Friday, September 11, 2009

Argument from the Definition of God and the Superiority of Existing in Reality

This continues the series of weekly posts dealing with some basic theistic arguments. The purpose here is to introduce the reader to the idea behind each argument. Strengths and weaknesses will be presented after each summary. These are only summaries and springboards for further study in the theistic arguments. See Reason for the Hope Within for more.

An Argument from the Definition of God and the Superiority of Existing in Reality

Anselm defined God as that being than which no greater can be conceived, and further assumed that it is greater to exist in reality than it is to exist only in the mind (as a thought). But given these two premises, the supposition that God exists only in the mind can’t possibly be true: the greatest conceivable being can’t exist only in the mind because we can conceive of that same being existing in reality as well. A greatest conceivable being (God) which exists in the mind is contradictory. Thus, God must exist in reality.

Greatest Strength: The argument requires accepting only a definition and the claim that to exist is better than not.

Greatest Weakness: It feels like a trick, even if it is hard to say why. One likely source: widespread misgivings about deriving existence from a definition.1

1 William C. Davis, Reason for the Hope Within (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1999), p. 30.


  1. Matthew September 11, 2009

    Kant was quite right when he said that including existence in the concept of something doesn't make sense, but there are problems with this criticism.

  2. Jonathan West September 12, 2009

    If this is the season for ontological proofs, you might be interested in Douglas Gasking's ontological proof of the nonexistence of God

    1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

    2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

    3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

    4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

    5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being — namely, one who created everything while not existing.

    6. Therefore, God does not exist.

    Now, of course, Gasking's "proof" is a parody. But it is in the same form and uses the same premises as Anselm's original, specifically that existence (or nonexistence) is a property, and that one can make comparisons of merit and deduce perfection or lack of it from existence or nonexistence. That a proof in the same form can lead to the opposite result causes one to draw the inevitable conclusion that both "proofs" must contain some logical flaw that renders them invalid.

  3. Matthew September 13, 2009

    Hi Jonathan,
    there might as well be other problems with this argument, for example that (1) says "The universe is awesome because it was created by a non-existent creator".

  4. Kirk September 15, 2009

    I believe that Anselm's argument is very powerful. It is not as much of an argument for the existence of God. But it is more an argument for the existence of the Biblical God. In other words, the God of the Bible is vastly superior to all other gods, as He has all the attributes that make Him the greatest possible being. No other god exhibits all the attributes of the Biblical God. And if they did, they would end up arguing for the Biblical God. This is how I was taught the value in this argument.