Reading Anselm: Context and Criticism

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Sunday, 14 March 2010

The most stupid account of Anselm's argument ever?

I must admit that it has never worried me that Anselm refers to the unbeliever as a fool. However, it clearly bothers Richard Dawkins, who thinks it is a 'cheek', and who in a fit of pique (it certainly wasn't a fit of rationality) has chosen to give us his take on Anselm's argument in his book, The God Delusion. Here is Dawkins' account of Anselm's argument.

'Bet you I can prove God exists.'
'Bet you can't.'
'Right then, imagine the most perfect perfect perfect thing possible.'
'Okay, now what?'
'Now, is that perfect perfect perfect thing real? Does it exist?'
'No, it's only in the mind.'
But if it was real it would be even more perfect, because a really really perfect thing would have to be better than a silly old imaginary thing. So I've proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur Nur [sic!]. All atheists are fools.'

In the process of writing my book on the Proslogion, I came across hundreds of accounts of Anselm's argument, some more flawed than others, to the most serious and influential of which I tried to respond. Nothing, however, comes close to Dawkins' account in terms of sheer stupidity.

Dawkins is offended aesthetically by Anselm's 'logomachist trickery'. He tells us that he doesn't like Anselm's argument, but is unable to say what, if anything, is actually wrong with it.

Funnily enough Dawkins inserts a footnote in this discussion in which he attacks Antony Flew. It reveals that Dawkins' approach to philosophical matters is that of a gossip columnist, who constantly commits the fallacy of pseudo-refuting description. (A term coined by Flew, as it happens.)

Involved in Dawkins' account is the implication that Anselm was trying to prove that the atheist is a fool. In fact, the description of the fool as an unbeliever in the psalms (13:1 and 52:1) is the trigger for Anselm's search for a rational argument for God, since, if Scripture says that it is foolish (insipiens) to deny God, then this means for Anselm that God's existence must be rationally demonstrable. If that is the case, then through topical analysis he will be able to discover an argument (a middle term) that delivers such a demonstration. Hence, the Proslogion.