There have been a lot of strange ideas in philosophy. But I think St. Anselm’s “proof” of the existence of God and George Berkeley’s ideas about existence rank among the dumbest. Perhaps you can find some dumber ones?
St Anselm’s “proof” of the existence of God
Anselm (1033-1109) believed he had proved the existence of God in the following way:
- God by definition is the greatest being that exists;
- We can all at least conceive of a being that is greater than any other being;
- It is greater to exist in reality rather than in imagination;
- Therefore the being that we conceive of must exist in reality.
Even in Anselm’s own day, a monk called Gaunilo pointed out that we could conceive of an island which is perfect. But this does not mean such an island exists. Therefore there must be a flaw in Anselm’s argument. Anselm’s retort is that we cannot really think of a perfect island though we may think that we can. But it can be equally argued that if there is no God we cannot really conceive of him though we may think we can.
Kant criticsed Anselm’s “proof” on the basis that existence is not an addtional attribute of a thing like a description of colour or size would be. Either a thing exists or it does not. “Existence” adds nothing to the description of God or what God is “like”.
We know unicorns do not exist, though we can imagine them. Just because we can imagine them does not mean that they must exist. And even if they did exist- how exactly would this qualify them as being “greater”?
Some philsophers argue the very opposite, namely that the idea of a thing is greater than any particular example of a thing. Thus Plato argued that the idea of a horse is greater, or more “perfect” than any particular example of a horse because the idea (or what he called “form”) is constant, whereas any particular example is changable.
Anyway Anselm was made a saint by the Catholic Church for developing his “proof” of God’s existence.
Berkeley’s ideas about existence
George Berkeley (1685-1753) believed that physical objects are incapable of existing independent of some conscious being experiencing them. Berkeley radically rejected materialism- the view that material substances exist in their own right- by asserting that the only real substances are minds.
Berkeley does not deny that physical objects cease to exist when we (human beings) cease to observe or experience them. But he claims that the only reason that they continue to exist is because God is constantly observing everything.
Berkeley did not quite make sainthood. But he does have a city named after him in California, which is the site of a famous university and which was a hot bed of student radicalism, as well as the hippy movement, during the late 1960’s. His big idea indicates that he might have smoked a bit too much dope himself!