Anselm’s Ontological Argument

The basic argument: If I say “think of the greatest thing EVAR” you know what I mean. It’s obvious. And what’s greater than something you can think of? Something that actually exists! So the greatest thing ever must exist in physical reality. Otherwise it wouldn’t be as great as the thing we’re thinking when someone says “think of the greatest thing EVAR”.

I went with my own translation of the big Latin construction Anselm uses to name g*d: quo maius cogitari non potest. The translation I kept coming across is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”. I hate relative clauses used in this way. It strikes me as one of those serpentine constructions used to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition because English should be like Latin and aren’t we all so learnéd and scholarly. I can certainly see that rhetorically, it’s sometimes necessary to complicate the term you’re using to name g*d (whatever that is), but every time I read this phrasing I have to stop and work out whether the “that” is acting as a pronoun or a conjugation, and what the “than” is referring to, and which thing the “which” is standing in for. It’s annoying. So I started substituting the phrase “the greatest thing EVAR” and that speeded things up.

When Anselm introduces his name for g*d (quo maius cogitari non potest, “greatest thing EVAR”) he says this phrase’s meaning is obvious. That just means the language game we’re using to understand the phrase hasn’t been mucked up with reflection and critical thinking. But just because language allows us to form the phrase “greatest thing EVAR” doesn’t mean it refers to any particular thing. We just hear “thing” and assume we know what things are. We also assume that one of the qualities a thing can have is “being great” because we can say “that’s great!” And then we assume that the quality of greatness can have magnitude because we can say “greater” and “greatest”. But those thoughts are all just games the mind can play with language. There doesn’t have to be any actual physical reference.

There’s also a really big if in Anselm’s argument. He just claims that reality is greater than whatever you’re thinking without going into why we should accept that premise. We just have to accept the premise that reality is greater than whatever we can think of for the argument to work because if reality isn’t necessarily greater than the greatest thing you can think of, then the greatest think you can think of could be the greatest thing EVAR. And if we’re going to define God as the greatest thing EVAR (quo maius cogitari non potest) this opens up the possibility that your thought is God.

On the other hand, if reality is always greater, than what you’re thinking is the greatest can’t be unless the greatest thing EVAR doesn’t actually exist in reality. And if it doesn’t exist, that means that every shitty thing that actually exists must be greater than the thing you’re thinking of. If the greatest thing EVAR does exist in reality, than it’s greater than whatever your think is the greatest. So obviously you’re not trying very hard.

If God exists, he’s probably sick of this recursive thinking by now. At least that’s how I’m imagining him.

And then there’s the whole problem of the Devil. No matter how horrible a thing I think of is, I imagine it would be worse if it were more horrible than the greatest thing is great. And whatever that worse thing is, it would definitely be worse if it actually existed. So apparently it must actually exist.

Did I mention I just saw the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones?

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