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Gaunilo's Argument - "Anselm's Fool"

Anselm imparted the statement "The fool has said there is no God..." - Gaunilo's objection is sometimes refered to as "Gaunilo's fool" however he did not use the term himself. Gaunilo, himself takes up the position of the fool and shows there is some sense in rectifying the statement of Anselm that God "may not rationally be thought not to exist". Gaunilo deprives this statement of its wider necessity, removing it to "If God is thought to exist, he must be thought of as necessarily existing."

Gaunilo's counter argument is an application of Anselm's method to prove the existence of God. He moved the emphasis of God as a perfect being over to another concept, in his case an island. He attempted to show Anselm's method unsound by using it to produce the patently absurd  The argument presents itself as follows.

Axioms;

  • 1) A perfect island is more perfect than any other island.
  • 2) It is possible to conceive the 'perfect island' in the understanding of the mind.
  • 3) An existing island is more perfect than a non existent one.
  • Conjecture) Such an island must exist in reality, as well as the mind.

If we assume that no such island may really exist, but only exist in the understanding, - we retain the idea that were it actually existent, it would be more perfect. Therefore we had not understood a perfect island; in which case it is impossible for such an island to exist only in the understanding, contradicting our assumption. To whit, a perfect island must therefore exist in reality.

Gaunilo had raised applicable doubt to Anselm's method. The root of the objection is based on the idea that an island which is perfect must in some sense be necessarily existent. Anselm's argument was postulating a necessarily existent 'perfect being' which to be a perfect "being", must 'be' or exist as a necessity. A perfect island however, had no reason to exist, since the concept was that of perfection, and not a perfect being. It would not be unreasonable to point out a flaw in the argument of Gaunilo's "fool" above by saying that though the idea of a perfect island is merely a concept only, it is impossible. It does not follow that it must exist as a necessity, since a being must 'be', but a more general abstraction need not.

The result of the argument is that existence is not a property to ascribe to islands, apples or even perfection. (Although one could argue that the concept of "being" necessarily entails existence.)

To risk the chance of losing the reader by way of facetiousness, I may point out that God, when considered "perfected" is still God, whereas a perfect island is merely by definition, a body of land surrounded by water. If an island fulfills this, it is perfect by definition. Likewise, the perfect apple is merely an apple - whereas in fact a perfect circle is truly an abstraction that a mathematician may see as possible to place anywhere!


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