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.


Gertrude said...

It is telling that Dawkins puts Russell's acceptance of the validity of Anselm's argument down to Russell being 'an exaggeratedly fair-minded atheist, over-eager to be disillusioned if logic seemed to require it', which hardly passes as a refutation.

verboselyme said...

Dawkins, in his book does in fact say what is wrong with the ontological argument. It makes the slippery assumption that "existence" is better than "non-existence" (pg 107, The God Delusion, Paperback edition, 2006).

Ian Logan said...

That's p. 83 in my copy. Dawkins writes: 'Kant identified the trick card up Anselm's sleeve as his slippery assumption that 'existence' is more 'perfect' than non-existence.' Note Dawkins' use of pejorative and rhetorical language to attempt to hoodwink his readers into believing he has established a conclusion. (See what I just did!) What Dawkins says indicates his ignorance of the text he claims to have read. Let's be clear Kant was unacquainted with Anselm's argument and addressed himself to the arguments of Wolff and others. These are distinct arguments from the argument of Anselm. They are what Kant referred to as ontological arguments. Kant himself produced one in Der einzig moegliche Beweisgrund, which he did not address in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft, and which he later stated had not been refuted! I think Dawkins is even more confused, because it is Gassendi rather than Kant who makes this type of objection to Descartes. Kant asserts that existence is not a predicate. Where does Anselm talk of existence as a perfection? He doesn't. He isn't Descartes!

You cannot state what is wrong with an argument without addressing it. It is not sufficient to simply repeat some vague assertion you have read in a book by someone who themselves is not acquainted with the argument and who in fact is addressing a different argument. (I'm being generous here. I think it is extremely unlikely that Dawkins has read the Kritik.)

Dawkins doesn't in fact tell us what is wrong with Anselm's argument, because he clearly does not know what Anselm's argument is.

Eric Matthews said...

Thus, the Dawkilogical argument against the existence of God: Therefore, if that argument which is greater than my thought were only in others' understanding, then that argument which cannot be thought would be greater than can be be thought! But surely this is impossible. Hence, without doubt, something which is greater than my thought cannot exist neither in my understanding nor in reality.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why an atheist zealot as Dawkins never mentioned Gödel's ontological proof.

Ian Logan said...

My guess is that Dawkins would not consider himself qualified to comment on formal logical arguments, since he is no logician. On the other hand, he is no philosopher, yet still feels able to pass judgement on philosophical arguments.

Anonymous said...

Are you serious about this post? It seems like a joke. I'm so confused here.

Ian Logan said...

I'm serious, but Dawkins isn't. If you are confused, why not read my book on Anselm's argument? It might help. Reading Dawkins won't.