Three Reasons Anselm’s Ontological Argument Doesn’t Work For Islands and Ice Cream Cones


Ontological perfection: A simple (non-composed), necessary Being Who is self-existent, omnipresent, and omniscient. In short—God.
Teleological goodness: An object is teleologically good to the extent it succeeds in meeting its intended purpose. Adam was created good, not ontologically perfect.

God is that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived.

Anselm’s ontological argument has kept the church talking for almost a full millennia—that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived. If this Being did not exist, it could not be considered that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived, since the greatest Being would indeed exist.

On the face of it, this argument looks easy enough to refute. Daniel Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, thinks he refutes this argument by appealing to a material object, like an ice cream cone (p. 241). The implication for Anselm’s argument, Dennett thinks, is that because a person could conceive of an ice cream cone than which another greater could not be conceived it must exist! After all, if it were the perfect (maximally great) ice cream cone, it would indeed have to exist!

This is just a lazy (and I’d even say arrogant) jab at the argument since Anselm himself answers this objection in his response to Guanilo. For Anselm, maximal greatnessor perfectioncannot be properly predicated of any created object. All created objects are contingent, that is, dependent on something else for their existence. Therefore, all created objects are a mixture of potentiality and actualityhaving the potential to, for example, go out of existence. Below are three reasons why we must conclude all contingent objects are imperfect:

  1. Contingent objects are imperfect because that which is perfect cannot not exist and contingent objects are contingent precisely because they could possibly not existthey are not necessarily existent. Thus, an island, an ice cream cone, a car, a dog, a table, a cup of coffee, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and a host of other contingent things could possibly go out of existence. They do not need to exist.
  2. Another reason all contingent things are imperfect is because they are a mixture of actuality and potentiality. For something to be ontologically perfect, all of its potentiality would have to be exhausted at once and this is impossible since it would still have the potentiality to go out of existence (its cause could make it go out of existence by not sustaining it), and it would have the potentiality for its potential not to be exhausted (this is absurd). It wouldn’t be self-existent (having a cause to begin with). It would exist in virtue of some other cause. Therefore, all islands, ice cream cones, cars, dogs, tables, cups of coffee, Richards, and Dans are imperfectbeing mixtures of actuality and potentiality.
  3. A third and final reason is because all objects participate in certain transcendental perfections but are not themselves those perfections. For example, an island may be beautiful but it is not itself beauty. A man may be powerful but that man is not himself power. Contingent objects participate in being and are not themselves pure Being. Only necessary Being is pure being and is identified with these perfections (beauty, power, goodness, etc). Islands and men are both contingent, being able to go out of existence, and thus are not perfect but participate in perfection to a greater or lesser degree.

This is not to say that these contingent objects participate in God’s essence in a pantheistic (univocal) sense. They participate in these perfections in an analogical sense. This means that an island reveals something of God’s beauty, and at the same time is unlike God’s beautybeauty being a perfection identified in God alone. In other words, this island reveals to us something about God, and that something is what we call beauty. But this island could never be identified as beauty itself.

Dennett’s mistake is that he’s assuming a univocal relationship between God and His creation, or at least this is what he assumes Christians believe. But this is not the classical articulation. For Anselm, all created objects are imperfect (or not maximally great) in virtue of their contingency.

Thus, the argument cannot be applied to contingent objects.

The argument formally stated may be rendered as follows:

God is that being than which nothing greater can be conceived.

That than which nothing greater can be conceived must exist since that which does not exist cannot be greater than that which does exist.

Therefore, God, being that which no greater can be conceived, must exist.