St. Anselm’s version of the Ontological Argument and Gaunilo’s objection to it

Anselm of Canterbury was one of the early promoters of the Ontological Argument supporting the existence of God. He argues that God exists on the basis that ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’ should necessarily exist in reality. In other words, just as anything a painter can conceive of can be materialized into a painting, the conception of God is a terminal point for human imagination. To the extent that it is imaginable, the object exists. To the extent that it is the ultimate in the scale of imagination, it must be God. Anselm goes on to claim that that God cannot be thought not to exist is further proof. He says, ‘something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought’ exists so truly that it cannot even be thought not to exist. If a creature is able to think of something better and bigger than God, it would have to be above its Creator and be judging its Creator. Since this is logically impossible, it is only God who not only truly exists but also exists to the highest degree. Anselm goes on to point to an apparent contradiction in the fool’s (nonbeliever) thinking. He asks rhetorically “How indeed has he ‘said in his heart’ what he could not think; or how could he not think what he ‘said in his heart’, since to ‘say in one’s heart’ and to ‘think’ are the same?” (Anselm, p.21) And finally, Anselm posits that God is whatever it is better to be than not to be and that, “existing through himself alone, he makes all other beings from nothing”. (Anselm, p.21)

Gaunilo of Marmoutiers makes a strong case on behalf of the fools. He makes a point-to-point rebuttal of the claims of Anselm’s Ontological Argument. Gaunilo counters that that-which-is-greater-than-everything should actually exist in reality just as it exists in the mind. It cannot simply be assumed, as the Ontologists have done, that God must exist because he is that entity which is conceived to be greater-than-everything. Gaunilo makes another salient observation about human cognition and human intelligence. Gaunilo goes on to clarify the example of the painter. The painting, at the time of its conception, is the product of the artist’s creativity and is thus an integral part of his very understanding. This understanding is not the same as the ultimate truth that God represents. Hence, even granting that ‘there-was-something-than-which-nothing-greater-could-be-thought’, “this thing, heard and understood, would not, however, be the same as the not-yet-made picture is in the mind of the painter”. Moreover, when it is said that God cannot be thought not to exist, it is prudent instead to say that it “cannot be understood not to exist nor even to be able not to exist”. (Gaunilo, p.24)

I find Gaunilo’s defence of the Fool more convincing than Anselm’s original thesis. To elaborate, each individual has a limitation to his imaginative powers as well as varied ability to understand complex matters. In that case, if the existence of God is derived from the ability of the mind, aren’t some individuals better endowed to grasp this supposed reality than others? What about people suffering from psychiatric disorders or mental retardation? Are they capable of conceiving God? If not, does that mean God doesn’t exist? The problem with Ontological Arguments arises because of their primacy to the subjective experiences of an individual’s mind. I also find Gaunilo’s allegory of the ‘Lost Island’ to be a fitting rebuttal to Anselm’s proposition.