Previous: What is a Game?: Crash Course Games #1
Next: The Economics of Healthcare: Crash Course Economics #29



View count:2,966,801
Last sync:2024-04-13 23:00


Citation formatting is not guaranteed to be accurate.
MLA Full: "Anselm & the Argument for God: Crash Course Philosophy #9." YouTube, uploaded by CrashCourse, 4 April 2016,
MLA Inline: (CrashCourse, 2016)
APA Full: CrashCourse. (2016, April 4). Anselm & the Argument for God: Crash Course Philosophy #9 [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (CrashCourse, 2016)
Chicago Full: CrashCourse, "Anselm & the Argument for God: Crash Course Philosophy #9.", April 4, 2016, YouTube, 09:13,
Today we are introducing a new area of philosophy – philosophy of religion. We are starting this unit off with Anselm’s argument for God’s existence, while also considering objections to that argument.


“That’s a Neigh” David Goehring
All other images via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons by 4.0:


Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios:

Crash Course Philosophy is sponsored by Squarespace.


Want to find Crash Course elsewhere on the internet?
Facebook -
Twitter -
Tumblr -
Support CrashCourse on Patreon:

CC Kids:
Male voice: Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace: share you passion with the world. 

Hank: It's about time we had a serious talk about religion. The philosophy of religion is often confused with theology, which makes sense, because they both take God and religion as their subjects. But theology starts by assuming that God exists, and then figures out what follows. Or theology might try to solve philosophical problems that might arise from a belief in God. But one thing that's never on the table in theology is simply not believing in God. Atheism is not an option. That's what separates the philosophical study of religion from the theological. 

Philosophers take nothing as a given, and that include religious belief. Everything is on the table, and everything needs and argument. So, no area of belief is sacred, and that means even your sacred beliefs are going to need to be examined, and evidence will need to be given. 

Some people say that religion is the one area where you don't need arguments, that faith alone is enough. But philosophers don't take faith for an answer. After all, I might have faith that the moon is made of green cheese, so what? Faith is definitionally unprovable, which makes it, from a philosophical perspective, not valuable.

So, if you're a theist, now's the time to offer some justification for your religious beliefs. And if you're an atheist, it's time for you to pay attention too. No one's off the hook, we all need to pay attention to these arguments, because religion is hugely important. Can you think of many things that have been as influential in shaping history than religious belief? Probably not. So if we can get to the bottom of it, we should. 

(Crash Course Philosophy Intro)

I'll get to God in a minute. But first I want to go over a few other things that the philosophy of religion is not. It's not about believing whatever your parents taught you. Because that doesn't prove anything about the truth of a religious belief. If how you were raised proved something about religious truth, then every religion, and therefore no religion, would be true. So, how you were raised can give you a reason that you hold a certain belief, but it says nothing whatsoever about its truth. 

Philosophy of religion is also not the study of the Bible, because you can't use what's written in a book to prove the truth of the book. You need outside evidence. There's also a whole area of scholarship devoted to understanding the Bible, by considering the time and place of which it was written, and such study can be very helpful in understanding certain things about religion. But it doesn't help here. 

Philosophy of religion is also not religious anthropology, or religious sociology, or psychological understanding of our reasons for religious belief. Those are all wonderful things that you can and should study, but they are not what we're studying here. What we are doing is considering whether we can offer arguments in support of belief in God's existence. And a long time ago there was a man who argued that God's existence is provable, 11th century French monk Anselm of Canterbury. 

He offered a deductive argument for the existence of God, based on what he understood to be the nature of God's being, or the definition of God. Because the study of being is called ontology, this argument, and others like it, are called ontological arguments.

Now, what do you think God is like? Long, flowing white beard, robe to match? Nice guy, hard to reach on the phone? Well, Anselm aimed a little bit higher. In fact, he thought that God is, by definition, the best possible thing we can imagine. THE. BEST. THING. Just try to think of the coolest, awesomest, most amazing and wonderful thing you can imagine. And whatever you're thinking of, Anselm said that God is better. He's just the best. In Anselm's words, "[God is] that than which no greater can be conceived." So what does that mean? Well, it means that God must exist, according to Anselm?

After all, he pointed out there are just two ways in which something can exist. Something can exist only in our minds and be strictly imaginary, like Santa, or unicorns. Or it can exist in our minds but also in reality, like pizza and horses, something that we can imagine but that's also real. Anselm pointed out, and he does appear to be right about this, that any good thing would be better if it existed in reality as well as our minds. I mean, unicorns. They're pretty great. But wouldn't they be better if they were real? Or the perfect romantic partner; smart, funny, hot, likes the same movies and games that you do? Pretty rich? Would be pretty nice in your ind, but even better if they actually existed. 

Well Anselm thought so too. And from there, he believed he could prove God's existence. Because if we define God as the greatest thing that we can conjure up in our minds, the only thing that could possibly greater than Him would be a real version. And since we're already imagining the greatest thing possible, there can't be anything better. Therefore, God has to exist, both in my imagination and in reality. 

Anselm was sure he had done it, deductively proven God's existence in a way that was immune to error. Here it is, one more time, laid out as a philosophical argument:
God is the greatest thing we can think of. Things can exist only in our imaginations, or they can also exist in reality. Things that exist  in reality are always better than things that exist only in our imaginations. If God existed only in our imaginations, he wouldn't be the greatest thing that we can think of, because God in reality would be better. Therefore, God must exist in reality. 

Anselm thought this was a tiny little argument. But one of his contemporaries, a fellow French monk named Guanilo, wasn't satisfied. He suggested that we could run the same line of reasoning to prove the existence of literally anything we can imagine. He came up with an argument with the exact same formal structure as Anselm's, to prove that a mythical Lost Island exists. He proposed, the best island I can imagine is one where 1 can swim and relax on a tropical beach and ski down snow-covered mountains all in one after noon. I can imagine it, so it us exist. Otherwise, it wouldn't be the best island there would be one better. And that one would have to be real! Basically, Guanilo said, you could make the same kind of argument to prove the existence of whatever you most wanted, but it wouldn't make it real. Anselm responded to Guanilo's criticism by saying he'd missed the point, that the argument only works for necessary beings, of which there is only one, God.

Folks, what we have right here is a classic example of the fallacy known as begging the question. A fallacy is a flaw in reasoning, something that weakens or destroys an argument. And when you beg the question, you assume the very thing you're trying to prove with your argument. By adding this idea of "a necessary being" to his definition of God, Anselm makes God's existence a part of the definition of God. A necessary being is one that must exist, so Anselm's response assumes the very point of contention to be true, that God exists.

Other philosophers since Anselm have tried to save his argument by tweaking it in various ways, and dissenters have continued trying to deflate them. One of the most famous objections came hundreds of years after Anselm's time, from the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant offered the point that, as he put it, "existence is not a predicate." A predicate is just something that's said of another object. And Kant thought Anselm's mistake was thinking that existence is something that can be predicated upon a thing, or be used as a defining characteristic. 

For example, if a triangle exists, it necessarily has 3 sides. But it could be that no triangle exists at all. Because the idea of existence isn't part of how we define a triangle. Likewise, Kant would say, if God exists, then he must be the greatest being we can imagine, but that does not mean that he does exist. Predicates add to the essence of their objects, Kant explained, but they can't be used to prove their existence. 

British philosopher John Wisdom came up with a thought exercise that sounds a lot like a debate over an ontological argument. It's called The Parable of The Invisible Gardener, which brings us to this week's Flash Philosophy. Let's go to the Thought Bubble. 

Person A and Person B return to a garden after a long absence, and notice that a few of its plants are still thriving. Person A says, a gardener must have been tending the garden while they were gone. Person B doubts this is true, so they agree to wait and see if a gardener shows up. After some time passes, they see no one, so Person A says: "The gardener is invisible!" So, They put up traps and bring in bloodhounds to catch him. When no one is found Person A says the gardener must be intangible as well as unsmellable. To which B replies: "What's the difference between an invisible, intangible, unsmellable, entirely undetectable gardener... and no gardener at all?"

Thanks Thought Bubble!

Can you guess who A and B are really talking about? To give you a sense of how long this back-and-forth has been going on among philosophers, trying to either prove or disprove the existence of God, John Wisdom came up with this parable in 1944, nearly a thousand years after Anselm and Gaunilo. 

Today we introduced a new area of philosophy, a philosophy of religion. And we learned about Anselm's argument for God's existence, while also considering objections to that argument. An important point to note here is that both Guanilo and Kant agreed with Anselm's conclusion, they also believed in God's existence. They just thought Anselm's argument didn't prove it. So remember, you can think an argument fails, even if you accept the conclusion. When this happens, you should look for a better argument in favor of your conclusion. This is exactly what Thomas Aquinas did, and we'll consider him next time.

This episode is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace helps to create websites, blogs or online stores for you and your ideas. Websites look professionally designed regardless of skill level, no coding required. Try Squarespace at for a special offer. 

Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out some amazing shows like Shanx FX, Its Okay to be Smart, and The Art Assignment. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.