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

By Charles Hartshorne | Go to book overview

3. What the Proof Claims to Prove

First, what did Anselm claim to have accomplished by his Proof? Was it to have demonstrated the existence of God to anyone, no matter what his assumptions? But all proofs, as Anselm knew, have premises; whence the premises? A common answer is, from faith. But in that case, it seems, the proof must be unavailing, except to those who already believe, and for them it should be superfluous! And indeed, if the proof merely derives the existence of God from faith that He exists, it is simply question-begging or circular. Was the thrill of discovery expressed in the Preface to the book concerned with so trivial a matter as that from the premise God exists, one can deduce the conclusion, He exists?

Anselm's discovery was more subtle and complex than any of the above notions. It amounts to this: there are persons who believe in the divine existence, and these, if they understand their faith, are the only ones who do understand it; the others, whether they are believers lacking understanding or "unbelievers', are all people who do not clearly know the meaning of 'belief in God'. They may, if they are 'positivists' (to use a modern word), excuse themselves on the ground that they shrewdly suspect no one else knows the meaning either, because indeed 'God' or 'divinity' has no clear meaning. (However, the understanding believer may think that he knows better.) But if (like the 'fool' of the Psalms) they are atheists, that is, persons who admit that they do find a clear meaning in the central religious question, but yet deny the necessity for an affirmative answer, then, Anselm claims to have shown--and some of us

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