“Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools!” Discuss

In his Proslogium Chapter II St Anselm quoted Psalm 14:1 “the fool says in his heart there is no God” and then attempted to demonstrate that atheists are indeed fools in asserting a straight contradiction – that God (who necessarily exists by definition) does not exist.  Gaunilo responded in his wittily titled “On behalf of the Fool”, using his famous “perfect island” analogy to reduce St Anselm’s argument to absurdity as part of a more sophisticated multi-pronged attack.  Despite the fact that St Anselm attempted to refute Gaunilo’s points in his ResponsioGaunilo succeeded in showing that Atheists are not in fact fools. 

Firstly, Gaunilo reduced Anselm’s argument in Proslogium II to absurdity, pointing out that “if a man should try to prove to me by such reasoning that this island truly exists… either I should believe that he was jesting, or I know not which I ought to regard as the greater fool: myself supposing I should allow him this proof or him, if he should suppose that he had established with any certainly the existence of this island…”  Anselm was right to object, noting how God is not like an island or any other thing in time and space, so that while God is capable of necessarily existing, the island is not.  “I promise confidently that if any man shall devise anything existing either in reality of in concept alone (except that than which nothing greater can be conceived) to which he can adapt the sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him his island, not to be lost again…” However, in practice Gaunilo’s point still stands because asserting God’s necessary existence cannot take us beyond the world of words and ideas. As Kant (in his Critique of Pure Reason 1787) and later Russell pointed out, existence is not a predicate and adds nothing to the concept of an object to make it more perfect and therefore a necessary property of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of”.  Kant wrote “Being is evidently not a real predicate, or a concept of something that can be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the admission of a thing, and of certain determinations in it. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment.” Further, to exist means to exist within – or at least to have an effect within – time and space.  As Kant later pointed out, contingency is of the essence of existence – having the capability to exist or not exist, to exist here and not there or now and not then.  To use Kant’s words, all existential claims must be synthetic; he wrote “If, then, I try to conceive a being, as the highest reality (without any defect), the question still remains, whether it exists or not. For though in my concept there may be wanting nothing of the possible real content of a thing in general, something is wanting in its relation to my whole state of thinking, namely, that the knowledge of that object should be possible a posteriori also…”  While Kant’s criticism has been rejected by both Hegel and Quine for being “dogmatic” and based on assertion rather than proper argument, and while Norman Malcolm also rejected Kant’s claim writing  “In those complex systems of thought, those “language games”, God has the status of a necessary being.  Who can doubt that?  I believe that we can rightly take the existence of those religious systems of thought in which God features as a necessary being as disproof of the dogma affirmed by Hume (and Kant of course) that no existential proposition may be necessary…”, in practice Kant’s criticism appeals to common sense, as Gaunilo’s did.  It is unreasonable to claim that something exists when there is no way to see hear, touch, smell or taste it and when its effects are not observable on things that we can hear, touch, see, smell or taste either.  It may be true that the meaning of words depends on how they are used rather than on what they refer to in some cases, but not when it comes to existence!  Whatever people understand by the word gravity within a form of life will not change the fact that if you jump off a cliff you will fall to your death.  Similarly, you can’t define something into existence; as Gaunilo rightly pointed out, to suggest otherwise can only be construed as “a charming joke” (Schopenhauer dismissed the Ontological argument for being such) or plain foolish.  In this way, Gaunilo succeeded in showing that atheists are not in fact fools, but that advocates of the Ontological Argument might well be.  

Secondly, Gaunilo is right to point out that Anselm’s claim that Atheists are fools because they hold a contradictory idea in their minds is mistaken.  While Anselm suggests that the atheist conceives of God – who necessarily exists – not existing in much the same way as a fool might conceive of a five-sided triangle, through simply not understanding anything, Gaunilo points out that people can conceive of lots of non-existing things without being in the slightest foolish.  Take the Gruffalo for one example… many people have an idea of this frightening creature in their mind, while also knowing that there is no such creature outside the pages of a storybook.  He wrote “in my understanding, as I still think, could be all sorts of things whose existence is uncertain, or which do not exist at all…”  Aquinas agreed with Gaunilo, writing “the opposite of the proposition “God exists” can be mentally admitted.” Summa Theologica 1:2:1 and much later, Kant also agreed that it is perfectly possible to conceive of God while rejecting any claim that God exists, writing “If then, I try to conceive a being, as the highest reality (without any defect), the question still remains, whether it exists or not. For though in my concept there may be wanting nothing of the possible real content of a thing in general, something is wanting in its relation to my whole state of thinking, namely, that the knowledge of that object should be possible a posteriori also…” Anselm tries in this as well to distinguish between God and other things, writing “if that thing can be conceived at all, it must exist” because God alone, as that than which nothing greater can be conceived of, must necessarily exist.  Later, Charles Hartshorne agreed with Anselm, pointing out that either God is impossible, or that he exists contingently or that he exists necessarily.  The Ontological Argument shows that God cannot exist contingently – or He would not be worthy of worship or “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” and Hartshorne argues that God’s existence is not impossible, leaving only the possibility that God exists necessarily.  Nevertheless, Gaunilo points out that Anselm is mistaken in claiming that because we can only conceive of God necessarily existing, he necessarily exists.  This is not how we conceive of things; the artist conceives of an object before they put brush to canvas, so the idea exists “in intellectubefore and prior it it being “in re” – the idea of an object and the object are two separate and separable things in all cases, including God.  I could conceive of God as a necessarily existing being, but my conception of him would be something separate from his actual existence as what I have conceived of, leaving open the possibility that He could be only an idea in the mind, however apparently contradictory that might be. Again, as Kant wrote, “Whatever, therefore, our concept of an object may contain, we must always step outside it, in order to attribute to it existence..” In this way as well, therefore, Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools.  

Thirdly, Gaunilo argues that some atheists could recognise the word “God” without having an idea of what God is sufficiently for it to contain a contradiction, which is convincing.  I might recognize the word “squircle” – and even begin to appreciate what concept it might refer to – while still unable to conceive of a square-circle properly.  The squircle is therefore not “in intellectu”, let alone “in re” despite my accepting the definition of a squircle as a square circle.  As Russell later pointed out, if I say “the present King of France is bald” it seems like I am making a sensible proposition that is capable of being true or false, but actually because there is no present King of France, the proposition is not capable of being either true or false and is therefore meaningless.  Is it not possible that when the Atheist accepts that “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” they do no more than you might in momentarily wondering if the present King of France is bald? On reflection they then conclude that there is no present King of France, so the question is meaningless.  In relation to Anselm’s argument, the Atheist then reflects on the concept of necessary existence and concludes that it is impossible, so the concept of God is impossible and the Ontological argument meaningless.  Here as well, Gaunilo showed that the Atheist is not a fool, but rather a person too sophisticated to be taken in by what Schopenhauer called Anselm’s “sleight of hand trick“.  

Finally, Gaunilo points out that nobody can have a complete conception of the nature of God, because God’s nature is to be mysterious, unlike any other thing and greater than that which can be conceived of. It follows that – Atheist or not – without a clear idea of God it is impossible to analyse that idea and find existence or necessary existence within it.  He explained “I do not know that reality itself which God is, nor can I form a conjecture of that reality from some other like reality.  For you yourself assert that reality is such that there can be nothing else like it…” Later, Aquinas agreed, writing “because we do not know the nature of God, the existence of God is not self-evident” Summa 1.2.1 Although Anselm defends against this criticism vigorously, writing “It is evident to any rational mind, that by ascending from the lesser good to the greater, we can form a considerable notion of a being than which a greater is inconceivable” and “If he denies that a notion may be formed from other objects of a being than which a greater is inconceivable… let him remember that the invisible things of God, from the creation of the world are clearly seen…” Gaunilo’s point stands because Anselm’s reasoning reduces God to being the greatest of things, rather than that than which nothing greater can be conceived of.  By Anselm’s own reasoning in Proslogion III God’s nature is not like the nature of other things and God’s greatness is not like the greatness of other things.  While other things exist contingently, God exists necessarily, so it is not possible to “ascend from the lesser good to the greater” or to build an understanding of God’s nature from an understanding of created things.  Further, in 1948 JN Findlay argued that “it was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof.  For on that day, he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence.”  If Anselm is serious in Proslogion III that necessary existence is a necessary property of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” then in addition to making it impossible for anybody to have sufficient grasp of the concept of God to analyse it and find existence within it, it also makes God’s existence impossible.  As Findlay reasoned, a contingent being would not deserve worship & wouldn’t really be God, but a necessary being is a logical absurdity, meaning that Anselm’s argument proves that God’s existence is impossible.  In this way as well, therefore, Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools… but JN Findlay showed that Anselm was! 

In conclusion, Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools.  While Anselm easily heads off his “perfect island” criticism by pointing towards the more developed version of the argument he already presented in Proslogium III in his Responsio, Gaunilo’s full critique demonstrates that Anselm’s reasoning is unsound.  While Anselm’s a priori definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is reasonable, Gaunilo showed that he is wrong to assume that accepting this definition entails having a clear enough idea of God to analyse and find necessary existence within.  Gaunilo also showed that Anselm was wrong to ignore the existence of two separate stages in conceiving of any object, that of having an idea “in intellectu” and that of appreciating that the idea exists “in re.”  As Kant later agreed, it is perfectly possible to have an idea of a necessarily-existing being (God) while appreciating that there is no instance of such a being, however contradictory that might seem, because the world of ideas and the world of existence are separate and separable and it is not possible to define something into existence or prove God’s necessary existence from reason alone.   

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