, nice objection. However I think Anselm can answer it: when he says that he (or "the Fool") has the concept of God in his mind, he is not claiming that he has, as you put it, "fully grasped God." He is using what Aristotle would call a "nominal definition" i.e. one that picks out the thing in question without expressing its nature or essence fully. (Compare defining human as "biped without feathers".) This definition is in fact negatively framed, so it is clearly not supposed to be a completely adequate definition of God: "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." In general, then, what he achieves in the Proslogion is to show that the thing thus sketchily defined does exist (via the ontological argument), and has other properties like omnipotence, benevolence, etc. But he never claims that he or any other human can know God fully.

One response you could try here is that merely having a nominal definition of X does not mean "having X in your mind." But that would be a more difficult issue to thrash out; we would need to get into what exactly it means to have something in your mind, or rather, what Anselm would need that to mean for the purposes of his argument.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Bob S on 31 July 2021


It still seems to me that what Anselm claims is contradictory, for the following reason.

I don't claim that his negative theology entails that the Fool doesn't have anything in mind. Rather, it entails that, as you say, the Fool can't have a "completely adequate definition" of god in mind. But I go a bit further, and say that Anselm's definition is quite inadequate for the purpose of drawing the comparisons that he claims are possible, because it has no substantive content. All it consists of is a collection of superlatives.

Thus, my objection is that in order to conceive of something "better" than a particular concept, it's necessary to have at least some comprehension of that concept. I don't see how Anselm's being laudatory of god, while claiming that our finite minds preclude any understanding of the concept, can be competent to do the job. Hence the contradiction: the concept of god supposedly is beyond anyone's comprehension, and can be approached only in a negative way, yet even a fool's comprehension is sufficient for the purpose of comparing it to other things.

But on further reflection, even though I still think that there’s a contradiction, I guess it doesn't really matter, because the proof can be rephrased to avoid making the comparison I object to. Stripped to its essence, Anselm's argument is that simply thinking that there's a concept "than which nothing greater can be conceived" makes the thing so conceived exist in the real world, because existing is "greater" than not existing. Putting it that way avoids provoking wonder at how we can possibly compare anything to something that our finite minds cannot comprehend. Of course, it's also a non sequitur, but that is what the proof comes down to.

In reply to by Bob S

Peter Adamson on 31 July 2021

Anselm's definition

Yes, I think actually the "rephrasing" you suggest is just what he has in mind: even though "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" looks like a negative description you can still squeeze positive attributes out of it, as long as you have a sense of what the "great-making" properties would be, and existence is the first of them. Again, it really helps to remember that the ontological argument is only the first of many applications of the strategy. In fact to understand his method it is probably better to start thinking about it with a trait other than "existence" which raises many specific problems; so think just about e.g. "generosity." Would "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" be generous or ungenerous? Clearly generous since if it were ungenerous we could conceive of something better. And so on. (I don't see why this is a non sequitur.) None of this presupposes that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" is a completely adequate description of God, nor does he even need to say that the full list of great-making properties would be an adequate description. It is just as close as we can get.

Jordan on 4 May 2022

The fact that you started…

The fact that you started off with the most powerful/obvious counterargument is great but I'll still try to take these piece by piece. 

I'll admit that sometimes the older philosophical debates over "a trait must be caused by its purest embodiment" are a little hard for me to make sense of, so some of that same confusion is translating over. The issue of many definitions of goodness has been tackled on the podcast before, so having a single definition to work with is great. I guess the issue I'm having at 7:15 is that, with varying definitions of goodness, people also going to differ on what they think is good. Let's say a rebel leader kills an unjust king. Some people will say that's good and some people will say that's evil. It doesn't lead at all into the idea that there's a primary goodness being referenced. 

Although, on the other hand, maybe you'd say that people in favor of regicide say that "justice is good" and approve of the action, while the others say that "the rule of law is good" and disapprove. Both justice and rule of law are "good" things associated with God. 

But I also hate when any concept is assumed to be a universal moral belief because humanity has so many fringe cases. Maybe one of the people in that kingdom is in favor of regicide because the king happened to have freckles, and "killing people with freckles is good." That isn't at all attributable to God, so this argument would need to presuppose that a majority rule on goodness is what actually matters more than individual moral judgment. But we know both in modern times and in Biblical ones that mob rule is often wrong and minorities can be oppressed unfairly. 

I'll put a pin in this idea for now as "iffy at best" since we're getting into the Euthyphro dilemma. 

I don't think I need to prove or disprove whether humans are better than horses. Anselm is working off a pre-existing Christian hierarchy (about man being given dominance etc) that he probably thinks is common sense instead of being a random, buck-wild (lol) insult to horses. I'm calling this one "citation needed" for now. Which honestly is true for a lot of these qualities he lists off as being obviously good, presumably because of cultural differences.

I like the spicy take that God has to be defined as "the best" because it precludes the arrival of a sudden, cooler, younger God.

I'm getting so much deja vu with this stuff. I swear you talked about similar arguments from antiquity before, unless it's source amnesia and I just read this on Wikipedia in the wee hours. Or both! You reference Avicenna later and maybe that's who I'm thinking of?

The counterargument to the island objection feels petty to me, although I'm glad it exists to clarify what is meant. Saying that God, by definition, is the kind of being who cannot be disproved through reason in the way that a physical object would be, to me, is also saying that God cannot be proved through similar reasoning. Anselm's defense could be applicable no matter what argument he was defending. At least, that's how I'm understanding it - although I know there's an extra layer of complexity about first causes that I'm ignoring, I don't think that complexity alone is enough basis to argue this from. You have to believe in the logic of first causes (or whatever phrase best describes the "shared reference to a trait exists due to a perfect version of that trait" thing) to believe this proof of God, and there's not really any defense of the first causes. There's an explanation of how they work, but not why we should believe that this is the ONLY (or even best) method by which the universe can work.

I write as I listen, and it sounds like I'm echoing the sentiment described by the response at the end of the episode, but hopefully it was worth typing anyway.

Daniel Hunt on 11 September 2022

God's God?

First, thank you Professor Adamson for inviting me to enter this comment on your Anselm page.

Over the years I've read a great deal about Anselm's argument and its permutations, as well as the refutations and refutations of the refutations.  The wonder of it all is that no one seems convinced one way or the other!

The other day I was thinking about the idea of God as the greatest of possible beings.  And then I happened to venture outside of the box, just for the sake of the exercise.  What if, I posited, God was not the greatest of possible beings?  What would that mean?  How would it be possible?  But, more importantly, how would you state that in a logical formula?

Well, how about this:

God's God (or creator, etc.) is the greatest possible being, i.e. nothing greater than he can be conceived.  There is no reason why God himself could not have been created by another God, one greater than him.

And you play the rest of the way through Anselm's argument, merely plugging in God's God. 

The problem here, I think, is rather evident.  If God has a God who is greater than him, does God's God have a God - and so on?  This sets up, it seems to me, an infinite regression, where each God in turn is replaced by his creator.  There is no end to us being able to imagine greater beings. 

The idea may seem anathema to those with a traditional (and circumscribed) definition of God, but in this day and age in which we are discussing things like the multiverse, cyclic universe theory, etc., and given that the Bible itself does not deny the existence of other gods, but rather affirms their existence, we cannot say that we cannot imagine a being greater than God, i.e. another God greater than him.

If I am right in reading this as an infinite regression, then we cannot technically prove the existence of God simply because we cannot possibly settle on the greatest of them, as they may well continue back infinitely.

wondering if there is wiggle room here.  We know of many cases in which

there are gods who are subordinate to other gods.  One god may be a member of a council of gods, headed up by another god.  Or a god may be a child of another god.Finally, a god may be but an aspect of another god, or gods may coalesce into a greater god.While I have not delved much into Gnosticism, I do seem to recall that 'God' as he is thought of in most of the Hebraic-Christian tradition was only the Demiurge, implying the existence of a much greater god "outside" the created universe.  As far as this scenario goes, the greatest being most of us can imagine is the Demiurge.  But he is not the greatest.

So it does seem to me to matter which God is being referred to in Anselm's argument.  In other words, we need to know which one of them is greatest.  If we can't determine this, then...?



Daniel Hunt on 11 September 2022

Plato's Forms?

One last query, if you will permit me, please?


I am sure others have long ago discussed this (and dismissed it!) in exhaustive detail...


I am reading Anselm right in seeing his argument as, essentially, presenting something

that is the opposite of Plato's Forms?  I mean, in Plato, the greatest - or at least most

perfect - thing is the Form of something.  We have the idea of a perfect chair, which can never be

replicated in reality, because anything existing outside the world of forms must, by

definition, be imperfect.  Everything in physical existence is imperfect.  What then to

do with the idea or Form of God?  We cannot say he is imperfect precisely because

he exists outside of the world of forms, although his creation certainly is.

I suppose we must choose in this instance whether to subscribe to Anselm's system

of thought of Plato's, as they do not seem reconcilable to me.



Daniel Hunt on 11 September 2022

My apologies for the post on Plato's Forms

I was going by dim memory of Plato from philosophy courses taken decades ago.  I should have brushed up on my reading before wasting anyone's time here with a stupid question.

Forms in Plato are the ultimate reality, not just mental constructs.  I was confusing Form with Idea.  Still, God as a Form is an interesting concept, as anything based upon a form which exists in the spatial-temporal realm is, by definition, imperfect.  God's very creation is imperfect.  But if God is perfect (in the sense of being the greatest of all beings we can conceive of?), then any manifestation of him in our physical universe must, by definition, be an imperfect one.

Do I have this anywhere near to being right?  Or am I still hopelessly confused?

Thank you for your patience and tolerance.

Daniel Hunt on 11 September 2022

Last problem with the argument

Again, I have gone over all the support and criticism of Anselm's argument that I can find.  I am sure I have missed more - perhaps a lot.

But a friend has posed the following question to me, as a joke.  But I'm wondering... it is really a joke?  

Let's start with a simplified form of Anselm's ontological argument:

God is the greatest possible being (nothing greater can be conceived)
If God exists in the mind alone (only as an idea), then a greater being could be imagined to exist both in the mind and in reality
This being would then be greater than God
Thus God cannot exist only as an idea in the mind
Therefore, God exists both in the mind (as an idea) and in reality.

And let's substitute a being other than God which was also believed in during the Middle Ages - the unicorn.  We know the unicorn is a fabulous beast, one of many found alongside real animals in medieval bestiaries.  We could pick any number of such fabulous beasts, but the unicorn will do for our purposes. So our argument now reads as follows:


A certain unicorn is the greatest possible being (nothing greater can be conceived)
If this unicorn exists in the mind alone (only as an idea), then a greater being could be imagined to exist both in the mind and in reality
This being would then be greater than the said unicorn
Thus this unicron cannot exist only as an idea in the mind
Therefore, the unicorn exists both in the mind (as an idea) and in reality.

Now, I get it that most will object to the very first statement in my 'revised' argument. But as we are starting right out with God as a mental construct - something/someone that is CONCEIVED in the mind - it seems to me any other mental construct that one might be prone to believe in can be allowed to be substituted.  Again, Anselm was of the Middle Ages, when men believed in God AND unicorns.

I do not put this forward lightly.  Obviously, unicorns don't exist.  But if you start from the standpoint of believing in them, and then find it necessarily to devise an argument to prove their actual existence, it seems to me this formula works just fine.  And, if so, that means God himself might well be fabulous as well.

I imagine this will be considered ridiculous, and the kind of thing only a unbeliever could come up with.  But I am trying to deal with this only as a valid or invalid argument, and it seems to me that there is a problem with it that can be demonstrated by my example above.

Looking forward to any discussion this may engender, and I apologize if this is so very old and worn out as to not be worth anyone's attention.

In reply to by Daniel Hunt

Peter Adamson on 11 September 2022

Ontological argument

Wow, lots in there, let's see how much I can respond to. Firstly, your unicorn argument is not silly at all, it is basically a version of Gaunilo's "perfect island" objection which I dimly remember discussing in the podcast. I think the answer here would be that "a unicorn than which nothing greater can be conceived" is not a meaningful concept, because we can surely conceive of something better than (any) unicorn, e.g. an immaterial being (Anselm assumes that immaterial beings are better than material ones) or, if you don't like that, then a being that is not limited to having the form of a unicorn. Or you could come up with other problems, e.g. a faster unicorn is better than a slower one, but there is no limit to the possible speed so we could always conceive of a better one. Similar responses work with the island.

I think your regress argument is more original and it's clever! But again I think Anselm could respond: he would ask what the difference is between God (who is already "that than which....") and this second-order God, what you call God's God. Since this further God would also be "that than which..." it sounds like you have just come up with exactly the same being twice - after all, what would or could distinguish them? So, no regress.

And finally, on Platonic Forms: that's a good point, in that Anselm's reasoning does fit within the Platonic tradition. You could say he is taking the idea of "perfect beings" and maximalizing it to a being that is perfect in all respects, and must therefore have all perfect-making properties (omnipotence, etc.).

Fr. John Rickert on 21 September 2022

A valid ontological argument?

Although I agree that St. Anselm's argument is not completely sound, in going from the idea of a thing to the existence of a thing, "Quid est equinitas?  Equinitas tantum," I find it curious that there -does- seem to be an ontological argument many would be willing to accept: Cogito, ergo sum.  Or to put it more closely to St. Anselm's argument, "If I have the idea of myself, I must exist in order to have that idea."  So, it seems that the ontological argument works in the first person, but not the second or third.  Why is that?

In reply to by Fr. John Rickert

Peter Adamson on 21 September 2022

The Cogito as an ontological argument

Interesting idea! I guess my immediate response is that the cogito is not really an ontological argument, because it appeals not to a concept or definition (like "that than which nothing greater can be conceived") but to the actual experience of thinking. So it is not making an existence claim on the grounds of conceptual consistency - which to me is what an "ontological argument" is - but inferring the existence of the agent of an activity from the existence of that activity. See what I mean?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Fr. John Rickert on 21 September 2022

Yes, I do, and your point is…

Yes, I do, and your point is well taken.  Maybe what I should have said is simply this.  "If I can imagine myself as a concept, then I must exist," because I would have to exist even to have that concept.  (I.e. prescinding from the superlative aspects, but rather going from the idea to certainty of existence.)  I guess closer to St. Augustine's "Si fallor, sum" rather than Descartes or St. Anselm.  What remains a curiosity to me is why this seems to go through self-referentially but not otherwise.  Thanks very much for your consideration.

In reply to by Fr. John Rickert

Peter Adamson on 21 September 2022

Conceptual Cogito

Ok right, but I think that doesn't quite work, or at least not in the way you want it to. I don't know about you but I am (sadly) not a necessary being, so my existing doesn't follow from the concept of me. Nothing absurd follows from my not existing: indeed I used to not exist and will not exist in the future.

So when you say (rephrasing slightly) "if I imagine the concept of myself, then I must exist" this is true, but only because you are imagining something. You could just as well have said "if I imagine a giraffe, then I must exist." The appeal to a concept of yourself is not doing any work.

Fr. John Rickert on 21 September 2022

Yes, another good and solid…

Yes, another good and solid point.  Thanks for your consideration.  I love the series and -all- the humor.  

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