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The Trouble With Anselm

Joe Carter is doing a series of posts on philosophical arguments for God. His latest is on the Ontological argument. The Ontological argument boils down to the assertion that a perfect (or "maximally great," in the terminology of Alvin Plantinga's reformulation, which Carter prefers) being necessarily exists, since existence is more perfect/greater than nonexistence, and necessary existence is more perfect/greater than contingent existence.

One of the most famous objections was made by Gaunilo, who asserted that by the same logic, the perfect island must exist. Carter points to the Wikipedia article for a refutation:

Such objections always depend upon the accuracy of the analogy. That is, we must be able to show that the objector's argument is sufficiently like the ontological argument for us to be able to conclude that if one works so must the other. There are at least two problems with Gaunilo's version, though. First, what exactly is the concept of the perfect island — the island than which no greater can be conceived? In any group of people, there will be disagreements as to what makes an island perfect; there will be different preferences concerning size, climate, inhabitants, food-availability, etc. There is no single concept of a perfect island, because perfection here can only mean what is perfect for us, rather than perfect in itself. The notion of the perfect being, however, isn't relativised to any individual; it's the notion of a being that is maximally great — not for me or for you, but great, full stop.

... Gaunilo might respond that he means to refer to an island that is perfect in itself, without reference to us. Now, what is an island? It's a body of land surrounded by water. But every island is a body of land surrounded by water (if it weren't, it wouldn't be an island); so every island is a perfect island (every island is perfectly an island). Here, the disanalogy arises because whatever example Gaunilo chooses, it will be a being of a particular type – such a pizza, a pencil, or a Prime Minister – and so its perfection will be relative to that type. In the case of Anselm's premise, though, we're not concerned with a being of this type or that type, but just with a being — a being than which no greater can be conceived.

Gaunilo's hypothetical rebuttal is right on the mark. There is no reason to define the perfection of the island as subjective, but the perfection of God as objective. For either entity, people will dispute what makes it perfect. (I'll note in passing that defining God as perfect doesn't seem to give much aid to Christians, as the God described in the Bible seems awfully imperfect.) On the other hand, one of the few aspects of perfection that most people would aggree to is that a thing that exists is superior to one that does not. So regardless of what other qualities would make an island or being perfect, we can agree that existence is among them.

The reply to the hypothetical rebuttal shifts the definitions enough to make Gaulino's argument empty -- but at the price of making the Ontological argument for God empty as well. The Wikipedia writer argues that a perfect island is not an island perfect in all respects (its climate, its government, etc.), but merely an island that is perfect in its islandness, an island that is perfectly an island. Thus everything that can be unambiguously labeled an island (i.e., once we exclude areas that, for example, are separated from the mainland only at high tide) is a perfect island.

But if we revise the definition of "a perfect X" to be "a thing which is perfectly an X" in the case of islands, we have to keep this definition when we talk about beings as well. Thus the perfect being would be anything that is perfectly a being. Now, I am undoubtedly a being. Therefore I am perfectly a being -- I have all the qualities which define beings. So we have no need to posit the existence of an omnipotent creator in order to satisfy the Ontological argument, since we already have over 6 billion perfect beings running around.


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