In a nutshell, Anselm's Ontological Argument states that given a God defined as "a being than which none greater can be imagined" it follows that this God must exist.

It seems to me that this argument can easily fall apart with the following reasoning:

Irrespective of the exact meaning of the adjective “greater”, there will be many properties contributing to being greater and other properties that are not related. For instance, being beautiful, being strong and having the power to blow up planets could be all properties contributing to being greater, therefore God would be the most beautiful, the strongest and would have the power to destroy planets. On the opposite side, being funny or being black haired are not properties that make any difference for being greater (this depends on the definition of greater of course, but given a definition there will always be properties that are not related).

Now, “existing in reality” is a property that an entity can have or not have. There are two possibilities, either “existing in reality” is a property contributing to being greater or it’s not.

If not, then there is no implication greater —> “existing in reality”.

If yes, then the argument is circular, since we postulated what we wanted to prove.

Are there any flaws in this reasoning?

  • 2
    In the middle ages all relevant properties were separated into perfections and privations, both being capable of ranking, "greater" means ranked no less on all perfections, and higher on at least one. Anselm takes that existence in reality is a perfection as obvious, circularity is not really a problem for him since the point is to elucidate what even a "fool" already knows, if obscurely. There are plenty of well-known problems with both the perfection/privation distinction and the idea that existence is a property, but those are his terms.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 22:39
  • 1
    Welcome to Philosophy Stack exchange. This question is well formed, but it seems to me like you're asking for verification of your argument. This isn't a bad thing, but the obvious extension to this question is 'how can the reasoning be refined or improved?' My personal view is that the real problem with the Anselm argument is that the definition of 'God' merely applies to the 'greatest' being you know of. There's no bar to jump. I would have augmented it with 'a being which fits these parameters AND is greatest imaginable...'
    – Tim B II
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 22:49
  • Thank you for the feedback. Conifold: Look in my comment to jobemark. @Tim B: I agree that the definition is questionable, but I would like to not do so, and reason with Anselm assumptions.
    – Rexcirus
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 8:20
  • You can see St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument: "There is an enormous literature on the material in Proslogion II-III. Some commentators deny that St. Anselm tried to put forward any proofs of the existence of God. Even among commentators who agree that St. Anselm intended to prove the existence of God, there is disagreement about where the proof is located." 1/2 Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 8:25
  • 1
    Mathematically, this is why the existential ("there exists") and universal ("for all") quantifiers are treated differently than regular propositions. Non-existence is not a property something can have.
    – user935
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 15:47

3 Answers 3


To be fair, the notion is really 'more perfect', 'more free of defect' or 'closer to ideal', rather than 'greater'.

Anselm would consider not existing in reality to be a defect, so whatever does not exist in reality could be better if it were to exist in reality. So if you decided God were not real, you did not actually correctly identify the thing most free of defects as God. So there is a real implication there. You have taken a candidate for perfection and improved it by removing a flaw. That is not circular or degenerate.

But that candidate would have to exist. The first part of the deduction does have the weakness you indicate. The notion that the lattice of perfect or defect-free things has a single maximal value is kind of bizarre, given that we know that, for instance, the lattice of integers doesn't. We can create one, slap it on there, and name it 'infinity' but it does not actually exist, and proposing it creates all kinds of confusion and numerous contradictions to be evaded. It can only exist outside the integers...

There is also a basic problem with the idea that 'existing in reality' is a property things can have or not have. Where do we keep the things that do not exist in reality -- do we have another place to put them, other than reality? In fact things might exist 'modally', as fictional ideas, as potential creations, as inchoate wishes, etc... but the idea of 'reality' is a red herring, since any given notion of reality will include some of these and exclude others, kind of according to taste.

  • I've taken the definition with "greater" from Wikipedia, but the terms that you mention should adapt too. I still think that the reasoning is circular. To show it in a more blatant fashion, one could ask: Is the 'more perfect', 'more free of defect' or 'closer to ideal' being the strongest being? Of course it is, since being weaker than someone would contradict being 'closer to ideal'. In my view a legit question is something like: Is the most trained man in the world the strongest being? This not obvious, and it may be or not.
    – Rexcirus
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 8:07
  • By the way, between the two possibilities I would choose the one that @Conifold labels as "fool", that is in my view it's not obvious that existing in reality is a good property, therefore I see no implication 'greater' --> existing. It may be, it's very reasonable, but still I could give a positive acceptation to things not existing in reality, like a giant gold unicorn. For instance things not existing in reality cannot be killed or destroyed in reality.
    – Rexcirus
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 8:12
  • I disagree with your last paragraph, I see no issue in distinguishing between things existing in reality or not. (Ok, if we want to be punctilious we should define what reality is... and that would be a problem!!)
    – Rexcirus
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 8:14
  • What you don't see is irrelevant to me. The profession in general cannot decide whether fictions or wishes are in realty or not. So an arbitrary decision by an individual is just ignorance.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 1:40
  • Your other two comments show an equal refusal to think or care about what other people do think. So there is no point in speaking to you.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 1:49

Anselm's alleged definition is:

"God is a being than which none greater can be imagined"

That's the same thing as saying:

"Nothing greater can be imagined than the being than which none greater can be imagined"

So my question is:

"What being are you talking about imagining"?

If your answer to that is Anselm's alleged definition, i.e.,

"a being than which none greater can be imagined"

Then you are saying

"Nothing greater can be imagined than a being than which none greater can be imagined"

Then I say:

All the beings I am able to imagine are finite sized material beings, such as human beings. Are you saying "God is a finite-sized material being?".

So I am unable to imagine anything that these words could be talking about, and if I can't imagine anything that has been talked about, then I have only heard some sounds spoken, read some ink squiggles or some lit pixels on a computer screen.

So Anselm's alleged definition is not a definition at all because it doesn't tell me any being to think of, and if you can't think of anything for some words to refer to, then all you have are some words.

  • Anselm expressed himself in terms that are very easy to understand. If you apply your own standards of interpretation to yourself, your answer would be much more meaningless than your claims against Anselm. Or should we assume that you used words such as "finite" and "being" without really understanding what they mean? Are they just squiggles on the computer screen?
    – user3017
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 14:25
  • I have to be able to believe that I could possibly have a concept of something for some word or words to refer to before I can be able to accept that the word or words mean anything at all. And right now, I can't get any concept from Anselm's purported definition of the capitalized three-letter sequence "God"..
    – user8159
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 21:21
  • Well, I can't form a concept of your inability to form a concept.
    – user3017
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 2:01
  • Pé de Leão says Well, I can't form a concept of your inability to form a concept." You didn't say "of God". So are you talking about concepts in general? Indeed I can form concepts of many things, just not of anything to label "that than which nothing greater can be conceived".
    – user8159
    Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 4:37

You say if yes, then the argument is circular, because we've assumed what we wanted to prove. Just to clarify, Anselm is trying to prove that God exists, not that existence is a greater quality, just making sure we're on the same page.

It does not follow directly that because existence is a greater property that the greatest being must exist. In fact, (though I am no expert) I think the key here is something which was pointed out by Kant and echoed by many others, not to exhaust their entire point, but just to borrow, that existence is a unique property (or not a property at all if they have their way). In my opinion, apart from being contradictory, if a property at all, existence is the one thing we cannot give to the definition of a being (or anything else for that matter). I can define a purple, skinny jaberwocky with 5 toes and an affinity for blue cheese, but I cannot define him to exist in reality. It seems Anselm shared my sentiments as this is not what he has done. He set out to prove it, by saying that if the being does not exist, then an existent version can be imagined, and the imagined version would be greater, creating a contradiction, and if the proposition that God does not exist leads to a contradiction, it must be false and God exists.

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