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How guanilo Disproves St. Anselm's Proof That God Exists

Updated on May 10, 2012

How Gaunilo Disproves St. Anselm’s Proof That God Exists

Gaunilo’s Reply on Behalf of the Fool was written in response to St. Anselm’s proof that God exists in his Proslogion. Reply on Behalf of the Fool was written by Gaunilo to disprove Anselm’s proof and logic that God exists through philosophical methods. Anselm was a Medieval philosopher and theologian – he used philosophical methods to develop and analyze theological concepts, particularly the existence and nature of God. His proof was written around 1078. It generated a lot of controversy then and continues to generate controversy even today.

Anselm wrote the Proslogion with the intent on finding a simpler way to establish the conclusions he wanted to prove – God’s existence. He says that he wanted to find “a single argument that needed nothing but itself alone for proof, that would by itself be enough to show that God really exists; that he is the supreme good, who depends on nothing else, but on whom all things depend for their being and for their well-being; and whatever we believe about the divine nature” (St. Anselm).

Gaunilo wrote his reply contending that Anselm’s argument gave the fool no good reason to believe that “that than which nothing greater can be thought” exists in reality. He proposes that instead of “that than which nothing greater can be thought” we consider “that island than which no greater can be thought.” His counterargument to Anselm’s proof is so ingenious that it is considered the most devastating criticism in his catalogue of Anselm’s errors (Williams).

Anselm attempts to prove that God exists in the Proslogian by appealing to reason rather than scriptural authority. He attempts to prove that God exists logically, by using the phrase “something greater in which we can conceive from nothing.” In other words, nothing greater can be thought. He uses a series of steps to prove his point. He does this through reductio ad absurdum, meaning that his thesis must be accepted because its objection wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

He uses this proof to prove God exists because God is considered the greatest being. He is so great that nothing greater can be conceived. It is through his proof that Anselm proves that God is the greatest being. Anselm starts by explaining that, whatever is understood is in the understanding, and it is in your head. Therefore, if you understand what is meant by “nothing greater can be thought,” then it is in your head. It is either in your head only, or in your head and in reality that God exists either in your head or in your head and in reality. Assuming “nothing greater can be thought” is only in your head and does not exist in reality, then it cannot be thought to exist in reality. Whatever doesn’t exist in reality but can be thought to exist can be thought to be greater. Existing in both places is greater than only existing in your head. It is impossible to say that the greatest thing someone can think of is only in his head – it is a contradiction. Therefore, “nothing greater can be thought” can be thought to be greater if it’s only in your mind – something greater can be thought. Hence, “nothing greater can be thought” is in the understanding and in reality.

Guanilo, however, disproves this through his Reply on Behalf of the Fool by using a Lost Island as a substitute for God in Anselm’s proof. Guanilo explains that the Lost Island is greater than all other countries because of its abundance of food, supplies, etc. Going along with Anselm’s proof, if this Lost Island is the greatest island, than no greater island can be conceived. Guanilo uses the Lost Island in Anselm’s steps to prove why his proof is not accurate.

If someone were to tell you that this island exists, you could understand what he is saying. But, someone could also say that it really does exist because you have no doubt of it in your understanding. Because it exists in your understanding and in reality, it must exist. If it does not exist, any land which does exist will be greater than it, so the island understood by you to be greater will no longer be greater. If someone said this to you, either he is the fool or you are for believing because he should show first that the greatness of the island exists as a real thing and in no way as an unreal object, or one whose existence is uncertain in our understanding (Halsall).

Simply, Anselm’s proof can be explained like this: God is considered the greatest conceivable being. Assuming that he does not exist, one can conceive of a being with all of god’s properties who does exist. However, it is better to exist than to not exist. So, such a being would have to be greater than god. But, this contradicts the first point, which is that God is the greatest conceivable being. Therefore, assuming that such a being does not exist is false because God does and must exist (Blackburn).

Guanilo proves that Anselm’s theory is inaccurate because there is no actual evidence of God existing, just as there is no actual evidence that the Lost Island that he explains exists. A being which cannot be conceived in terms of fact is in the understanding, however, since through this fact it cannot attain to real existence, it cannot be believed to exist at all until some proof of it is given. It should be proved first that the Island or God truly exists somewhere, and then from that prove the fact that it is the greatest thing to exist.

Using the simple version, we can say that Guanilo’s island is considered the greatest conceivable Island. Assuming that the island does not exist, one can conceive of an island with all of Guanilo’s island’s properties that does exist. However, it is better to exist than to not exist. So, such an island would have to be greater than Guanilo’s island. But, this contradicts the first point, which is that Guanilo’s island is the greatest conceivable island. Therefore, assuming that such an island does not exist is false because that island does and must exist.

One could argue that this proof does not work with finite things. On the contrary, however, using the island in Anselm’s proof is just as effective as using God. The proof stays the same, however, using the island as a substitute for God shows that Anselm’s proof is in fact inaccurate. His proof is too open to be able to say it can only work for God. Anything can easily be substituted in his proof and show the same thing Guanilo’s Island shows. It doesn’t matter what is used in the proof because the proof is inaccurate. If it were accurate, it would successfully prove God being the greatest being, and Gaunilo’s argument would be irrelevant.

Through Gaunilo’s argument,Guanilo proves that Anselm’s proof is simply absurd, because it leads to saying that anything that is perfect must exist, therefore, there must be at least one flaw in the argument. The most important flaw is the claim that it is better to exist than to not exist. Anselm’s points are being made because he believes God exists because it makes sense. However, it does not add anything to the meaning of the term God or the Lost Island to add to it that he, she, or it exists. Existence cannot be thought of as part of the meaning of a term. Whether something exists cannot be established by a definition, but by the word itself (Blackburn).

This argument has been defended and criticized by philosophers from Anselm’s time all the way through today. Because Guanilo’s counterargument was so devastating, philosophers read Anselm’s reply just to offer ways for Anselm to respond. Wolterstorff argues that Anselm offered no rejoinder because he knew Guanilo’s argument was unanswerable. However, he could not bring himself to admit that fact.

Though many agree that Anselm intended to prove the existence of God, there is disagreement about where the proof is actually located. Some commentators claim that the main proof is in Proslogion II while others believe it is in Proslogion II-III. Many philosophers have attempted to find an argument which can be expressed in modern language while still being logically valid. However, most of these were not successful. From rewording the phrase to “being than which no greater is possible” to attempting to simplify the argument, and therefore missing key components (Oppy).

Gaunilo disproves Anselm’s proof that God exists because there is no real evidence that he does exist or not. Existing in the mind is not proof that it, too, exists in reality – it is an assumption. Just because a great island can be imagined, doesn’t mean it exists just because it’s better. Imagining a great island like Guanilo’s Lost Island is certainly a great thing to imagine, however, imagining it is only in your mind, therefore, it may not exist in reality. If it doesn’t exist in reality, then the Lost Island is just some made up island that one cannot actually visit.

For anything to be considered the greatest thing, it must exist in reality, otherwise, it’s not as great as one can imagine. Existing in reality is better than existing in the mind because it is real and not made up. If a country lost all their resources and needed a great island like Guanilo’s Lost Island, it’s not so great if it doesn’t exist because it’s of no use to that country. It’s nice to imagine, but does nothing to the world if it’s not actually there. Therefore, Gaunilo proves that Anselm’s proof is not an accurate way to prove that God exists.

Sources

Blackburn, Simon. "Think: Chapter 5 - God." Csus.edu. Csus, 2012. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
http://www.csus.edu/indiv/m/mayesgr/Phl6/Phl6LectureNotes/ThinkCh5God.pdf

Halsall, Paul. "Internet History Sourcebooks." Fordham.edu. Internet Medieval Source Book 1998. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-gaunilo.asp>.

Oppy, Graham, "Ontological Arguments", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011
Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/ontological-arguments/>.

St. Anselm. Preface. The Proslogion. Print.

Williams, Thomas, "Saint Anselm", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/anselm/

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