Anselm's Ontological Argument and Gaunilo's Response

This essay aims to outline the Ontological Argument, proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, to prove the existence of God (in particular the Christian God). It also discusses Gaunilo’s objection to the ontological argument with the use of the “Lost Island” analogy. And finally offers an opinion as to whether or not Gaunilo’s objection successfully refutes Anselm’s argument. Anselm’s ontological argument, sourced from the “Proslogium” (with himself as the author), is a highly controversial argument that aims to prove the existence of God.

This argument is an attempt of an a priori proof, that which uses purely uses intuition and reasoning alone (Oppy G. 1996). The argument (simplified) is as follows: ?One can imagine a being than which none greater can be conceived. ?We know that existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind alone. ?If the being we imagine exists only in our mind, then it is not a “being than which none greater can be conceived”. ?A being than which none greater can be conceived must also exist in reality. Failure to exists in reality would be failure to be a being than which none greater can be conceived. ?Thus a being than which none greater can be conceived must exist, and we call this being God. It is good to note, while tackling this argument, Anselm’s point of view in developing his argument. First, this, (the Proslogium in general), was written from a Christian perspective, wherein the author may have some form of ‘presupposed bias’ (for lack of a better term) towards the existence of the being in question.

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Second, the author’s intention for developing such an argument was not for the purpose of convincing non-Christians of the truth of his beliefs, but rather for the purpose of existing believers seeking rationale for his or her faith (Deane S. 1962). It is unsurprising that this argument is highly controversial and receives as much criticism as it had and still does. Many philosophers including St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, and Gaunilo of Marmoutiers have openly criticized this argument each with his own objections.

Gaunilo’s objection is one of the earliest recorded objections to Anselm’s argument. Though Gaunilo believed that God exists he didn’t think that Anselm’s proof was valid (Bernard C. & Stairs A. 2007). Using an analogy to a “Lost Island”, an island supposed to be the greatest or most perfect island conceivable, he claims that by using the logic of Anselm’s argument, we are then able to ‘prove’ the Lost Island’s existence, in which such an island is highly unlikely to exist. ? Exploring in more detail, a look at the objection may help, the objection goes as such: ?

The lost island exists in the understanding but not in reality. ?Existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind. ?Existence in reality is conceivable. ?If the lost island did exist in reality, then it would be greater than it is. ?It is conceivable that there is an island greater than the lost island is. ?It is conceivable that there is an island greater than the island than which nothing greater can be conceived. ?This, however, is contradictory. Therefore: ?It must be false that the lost island exists in the understanding but not in reality. Lecture Notes) In a nutshell, the objection implies that if Anselm’s argument is sound, then it is also possible to prove existence for other things such as his perfect island which none greater can be conceived, thereby proving the existence of something that we may or may not necessarily believe to exist or have a logical way of existing. It does not, however, point out as to where the original argument is flawed, but simply uses other examples to show that it is somehow fallacious. ?

The question of whether or not Gaunilo’s objection successfully refutes Anselm’s argument remains relative and answers tend to be opinionated and dependent on the author of that particular answer. And as such, my opinion in the matter is that Gaunilo’s objection does not successfully refute Anselm’s argument, however, I also don’t find that Anselm’s argument would suffice as proof for the existence of God. A counterargument for Gaunilo’s objection is that of the island being something that is contingent.

It has been argued by Anselm, as a response to Gaunilo, that for the ontological argument to work, the definitions must make sense. A being than which none can be greater poses the idea that it MUST exist in order to fulfil its description of being a being than which none greater can be conceived. However, the idea of the “perfect island” (or any contingent thing for that matter) does not necessarily have to exist. The problem is that when we talk about any of these things, we’re talking about something that’s inherently limited and, perhaps, inherently imperfect (Bernard C. & Stairs A. 2007).

Gaunilo’s objection, on the other hand, successfully shows that there is a flaw in trying to ‘reason out’ existence (or at least in this form of argument anyway). The argument is often criticized as fallacious falling under the category of being a ‘bare assertion fallacy’, a fallacy in formal logic where a premise in an argument is assumed to be true merely because it says that it is true. I find that this is true from the opening premise of the invitation to “imagine a being than which no greater being can be conceived”; from this premise alone, the term “being” already presupposes an idea of existence before existence is proven.

Simply put, the argument seems to say “I have to exist” (Premise), therefore “I exist”. (Conclusion) ? On a final note, I think that Anselm’s response of necessary existence proved that Gaunilo’s objection does in fact fail to refute his argument. But, in spite of being able to debunk Gaunilo’s objection (in my opinion anyway), it still doesn’t help in gaining validity for his argument in proving the existence of God. References: Anselm and Gaunilo, Proslogian, in Timothy A.

Robinson (ed. ) God, 2nd edition, Hackett Publishing Company, 2002. ——————- Aquinas, T. , Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 2, Article 1. ——————- Bernard, C. & Stairs, A. (2007), A Thinkers Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, Pearson Longman. ——————- Sidney N. Deane, ed (1962). “Proslogion”. St. Anselm: Basic Writings. trans. by Sidney D. Deane. Chicago: Open Court. ——————- Oppy, G. (1996), Ontological Arguments and Belief in God.


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