Category Archives: Anselm

Very Short Anselm Remix 4U

Recently came across this 1907 intro to a collection of our old friend Anselm’s greatest hits. It seems to me like a surprisingly clear explanation of his position on faith, which as we know has perplexed dozens of people over many centuries.

Anselm, says the writer (a guy named Weber), is sometimes called the “Second Augustine.” And he:

“starts out from the same principle as the first; he holds that faith precedes all reflection and all discussion concerning religious things. The unbelievers, he says, strive to understand because they do not believe; we, on the contrary, strive to understand because we believe. They and we have the same object in view; but inasmuch as they do not believe, they cannot arrive at their goal, which is to understand the dogma. The unbeliever will never understand. In religion faith plays the part played by experience in the understanding of the things of this world.”

For better or worse, sounds about right to me.

Clarifying the Obvious

Happy Monday, Seekers!


The God Project Dot Net World HQ

Let’s start with a clarification. By calling this a Clarification – as opposed, say, to a Correction – I’m trying to imply without saying it out loud that what follows is a point that, in my infectious enthusiasm for the Truth, I may have passed over too lightly on my way to yet more brilliant observations. I’m implying, had I only stopped for breath in my recitation of mind-blowing truths, I might have expounded a tad more on a certain item for those of you in the back row who were tweeting at the time.

So here I am about to clarify the obvious for the people. (By the way, this is one theory about why Anselm’s reply to Gaunilo is so disappointing: he left out the parts of his “Proof” he considered obvious, not realizing that Gaunilo wasn’t getting it.)

Yet I just learned this last night, while walking my dog through a snowdrift so intimidating it scared even her, a Bernese mountain dog: Kant himself created the phrase “ontological argument” to describe these Proofs of Anselm, Descartes, Leibniz, et al. And Kant did not know Anselm’s argument directly: he argued against Descartes. Clear? Good.

Now we were talking about Anselm’s Credo of “Faith seeking understanding.” He’s a believer trying to show that faith is compatible with reason. He’s not a modern dude trying to convince a busload of atheists there is a God. That’s a totally different Project.

Here’s the thing, again: Anselm defines God as That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought (TTWNGCBT) … and proceeds to show how those who have TTWNGCBT in their minds can not fail to see that It exists. In the form of a dialogue, it might go:

ANSELM: Imagine God.

FOOL: Got it.

ANSELM: Can you fail to see that It exists?

FOOL: Actually, yes.

ANSELM: Imagine God.

FOOL: Got it. Wow. Really amazing. Still doesn’t exist, bro.

ANSELM: Imagine God.

It’s a strange argument. Anselm is saying if we really, truly have TTWNGCBT playing on the small screen of our minds then … we can see It MUST exist. We can’t imagine an imaginary God, if we are imagining God.

The Fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” She can imagine whatever she wants, there still ain’t no God. Anselm says: “Imagine God.” This is not the scientific method. Gaunilo and Kant saw it as absurd – a way to conjure up anything we want, like some computer-animated fantasy.

But Anselm isn’t conjuring up just Anything, is he? He’s making claims about Everything: that is, God. There’s an ultimacy in this God that’s complete: It is anything and everything. The Source of all, unchanging, entire, outside of time and space, the perfection of perfections, love and truth Itself.

Another way to put his argument – one less offensive to us moderns – is: “If we think about the concept of ‘Perfection’ long enough, we will realize that we are thinking about something that is, in some way, real.”

We’ll see when we get to Augustine, Platonists like Anselm were fond of looking at the good things in our world and imagining the better things to which they seem to point. We could argue this is pure mysticism, meditating ourselves into a subjective state of believing things no one else can see. Anselm would not agree. He would say: anyone who meditates on this topic ends up in the same place: it is not subjective. It is true.

Augustine describes a similar maybe-mystical experience in Book VII of “The Confessions.” Can we wait?

* Highly Recommended: Medieval arguments for the existence of God are described with greater eloquence and authority by Prof. Thomas Williams in this incredible audio course. Grade: 5 snowballs out of 5!

Saving Private Anselm

Let us always bear in mind the sacred Rule of the Corporate Brainstorm (SRCB):
“There are no stupid ideas, only stupid people.”

The Situation

Prove This!

Our friend King Kong said the type of argument Anselm used can not prove the existence of God. In fact, he proved it could not prove the existence of God. Proofs of the unprovability of proofs only begin to hint at how hard it is to read Kant. But we suffer here at The God Project Dot Net so that you, dear lurker, can enjoy your weekend.

Unless you are in Minneapolis. Last night we went to our prom-themed corporate holiday party, complete with balloons, boutonnieres and a band that’s supposedly blowing up. Coolness abounds; the band sounds like the Ramones. Everything sounds like something else to me, as everyone looks like someone, only younger, which can mean only one thing: I am over forty. (Random aside: Kant was over fifty when he started writing what we still read today.)

So I’m at this pseudo-prom surrounded by dancing Scandinavians and I’m wondering how I got to be here, after 20 years in the Center of the Known World. And POP!: I realize my angle on living is Anselmian. Listen to this, over the band:

“I do not seek to understand in order to have faith but I have faith in order to understand. For I believe even this: I shall not understand unless I have faith.”

This is Anselm’s infamous Credo: “Faith seeking understanding,” also in the “Proslogion.” It’s not a Fundie-type statement: he’s just saying he (1) makes a commitment, (2) proceeds, and (3) understands all the nit-picky details later, if ever.

Isn’t this incredibly human? Isn’t Anselm just Keeping It Real? Why am I in Minneapolis, after all? My wife did the P.T. Barnum hard-sell for years, true, but it came down to a day when I thought: “Let’s do this.” Rational? Not in a way that would impress King Kong. It was a leap into the mystic void based on little more than a feeling, part-reason, and faith in our little family’s nuclear adaptability.

And now that I’m writing out loud, seems to me like exactly those decisions based on cold, hard reason that have turned out to bite me in the balloon. I mention one: my rational goal, for so many years, was to own an apartment in Manhattan. Sound thinking. The height of rationality, right? I got one. Want to buy it from me? Please?

Anselm said: “It is quite possible to think of something whose nonexistence cannot be thought of.” Tell that to an atheist. But the truth is, Anselm himself did such a thing: thought of something whose nonexistence cannot be thought of. Had an undeniable conviction of Truth based on some hard evidence … and something else.

What? Augustine has a similar experience in “The Confessions.” We’ll get there, little gorillas. We’ll get there together.


The Thing

Here’s the thing. King Kong Kant is depressing, at least to us here at TGPDN. We mourn. His simple statement that “Existence is not a predicate” seems to put a death-squeeze (or whatever King Kong’s technique is called) on the ontological pursuit of proving the existence of God using only our minds.

Rachel Zoe

Running from Kant

It gets worse. In the words of our secret celebrity crush, this is “pretty major!” There’s this thing called metaphysics, the discipline concerned with fundamental truths. For a millenium before Anselm, metaphysics included in its gorilla-hug a lot of what we today would call science (like cosmology and astronomy), philosophy, and theology (God’s existence).

You can see this in Anselm: He’s definitely doing philosophy (proceeding step-by-step from axioms, and so on) … theology, obviously … and science?

Stop all the clocks; cut off the telephone. I feel like we’re at the heart of matter here. Why Anselm – who was, let’s remember, an actual MONK – was so excited by a “Proof” that seems so obviously flawed to modern people. Why somebody like Kant found it such an easy target.

We modern types have a clear division in our minds: there’s Science, derived from the senses or things we have built to enhance them (like telescopes) … and there’s Speculation, including theology. Seems obvious, right: If something is not derived from sense evidence it is Speculation, which is unproven, open to debate, and – let’s face it – probably wrong.

Pre-moderns like Anselm did not think this way. There was no such split. It wouldn’t even occur to little Anselm that there was a categorical difference between what was revealed to him in his Speculation and something else called … well, a Proof.

So here’s what Kant does: he makes this difference explicit. He says proof of existence requires scientific evidence. Otherwise it isn’t proof. He and his cabal cleaved apart philosophy, science and theology, maybe forever!

He diabolically chauffeurs us to a location where God is just an educated guess, a hobby – a perfectly respectable belief, but not one that need engross us.
This is something people organize their LIVES around? Are they HIGH?

Hume may have been the first bold atheist in the great books canon, but there’s something about how utterly, meticulously, surgically Kant pisses on the burning fire of God that made religious thinkers get defensive (19th century), self-righteous (20th century) and finally just rude (21st century). Kant makes self-doubt a modern way of life. Danke, Herr Kong!

So where are we in our search for God? Anywhere?

Hmmm. There’s two ways to go here. Aquinas came up with proofs for God based on observations about the world (bottom-up). We’ll have to look at those. The other way is back to Anselm.

See, I think he’s been misunderstood. Augustine can help us here. Don’t give up yet. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness begins … slowly … to comprehend … 🙂

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

As we were saying, Anselm’s argument in the “Proslogion” is called the “ontological argument” because it moves from the thought of God to Its existence (ontology = being). He said that if you can conceive of a being as perfect as God in your mind then you are not capable of saying that It does not exist.

Fantasy Island

Gaunilo of Marmoutiers

This logic turns out to be remarkably easy to parody (which doesn’t make it wrong, of course). Right away, a Benedictine contemporary of Anselm’s named Gaunilo of Marmou-tiers invented the famous “Lost Island” ha-ha that seemed to put a stake in the heart of the proof.

Gaunilo called his brilliant, 8-part riposte to Anselm “On Behalf of the Fool” (i.e., the atheist mention in Psalm 14:1). Imagine an island, he says:

“… which, because of the difficulty (or rather the impossibility) of finding that which does not exist, some have called the ‘Lost Island.’ … It is superior in every respect … to all those other lands that are inhabited by people.”

This is the real Fantasy island. No greater island can be conceived. Using Anselm’s logic, Gaunilo said, for this island to exist would be even greater than for it not to exist. Ergo, it exists. But it doesn’t. So it’s the argument itself that’s absurd, not the island:

“I say that if anyone wanted to persuade me in this way that this island really exists beyond all doubt, I should either think that they were joking, or I should find it hard to decide which of us I ought to think of as the bigger fool.”

As a monk, Gaunilo presumably was a believer – just not in Anselm’s logic.

Our friend responded to Gaunilo in a way that has disappointed fans for 900 years. He said the monk misunderstood him, but didn’t really say why. What we have here is a failure of communication.

Anselm’s argument is a slippery one. It feels like there’s something wrong with it but it’s not clear exactly what. Obviously, there’s a difference between God and Fantasy Island, but what?

The problem seems to lie here: Anselm’s parodists all rely on the assumption that Anselm claimed “to exist is greater than not to exist.” But that’s not what he says; he says that IF you are capable of conceiving the greatest possible thing ever, THEN you will be unable to conceive of it not existing.

He’s preaching to the choir – his motto was “Faith seeking understanding,” which starts with Faith. Although he did claim in the intro to his proof that an open-minded atheist “could at least convince himself of most of these things by reason alone … if he is even moderately intelligent.”

Feeling Proovy

Hello, girls!

We were talking about little Anselm, the 11th century Italian-French dreamer who proved the existence of God. Or did he?

Something of an intellectual athlete, Anselm wrote a complicated classical-style work called the “Monologion” that presented a portfolio of proofs nobody reads anymore. Then he realized his pretzel-chain of logic was too curvy for something as simple as God. So he went back to work.

The effort in which he formulated his famous proof was more of a meditation on faith than a piece of classical philosophizing. Called the “Proslogion,” the key, much-noodled-over passage goes like this:

“It is quite possible to think of something whose nonexistence cannot be thought of. This must be greater than something whose nonexistence can be thought of. So if this thing … can be thought of as not existing, then, that very thing … is not that than which a greater cannot be thought. This is a contradiction.”


Try this instead:

  1. Define God as the thing that is so great nothing greater can even be conceived
  2. In other words, God is “That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought” (famous phrase)
  3. Now imagine this God does not exist
  4. You can’t – as Anselm says, what you’re thinking is “a contradiction”
  5. How so?
  6. Because if you are thinking of a God who exists only in your mind – not in reality – than you are NOT thinking of the greatest thing ever
  7. Why not?
  8. Because it is “greater” to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind
  9. QED
  10. There is no #10
  11.  This proof does not go to 11

Tomorrow: The famous “Lost Island” — Or, how a contemporary of Anselm seemed to utterly destroy this argument …


Now that we’re comfortable, let’s play a game. Okay, close your eyes. Are they closed?

SheepNow that I’m talking to the people who are not sheep, let’s proceed. Make some reasonable statement any rational person could condone – say, that some people are better than others at playing the piano. No miracles, revelations or other nonsense.

Make another statement that seems to follow logically from the first. Hmm. Maybe that the idea of “better” implies a hierarchy of skills … as people get better they get more “perfect” … no matter how good somebody is, it’s still possible to imagine somebody more perfect … and so on.

Remember: No miracles!

You’re reenacting the infamous Medieval project of trying to prove the existence of God using reason alone.

Two proofs stand out here, like smart goats at the top of a mountain. We’re afraid. If either of them work – that is, really prove that God exists – we here at The God Project Dot Net will have to hang up our routers, detach our dongles, and go back to digital marketing. Our work here on Earth would be complete.

Anselm was a distractable young monk in 11th century France. His mind drifted during the doxology and reeled during the recitation of the Hours. His conclusion: He was being tempted by Satan. Or: He was a philosopher.

One day he rushed back to his cold, dark cell and committed what became known as the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. It’s the single best-known “proof” ever.

What did he say?