Consider Gaunilo’s refutation of Anselm’s ontological argument:
…[I]t 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; and that having no owner or inhabitant, it is more excellent than all other countries, which are inhabited by mankind, in the abundance with which it is stored.
Now if some one should tell me that there is such an island, I should easily understand his words, in which there is no difficulty. But 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.”
If a man should try to prove to me by such reasoning that this island truly exists, and that its existence should no longer be doubted, either I should believe that he was jesting, or I know not which I ought to regard as the greater fool: myself, supposing that I should allow this proof; or him, if he should suppose that he had established with any certainty the existence of this island. For he ought to show first that the hypothetical excellence of this island exists as a real and indubitable fact, and in no wise as any unreal object, or one whose existence is uncertain, in my understanding” (Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, In Behalf of the Fool, 6).
To summarize, Gaunilo thinks that the ontological argument proves too much. We should expect to be able to demonstrate the existence of a superlative within any class or species of a thing. Not only would perfect islands exist, but perfect pineapples, perfect pencils, and perfect pizzas!
But Anselm is not without a response:
Now I promise confidently that if any man shall devise anything existing either in reality or in concept alone (except that than which a greater be conceived) to which he can adapt the sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him his lost island, not to be lost again
But it now appears that this being than which a greater is inconceivable cannot be conceived not to be, because it exists on so assured a ground of truth; for otherwise it would not exist at all.
Hence, if any one says that he conceives this being not to exist, I say that at the time when he conceives of this either he conceives of a being than which a greater is inconceivable, or he does not conceive at all. If he does not conceive, he does not conceive of the non-existence of that of which he does not conceive. But if he does conceive, he certainly conceives of a being which cannot be even conceived not to exist. For if it could be conceived not to exist, it could be conceived to have a beginning and an end. But this is impossible (Anselm’s Apologetic In Reply to Gaunilo’s Answer In Behalf of the Fool, 3).
Admittedly, it is not very clear how Anselm’s response undercuts Gaunilo’s parody objection— at least at first blush. The idea seems to be that whatever is “that than which a greater is inconceivable” cannot be thought to be contingent. But islands, at least normal islands, are contingent.
Someone might decide to bite the bullet and insist that she has conceived of a necessary island. Has she escaped Anselm’s criticism? Interestingly enough, it seems that Anselm is willing to concede that if such a person truly has followed his line of reasoning, then such an “island” is no longer lost, but is never to be lost again. Still, one might raise the question, “what kind of ‘island’ is it?”
The television show Lost offers an interesting perspective to this question. Lost was well-known for referencing a wide variety of philosophic themes. Many of the show’s characters are named after various philosophers, e.g. Locke, Rousseau, and Hume. Recently, I stumbled across a snippet from Lostopedia that I thought was very interesting. The author writes:
The underlying philosophy of the entire show is the 11th century discussion around what is called Anselm’s ontological argument for God and Gaunilo’s refutation using the “lost Island” argument… And for television, a truly greater island would be one that moved in space, or in time, or even thought for itself. In fact this fallacious argument can be extended to prove the existence of anything, like tropical polar bears (Lostopedia, Philosophers/Theories).
Upon reflection, I think the show proffers insights into how one might respond to Gaunilo. That is, if we start to imagine what kinds of attributes a perfect island should have, the island begins to look less and less like an island, and more and more like God. On the show, the island could cure John Locke and others, it had enormous power, it could travel through space and time, and seem to be self-aware and express intentionality. Towards the end of the series the island seemed to be anything but an island at all!
Suppose we are able to imagine an even greater island, one that not only travels through space and time, but somehow manages to transcend it. Perhaps this island would be morally perfect—the island on the TV certainly wasn’t. Would the island be pure actuality? Would it be omnipotent and omniscient, and omnipresent? At some point our greatest “island” just happens to have an ill-selected pseudonym. It would be more appropriate to consider it divine. And as we reflect on its nature, we’re no longer wondering how many coconuts, beautiful hula-girls, palm trees, or secluded beaches the island should have. When we reflect upon the phrase “that than which none greater can be conceived” we realize that it is a description that cannot be grafted onto just any other term. When attached to terms referencing contingent things, we’re either uttering nonsense, as we do when we speak of round-squares, or we are no longer talking about a contingent thing at all. If we loosen up the concept sufficiently to accommodate the Anselmian phrase, we’ve traded our initial concept for the divine concept. The very meaning of this phrase is that which blocks Anselm’s argument from proving too much.