What’s a perfect island? forest? garden?

Stephen Law discusses the ontological argument.

Anselm’s argument simple and elegant. He begins by characterizing God as a being greater than which cannot be conceived. That God, if he exists, is such a being seems clear. If you conceive of a being, yet can also conceive of a still greater being, then the being you first thought of cannot be God. Armed with this concept of God, we can now argue for God’s existence as follows. We can at least conceive of such a being. That there exists a being greater than which cannot be conceived is at least a hypothesis we can entertain. But, adds Anselm, as it is greater to exist in reality than merely in our imagination, this being must really exist. After all, if he did not exist, then he would not be as great a being as we can conceive.

Stephen notes that few philosophers find the argument cogent or convincing, but also that there is no consensus about what’s wrong with it. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but what I wonder is, why anyone ever found it convincing. It has that grandiosity problem I mentioned (that is, it seems to me to have that problem). It just seems like silly magic – as if merely thinking the words ‘perfect’ and ‘exists’ could make something exist. It doesn’t matter what we can conceive and what we decide must be true – we can’t make anything exist by the power of thought (except thoughts, which don’t count, because I’m a reductionist materialist, and a heathen).

I have a different (though related) problem with Gaunilo’s objection.

Here’s Gaunilo’s argument. Can we not conceive of a perfect island – an island perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? It seems we can. But if we can conceive of such an island, and it is greater to exist in reality than in imagination, then the island we are conceiving of must exist. If it didn’t exist, it would not be perfect in every way. On the seemingly safe assumption that there is no such island, it seems we have no choice but to accept that there is something wrong with the argument that appears to establish that there is.

Simon Blackburn’s version of that is Dreamboat – the perfect lover. Anyway, about the island – does it make sense to say that an island can be perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? Are pure streams and sublime contours examples of perfection? They don’t seem so to me. They seem more like examples of very very good or extremely nice or ravishingly beautiful if you happen to like that kind of thing – but that’s not the same thing as perfect. What’s a perfect apple? Or a perfect brownie? Or a perfect sweater? Or a perfect book? Depends, doesn’t it; depends what you like. It’s a value judgment; it’s moral or aesthetic or both; it’s relative at least to humans and often to individuals; ‘perfect’ doesn’t come into it. So that’s a further element in the puzzle. It puzzles me anyway.

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