212: The Proof of God by Larry Witham

by Gerard


212: Witham, Larry. The Proof of God: The Debate that Shaped Modern Belief. New York: Atlas & Co., 2008. 195 pp. ISBN 978-0-9777433-6-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 200: Religion
  • 210: Philosophy and theory of religion
  • 212: Existence, ways of knowing, and attributes of God

In the late 1070s CE, Anselm, a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Bec hit upon a wondrous proof of the existence of God. Being a monk, it was rather in his best interest to ensure that one could not think away God’s being, but the argument he devised has guided religious logic for nearly 1,000 years. The Ontological Argument, as it has since been named has influenced the writings of Ockham, Descartes, and Bertrand Russell. On the other side, Anselm has garnered Thomas Aquinas, Kant, and David Hume as detractors. Larry Witham’s The Proof of God is a chronicle of the life of Anselm, and how his work and politics shaped modern religion.

Anselm was caught between the Church of Rome and the English monarch at a time when the relationship was tenuous at best. His rise from novice monk to Abbot of Bec, then to the Archbishop of Canterbury was not without its problems. Twice during his career he was exile from his post. Rather than a politician or a diplomat, Anselm was a religious man and philosophical man through and through. His proof of God is interesting in its simplicity:

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.

This tight circle is understandably an a posteriori construction and not inductive at all, but philosophers have been stewing over it since the 11th century. Witham’s summary of the proof and the lives of those it affected is very well done and nicely researched. Philosophy and religion buffs alike will find something to chew on here and it really helps the reader navigate the ontological argument cleanly. A very interesting read.