The ontological argument has confused many people and has intrigued many philosophers. However, most people do not find the argument convincing because of an obvious problem. This problem has come up since Anselm first gave the argument and when Christian philosophers and apologist presented it to unbelievers. The problem for the Classical Ontological argument is called the “Lost Island” Objection. Although there are many objections to the ontological argument this one seems to be the most enduring . In this paper I will offer a solution to the lost Island objection and defend the general reasonableness of the Classical Ontological argument thereby providing a contribution to justified theistic belief. First, we will take a look at the ontological argument followed by a brief explanation and a defense for the argument. After this we will look at the “Lost Island” objection and my solution to it. Finally, I will make some concluding remarks.
The Argument Stated
This is how Plantinga states the argument in a way that is clear and that does justice to the primary text of the Proslogion . I have added some extra premises to make the argument even clearer. The Argument is as follows:
1. God is the being that than which nothing greater can be conceived (def. of God or it can be stated like this: I can conceive of a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived and this is what we call God)
2. God exists in the understanding but not in reality. (Assumption for reductio)
3. Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone. (Premise)
4. A being having all of God's properties plus existence in reality can be conceived. (Premise)
5. A being having all of God's properties plus existence in reality is greater than God. (From (2) and (3).)
6. A being greater than God can be conceived. (From (4) and (5).)
7. It is false that a being greater than God can be conceived. (From definition of "God".) 8. It is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality. (From (2), (6), (7).)
9. God exists in the understanding. (Premise that the fool grants for reductio.)
10. Therefore, God exists in reality. (From (8), (9).)
Now that the basic structure of the argument is laid out we can look at explaining the premises and try to defend the ones that seem less plausible.
Explanation and Defense
The purpose of this section is to provide an explanation of each of the premises and to give a brief justification and defense of some of the more contentious premises.
Premise one can be stated in two ways as I have parenthetically noted; this is important because some might think that one way is reasonable and the other is not. For myself it is intuitively reasonable to think that God is a being such that nothing greater can be conceived. However, if one thinks that this definition of God begs the question and is put forth for the sole purpose of being able to just arbitrarily prove God by an inference from a manipulation of words then perhaps this route ought to be avoided. An alternative route that ought to be taken by the defender of the classical ontological argument is to suggest that one should just contemplate a being that than which nothing greater can be thought. If one uses the latter way of stating the premise then this does not commit anybody to any preconceived definition of God that would be considered by some to be controversial. Therefore, either way is sufficient for the rest of argument to follow reasonably.
This premise is assuming that one can have a mental conception of a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived. I would take Anselm’s use of the term “in the mind” or as I put in the premises “in the understanding” as being able to intellectually grasp either an attribute(s) or substance . Anselm believes that we can grasp God in some sense because he believes that God is a substance . Furthermore, one might be able to have such a concept of a being that than which nothing greater can be thought before our minds eye by taking the lesser goods that we see in the created order or before our minds and abstracting from those lesser goods to greater goods all the way to a being that than which nothing greater can be thought . However, it should be stressed that this sort of mental abstraction is not necessary to have a robust concept of a being that than which nothing greater can be thought. For myself I know that I can have such a concept before my minds eye pretty immediately and from that concept I can infer many great making properties. Thus, all one would need to grant in order for this premises to be accepted is that one can have an idea of God in the mind or in understanding. This premise is stated in such a way as to be shown in latter premises to be reduced to absurdity so that from the negation of this absurdity one can infer God’s existence.
The third premise of the classical ontological argument is by far the most controversial part of the entire argument because once someone accepts the third premise and the assumptions imbedded therein then the rest of the argument seems to follow inescapably. Therefore, I will deal with this premise in two parts; the first part I will examine the philosophical assumptions in this premise and the second part I will give a justification of these assumptions.
The two main assumptions that go into this premise is that there are things that are or can be objectively great and that existence is one of these things that is objectively great. What I mean by objective is that something is what it is apart from human wants, desires, and beliefs . In other words, it is not grounded in human opinion or apprehension. The assumption here is that great things exist and that they can be compared to a being that than which nothing greater can be thought. However, it might be charged that if this is true then there are things in creation that we can compare objectively to other things in creation . An example of this would be saying that a deer is objectively better than a bear and so on . Yet this example does not make any sense because it seems that a deer is not necessarily something you can compare to a bear to see which one is objectively better . Anselmian philosophical theologians are not necessarily committed to this claim as Thomas V. Morris puts it “….The characterization of God as the greatest possible being does not require universal value-commensurability. It does require that every object be value commensurable with God, but not that every object be so commensurable with every other object”. Morris is suggesting here that other things need not be comparable to one another, but the only thing that we can compare everything to is the greatest possible being, which is God . Another assumption is that existence is one of these things that are great, that is to say being is better than non-being. In the next paragraph we will give a rational justification of this assumption, namely that existence is better to have rather than not.
The rational warrant or justification for the assumption that existence is objectively great is intuition. Intuition is analogous to perception, but the difference is that it is done with mental conception, that is to say the mind’s eye. Intuition is used to justify moral, mathematical, and analytic truths . We use our mind’s eye to just see that 1+1=2. By the nature of what it is to be one and one we can just see that it has to equal two. We just see with our mental conception that the nature of goodness is as such that it would be incompatible with evilness. People have disagreed in the past over what is intuitive and what is not. This suggests that one can be mistaken about the intuition, but that does not mean that just because we can possibly be mistaken about a proposition that therefore we do not know it or be rationally warranted in believing it. We can be mistaken about things in our perceptual experience, but that does not mean that everything I perceive does not count as knowledge. For example, my best friend could be a Humanoid Robot (like in the Terminator movies) to deceive me, but there is no reason to believe such an outrageous proposition, but yet this is still possibly true. However, we would still say that I know my friend is not a Robot even though I can be possibly mistaken about that. This is a falliblistic account of knowledge as opposed to infallibilistic account of knowledge. With that understanding in hand, it seems intuitive than not to us that it is better to exist in reality rather than in the imagination alone. This is especially intuitive when we are thinking of the way in which a being that than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality. Finally, this existence gives actuality to the greatest imaginable being so existence in this sense is inescapably better to have rather than not.
The most contentious premises have been defended and explained. Thus, I will just briefly discuss the rest of the premises for the sake of clarity. Premise 4 is the first premise which begins to flush out the argument for the assumption of the reductio in premise 2. It is arguing that the fool can conceive of a being just like God but that this being actually exists. But as premise 5 points out if this is true then this being would actually be better than God given the assumption in premises 1 that God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. Then the argument at this juncture is designed to show a contradiction from the obvious tension between premises 6 and 7. From this contradiction between 6 and 7, premise 8 infers the opposite in order to avoid God existing in the mind but not in reality. The opposite would be that it is false that God exists in the mind and not in reality. Thus, premise 9 and 10 do the work of drawing out the opposite conclusion: that God exists in the mind and in reality. This thereby shows that it is reasonable to believe that God exists.
A Popular Objection to the Classical Ontological Argument
One of the most popular and apparently decisive objections to the classical ontological argument was by a monk named Gaunilon. Gaunilon tried to offer a counter example to defeat the intuition that it is better to exist in reality rather than just in the imagination alone. This is called the lost Island argument and it is so apparently devastating that it ought to be quoted:
“…it is said that somewhere in the ocean is an island, which, because of the difficulty or rather the impossibility, of discovering what does not exist, is called the lost Island. And they say that this Island has an inestimable wealth of all manner of riches and delicacies in greater abundance than is told of the Islands of the Blest….Now if some one should tell me that there is such an Island, I should easily understand his words…..suppose that he went on to say, as if by a logical inference: “you can no longer doubt that this island which is more excellent than all lands exists somewhere, since you have no doubt that it is in your understanding. And since it is more excellent not to be in the understanding alone, but to exist both in the understanding and in reality, for this reason it must exist. For if it does not exist, any land which really exists will be more excellent than it; and so the island already understood by you to be more excellent will not be more excellent ”
Gaunilon was trying to reduce Saint Anselm’s intuition that it is better to exist rather than not to absurdity. If Anselm’s formula was correct then we could define anything into existence that is greatest in its class. We could show that an Island that than which no greater Island can be thought does exist and also a unicorn that than which nothing greater can be thought. If a unicorn that than which nothing greater can be thought did not in fact exist then we could think of a greater unicorn, namely, one that exists. This would result in a contradiction or absurdity if these premises are granted and thus the greatest possible unicorn would be inferred to exist from this negation. In fact anything with the formula in front of it that says “that than which nothing greater can be thought” could be proved to exist as such. But since we know more reasonably that this is false than the intuition that it is better to exists rather than not then we have a sufficient defeater or decisive reason to doubt that it is better to exist rather than not. Therefore, Gaunilon and many people who doubt this argument are warranted in their doubt unless the defender of the classical ontological argument provides a defeater-defeater.
A Response to the Popular Objection to the Classical Ontological Argument
The response to this classic objection is going to be answered by Anselmian perfect being theology and philosophy to which I plan to define and illustrate. Then I am going to argue from the concept of a being that than which nothing greater can be thought to the conclusion that only a concept such as this can be the only concept that can be just seen to exist. Then I plan to put forth potential objections to my solution and the response to those objections.
Anselmian Perfect Being Theology and Philosophy
Anselmian perfect being theology and philosophy takes the concept of God as being that than which nothing greater can be thought or God as the greatest conceivable being and from this concept of God one can infer certain great making properties . A great making property is a property that is better to have rather than not . God will have every great making property since this is entailed by the concept or definition of him being that than which nothing greater can be thought. For if God lacked any great making property we could conceive of a greater being with all those great making properties that God has plus that great making property that God would lacked. But then this would be a contradiction since you could think of a being greater than the greatest thinkable being. In addition, these great making properties are also justified by intuition like the justification for existence being a great making property. An example of a great making property would be omniscience. For example, let us suppose we are engaging in the project of perfect being theology we would ask the question: Is it better for God to be omniscient or not? Well it is reasonable to think that all knowledge is intrinsically and objective better than having no knowledge, therefore from Anselmian perfect being theology (which includes Anselm’s concept of God) one would infer that God is omniscient. Other examples of great making properties would be necessity, omnipresence, moral perfection, and omnipotence. Moreover, there are other great making properties that are more controversial among theologians and philosophers like divine simplicity, impassability, and timelessness . Therefore, since some great making properties are uncontroversial and others controversial then we can conclude that there will be some properties that are more reasonable to hold to than others. With this view of Anselmian perfect being theology and philosophy we are now equipped to look at answering Gaunilons objection to the classical ontological argument.
A Solution from Anselmian Perfect being Theology and Philosophy
Gaunilons defeater for the ontological argument is insufficient because one can infer from Anselmian perfect being theology that only God can be intuitively seen to exist by the very concept of God. We can infer from the concept of God being that than which nothing greater can be thought that he is the only being that can be intuitively seen to exist because this itself is a great making property. In other words, a great making property of God is that he is the only being that can be seen to exist by just His concept. If God is the only being that can be seen to exist by thinking of the concept of God then we are philosophically committed to the claim that this is better to have rather than not. More importantly this would mean that only God would share this great making property and that nothing else other than God would have it. Thus, this suggests that the objector to the classical ontological argument is no longer in a position to offer a defeater that would suggest that if the ontological argument is valid and sound that one could look at the concept of the greatest conceivable tree, house, bug, and Island and just infer from their concepts that they exist.
Potential Problems with the Solution
However, it must be admitted that this defeater is successfully defeated if one shows that the concept of God is such that it is the only concept by which we can infer existence is itself a great making property and this may seem questionable to some. Since my idea has not been touched in the primary and secondary literature I have no official academic citations for the possible critiques that I am about to level against my own solution . One possible critique is that this solution is arbitrary and ad hoc. In other words the concern with my solution is that it is baselessly and artificially designed to avoid the force of Gaunilo’s apparently decisive defeater of the classical ontological argument. Another possible critique is that it is unclear whether or not that being the only being that can be seen to exist by an inference from His concept is in fact a great making property. Thus, there needs to be a clear and careful answer to these objections to my solution.
A Response to the Critiques of the Solution
The reason why being the only being that can be seen to exist by its concept is a great making property is because it makes God unique ontologically and epistemologically from all other things that exist. This would be yet another property that would make God entirely distinct from the created order because no other created thing or possibly created thing can be seen to exist by its mere concept. This would make God have a uniqueness of kind rather than a uniqueness of degree . Thus, this would give further support for the creator-creature distinction which is also a great making property. Some might argue that uniqueness is in-itself not necessarily good because we can conceive of things that are unique in a negative or evil sense. However, this overlooks the fact that the concept of God is intrinsically good and any uniqueness of his substance will always be a good thing rather than neutral or evil. Furthermore, this property is great making because it makes the grounds or reasons for belief in God distinct from any other fact in the world. In other words, it gives God his epistemological uniqueness. Furthermore, this would make God’s existence something that we can just see from His concept rather than treating God like he is something of the creation that needs to be checked out and investigated in order to be believed reasonably. Thus, because of these considerations it seems like this property is a great making property rather than an arbitrary and sneaky way out of an ancient objection.
In conclusion, we have seen that the ontological argument is valid and sound and given my brief analysis it seems to support the proposition that God exists. We have looked at the general outline of the argument and the reasonableness of each of the premises. Moreover, this paper has also shown that one of the oldest objections against the classical ontological argument fails to apply the idea of a being that than which nothing greater can be thought consistently and as a result it tries to exploit an absurd inference from soundness and validness of the argument, namely that we could just define anything that is the greatest into existence. This opens up optimism for further philosophical theology and especially philosophical theology in Anselmian tradition. This is not a truth of merger significance and the reason why it is great significance will have to be argued in another paper, but for now I will leave us with an encouraging quote about the prospects of philosophical theology in the Anselmian tradition by Thomas Morris “I believe this is correct, that there exists at least a strong prima facie case for the coherence of the elements of classical theism, and so for the coherence of an a priori conception of deity understood as entailing these elements. If this is right, then there can be a strong prima facie case for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, if indeed he is God, being the God of Anselm, a maximally perfect being”.
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