Matthews & Baker’s Simplified Ontological Argument


Gareth B. Matthews and Lynne Rudder Baker explained that Anselm’s ontological argument continues to fascinate philosophers as it still finds sophisticated defenders and critics.  Matthews and Baker offered a dialogue-form version to restore the simplicity they believe is ignored or misrepresented of Anselm’s argument.

They offered a simplified argument as follows:

Anselm: (in prayer) You, O God, are something than which nothing greater can be conceived.

Fool: (i.e. atheist, who has overheard Anselm’s prayer) God is just an object of the imagination.

Anselm: So you agree that the something than which nothing greater can be conceived is at least an object of the imagination; it is therefore something conceivable.

Fool: All right, it is conceivable. But it isn’t real. It has been conceived to provide an ideal object of worship. It doesn’t exist in reality.

Anselm: Would it be greater to have unmediated causal powers than it would be to have only mediated causal powers?

Fool: Of course it would be greater to have unmediated causal powers; but God doesn’t have any. Being just an idea made up to provide, as I have just said, an appropriate object of worship, God has only mediated causal powers, that is, powers through the believers in God. They do all sorts of things in the belief that they are fulfilling God’s will. However, in and of himself, God has no causal powers whatsoever.

Anselm: So, according to you, something than which nothing greater can be conceived is only an idea in people’s minds and therefore has only mediated causal powers.

Fool: You got it right.

Anselm: But then a greater than God can be conceived, namely, something than which nothing greater can be conceived that actually has unmediated causal powers. According to you, something than which nothing greater can be conceived, by having only mediated causal powers, is something than which a greater can be conceived. By contradicting yourself in this way you have offered an indirect proof, that is, a reductio ad absurdum, that God, i.e. something than which nothing greater can be conceived, actually exists. (Matthews & Baker 2010, 211 )

What is your thoughts on Matthews & Baker’s simplified ontological argument?


Matthews, Gareth B. &  Baker, Lynne Rudder (2010) The ontological argument simplified. Analysis Vol 70 | Number 2 | April 2010 | pp. 210–212 doi:10.1093/analys/anp164  © The Authors 2009. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Trust.


8 thoughts on “Matthews & Baker’s Simplified Ontological Argument

  1. Prayson, a very helpful dialogue for me. Is right to say then, that the conclusion is this: The greatest possible being must truly exist in order to qualify for such a title. Therefore it would be a fallacy to say that the greatest possible being can only be conceived in the mind, for it possible to conceive of this being in existence as well. So, it is impossible to only imagine this greatest being without it truly existing, therefore, God must exist. Would this be a right understanding?

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  3. I think it’s a fascinating argument but does it really go any further than the ability to conceive of something infinitely great. being able to imagine a God of unsurpassed greatness does not prove His existence. (though I personally do believe in such a God)

    • It is very fascinating. Almost all giants in philosophy after Anselm danced with it. If by imagine you mean conceive, then Anselm would probably explain that if you can imagine a being A of unsurpassed greatness in mind, then you can imagine a being B that exist in your mind and reality. B, everything being equal, will be a being of unsurpassed greatness, because it exists both in your mind and in reality. But this leads to absurdity, A is then not a being with unsurpassed greatness, since B has surpassed A.

      So if God is a being of unsurpassed greatness, God necessarily exists both in mind and in reality, for if God exists only in mind, then God will not be a being of unsurpassed greatness. But God (if exists) is a being of unsurpassed greatness. Therefore God cannot exists only in mind. Therefore God exists.

  4. I suspect that the atheist could respond by saying that being able to refer to something in conversation does not grant it ontological status. He could be referring to “idea of God in Anselm’s head,” which uncontroversially exists. If nothing greater can be conceived than the idea in Anselm’s head, it does not follow that this idea obtains on the world anymore than the idea of a unicorn obtains.

    And, if this greatest-conceivable-thing exists only as long as it is being conceived, I suppose the fool could feel satisfied.

    • Anselm would ask the atheist if he can conceived the idea of God that he believe is in Anselm’s head. If he can, then that the idea of God in Anselm’s head is in atheist’s head. Then it would follow that God,the greatest conceivable being, exists, since necessary existence is a greatness-making property.

      If the atheist cannot conceive of the idea of God in Anselm’s head, then he is in no position to point out what is in Anselm’s head.

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