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In Anselm's ontological argument there is the concept of "that which nothing greater can be conceived" which he argues necessarily exists.

Can his argument also work for the concept of "that which nothing more horrible can be conceived"?

A modern defender of this view in mainstream discourse is:

"Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them."

-Sam Harris, in his blogpost Clarifying The Moral Landscape

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  • why horrible, are we talking about scary stuff like horror movies? in that case yes, there is nothing more horrible than the 'ring' movies Dec 8, 2023 at 14:17
  • What if they turn out to be the same thing?
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 8, 2023 at 14:17
  • Like every peak are not different things.
    – fkybrd
    Dec 8, 2023 at 14:52
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    I suspect the antonym of "great", as used here, would be closer to "inconsequential" or "powerless", rather than "horrible". But what "great" means is a good question. Also, Anselm's argument falls into the category of highly complex arguments that confuse people into concluding that God exists, when it has some very obvious flaw when you simplify it. In this case, the flaw is that his definition of "God" entails greatness, and greatness entails existence - can you see the problem? The argument is starting from the premise that God exists by definition, and therefore proves nothing.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 8, 2023 at 16:48
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    I don't know why people are voting to close this. Sam Harris seriously proposes & utilises this idea in his book The Moral Landscape. Whatever you think of him & his book, this is definitely philosophy. And I think, phrased clearly.
    – CriglCragl
    Dec 9, 2023 at 15:05

4 Answers 4

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It's easy to misunderstand this argument because it comes from a worldview and conceptual context alien to the modern discourse. Classically--in the Neoplatonic tradition that Augustine absorbed into the early church--evil is considered a "privation." In other words, light exists, but darkness is just an absence or "privation" of light. Heat exists, but cold is just an absence of heat. Similarly, the existence of good (or Good) demands an explanation, but evil is just an privation of good.

When you conceive the most horrible thing ever, you're really just picturing a situation where almost all good is absent. The two situations (conceiving the good, conceiving the evil) are therefore not analogous or comparable. The argument makes sense solely in the context of the idea that Realness and Goodness are the same thing, and thus that the upper bound of any Real quality is God, the lower bound is non-existence. The Great and the Good and the Real necessarily coincide in this conception (they are three aspects of the same thing)--the "horrible" cannot be substituted in. (Platonically speaking, becoming more Real would necessarily make the horrible thing LESS horrible. The maximal horrible thing has minimal Real existence.)

It's worth noting that another early non-Christian source of Christian theological concepts is Zoroastrianism, in which good and evil are opposing forces of equal reality and efficacy. This concept had a strong influence on the common Christian folk theology of God and the devil as battling it out over the world, but was considered a heresy by the official church. We have to assume that Anselm is looking at this Platonically, and not as a materialist, or as a Zoroastrian, not just because of the position of the church, because otherwise the argument doesn't make even minimal sense.

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    Right, it is a question of where you put zero on the value scale, like with a thermometer. The Absolute scale has zero at the bottom. The Christian scale of human goodness has zero at the top - we are always deficient. Normal scales put zero in a convenient place, like at the freezing point of water, or no money but no debt also.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 8, 2023 at 16:30
  • Very interesting point. So, to transfer to the horrible argument, since horribleness is removal of existence, then the most horrible thing must necessarily not exist? Like the polar opposite of the greatest thing?
    – yters
    Dec 9, 2023 at 16:28
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    yters - Yes, although it can seem like a strange concept, in the Neoplatonic conception bad things literally don't exist in the Real (ideal) world--they are "shadows on the wall." Compare Psalm 73, especially line 20. Dec 9, 2023 at 22:21
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  1. Anselm states

    Et quidem credimus te esse aliquid, quo nihil maius cogitari possit.

    And indeed we believe that you [God] are something, which no greater one can be conceived.

    The crucial point of Anselm’s proof is

    Et certe id, quo maius cogitari nequit, non potest esse in solo intellectu. Si enim vel in solo intellectu est, potest cogitari esse in re, quod maius est.

    Certainly that, which no greater one can be conceived, cannot not exist only in the mind. If it would exist only in the mind, it can be conceived to exist also in reality, what is greater.

  2. If you replace “great” by “horrible” then carrying over literally Anselms argument gives:

    The most horrible thing cannot exist only as an idea in the mind, it must be conceived also as existing in reality, because existence in reality increases its horribility.

    IMO this would be a correct analogy.

  3. Already a contemporary of Anselm, named Gaunilo, made a similar analogy. Gaunilo introduced the legend of an island which is more exquisit than all other places. As an analogue to Anselm's claim this island must exist because existence in reality increases the exquisitness.

    Gaunilo developed his thought experiment as a rejection of Anselms proof. Anselm later replied to Gaunilo, see M. J. Charlesworth St. Anselm’s Proslogion with a Reply on Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilo and the Author’s Reply to Gaunilo.

    Most scholars reject the validity of Anselm’s ontological conclusion. A remarkable exception was Kurt Goedel, who formalized the argument and considered it a valid argument, see Goedel's ontological proof.

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  • Platonically, goodness coincides with true reality, therefore becoming more Real would make the horrible thing LESS horrible. Of course, Plato's "reality" isn't congruent with what we normally think of as "reality," but I think we can assume Anselm is looking at this Platonically--otherwise the argument doesn't make even prima facie sense. Dec 8, 2023 at 18:30
  • @ChrisSunami Which quote from Plato supports your statement that he identifies goodness with reality? - Do you make a difference between "reality" and "true reality"?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 8, 2023 at 18:34
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    Probably most explicitly stated in the explication of the Allegory of the Cave in the Republic. Admittedly, this is the Neoplatonic read of Plato, not the Aristotelian one. "True Reality" for Plato being the Ideal Realm, as opposed to the physical reality that we are more familiar with in ordinary discourse. Dec 8, 2023 at 18:38
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Since one of Anselm's premises is something like, "It is greater to exist in both reality and the understanding," the argument for an inverse being wouldn't go through, here. For the relevant premise would be, "It is worse to exist in both reality and the understanding," which although true in the sense that it is worse for the worst being to exist in both reality and the understanding than it would be for it to exist in the understanding only, this involves a different sense of greater/lesser than is being used in Anselm's argument. Anselm's use of "greater" is primarily metaphysical, whereas "worse" is primarily moral.

Alternatively, if there is a greatest possible being, then this would also be the worst possible being: one might think that it is metaphysically greater to be both as good as possible (along one dimension) and as evil as possible (along another), although Anselm's eventual moral characterization of the greatest possible being would preclude this.

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Yes, Anselm's argument can prove the existence of virtually anything. The greatest conceivable giant pink elephant must exist in reality, because if it existed only in the mind it would not be as great.

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    This is a very uncharitable read of Anselm's argument. Although it rests on metaphysical assumptions many people would reject in the modern world, it certainly isn't as easily debunked as this makes it seem. If it were that easy, people wouldn't still be talking about it a thousand years later. Dec 8, 2023 at 17:04
  • @MarcoOcram +1 for your unerring assessment. I agree.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 8, 2023 at 17:17
  • I don't believe it's correct to say Anselm's argument can prove the existence of everything. He wrote a dialogue about this very question, whether the most perfect island necessarily exists, and there seemed to be significant differences that kept the perfect island argument from succeeding.
    – yters
    Dec 9, 2023 at 16:22
  • @yters I spent seven years at St. Anselm's College, where my classmates and I were the fortunate recipients of the best education to be had anywhere in the North End of Birkenhead. We were required to memorise all of Anselm's work (in Latin, mind you), and a thrashing awaited any boy who failed to do so. I therefore held Anselm in the highest regard. Nevertheless, I must confront the fact that his argument is unsound. Dec 9, 2023 at 20:04
  • @MarcoOcram but Godel has a formalization of Anselm's argument that is logically valid, which has even been computationally checked, and Bertrand Russell, of all people, thought that Anselm's argument was both valid and sound before he became an atheist (not sure how that happened). So, it's hard for me to see how the argument is obviously bad.
    – yters
    Dec 10, 2023 at 2:50

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