The Gaunilo Argument

To what extent does Gaunilo’s criticism of Anselm’s argument succeed in demonstrating that the argument fails? Gaunilo, a Benedictine monk and contemporary of St Anselm was the first to raise objections to Anselm’s idea that God exists by definition, claiming within “On behalf of the Fool” that Anselm’s argument was not logical and needed to be discredited. Gaunilo famously claimed that Anselm’s conclusion that the non-existence of God is “unintelligible” cannot show that God necessarily exists.
Firstly, Gaunilo argued that the “fool” character featured in Psalm 53:1 may have been referring not only to God but to any number of other things that do not exist in reality. Gaunilo utilizes the example of someone hearing about a person from gossip; he suggested that the gossip was unreliable and the person and event were made up to trick you. As an idea later developed by Middle Age philosophers who believed you cannot prove from what is said (de dicto) what exists in reality (de re), Gaunilo argued that you cannot define the concept of “God” into existence.
The most famous argument posed by Gaunilo was that of a perfect island which can replace the idea of God in the Ontological argument. Gaunilo argued that anyone can think of the most perfect paradise island for the notion of “the most perfect island” exists as a concept in our understanding. Gaunilo developed his argument by employing Anselm’s logic to say that for such an island to exist in our minds means that this is inferior to the same island existing in reality. The island must therefore exist in reality as it cannot possess the inferiority that comes from it being only a concept if it is to be “the most perfect island”.

While the most perfect island can be conceived of, this does not mean it exists; we cannot bring something into existence just be defining it as superlative. Furthermore, Gaunilo concluded that Anselm cannot demonstrate that the idea of God as the greatest possible being means that God exists in reality. “When someone tells me there is such an island, I easily understand what is being said…however, he does on to say…this island…actually exists somewhere in reality…I would think he were joking”. John Hick 1990) Despite the blatant credibility of this argument recognized by Anselm who went on to including it in later versions of his own book, Anslem was able to respond to the argument using the claim that God’s existence is necessary. Anslem argued that though Gaunilo was right in the case of the island, the same objections were not valid when the ontological argument was used of God, because the island has contingent existence, whereas God’s existence is necessary.
The ontological argument remains credible, Anselm argued, because it applies only to God who exists necessarily and uniquely. Within his “Liber Apologeticus Contra Guanilonem”, Anselm rejects Gaunilo’s argument that the island’s existence can be proved from the idea of it alone for the island is not a thing which can be conceived not to exist. Moreover, philosopher Alvin Plantinga suggested that Anselm could also argue that there is no “intrinsic maximum” to the qualities of scenery that the Gaunilo’s island could have; however great an island is, there could always be one better.
Further discrediting the argument posed by Gaunilo, both St Thomas Aquinas and Kant have posed more successful and valid arguments in response to Anselm’s ontological argument. St Thomas Aquinas, unlike Gaunilo, seeks to undermine Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” as he was firmly convinced of the existence of God himself. Aquinas rejected the claim that the existence of God is self-evident; human beings cannot fully understand the nature of God, thus “God exists” is not an analytic statement.
Although we are able to approach an understanding of God, God will always remain unknowable to the finite human mind; “now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us, but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us” (Summa Theologiae, 1a). Aquinas used the example of the existence of truth to support his argument, suggesting that no one would be able to accept the truth of the statement “truth does not exist” unless truth actually existed.
Though it is impossible to have a mental concept of the non-existence of truth, it is not a contradiction to have a mental concept of the non-existence of God, because people are able to, including the fool who says “there is no God”. Kant’s argument in opposition to Anslem’s ontological argument stands as more credible than that posed by Gaunilo as it successfully reputed the argument, diminishing the extent to which the ontological argument is arguably still valid. Kant argued that “existence is not a predicate” for it does not tell us anything about that object that would help us to identify it in any way.
When we are thinking of God we are thinking of a concept and whether this concept is actualized cannot be resolved simply be adding “existence” to the different predicates ascribing to the concept. Though the argument could be responded to with the knowledge that whilst everything exists contingently, God exists necessarily and this necessary existence can only be a predicate of God, a sceptic could easily counter this argument by pointing out the circular nature of the ontological argument for we must accept that God exists necessarily in order to come to the conclusion that God exists necessarily.
Though Gaunilo’s argument still holds some value as it could be employed by an atheist to support their opposition to the theory, the ease by which Anselm was able to counter the argument limits its success in demonstrating the failure of the ontological argument. Later arguments posed by Aquinas and Kant further limit the extent to which Gaunilo’s argument is still credible as they offer more successful and more widely accepted oppositions to the ontological argument, posing questions which could not be so easily countered by a response from Anselm. Beth Albuery

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