Anselm's Discovery
A Re-Examination of the Ontological Proof for God's Existence

by Charles Hartshorne

This is a book report on Anselm's Discovery: A Re-Examination of the Ontological Proof for God's Existence, by Charles Hartshorne, Open Court Publishing Co., La Salle IL, 1991. (First printing, 1965.)

Charles Hartshorne is a processive philosopher, a disciple of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead is probably best known for Principia Mathematica, co-authored with Bertrand Russell. Process philosophy arose about the same time as logical positivism, and like it is a reaction to, and criticism of, the Hegelian idealism that dominated philosophy in the late 19th century. However, the two forms of philosophy have little else in common.

Unlike positivism, process philosophy is firmly metaphysical. However, it inverts several old priorities of philosophy; it declares Becoming to be more fundamental than Being and the Concrete to be more basic and real than the Ideal or Abstract. These features have an effect on Hartshorne's treatment of Anselm, but you do not need a detailed knowledge of process philosophy, or be in agreement with it, to understand or agree with Hartshorne's book.

The book divides into two parts. The first part discusses Anselm's argument and the various comments and criticisms of it. The second is a historical survey of philosophers' reactions to the argument through the ages. The book has several themes, which I shall cover in the following text.

Part 1: Anselm's Argument

The principle theme, of course, is Anselm's argument for the existence of God. This comes from a short paper by Anselm, written around 1070, called the "Proslogium." This paper actually contains two ontological arguments. The first is, it seems, hastily written and not convincing or valid to most philosophers. The second is much more carefully written, and, claims Hartshorne, is valid.

This brings us to the second theme of the book, intertwined with the first and almost rivaling it. Hartshorne claims most philosophers have mis-read Anselm, even if they agreed with him. In fact, in most cases Hartshorne can find no evidence that the other philosophers have read Anselm at all. Hardly any seem to have read as far as the second argument. In most cases, they address only the first argument and ignore (or are ignorant of) the second entirely. "The possibility of such collective blindness," says Hartshorne, "helps to make intellectual life exciting. There is always the chance of seeing clearly for the first time what implicitly many have been looking for."

(If Anselm's "Proslogium" is so short, and if Hartshorne is so anxious that it should be understood in full, then why didn't he include a translation of it in an appendix? This is my main criticism of the book.)

The first, shorter, form of the argument can be summarized as follows: "Consider a being perfect in every way. To exist is more perfect than not to exist, so such a being would have to exist. Therefore the perfect being exists."

The first critic of Anselm was his contemporary, a monk named Gaunilo. Like almost all subsequent critics, he addressed only the first argument, and brought up the now-famous "Island Paradox ."

The Island Paradox rebuts this argument by replacing the word "being" in the above argument with the word "island." One would seem to have a proof for the existence of the perfect island, or for that matter, the perfect turnip or perfect devil.

Modern critics of the first form of this argument have said that the problem arises because the argument treats "existence" as one more property of the being/island/turnip/devil under discussion, whereas, without existence first, there is no subject to be perfect or imperfect.

Anselm wrote a reply to Gaunilo, in which he repeats and comments on his second argument, but this reply too is neglected by almost everyone who writes about Anselm, pro or con.

The second argument may be summarized as follows: "Consider a hypothetical supreme being. To be supreme, it would have to have every quality that it is better to have than not to have. In particular, it would have to have the property of necessity – that is, being independent of anything else for its existence. (The opposite property is contingency, being contingent upon, depending upon, other agencies for existence.) So, a hypothetical supreme being cannot be contingent; it must be necessary. So, if it exists, it exists necessarily; nothing is needed to produce it, nothing can prevent it. Likewise, since it cannot be contingent, if it does not exist, its nonexistence is necessary; nothing could produce it, it is impossible."

Anselm goes on to assume, rather than prove, that God is not impossible, and thus must exist. Hartshorne identifies this assumption as an act of faith. It can be defended, in part, by refuting any arguments put forward for God's impossibility.

Hartshorne divides opinions on God into four positions:

Anselm's argument, Hartshorne says, does away with the two empirical positions. God either must exist or He cannot. (Though I suppose agnosticism can survive after accepting Anselm's proof if you are not sure which of the two a priori positions is true. In a similar manner, Fermat's Last Theorem is either necessarily true or necessarily false, but no one knew which until 1995.)

Notice that this second form of the argument does not treat existence as a predicate, the way the first form does. The predicates it concerns itself with are supremacy and necessity. This is another repeated theme of the book.

Notice also that Anselm does not simply hypothesize a necessary being. The non-contingent status of that being is put forward as a corollary to its supremacy. This is a fourth theme of the book.

Here is the actual argument itself, in the form of modern modal logic, the symbollic logic done by Hartshorne, with English translation by me:


p = "something perfect exists"

N = "it is necessary that" qualifier, so "Nx" = "it is necessary that x"

~ = logical not operator, so "~x" = "not x"

→ = logical implication, so "a → b" = "a implies b"

v = logical or operator, "a v b" = "a or b"

  1. p → Np     (postulate from Anselm: perfection cannot exist contingently)
    "If a perfect being exists, then it exists necessarily."

  2. ~N~p     (postulate from Anselm: perfection is not impossible)
    "Perfection is not impossible. (It is not necessary that a perfect being does not exist.)"

  3. Np → p     (modal axiom)
    "If a perfect being exists necessarily, then it does exist."

  4. Np v ~Np     (principle of excluded middle)
    "Either it is necessary that a perfect being exists or it is not necessary that a perfect being exists."

  5. ~Np → N~Np     (Becker's postulate (modal status is necessary) applied to ~p)
    "If it is not necessary that a perfect being exists, then it is necessary that it is not necessary that a perfect being exists."

  6. Np v N~Np     (substitution, from steps 4 and 5)
    "It is necessary that a perfect being exists or it is necessary that it is not necessary that a perfect being exists."

  7. N~Np → N~p     (modal modus tollens, from step 1)
    "If it is necessary that it is not necessary that a perfect being exists, then it is necessary that a perfect being does not exist.")

  8. Np v N~p     (substitution, from steps 6 and 7)
    "It is necessary that a perfect being exists or it is necessary that a perfect being does not exist. (God is either necessary or impossible.)"

  9. Np     (disjunctive syllogism, from steps 8 and 2)
    "It is necessary that a perfect being exists (since God is not impossible)."

  10. p     (modus ponens, from steps 9 and 3)
    "A perfect being exists."

History of the Argument

One of the few modern criticisms of Anselm that Hartshorne finds cogent is by a philosopher named Findlay. Findlay argues that a God Whose nature is necessary is nothing but an abstraction, and Hartshorne agrees with him. This brings up another theme of the book, Hartshorne's threefold distinction between essence, existence, and actuality, and his repudiation of the doctrine of divine immutability.

Western philosophy has long studied the duality of essence (what a thing is, its nature) and existence (that a thing is, the fact of being). In the case of God, classical theology claims essence and existence are one thing. Anselm proposes to elucidate that union, showing how God's essence entails His existence.

But, if all the details of God's nature are necessary, then God is just like the number 17, or the Pythagorean Theorem, or a Euclidean dodecahedron – an abstract entity, the same in all possible worlds, to Whom nothing can happen, and Who can really do nothing. (What does 17 do? You have to live with its numerical properties, but it isn't going to take any initiative.)

Hartshorne answers this by distinguishing between abstract existence and actuality or concrete existence. If God is to be supreme, He must have (and have supremely) the power to react, and that means that aspects of God must be contingent, since sensitive and appropriate reaction is contingent upon the inciting actions.

Hartshorne, then, does not take the ontological argument as giving a complete picture of God. It only addresses His abstract features – e.g. to be God, He must be omnipotent and omniscient, just as to be a woman, one must be female, adult, and human. There are multitudes of divine features that the argument does not address, God's contingent ones, such as what kind of natural laws He has decided to instate, what commands He gave to Moses, or what He thinks of your behavior or mine. As Hartshorne puts it, Anselm's argument shows that God is "necessarily somehow existing," but only somehow; it does not specify exactly how.

The historical review in the second half of the book is an interesting essay in the history of ideas. It covers predecessors of Anselm, as well as his principle commentators. And it lays to rest (for those who read it) a question I have often heard put to theists. Carl Sagan posed it in his "Cosmos" series. The question is Who made God? along with the implication that this is a gaping hole in the fabric of theology.

It may be a gaping hole in many personal theologies, but Hartshorne shows that the great monotheist theologians as far back as Plato, even those who disagreed with Anselm or lived before him, have taught that God exists of necessity, His essence and existence united.

The Supremacy of Necessity

The argument posits that existing by necessity is better than existing contingently. Why should we believe this?

The reason Hartshorne gives for preferring necessary existence to contingent existence is that it makes the necessary being perfectly independent. It does not depend on any other being or circumstance to come into existence (if it does, in fact, exist). It has, so to speak, no vital needs.

And since the circumstances for necessary existence (i.e. any circumstances whatever) always obtain, a necessary being is indestructible. A necessary being is infinitely adaptable. It is also inevitable; it could never be prevented.

I can think of another advantage to being necessary. If a thing is contingent, then its causes are beyond its scope to affect. A necessary thing has no contingent cause and so can affect all contingent beings and events.

Circumstantial Supremacy vs. Built-In Supremacy

When I originally wrote this review, one of the members of the forum replied that his children would certainly say that it is better to have birthdays than not to have them, but God has no birthday.

What is the element of value in a birthday? Presumably having the party. But the property of having the party depends on circumstances, not on the guest of honor alone.

Similarly, and a bit more grandly, it would be better if God were universally worshipped and obeyed. But He isn't. However, lacking that property does not diminish His supremacy because it is an extrinsic, relational property. It is not a property of God in Himself, or a property that relates God to any possible world.

The Cosmic Muffin

Many people object to the ontological argument as just a shuffling of symbols, a beating of the air, a juggling of grandiose labels. I share the feeling, somewhat, which is why I would prefer substituting the category of "ability" for the category of "supremacy" or "goodness" in the argument.

One commenter said he felt the argument depended on viewing God as an "intellectualized primate alpha male." But Anselm and Hartshorne are here concerned with what philosophy alone can say of God, with the "Cosmic Muffin" rather than the "Hairy Thunderer," as it says in "The Deteriorata." ("Go placidly amid the noise and waste, and know that security lies in owning a portion thereof. ... Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, whether Hairy Thunderer or Cosmic Muffin....")

At the end of the first part of his book, Hartshorne remarks, "Belief here of course means only belief in God. No special doctrine of any church or group is involved, unless it, or its denial, is deducible from the conceivability of Greatness. Such matters as Anselm's special beliefs about the Church, the Trinity, and the Incarnation are at best subsidiary to the main religious belief, belief in a God Who is unsurpassably all that it is better to be than not to be, just so far as unsurpassability is logically possible, and who is surpassable exclusively by Himself, so far as this mode of exclusive surpassability is possible." ("Greatness" with a capital G is Hartshorne's own code word corresponding to the sense I have been giving to "supremacy.")

In general, philosophical theology seldom takes one further into the Bible than Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," and often it does not even go so far.

The most characteristically Judeo-Christian thing about the argument as presented by Anselm and Hartshorne, I think, is that it presents God as a concrete individual, rather than, say, a state (like Nirvana), a process (like the Tao), a quality (like Buddha-nature and maybe Brahm), or everything (like Hegel's Absolute, or other forms of pantheism).

But is that important to the validity of the argument? I do not recall that anyone has put forward ontological proofs of these other ultimates. And it is not at all clear to me that they are generally incompatible with the idea of God as a concrete thing. (For instance, I myself am both a concrete individual and a process; Hartshorne, a process philosopher, readily declares God and all other individuals to be processes; Anselm's fellow Christian theologians described God as "pure act." Nirvana might be the same as apprehension of the quality of God, which might be the same as Buddha-nature. Jews and Christians generally balk at pantheism, but still insist that God is immanent in all things.)

It is true that the argument is a matter of pure logic divorced from experience, but this is because it is about necessity. Whatever things are necessary are the same in all possible worlds, under all possible kinds of experience. That is largely what unconditional "necessity" means.

If, as Anselm and Hartshorne claim, God's ontological status is necessary (whether that status is existent or nonexistent), then neither the ontological status nor its necessity depends on particular circumstance. Like a mathematical proposition, either might be discoverable by sheer analysis. (Might be. Many, but not all, mathematical propositions are discoverable by analysis. But what Hartshorne claims is to demonstrate by analysis the necessity of that ontological status.)

It is important to keep two things distinct – ontological status (existent or not) and modal status (necessary or not). Both the empty set and an even prime number greater than 2 have the same modal status; both are necessary. But they have opposite ontological status; the empty set exists (in the set-theoretic sense), the large even prime does not. When Hartshorne used the title "Anselm's Discovery," he referred to the disocvery that God's nature entails necessity, not that it entails existence. Though of course Anselm, Hartshorne, and I all think God exists; He is necessary, and not impossible.

The Religious Payoff

The idea of God described by the ontological argument precludes some forms of religion while promoting others. For instance, according to the ontological argument, God can have no origin, so myths and festivals celebrating His birth, in the manner of the tales of foam-born Aphrodite or the infant Zeus hidden from Cronos, are ruled out. (Christmas comes close, but here the birth is not the origin of a deity.)

Similarly, since the argument is all about supremacy, it puts a crimp in polytheism, if it doesn't rule it out entirely. Multiple supremes are hard to handle, to say the least. If the religion had multiple gods, all but one of them would be "sub-supreme."

More immediately, Hartshorne's form of the ontological argument declares a God Who is not only omnipotent and omniscient, but supernally responsive, and thus a God worth praying to.

More theologically, the argument lets one infer many of God's traditional attributes. Power is better than weakness, so God is supremely powerful. Knowledge is better than ignorance, so God is supremely wise. Benevolence is better than malevolence, so God is morally perfect. I (tentatively) derive moral goodness from ability by the claim that virtue is the power of the will to pursue interests besides its own. This is the basic nature of charity, which God exhibits supremely. (Necessary existence is better than contingent existence, so God, if He exists at all, exists necessarily.)

The Somewhat Unknowable

One of the original readers of this review objected to the argument on the grounds that a "necessary being" seemed unintelligible, unknowable.

Yes, we are dealing with the unknowable. But there are degrees and kinds of unknowability. I doubt that we know everything about anything, except perhaps some trivial abstractions. Similarly, if we know strictly nothing about something, ... well, then there is nothing to say or think about it.

The idea of a necessary being is an unfamiliar one, but if you are looking for an imaginative or intuitive approach to it, I think there are some possible paths. Personally, I tend to imagine a necessary being as the ontological analog of what a necessary truth is in logic, an "analytic truth," like the rule of the excluded middle.

The idea of an impossible being is pretty clear. There are many popular examples – a round square, for instance. There is also the large even prime number I've mentioned under this topic, or Russell's paradoxical barber, or a five-legged quadruped. Just as these are things that can not exist, a necessary being is one that must exist. The catch is that, while the impossible ones cited are clearly impossible, the necessary ones may not be as clearly necessary.

The idea of a necessary truth is also pretty clear. "1+1=2" for example. (Of course, you can contrive to make that string mean something false, but only by altering the usual meanings of the symbols.) Other necessary truths are just as necessary but less obvious; they are the logical implications of the simpler necessary truths. If God exists, then, according to Hartshorne, the statement "God exists" is an example of an (unobvious) necessary truth.

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