Grey on the Ontological Argument
In October of 2000, William Grey, in an article entitled “Gasking’s Proof” (Analysis, 60: 368-370), wrote the following about Anselm’s ontological argument:
“The ontological ‘proof’ of the existence of God devised by St. Anselm (1033-1109) is a captivating argument. God, Anselm notoriously proposed, is not merely great, but a being than which a greater cannot be conceived” (page 368).
I’m willing to grant that the argument may be captivating. However, proposing this about God strikes me about as notorious (that is, disreputable) as proposing that red is a color or proposing that two is an even number – that is, it isn’t notorious at all. It should be obvious to anyone who knows how to use the relevant words that God is the greatest conceivable being. Be that as it may, Grey goes on to assert the following:
“To conceive of God as non-existent is therefore to conceive a lesser God than the one which Anselm had in mind, for the God which Anselm had in mind is the God that exists in reality. God is just too good not to exist; his non-existence is simply unthinkable… A sophistical argument, but brilliant sophistry.” (page 368)
Grey is right when he says that the argument he describes is sophistical, but he is wrong to attribute this sophistical argument to Anselm. One could write volumes about how badly and inaccurately Anselm’s argument for God’s existence gets presented – both by its defenders and its detractors. It is always easier to knock down a straw man version of Anselm’s argument rather than taking the trouble to figure out what the argument is. Grey has simply provided us with another example illustrating this point. The most that one can say here is that Grey has concocted a bit of captivating sophistry which bears a superficial resemblance to Anselm’s actual argument. However, a precise and accurate statement of Anselm’s argument will not detain us here, because the reason that we’ve turned our attention to Grey is that he is the conduit through which an anti-ontological argument has come down to us.
Gasking’s Ontological Argument for God’s Non-existence
Grey goes on to explain that the Australian philosopher, Douglas Gasking, produced an ontological argument that is an “a priori argument for the non-existence of God” (page 368). Gasking himself may have considered his argument as a simple bit of mental amusement – but others have taken the argument more seriously. As it turns out, Graham Oppy provides a restatement of Gasking’s Proof on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. Oppy begins:
“A relatively recent addition to the genre is described in Grey… It is the work of Douglas Gasking, one-time Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne (with emendations by William Grey and Denis Robinson).”
Oppy goes on to restate the argument (using the Australian spelling for “marvelous”):
1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.
2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.
3. The greater the disability or handicap of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.
4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.
5. Therefore, if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator, we can conceive a greater being—namely, one who created everything while not existing.
6. An existing God, therefore, would not be a being than which a greater cannot be conceived, because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.
7. (Hence) God does not exist.
While we have some reason to think that Gasking didn’t take this argument too seriously (given that he never published the argument himself), there are many of the new atheists who are (unsurprisingly) impressed by the argument and present it as a serious argument for atheism. For example, the Iron Chariots website (recommended by the internet atheist, Matt Dillahunty) reproduces the argument verbatim while conveniently omitting Oppy’s objections to the argument. The argument is also mentioned by Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, not as a successful argument but as a successful counterpoint to Anselm’s original argument (which I take to be further evidence that Richard Dawkins is the Ray Comfort of atheism). Again, the argument is presented as a serious argument on the Nathan Dickey Blog and on The Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist blog (in articles illustrating that the respective authors have precious little idea of what the ontological argument actually is or how it is supposed to work). However, despite the growing popularity of the argument, Gasking's argument is certainly unsound.
Problems with Gasking’s Proof
In summary, Oppy provides two objections to Gasking’s proof. First, he questions the veracity of premise (1). Oppy inquires, “But what reason is there to believe that the creation of the world is ‘the most marvellous achievement imaginable,’ in the sense which is required for this argument? Surely it is quite easy to imagine even more marvellous achievements—e.g., the creation of many worlds at least as good as this one!” His second objection, offered as a mere side note constitutes an objection to premise (4). He writes, “Of course, one might also want to say that, in fact, one cannot conceive of a non-existent being's actually creating something: that is literally inconceivable.” So, in short, Oppy holds that there are achievements that one can easily imagine that are better than the creation of the world and that the idea of a non-existent being creating anything is incoherent.
There are other objections to the argument in addition to the ones mentioned by Oppy. First, premise (2) is false insofar as it ignores the extrinsic qualities of an achievement. In this premise we are told that the value of an achievement is determined by considering the intrinsic quality of the achievement and the ability of the one who brought about the achievement. However, this seems to be wrong. It ignores the fact that the merit of an achievement can also be determined (at least in part) by the results of achievement. Perhaps this problem can be obviated by modifying the premise to say that “The merit of an achievement is the product of its intrinsic quality, its extrinsic results, and the ability of its creator.” In any case, we will set this difficulty to one side in order to consider a more pressing problem with the argument.
Premise (3) – according to which the greater the disability overcome in order to achieve something, the more impressive the achievement is – would be true if it were about an existent thing with a real handicap. For example, a real person who has the handicap of a wooden leg running a five-minute mile is more impressive than a otherwise healthy (but real) person doing the same thing without a wooden leg. However, the premise is false insofar as the “creator” in this premise is taken to be non-existent. A non-existent being cannot possess an existent handicap. Understood in this way, the premise reads: “The greater the existent handicap of a non-existent being, the more impressive the achievement.” This, is of course, completely wrong. So, premise (3) is false, because an existent (or real) handicap can only be possessed by an existent (or real) being; but the premise is supposed to be about a non-existent being.
We can put this point in a slightly different way. Recall that, according to the original statement of the third premise, “The greater the handicap of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.“ Given that the achievement is real (since the universe is an existent thing), there are only four available ways that the premise can be interpreted, and all of them are either false or incoherent – namely:
Reading (a): The greater the imagined handicap of the real creator, the more impressive the achievement.
Reading (b): The greater the imagined handicap of the imagined creator, the more impressive the achievement.
Reading (c): The greater the real handicap of the real creator, the more impressive the achievement.
Reading (d): The greater the real handicap of the imagined creator, the more impressive the achievement.
Now, it becomes clear what has gone wrong. On (a), the statement is just false, because imagined handicaps do not make the achievements of real creators more impressive. On (b) and (d), the statement is incoherent because (as Oppy already pointed out) it is incoherent to suppose that imagined creators bring about real (or existent) achievements – with or without handicaps. On (c), the statement is false, for the reasons given in the previous paragraph – that is, it would be true if it were about an existent thing with a real handicap; but, ex hypothesi (i.e., by the hypothesis), the premise must assume that the creator is non-existent. So, interpretation (c) is ruled out by the argument itself.
Another serious problem with the argument is the attempt to use the words “great,” “impressive,” “marvelous,” “merit,” “incredible,” and “formidable” as synonymous terms. They are not. This is very sloppy and probably renders the argument invalid (due to its committing the fallacy of equivocation). The only way around this is to simply pick a term and apply it consistently to all the premises as follows:
1. The creation of the world is the greatest achievement imaginable.
2. The greatness of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality and (b) the ability of its creator.
3. The more severe the handicap of the creator, the greater the achievement.
4. The most severe handicap for a creator would be non-existence.
5. Therefore, if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator, we can conceive a greater being – namely, one who created everything while not existing.
6. Therefore, an existing God would not be a being than which a greater cannot be conceived, because a creator that is even greater would be a God which did not exist.
7. Therefore, God does not exist.
While this does help the argument avoid the fallacy of equivocation, it certainly doesn’t make the premises any more plausible or coherent – as all of the original objections to the truth and coherence of the premises still apply. Take premise (1), for example. It is no more plausible to say that “creation is the greatest achievement imaginable” than it is to say that “creation is the most impressive achievement imaginable” – which is just to say that it isn’t plausible at all. Again, in the previous objection to premise (3) simply substitute “the greater the achievement” for “the more impressive the achievement” for readings (a) through (d) above, and one can easily see that one will get the same results. Similar considerations apply to the other objections. In short, the argument is logically valid but unsound (due to its multiple false premises).
Moreover, given how one understands what it is to have a handicap, there may be problems beyond those already mentioned. For example, it would seem that premises (3) and (4) are in tension with one another. In other words, if God could create the world while being non-existent (as the argument supposes), then it seems that there would be no reason to think of non-existence as any kind of handicap (and this creates problems for the fourth premise) – and if non-existence is an insurmountable handicap on the ability of a creator, then there would be no achievement -- great or otherwise (and this would constitute a problem for the third premise).
Finally, this last objection I owe to three of my philosophy students (Biesel, Smith & Wyma). If a handicap is the subtraction of being from something and if non-existence is a handicap, then saying this would seem require that being be subtracted from an already non-existent being. That seems problematic at best.
In sum, it is erroneous to think that Gasking's argument provides one with a successful demonstration of God's non-existence (as they seem to think over at Iron Chariots). Moreover, given that Gasking's argument is not parallel to Anselm's, it is simply wrong to say that Gasking's argument provides one with a parody of (or counter-argument to) Anselm's argument capable of demonstrating the failure of the latter (despite what Dawkins, Nathan Dickey, and others hold). It is disappointing to see what was probably just philosophical amusement on Gasking's part being put to such poor use.
(Thanks to Tami Perkins, Christopher Benson, Barb Isbell, and Stephen Shipp for looking over earlier drafts of this post.)
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2006), pages 82-83.
William Grey, 2000, “Gasking's Proof”, Analysis, 60: 368–370.
William Grey, 2000, “Gasking's Proof”, Analysis, 60: 368–370.