The Ontological Argument and the “Maximally Great Island” Objection

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The ontological argument has its origin in Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109 CE) and has been developed in some recent treatments. The ontological argument seeks to prove the existence of God simply by reflecting on the idea of God as the greatest conceivable being, or as the maximally greatest being. It can be presented in a modern form as follows: (1)

P1: It is possible that a maximally great being exists
P2: If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world
P3: If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world
P4: If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world
P5: If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
P6: Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

This is an interesting argument because we seem to move from merely the idea that a maximally great being exists (P1) to the actual existence of such a great being (P6). We also noted the earliest criticism of this argument that came from the Benedictine monk Gaunilo (d. 1083). Gaunilo replies in his On Behalf of the Fool and maintains that it is possible to populate the world with all sorts of greatest conceivable things that do not actually exist. If one can populate a world with such things then it would suggest the absurdity of the ontological argument for the existence of God. In particular, he uses the example of an island and that it is possible to think of an island than which none greater can be conceived. Here we move from merely the possibility of there existing a maximally great island to the actual existence of such an island. Gaunilo’s parody suggests that there is no actual maximally great island even though we can conceive of an island than which none greater can be conceived. Similarly, although we can conceive of a being than which none greater can be conceived, it does not follow that such a being actually exists.

But can we really conceive of a maximally great island and does Gaunilo’s analogy bring into question the ontological argument for the existence of God? Theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig maintains that the analogy does not work because such parodies present one with incoherent entities. For one, the analogy breaks down given islands are inherently material and that material entities are contingent on the existence of space and time. By contrast, a maximally great being like God can only be maximally great if he is not dependent on anything else, including space and time. Craig explains that,

“When you look at these parodies of the argument they turn out to involve things that are logically incoherent. For example, there is no such thing as the greatest possible island. You could always have more palm trees and more dancing girls on the island. And besides what makes an island great is person relative. Do you prefer an island that is a desert island remote from civilization? Or do you prefer an island that is packed with the finest resort hotels? It’s person relative. So there isn’t any such things as objective great-making properties of islands” (2).

Craig contends that the same goes for other similar proposed entities attempting to parody the argument; for example, “a cigarette pack could not be a maximally great being because a cigarette pack that existed necessarily in all possible worlds couldn’t be smoked because it would cease to exist. So, that is an incoherent idea as well.” The notion of the greatest conceivable pizza is another common parody posited by skeptics to undermine the ontological argument. But it too faces the same objections; for example, a pizza could always have one more topping to make it greater; it is also a material entity; and perhaps most tellingly, a pizza is consumed. In one of his podcasts, Craig maintains that “a pizza is something that can be eaten and digested and therefore it cannot be metaphysically necessary. The idea of a metaphysically necessary pizza is just a logically incoherent idea… a pizza cannot be a necessary being because it is something that can be eaten and is not by concept maximally great” (3).

The theistic response here is simple: unlike a pizza or cigarette pack, a maximally great being cannot be consumed or used, go out of existence, owe its existence to something else, or have deficiencies in need of improvement. A maximally great being would have to exist in all possible worlds, but there are conceivable worlds in which pizzas and islands do not exist. There is no logical incoherency in postulating a possible world in which there are no islands and no pizzas. Further, a maximally great being would also have to be all-powerful and it makes no sense to say pizzas and islands are all-powerful. One can parallel the ontological argument by substituting “being” with “island/pizza” to see where the premises break down:

P1: It is possible that a maximally great island/pizza exists
P2: If it is possible that a maximally great island/pizza exists, then a maximally great island/pizza exists in some possible world

P3: If a maximally great island/pizza exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world

P4: If a maximally great island/pizza exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world
P5: If a maximally great island/pizza exists in the actual world, then a maximally great island/pizza exists.

P6: Therefore, a maximally great island/pizza exists.

Given the impossibility of islands or pizzas being maximally great, the parody breaks down right at the beginning in P1. One might indeed not find the ontological argument a convincing proof of God’s existence, but this is not because Gaunilo’s parody is successful at proving its absurdity.

References

1. Einar Himma, Kenneth. Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. Available.

2. YouTube. 2010. The Ontological Argument and Gaunilo’s Island. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFCaC7aeHa4

3. YouTube. 2010. Eating Victor Stenger’s Ontological Pizza. Available. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otEt52IGwf0

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