Friday, 9 January 2009

The Ontological Argument For Beginners - Part Two

In Anselm's Proslogion, the saintly Benedictine argued against the "Fool" of Psalm 52, attempting to prove that there is indeed a God. He tried to do so by using the very definition of "God" to show the Almighty's existence to be necessary. Many people were not convinced and considered Anselm's logic to be highly questionable.

One such critic was another Benedictine monk, one Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, who wrote the most famous criticism of Anselm's Ontological Argument. Gaunilo was of course a Christian, and was therefore not writing to defend atheism, but to expose perceived flaws in Anselm's work.

Gaunilo put forward a remarkably simple reductio ad absurdum to discredit Anselm's logic. In his "On Behalf of the Fool" Gaunilo suggests that we replace the concept of "God" with that of a mythical "Lost Island" He defines this Island as superlative above all other Islands, mirroring Anselm's definition of God as aliquid quo maius cogitari non potest. As such, he uses exactly the same technique as Anselm, an argument from ontology, precisely to destroy St. Anselm's assertions.

Using Anselm's logic he puts forward that such an island can only be superlative above all other islands if it actually exists, as a real island is better than an imaginary one, and that it therefore, by definition, must exist.

Of course, Gaunilo's audience knew that this "Lost Island" did not exist, thus (supposedly) proving that it was untrue to say that Anselm's logical process had "proved" the existence of God. He argued that we cannot bring something into being simply by defining it as "superlative".

Anselm was so impressed with Gaunilo's refutation that he included it in later editions of the Proslogion. He maintained, however, that his argument still stood, as it was applied to a necessary being, whereas even the most "superlative of islands" was still contingent.

Coming soon, Part Three, St. Thomas Aquinas enters the fray!