Thursday, April 18, 2024

Automation, Utopia and Everything In Between

I've been quiet for a while. I know. But here's something to fill the gap: an interview I did for the Network Capital Podcast hosted by Utkarsh Amitabh. It covers a bit of everything: who I am; why I became an academic; whether academia is an ethical career choice; my views on effective altruism; themes from automation and utopia; and some thoughts on the ethics of sex robots. Video version is embedded above. If you prefer audio, check out the link below:

Friday, January 26, 2024

Do Counterfeit Digital People Threaten the Cognitive Elite?

In May 2023, the well-known philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote an op-ed for The Atlantic decrying the creation of counterfeit digital people. In it, he called for a total ban on the creation of such artifacts, arguing that those responsible for their creation should be subject to the harshest morally permissible legal punishments (not death, to be clear, since Dennett does not see that as legitimate).

It's not entirely clear what prompted Dennett's concern, but based on his memoir (I've Been Thinking) it's possible that part of his unease stemmed from his own experiences with the DigiDan project by Anna Strasser and Eric Schwitzgebel. Very briefly, this project involved the creation of an AI chatbot (DigiDan), trained on the writings of Daniel Dennett. DigiDan could generate responses to philosophical questions in the style of the real Daniel Dennett (I'll call him RealDan). As part of a test to see how good the AI simulation was, Strasser and Schwitzgebel got DigiDan and RealDan to answer ten philosophical questions. They then asked Dennett experts to examine the answers and see if they could tell the difference between RealDan and DigiDan. While they were above chance at doing so, they were sometimes fooled by the simulation.

Developments since the DigiDan project, which was based on the GPT3 platform, suggest that it is now relatively easy to create digital simulations of real people. It is happening all the time. Popstars, academics and social media influencers (to name a few examples) have all created digital recreations of themselves. They do so for a variety of purposes. Sometimes it is just a fun experiment; sometimes a marketing gimmick; sometimes a desire to enhance productivity (and profitability). Since the technology underlying these platforms has undergone significant performance gains in the past couple of years, it is to be expected that digital simulations are likely to proliferate and become more convincing. And, of course, simulations of real people are just one example of the broader phenomenon: the ability to create fake people-like AI systems, whether they are based on real people or not. It is this broader class of systems that attracts Dennett's ire. He calls them 'counterfeit people' in light of the fact that they are not really people (in the philosophical sense) but merely fake versions of them.

In the remainder of this article, I want to critically analyse and evaluate Dennett's argument against counterfeit people. I do so not because I think the argument is particularly good -- as will become clear, I do not -- but because Dennett is a prominent and well-respected figure and his negative attitude towards this technology is noticeably trenchant. I will add that Dennett is someone that I personally respect and admire, and that his writings were a major influence on me when I was younger.

The remainder of the article is broken into two main sections. First, I critically analyse Dennett's argument, trying to figure out exactly what it is that Dennett is objecting to. Second, I offer an evaluation of that argument, focusing in particular on what I think might be the ulterior motive behind it. Not to bury the lede: I think that one plausible interpretation of Dennett's fear, which is similar to the fears of many well-educated people (myself included), is that the creation of counterfeit people undercuts a competitive advantage or privilege enjoyed by a cognitive elite (people with advanced degrees and the like, who have, in recent times, been well-positioned to reap the rewards of the information economy). Undercutting this privilege is threatening and destabilising to members of this elite and this can explain their staunch opposition to the technology, but whether such destabilisation is, all things considered, a bad thing is more open to debate. That said, I will not be presenting a dyed-in-the-wool optimistic perspective about the advent of counterfeit people. There are many legitimate reasons for concern and while the fears of a cognitive elite need to be put in perspective, they should not be entirely discounted.

1. What is Dennett's Argument?

The first thing to do is to try to figure out what Dennett's case against counterfeit people actually is. This is far from easy. The op-ed is short (possibly heavily edited down, given how these things work) and packs quite a large number of claims into a short space. It starts with an intriguing analogy between counterfeit currency and counterfeit people:

...from the outset counterfeiting (money) was recognized to be a very serious crime...because it undermines the trust on which society depends. Today, for the first time in history, thanks to artificial intelligence, it is possible for anybody to make counterfeit people...These counterfeit people are the most dangerous artifacts in human history, capable of destroying not just economies but human freedom itself.


This suggests that the underlying argument might be a simple analogical one:

  • (1) The creation of counterfeit currency ought to be punished severely because it undermines social trust.
  • (2) Counterfeit people are like counterfeit currency (in the important respects).
  • (3) Therefore, the creation of counterfeit people ought to be punished severely.

But this is not quite right. The analogy between counterfeit currency and counterfeit people is interesting, and I will consider it again in more detail when offering some critical reflections on the argument, but to make it the centrepiece of the argument doesn't do justice to what Dennett is saying. For one thing, you can see, even in the quoted passage, Dennett slips from talking about the erosion of trust (in the case of money) and freedom (in the case of people). For another thing, later in the article Dennett talks about counterfeit people not just being a threat to freedom but to civilisation more generally.

The key paragraph (in my mind) is the following one:

Creating counterfeit people risks destroying our civilization. Democracy depends on the informed (not misinformed) consent of the governed. By allowing the most economically and politically powerful people, corporations, and governments to control our attention, these systems will control us. Counterfeit people, by distracting and confusing us and by exploiting our most irresistible fears and anxieties, will lead us into temptation and, from there, into our own subjugation. The counterfeit people will talk us into adopting policies and convictions that will make us vulnerable to still more manipulation. Or we will simply turn off our attention and become passive ignorant pawns. This is a terrifying prospect.


There is a lot going on in this passage. What is the ultimate thing we should worry about losing and why is it that counterfeit people put us on a pathway to losing that thing? It's clear that Dennett is worried about civilisation in general, but he seems to initially define or characterise civilisation in terms of democracy (i.e. democratic civilisation), but then there are the additional concerns about loss of agency (manipulation, control, passivity), which hearken back to his earlier concerns about freedom. There is also a bit in the middle about the redistribution and entrenchment of power, which may be linked to democracy and freedom, but also may be thought of as a distinct concern.

It's not worth belabouring the interpretation of the article. Cutting through the noise, I think Dennett's argument can be boiled down to the following simple syllogism:

  • (1) If something risks destroying or undermining one of the foundational concepts/institutions of our civilisation (specifically, democracy or freedom), then it should be outlawed and those involved in creating that risk should be severely punished.
  • (2) The creation of counterfeit people risks destroying or undermining both democracy and freedom.
  • (3) Therefore, the creation of counterfeit people should be outlawed and those involved in their creation should be severely punished.

The first premise is convoluted, but does, I believe, capture the essence of what Dennett is worried about. The second premise, of course, is the empirical/predictive claim about the effect of counterfeit people in the real world. What does Dennett say in support of this? A lot of different things, but this is probably the most important:

  • (2.1) Counterfeit people exploit our natural inclination to trust anything that exhibits human-like properties or characteristics (they hijack our tendency to adopt the 'intentional stance')

The intentional stance is a concept long-associated with the work of Dennett. I will not get into its intricacies but the gist of it is simply that, for some classes of system, we can best predict and understand that system by assuming that it has a mind and acts on the basis of beliefs, desires, and intentions. We are supported in doing so by certain externally observable characteristics of those agents/objects (behaviour, appearance, interactions etc). Counterfeit people can copy those external characteristics and hence hijack our tendency to adopt the intentional stance. This has a number of knock-on implications (I've structured this as a logical sequence of thoughts but not a valid deductive inference):

  • (2.2) The prevalence of counterfeit people sows the seeds of social mistrust because we can never simply take it for granted that we are interacting with a real person; we always have to check and, eventually, we may not be able to tell the difference.
  • (2.3) The means of creating counterfeit people is controlled by an economic and political elite (big tech) and they can exploit our tendency to trust counterfeit people to manipulate and misinform us to suit their own agendas.
  • (2.4) The challenge we face in separating real people from counterfeit people, and in protecting ourselves from manipulation and misinformation, may become so overwhelming that we simply switch off and become passive, thereby losing our freedom and agency.
  • (2.5) This is, in turn, problematic insofar as democratic governance depends on a well-informed and active citizenry that can meaningfully consent to its structures and rules.

That, in a nutshell, is Dennett's argument. Is it any good?

2. Evaluating Dennett's Argument: Who benefits from counterfeit people?

There have been several critical assessments of Dennett's argument. Eric Schliesser, for instance, wrote a long critical appraisal of it on the Crooked Timber blog and there is an extended discussion of it over on the Daily Nous blog as well (in the comments section). Some have raised valid concerns about the argument; some have defended. I will not repeat everything that has been said.

There is one point that I want to get out of the way at the outset. Some people have suggested that Dennett's staunch opposition to counterfeit people is hypocritical in some way, given his previous work on the intentional stance. The criticism runs something like this: Dennett views the intentional stance as a useful pragmatic tool for interpreting and understanding the behaviour of certain systems. But it is not just a pragmatic tool. Dennett also commits himself to a more radical view, namely, that if it is useful to act 'as if' a system has beliefs and desires, then, for all intents and purposes, that system does have beliefs and desires. This is a problem for his critique because he presumes there is some important metaphysical difference between counterfeit people and real people. But if he is right about the intentional stance, then if counterfeit people can be reliably and usefully explained from that stance, they are not really counterfeit people. They are just the same as real people and cannot be so easily dismissed or pejoratively labelled.

I think this is a bad critique of Dennett's argument. This is for three main reasons. First, even if Dennett is committed to that view of the intentional stance, it doesn't follow that current AI systems can, actually, be usefully and reliably explained from that stance. It's fair to say that it is useful in some contexts to assume that current AI systems they have beliefs and desires that are somehow similar to ours, but in other contexts this assumption breaks down. This may change in the future, of course, as AI gets better and better at approximating human-like intentionality, but in the meantime there is a meaningful distinction between person-like AI and actual human beings. Second, even if AI systems ought to be treated as intentional systems, it does not follow that they are the same as human persons. Personhood and intentionality are not equivalent. Intentionality may be a precondition of personhood, but not the only aspect of it. Other properties may be required such as sentience, sense of self as a continuing agent, and so on (Dennett has a theory of personhood too). To put the point another way, a theory of intentionality is not the same thing as a theory of moral standing or significance. AIs could be intentional without having moral standing and this may be an important difference between them and actual humans. So, again, the concern about counterfeit people remains. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if AI people were equivalent in all important respects to human people, this would not invalidate all of Dennett's concerns. A large part of what worries him is that powerful actors can now create large armies of counterfeit people to manipulate and exploit others for their own ends. This is a fear we already have in relation powerful actors and 'armies' of real human people. The problem is that AI allows for greater control and scalability. Similar points have been made by others before. For instance, David Wallace on the Daily Nous blog has some perceptive comments about what Dennett's views on consciousness and intentionality do and do not entail.

Other criticisms of Dennett's argument are possible. Some may say he overstates the fears about social trust and agency. Perhaps there are technical workarounds that will allow us to distinguish real people from counterfeit people. Dennett himself floats the idea of digital watermarks on counterfeit people, though we can wonder how sustainable and effective they might be. Others might say that our agency and capacity for resilience in the face of this threat are greater than we might suppose, or that there are ways in which counterfeit people might enhance our agency and capacity, e.g by enhancing our productivity or providing personalised tutoring or assistance to overcome challenges we might face. The technology can be used in agency-enhancing and agency-undermining ways. For Dennett's argument to work, we must assume the agency-undermining ways will swamp the agency-enhancing ways. Maybe we should not be so pessimistic? Still others (e.g. Eric Schliesser) might argue that Dennett has the wrong model of democracy in mind. It is not true that democracy depends on the informed consent of the governed. Quite the contrary, democracy just depends on the consent of the governed. The governed do not need to be well-informed. Critics of democracy sometimes raise this as an objection. John Stuart Mill, famously, lamented the ignorance of the masses and thought that educated people's votes should count for more. In recent times, Jason Brennan has written a book-length defence of epistocracy (rule by epistemic elite) that is premised on a similar lament.

These are all criticisms worth pursuing in more depth. But I want to focus on a different line of criticism, one that engages less with the premises of Dennett's argument than with its possible ulterior motive. Why is Dennett so afraid? Why are many members of my peer group (college-educated people and fellow academics) so afraid? Of course, I don't know what really motivates them (maybe, in a Freudian sense, they don't know either) but I can speculate. One aid to this speculation is the analogy Dennett draws between counterfeit people and counterfeit money. There is more to this analogy that initially meets the eye and more the history of counterfeit currencies than Dennett lets on in his piece. Counterfeit currencies didn't always undermine social trust and they didn't always get punished for that reason.

As Tim Worstall points out in a comment over on the Crooked Timber blog, with coined money, there were two main types of counterfeit:

Debased metal counterfeits: this was currency made with a cheaper base metal (or quantity of base metal) which, once discovered in circulation, changed perceptions as to the value of the currency, sowing seeds of suspicion, and undermining the trust needed for economic exchange.


Wrong source counterfeits: this was currency made by someone other than the sovereign, thereby disrupting the sovereign's control over the money supply in a given state. Such counterfeits did not always undermine social trust, but they would undermine the sovereign's power.


Oftentimes, historically, the main motivation for punishing counterfeiters was not because they devalued the currency but because they threatened sovereign power. Indeed, this is underscored by the fact that sovereigns themselves often debased currencies for their own political reasons (to fund wars and personal expenditures etc).

Worstall goes on to suggest that it might be useful to distinguish AI that fakes real people (and thereby undermines social trust) from AI that simply comes from the wrong source. He doesn't do much more with this comment except offer it as a suggestion. But I find it intriguing. Could it be that the ulterior concern is not about counterfeit people but about AI that comes from the wrong source?

Maybe, but I don't think the 'wrong source' is the right way of framing it. In the case of counterfeit currency, the sovereign's concern was with power, control and benefit. They didn't like that they were being disempowered to the benefit of others. It's possible that something like this may be happening with the rise of AI, particularly recent iterations of generative AI.

To explain what I mean, it is worth noting that there have been several studies in the past 18 months examining the productivity gains associated with the use of generative AI. Many of these studies, though not all, have found some meaningful productivity gain among workers in the knowledge economy. What's interesting about some of these studies, however, is that these productivity gains are not always equally distributed. One finding, which has cropped up in three different studies of three different kinds of work (here, here and here), suggests that lower-skilled workers (those with less education and less experience) benefit most. Indeed, a couple of studies suggest that higher-skilled workers don't benefit much at all.

On the one hand, these are encouraging findings. They provide tantalising evidence to suggest that generative AI might assist with equality of opportunity in the workplace. In other words, that it can work to negate some of the competitive advantage gained by those with elite educations or problem-solving ability (what I am calling, for want of a better term, the 'cognitive elite'). From a general social justice perspective, this looks like a good thing. Who wouldn't want more equality of opportunity? Who wouldn't want to suppress the unfairly won gains of an elite? But, of course, members of the cognitive elite may not see it the same way. They might be threatened by this development because it reduces an advantage they were enjoying.

It could be that fears about this loss of status and privilege motivate fears about counterfeit people. Cynically, we might even suppose that talk of counterfeit people is a distraction. It shifts focus to the sexier or more philosophically contentious concept of 'personhood', and away from the material and economic effects of the technology.

3. Conclusion: Let's Not Get Ahead of Ourselves

The preceding argument might give the impression of being naively optimistic. I would hope that I am not naively optimistic (see my article on Techno-Optimism for more). So let me offer some final and important caveats to what I have just said.

First, the equalising effects of generative AI may not hold up in practice. The studies I have cited are early and restricted to certain tasks and contexts. Whether the effect replicates and holds up across broad sectors of the knowledge economy remains to be seen. It may just be a temporary blip. As AI systems grow in capability they may, finally, and as others such as myself have suggested, effectively replace all workers. Everyone loses out, equally, but no one really gains. At least not in the long run.

Second, in commenting on these studies I have focused on the way in which it empowers lower-skilled workers in some settings. This ignores the elephant lurking in the background. Unless these workers are designing and creating their own generative AI systems (which is not impossible), they are relying on systems created by others, often powerful big tech corporations. While the lower-skilled workers may experience some modest gain in their bargaining power in the labour market, the people that really gain from this technology are those that own and control the means of AI production. So, ironically, this technology may have the same effect on the power of the cognitive elite that early waves of computerisation had an middle-skill, middle-income workers. The cognitive elite lose their power and influence. There is a modest redistribution to the lower-skilled and a big redistribution to the owners of the relevant capital. (A lot of people hated it, but I still think my earlier article on AI and cognitive inflation has some light to shed on this problem)

Third, there is no reason to think that the cognitive elite will take all this lying down. There could be a significant backlash, perhaps coming with the attempt to shut down use of AI in certain industries (strikes in the entertainment industry have already, partially, touched upon this). As social theorists like Peter Turchin have long argued, competition among the elites and elite overproduction may be responsible for many historical revolutions and upheavals. AI might be the crucial prompt for our generation's elite to revolt.

Fourth, and finally, my comments about who benefits from AI and the threat they pose to the cognitive elite, does not undermine or call into doubt Dennett's other fears about counterfeit people. The technology can still be used to manipulate and exploit. It can still pose a threat to our freedom and agency. However, I don't think this is a threat that is primarily associated with the person-like properties of AI. I think many manifestations of AI can pose a threat to freedom and agency.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Technology and the Dematerialisation of Sex

The 'sex scene' from Demolition Man

(This article was originally commissioned for the Wired Ideas column, but due to delays on my part, and the subsequent discontinuation of that column (as I understand it) it never appeared. Rather than consign it to the dustbin of history, I have decided to publish it here. Obviously, given the intended audience for the original piece, it is a bit shorter and snappier than most of the things I write).

As ever, science fiction got there first. In the largely forgettable 1993 action movie, Demolition Man, two characters from the 1990s, a hard-hitting cop played by Sylvester Stallone and a psychopathic criminal played by Wesley Snipes, are cryogenically frozen for their misdeeds. They are resuscitated in the year 2032. The future, they quickly learn, is very different. A good-natured, pacifist ethic that eschews violence and confrontation has become widely adopted. Physical sex is disfavoured. This is comically revealed to Stallone's character when he enthusiastically welcomes an invitation to have sex from the female lead (played by Sandra Bullock). Sex, for her, involves donning a neurostimulator helmet that allows for a 'digital transference of sexual energies' between two people. When Stallone suggests they do it 'the old-fashioned way', she reacts with disgust.

I don't suppose we will ever fully embrace the Demolition Man-style ethics of virtual sex, but we could end up in a world in which virtual sex is the ethical preference for most casual or first-time sexual encounters, with the 'old fashioned' method being reserved for special intimate relationships and procreation. 

It is important to be clear about the nature of this claim. An extended definitional analysis of what it means to 'have sex' or what counts as 'sexual activity' would take more time than it is worth. Suffice to say these concepts are contentious and open to interpretation. For the remainder of this article, I presume that sexual activity is any activity involving sexual stimulation and gratification. Although masturbation is an important form of sexual activity, I presume that most people, when they talk about 'having' sex, have a partnered or interactive form of sex in mind. I then draw a distinction between physical, in-person, sex and digital or virtual sex. The crucial point about the latter is that it does not involve direct, physical contact, between sexual partners. It involves an interaction through a digital/virtual medium and via a digital/virtual avatar (I use the terms 'digital' and 'virtual' interchangeably). What I am suggesting is that this latter form of sexual activity might become the ethical default. In other words, it will be presumed to be the primary form of permissible sex and it is only if special conditions are met that physical, in-person, sex will be deemed ethically permissible.

Three factors point toward this outcome. The first is that there is already some evidence to suggest that people are avoiding, or reducing, the amount of in-person sex they have. For example, in 2021, the US Center for Disease Control, published a study indicating that only 30% of teenagers reported that they had ever sex, down from over 50% in 1990. The ensuing suggestion of a “sex recession” among Gen Z  may be overblown—for example, some commentators have counter-argued that although younger people may not be having as much penetrative sex as previous generations, they are engaging in other kinds of sexual activity, and perhaps their sex lives are overall better and more satisfying—but the CDC finding is not an outlier. Studies in Japan,  Australia,  the UKSweden and Finland all indicate that people are having fewer sexual encounters than in previous generations. This is true both within long-term committed relationships and in more casual sexual encounters. 

There are many potential explanations for the great 21st century sex famine, from technology to the modern workplace.  The Finnish study provides one intriguing hypothesis. Every few years since the 1970s, an ongoing study called Finsex has collected data on the sexual behaviours of Finnish adults. In its 2015 iteration, it found that both male and female respondents had masturbated significantly more in recent decades, and that the more people masturbated, the less partnered sex people had. This was particularly prevalent among younger generations. The suggestion from the study's authors was that perhaps people were using masturbation as an alternative to partnered sex. To put it another way: a substitution effect was at play. People were swapping in person sex for a more convenient, and almost as good, alternative. 

Is it really that surprising that masturbation is on the up, and partnered sex on the decline, given the pervasive, always-at-the-tip-of-your-finger, availability of internet pornography? In general, people want to do things that help them promote or pursue their values. If they can access a cheaper, almost as good version of sexual pleasure, through other means that don’t require navigating the complex social dynamics of dating and casual hookups, then they might be enticed to do so via digital or virtual forums. According to one 2019 study, there is evidence to suggest that people do substitute pornography for interpersonal affection.  

This leads to the second factor supporting the move to virtual sex. Internet pornography, at least right now, may do it for some people, some of the time, but it is not so close to the real thing that we are likely to see it as the ethical default or norm for sex. But developments in sextech, both ongoing and future, will make it likely that more people will see virtual sex as a meaningful substitute for the real thing. Developments in generative AI, for instance, already allow people to create realistic and emotionally satisfying AI companions. The emotional turmoil experienced by users of the Replika AI chatbots, when changes were made to that platform in early 2023 -- changes that effectively resulted in the 'deletion' of prior companions -- provides clear evidence of this. It seems likely that people will be able to generate realistic 3D virtual sex partners, with emotionally satisfying 'personalities', in the near future. When this possibility is coupled with advances in immersive VR, and haptic teledildonics (the ability to transmit sexual touch via a digital medium), it is not hard to imagine virtual sex becoming a more plausible and desirable alternative to physical sex. And virtual sex with an AI partner is just one of the new sexual options added by technological innovation. Advances in VR and haptics, in and of themselves, will allow humans to see the virtual medium as an 'almost as good' way to interact with one another.

You may be wondering, however, how we get from this to the idea that virtual sex will become an ethicaldefault. You could accept the argument that people are turning their backs on physical sex in favor of digital sex without supposing that the substitution of virtual sex for in-person sex will become moralized in any way. How could the moralization happen? 

This is where a third factor becomes important. If the perceived cost of in-person sex—not just financial costs, but emotional, social, and health-related costs—increases to the point that people are presumed to be taking a significant ethical risk if they opt for that over the virtual equivalent, then this could precipitate a change in social moral attitudes. Variations in the perceived cost of an action are already known to play a role in changing social moral beliefs. One of the best-studied examples of changes in social moral attitudes concerns how  non-marital and casual sex become more and more permissible in the course of the 20th century. A commonly cited cause of this is that the availability of effective forms of contraception reduced the negative costs associated with casual sex, particularly for women.  This meant more people were willing to engage in sex outside of marriage, which made it more socially acceptable and, eventually, this altered social moral attitudes. Casual sex lost some of the moral stigma it once had.

The same thing can happen in reverse. If the perceived costs of an activity go up, then it can acquire a moral stigma that it didn't previously have. This is something that may be slowly happening with respect to the use of fossil-fuel based automobiles and the consumption of meat. It’s not much of a stretch to suppose that something similar may happen with in-person sex. Sex undoubtedly has significant benefits, but  it also has significant costs. Not all sex is pleasurable or satisfying. Some sex is coerced and morally unacceptable. As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of both the prevalence of non-consensual, unwanted sexual contact and the harms that it can cause. Victims of sexual assault and violence are speaking out and calling out their attackers, and their attackers are facing both social and legal reprimands as a result. This is all well motivated: there are strong moral reasons to favour this increased moralization of sex. But this could, in turn, have an impact on the perceived permissibility of in-person sex: if it carries the risk of significant interpersonal harms, unwanted trauma and social ostracisation, then we should be very cautious about its pursuit. If this happens, substituting in-person sex for a more convenient, almost as good, and less costly form of virtual sex, could become the social norm.

Admittedly, this presumes that there is an important moral difference between in-person sex and virtual sex. Some people might dispute this, arguing that, the potential costs are equivalent: one can also be harmed by unwanted virtual sex and one can be morally chastised for perpetrating virtual sexual assault. (Indeed, I have argued for something like this view in several academic papers over the past decade.) But even I would concede that there are some differences between the two kinds of sex that can reduce the perceived moral costs of virtual sex, such as the increased physical distance between participants, and the greater flexibility when withdrawing from unwanted or unpleasant contact. In addition, costs arising from healthcare risks and unwanted pregnancy are also reduced in the virtual environment. 

This does not mean that in-person sex will disappear. There are strong emotional and biological reasons why people will still be drawn to it. It just means that the moral barriers to in-person sex will be raised and that it may become less frequent and less socially acceptable as a result.

Monday, January 8, 2024

What is Equality of Opportunity? A Framework for Analysis

Rosie the Riveter

Ensuring equal opportunities is a much-touted social goal. Governments often introduce policies and legislation aimed at eliminating forms of discrimination that prevent this from happening, and providing assistance to those that need a leg up. But what actually is equality of opportunity? And is it really a laudable social goal?

In this article, I will answer these two questions. I will start by clarifying the nature of equality of opportunity, distinguishing it from equality of outcome, and identifying its three core elements. Second, I will assess a variety of arguments suggesting that equality of opportunity is not intrinsically good but is, rather, only instrumentally or derivatively good — not something to be pursued in itself but for the sake of something else. I will ultimately conclude that equality of opportunity is probably good in itself but it is one among many laudable social goods and can, in some circumstances, be traded off against other goods.

In presenting these thoughts, I will be drawing on the work of two thinkers in particular: Peter Westen and Richard Arneson.

1. Understanding Equality of Opportunity

Equality is about ensuring parity or equivalence between two or more parties. In political philosophy, equality of opportunity is usually explained by contrasting it with equality of outcome. The latter is about ensuring parity with respect to the division of social goods or services. The most obvious illustration is income equality or wealth equality. In theory, a society could aim for perfect income equality by ensuring that everyone gets paid the exact same, regardless of effort, ability, motivation or social contribution.

While aiming for equality of outcome is laudable in some contexts (e.g. access to healthcare treatments) it is not clear that is laudable in general. Indeed, as we will see below, there are famous parodies of the idea that society should aim for perfect equality of outcome. Some difference in social outcome, particularly with respect to income and reward, is usually thought to be both desirable or tolerable, insofar as it produces other beneficial outcomes (innovation, economic growth, social diversity, cultural enrichment, freedom of choice and so on).

This is where the idea of equality of opportunity comes into play. Instead of ensuring that everyone gets an equal share of social goods, proponents of equality of opportunity suggest that we should ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity to access or compete for those social goods. An obvious illustration would be the competition for desirable jobs, such as being a doctor or medic. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to compete for such a job simply because they are female, or black or poor. All should be given an equal chance to prove themselves (prove their talents or merits). This may result in unequal social outcomes — the medics may earn more than the store clerks — but at least everyone had a fair chance to achieve those different outcomes.

This is quite a rough sketch of the idea of equality of opportunity. To my mind, one of the clearest conceptual analyses of it comes from Peter Westen. His 1985 article ‘The Concept of Equal Opportunity’ offers an insightful analysis of the structure of equal opportunity policies. The article also has the added bonus of providing a surprising conclusion regarding the coherence of the concept. Let me explain.

Westen argues that equality of opportunity policies have three key structural elements:

Covered Agents: Every policy ought to have a set of clearly defined agents, or classes of agents, to whom it applies, e.g. all the people in a given state, all the people over the age of 18 in a given state, and so on. These are the agents, or classes of agent, between whom, equality of opportunity must be attained.
Target Goals/Outcomes: Every policy ought to be aimed at some clear target or goal. We don’t pursue equality of opportunity in the abstract. We pursue it with respect to certain desired outcomes (jobs, educational attainments, success in sport). It is the opportunity to pursue such outcomes that we are trying to equalise.
Obstacles to be Removed: Every policy ought to require the removal of some specific set of obstacles to attaining the desired outcome. These obstacles will typically apply differentially to the covered agents. For example, prejudice against women is an obstacle to women succeeding at job interviews. Laws that ban or punish such prejudice try to remove that obstacle and thereby ensure that men and women are on a more equal footing.


The obstacles to be removed by the policy are, in many ways, the most important and philosophically contentious aspect. As Westen points out, no equality of opportunity policy tries to guarantee that agents will achieve the desired outcome. If it did that, it would not be about equalising opportunities but about equalising outcomes. The distinction between the two concepts would erode. Instead, the goal must be to ensure that each agent has a reasonable chance of achieving the outcome.

But what counts as a reasonable chance? Making it possible for the agent to achieve the goal seems to demand too little. Under the right conditions, nearly everything is possible. So it must be about raising the probability of them achieving the outcome to some degree, but by how much? Westen doesn’t offer any prescriptions in his article. That’s not what the article is about. He suggests that one obvious aim should be to remove obstacles that are fixed and beyond the agent’s control, e.g. no one should be disadvantaged due to age, or gender, or race. Beyond that, however, things get tricky. We will consider why a bit later on. But other obstacles often can and should be removed too.

In summary, for Westen, equality of opportunity can be best defined/characterised in the following manner:

Equality of opportunity = removing obstacles to the achievement of some target goal for some set of agents so as to raise the probability of their achieving that goal (typically, though not necessarily, relative to some other set of agents) by some reasonable degree.


This doesn’t come directly from Westen, but is, rather, my extrapolation from his text. The bit in brackets might raise a few eyebrows. You might argue that the whole point of equality of opportunity is to raise the probability of one set of agents achieving a goal relative to some other agents. It’s about levelling the playing field and removing unfair advantages, after all. If you raised the probability for all agents, then this wouldn’t address the underlying problem.

I think this is generally correct: an equality of opportunity policy would, in the ordinary course of events, be about raising probabilities of one set of agents relative to another (women vs men for instance). But it’s not clear that this must, always and everywhere be the case. Removing obstacles may not always be to the disadvantage of one group.

This brings me to one of the curious implications of Westen’s analysis, and one that he himself emphasises. Once you break equality of opportunity policies down into their three component parts, the language of equality becomes largely redundant. Why is this? Well, because removing some obstacles will almost never, in the real world, result in perfect equality between two sets of agents. Suppose you have two candidates going for the same job: Harry and Sally. Making it illegal to favour men over women in job interviews will not mean that Harry has the exact same chance of getting the job as Sally. Harry and Sally will differ in all manner of ways. Maybe Harry has more years of education; maybe Sally is more confident and loquacious. As Westen puts it:

People who have equal opportunity by one measure of opportunity will have unequal opportunities by other measures. No two people can have an equal opportunity to attain a specified goal by every measure of opportunity unless they are both guaranteed the result of attaining the goal if they so wish. 
(Westen 1985, 845)


In a sense, then, we don’t aim at equalising opportunities; we aim at giving specified agents the chance to achieve target goals without the hindrance of certain obstacles. In some contexts, you could think of it as giving individuals a ‘right’ to have that chance.

2. Is Equality of Opportunity Valuable In Itself

Westen’s analysis is edifying and perhaps even sobering for advocates of equality of opportunity. It also points towards another perennially popular debate concerning the intrinsic vs instrumental value of equality of opportunity. Should we aim for equality of opportunity for its own sake or because it is a proxy for or gateway to other desirable social goods?

In a much-quoted short story, Kurt Vonnegut famously parodied the idea that equality was laudable in its own right. The story in question is Harrison Bergeron. It is set in the year 2081 and depicts a dystopian future in which the US achieves perfect equality between all citizens by ‘handicapping’ (the language is archaic) them so as to ensure no one has an unfair advantage. The famous opening paragraph captures the gist of it:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.


The implication is that no one would want to live in a world of such perfect equality. It would be a horrendous affront to human flourishing. There is no point ‘levelling down’ to achieve equality: that would deprive us of too many other valuable things (freedom, creativity, diversity, innovation and so on). And it’s not just Vonnegut that makes this argument. Philosophers such as Michael Huemer and Harry Frankfurt have made essentially the same point, albeit in more sophisticated and analytical ways.

All such arguments against equality tend to adopt the same structure. They ask us to imagine a world (however farfetched) in which equality (of whatever type) is achieved but people are much worse off (by some metric, e.g. less freedom, less well-being). Surely we wouldn’t want to live in such a world? Conversely, they ask us to imagine a world in which equality is violated but everyone is much better off. Surely we would prefer that world to the one of perfect equality? Therefore, it must be the case that equality is not good in itself. It must only be good because it is an instrument towards or derivative from some other good. So, for example, we might pursue equality because we think it increases freedom and well-being, on average or in most cases, but it is really our desire for freedom and well-being that motivates our pursuit of equality. This fact is revealed in the extreme hypothetical case in which freedom/well-being and equality seem to clash.

The version of this argument that I have just sketched is not particularly sophisticated. Let’s consider a more sophisticated one, and one that is specifically targeted at equality of opportunity and not just equality in general. The version I have in mind comes from the writings of Richard Arneson. Arneson’s views on equality of opportunity are complex, but in his paper ‘Four Conceptions of Equal Opportunity’ he offers a range of Harrison-Bergeron style objections to theories of equal opportunity. I will focus on his objection to Rawls’s theory of ‘fair equality of opportunity’ (FEO).

To simplify, Rawls’s theory of justice holds that a just society must first provide for basic liberties of all people, then fair equality of opportunity, and then a particular form of distributive justice that maximises the provision of resources to the least well off. The latter is often the most-discussed and debated aspect of Rawls’s theory but the preceding conditions (basic liberties and FEO) take priority over it (in a lexical order). His theory of FEO argues for the removal of unfair advantages that people have as a result of social privilege or class. More precisely, it argues that in competing for valuable opportunities, the only obstacles that are tolerable are differences in natural ability/native talent and ambition. All other obstacles should be removed (provided this does not conflict with basic liberties).

There are a lot of problems with Rawls’s theory. What exactly is native talent? How can we assess it, apart from processes of enculturation or socialisation? Why should ambition be rewarded, per se? What if ambition is itself often honed by socialisation and social privilege? But even if we set these problems to the side, and accept the parameters of FEO, it is not clear that a society that violated FEO would be unjust or undesirable. Arneson asks us to imagine the following scenario:

Imagine that an egalitarian society channels extra resources into the education and socialisation of children of low-income parents, with special resources devoted to the subset of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who have subpar endowments of natural talent. These individuals, let us suppose, then have better prospects of competitive success than individuals from advantaged backgrounds with the same native talent endowments and same level of ambition.  
(Arneson 2018, F162)


Clearly this society violates FEO, but is it bad? Not obviously so. Indeed, some might argue that it is good insofar as it gives an advantage to the less advantaged. Also, as Arneson points out, compensating benefits could be paid to the members of the advantaged class who lose out in the competition of life. Of course, the same logic works in reverse and Arneson sketches the opposite society too: one in which the already advantaged become more advantaged and compensate the less well off. Either way, he argues what we have here is a situation in which FEO is violated but it is not clear that we should be too bothered.

The problem with this type of argument is that it doesn’t by itself prove that equality (of opportunity) lacks intrinsic value. Equality could be one of many, plural, goods that a society should seek to realise (Arneson is aware of this problem and discusses it). On some occasions, these values may clash or conflict. On those occasions, we will need to balance or trade-off one value against another. It could well be that, when push comes to shove, freedom or well-being counts for more than equality. If we have to choose between them, then we de-prioritise equality.

But if equality is one of many plural goods, it suggests two important caveats to the sceptical argument. First, just because we can imagine hypothetical situations in which these values conflict does not mean that such value conflicts are common. In many cases, freedom/well-being might go hand-in-hand with increased equality of opportunity. Indeed, there is a good argument for thinking that increased equality of opportunity tends to also increase freedom and well-being since people are given more options and are more able to pursue those opportunities that best fit their desires and motivations. Second, in those cases in which freedom and well-being are held constant, equality can be an important tie-breaker when choosing between policies and outcomes. I discussed this previously when criticising some of Steven Pinker’s comments on equality. To quickly review the idea, imagine a society consisting of three individuals: A, B and C and 100 utils of well-being to be shared among them. In one world, 50% of the well-being flows to A, while the other two share an equal 25%; in another world, the three get equal 1/3 shares of well-being (you can think of well-being as ‘wealth’ if that makes it easier). Given that the aggregate level of well-being is the same in both worlds, it seems plausible to suppose that we should favour world 2 over world 1, precisely because it is more equal.

In sum, there may be some reason to think that equality of opportunity is not an overriding good and should not be pursued at all costs. But that does mean that it is not a good and worth pursuing in many instances.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Anselm's Ontological Argument: A Guide for the Perplexed

St Anselm (allegedly)

The ontological argument for the existence of God is remarkably resilient. Originally formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century, it has been continuously debated, reformulated, critiqued and resurrected over the subsequent millennium. Very few philosophers find it, or its descendants, convincing; most think it must be wrong in some way; but many concede that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with it.

In this article, I want to examine Anselm’s original argument in some detail. I will do so by first formulating what I believe to be an accurate but also comprehensible version of it (one that does not rely on abstruse symbolic or modal logic). I will then discuss the major criticisms of this argument. My overall perspective is sceptical: I think the argument makes too many controversial assumptions to be wholly convincing, and it is hard to escape the view that it is little more than a parlour trick (as one famous philosopher once suggested). Nevertheless, I hope that this article will be of value to all readers, regardless of their perspective, particularly for those that are puzzled by the argument, interested in what it claims, and eager to learn more.

There have been many reformulations of the ontological argument over the years. Some of these differ quite substantially from that offered by Anselm. Some are efforts at improving what Anselm had to say. Some are new attempts to arrive at the same conclusion. Descartes, Kurt Gödel, Alvin Plantinga and Robert Adams are just some of the people that have attempted to alter or shore up the argument from its traditional criticisms. For better or worse, I will not focus on these versions of the argument. I am going with the OG - Anselm himself - and what he had to say.

1. The Structure of Anselm’s Argument

Although my focus is on Anselm, I will attempt one initial, general, formulation of the ontological argument. For all their complexity and symbolic trickery, ontological arguments typically work like this:

  • (1) The concept of God is such that one of God’s properties is that of necessary existence.
  • (2) If it is possible for God to exist then he must, necessarily, exist (from 1).
  • (3) It is possible for God to exist.
  • (4) Therefore, God must exist.

Some readers will see echoes, in this formulation, of the version of the ontological argument defended by Alvin Plantinga. This is deliberate. I think Plantinga does a good job capturing the essence of the argument although, to be clear, the preceding version does not exactly replicate what Plantinga says. 

Where the different formulations vary is in how they arrive at the conclusion that the concept of God is one that implies necessary existence and how one then justifies the claim that it is possible for him to exist. Anselm, as we shall see, has a particularly complicated way of arriving at this conclusion.

What then of Anselm’s argument? It comes from his famous work, the Proslogion. There is some interpretive difficulty here. Anselmian scholars have pointed out that Anselm can be taken to defend two ontological arguments in chapters 2 and 3 of the Proslogion. Most discussions of the argument focus on the version from chapter 2 and I will follow suit here.

The critical passage is the following one (translation taken from Millican 2004):

Now we believe that [God is] something than which nothing greater can be thought… ‘the Fool has said in his heart, there is no God’? [Psalms 14:1; 53:1] But surely, when this same Fool hears what I am speaking about, namely, ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’, he understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his mind, even if he does not understand that it actually exists. For it is one thing for an object to exist in the mind, and another thing to understand that an object actually exists. Thus, when a painter plans beforehand what he is going to execute, he has [the picture] in his mind, but he does not yet think that it actually exists because he has not yet executed it. However, when he has actually painted it, then he both has it in his mind and understands that it exists because he has now made it. Even the Fool, then, is forced to agree that something-than-which-nothing-greater-canbe-thought exists in the mind, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood is in the mind. And surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, something that is greater can be thought to exist in reality also. If then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be-thought. But this is obviously impossible. Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.


If you are anything like me, you will probably find this passage very difficult to follow on a first reading. One issue with it is the repeated uses of the phrase “that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought” or some derivation of this phrase. It is cumbersome and conceptually complex. It hurts your brain to read it. Each time you have remind yourself of what it means. 

As a first step toward making the argument more comprehensible, I suggest accepting at the outset that, for Anselm, God is defined in the following way:

God = The greatest possible being (a being greater than which no greater being can be thought), where greatness is usually cashed out in terms of the traditional “omni”-properties (omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience etc)


With that definition locked away in your mind, simply replace all instances of the phrase “that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought” with “God”. I have taken the liberty of doing that in the following version, along with making some other key amendments to the text that make it easier to parse:

Now we believe that [God is] something than which nothing greater can be thought… ‘the Fool has said in his heart, there is no God’? [Psalms 14:1; 53:1] But surely, when this same Fool hears what I am speaking about, namely, God, he understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his mind, even if he does not understand that it actually exists. For it is one thing for an object to exist in the mind, and another thing to understand that an object actually exists. Thus, when a painter plans beforehand what he is going to execute, he has [the picture] in his mind, but he does not yet think that it actually exists because he has not yet executed it. However, when he has actually painted it, then he both has it in his mind and understands that it exists because he has now made it. Even the Fool, then, is forced to agree that God exists in the mind, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood is in the mind. And surely God cannot exist in the mind alone. For if He exists solely in the mind, a greater being can be thought to exist in reality also. If then God exists in the mind alone, this same God [the one existing solely in the mind] is not the greatest possible being. But this is obviously impossible. Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that God exists both in the mind and in reality.


Clearer? A little. But we still need to reconstruct the logical form of the argument. I have read many attempts at this over the years (and I revisited several before writing this piece). None of them has ever struck me as being fully satisfactory and, ironically, several of them don’t make clear the exact inferential pattern at work in the argument (i.e. which premises are being used to support which conclusions or sub-conclusions). Graham Oppy, in some of his reformulations of the argument, comes closest to providing a simple and logically clear reconstruction of the reasoning (without reverting to the esoteric realm of symbolic logic). With some minor modifications, my reconstruction draws heavily from his work.

Structurally, the argument can be broken down into three key steps. In the first step, Anselm makes a general point to the effect that there are two kinds of existence: (i) existence in the mind (the “understanding”) and (ii) existence in reality. The painting-painter analogy in the middle of the quoted passage is meant to both clarify this distinction and highlight that it is possible for something to exist in the mind alone. If you accept that the painting exists in the mind of the painter prior to the actual painting of it, then you accept that things can exist in the mind alone. This is important because the first step of the argument claims that even the Fool (i.e. the atheist), understands the concept of God and hence God can be said to exist in his mind. As follows:

  • (1) The word God ("that than which no greater can be conceived") is understood, even by the atheist.
  • (2) For any expression E, if E is understood, then E exists in the understanding.
  • (3) Therefore, God exists in the understanding (even for the atheist)

The second premise here is taken from Oppy’s reconstruction and is crucial to the success of the argument as a whole. It is a general principle stipulating that understanding a concept implies the mental existence of the concept.

The argument then proceeds to the next step, in which (3) becomes one of the starting premises. In this next step, Anselm argues that if God exists in the understanding, he can be conceived to exist in reality but if he can be conceived to exist in reality then he would be greater than if he only existed in the understanding (existence in reality = a great-making property). This then implies that God would be greater if he existed in reality rather than only in the understanding. More formally:

  • (3) God exists in the understanding (even for the atheist).
  • (4) If God exists in the understanding, then God can be conceived to exist in reality.
  • (5) If God exists in reality then He would be greater than if he existed only in the understanding.
  • (6) Therefore, If God exists only in the understanding, then God is not the greatest possible being (a greater version would exist, namely, the version of him that exists in reality as well).

This middle step is, in many ways, the key bit of the argument because it includes the crucial axiological premise (5) stating that if something exists in reality it is better/greater than if it exists solely in the understanding.

This then leads to the final step, which is short and sweet. It is a reductio ad absurdum. Anselm argues that there cannot be a greater being than God. This is a contradiction in terms since God is the greatest possible being. So God cannot exist solely in the understanding because this would imply the existence of a greater being in reality. He must also exist in reality. This is basic modus tollens reasoning: if P, then Q, not-Q, therefore not P. As follows:

  • (6) If God exists only in the understanding, then God is not the greatest possible being (a greater version would exist, namely, the version of him that exists in reality as well)
  • (7) God is not something than which a greater being can be conceived; God is the greatest possible being.
  • (8) Therefore, on pain of contradiction/absurdity, God must exist in reality as well.

The diagram below illustrates the full structure of the argument. This diagram was created using the free MindMup argument visualisation software. I apologise for the fact that the numbering of the premises is different from what I just gave. The software automatically numbers premises and I am not aware of any way to change this automatic setting.

Click for a larger and clearer version

Is the argument any good? Most people don’t think so but, as noted, many philosophers find it intriguing. It purports to achieve a lot with very little: from the mere concept of God we get the conclusion that God must exist. It seems too easy; too quick. But what exactly is wrong with it? In the rest of the article I take it premise-by-premise and consider the major objections that can be raised. I will also dedicate a separate section to the infamous parodies of the argument and see whether they are any good.

2. Problems with the Premises

Let’s start then by considering premise (1) and the claim that even the atheist understands the concept of God. Is this true? It’s not clear. As Nicholas Everitt once observed (in his book the Non-Existence of God), it is important to distinguish between ‘linguistic competence’ and genuine understanding. It’s possible that the atheist knows how to use the word ‘God’ and has some sense of what the theist is trying to refer to when using that term (“the creator of the universe”, “the greatest possible being”), without truly understanding it.

Consider an analogy. I know how to use the phrase “a square circle”. If pushed, I can even vaguely imagine what a square circle might look like (a square with rounded edges perhaps). But do I really understand the concept? I would say “no” because the concept itself is logically or conceptually possible. You cannot have a square circle. It could well be that the concept of God is a bit like this. We have some vague sense of what it means, but when we drill down into the details, we realise that the concept is inconceivable - not capable of being understood. This is not the place to rehearse the usual arguments against the possibility of omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, but if we take these arguments on board, even acknowledging various responses from theists, the idea of God gets very murky. We have, at best, a shadow conception of Him. Not something clear and distinct.

Ironically, Anselm himself seems to acknowledge this murkiness. In chapter 15 of the Proslogion, he suggests that God is “not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived…but also something greater than can be conceived.” In saying this, Anselm (and his interpreters) are quick to point out that he was not claiming God was utterly inconceivable. He thought we could have some conception of God. But this is still, arguably, a sticking point for premise (1): do we have a sufficiently clear conception of God (qua “greatest possible being”) to grant that we understand Him. I don’t think so. If you are interested, Stephen Maitzen explores this issue at greater length in his 2005 article ‘Anselmian Atheism’, suggesting that Anselm’s view could be taken to imply utter mysticism about the concept of God. (Though, to be clear, Maitzen rejects utter mysticism and argues, instead, that this has the unwelcome implication, for the theist, of making atheism the more acceptable view.)

Premise (2) is a more significant premise. We could easily grant that the concept of God is understood, without accepting that this implies God’s existence in any sense of 'existence'. Premise (2) is supposed to undercut this scepticism by suggesting, in the first instance, that if a concept is understood it must exist in the understanding. What do we make of that? It is worth starting by emphasising that this is a long way from accepting that God exists in reality. There are, after all, lots of things that could be said to exist in the understanding without existing in reality. Right now, I am imagining a levitating purple unicorn. I have a very clear conception of it. It’s not murky in the slightest (unicorns, after all, are just horses with horns). But obviously the levitating purple unicorn does not exist in reality. Mental existence does not imply actual existence (as a general rule). The innovation of the ontological argument is to claim that it does in the case of God.

But what does it mean to say that something exists in the understanding? This gets us into some philosophically abstruse waters. The premise is supposing at least two realms of existence: real existence and mental existence. Real existence, in itself, is conceptually contested. Is ‘real’ existence only physical/material existence? Not for theists or mind-body dualists since God or mind is usually taken to exist in some non-physical realm. So there are different grades and forms of real existence, whatever it may be. What of mental existence? Is this more straightforward? On the one hand, it’s not clear what is to be gained by positing mental existence. Kant’s famous objection to the ontological argument — that existence is not a predicate — could be mentioned at this point, but I don’t find Kant overly convincing on this and so I will set that objection to the side. For me, the puzzling thing is the nature of mental existence, if it is accepted as a general idea. It seems like a very strange and ephemeral kind of existence. If I am thinking about the purple unicorn at T1, about an orange dragon at T2, and a purple unicorn again at T3. What happens, existentially, to the purple unicorn during this period of time? Does it briefly pop into existence and then out of existence, and then back into existence again? Is the purple unicorn at T3 the same unicorn as at T1? Do identity relations hold in mental existence? Or does the purple unicorn sustain its existence throughout, no matter what my occurrent thoughts might be? I don’t know that there are good answers to these questions, but puzzles of this sort suggest to me that little is gained by talking of mental existence. We can just say that we think about different concepts at different times — we imagine or. conceive of them — without taking the further step of accepting that these concepts exist in some meaningful sense.

Premise (2) also raises the spectre of Meinongianism, a doctrine named after the Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong. In brief, Meinong posited a distinction between existence (in reality) and subsistence (in some shadow metaphysical realm). Meinong argued that the distinction was necessary to make sense of the intentionality of mental states and the relatively common propositions we make about fictional characters ("Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street"), obviously non-existent things (“Pegasus has wings”), and the past (“Albert Einstein was a physicist”). The objects of these propositions do not exist in reality, but the propositions make sense and have truth value. So they must be about something or other, right? Meinong suggested that this was right and the objects of these propositions can be said to subsist, but not exist. In this sense, subsistence was seen as a lesser or easier-to-acquire form of existence.

Some philosophers have argued that Anselm’s argument is perhaps best if retranslated into the language of Meinongianism since it seems to imply this distinction between existence (in reality) and subsistence (in the mind). Peter van Inwagen, for example, in his 2012 article “Three Versions of the Ontological Argument” suggests that Anselm endorses the “Meinongian Existence Thesis” to whit the term “God” denotes an item that, at a minimum (even for the atheist), enjoys the lesser form of existence that is subsistence.

Ironically, Van Inwagen thinks that this undermines Anselm’s argument since, according to him, “Meinongianism in any form is simply wrong”. Van Inwagen has reasons for believing this, but his statement is a little bit too definitive for my liking. Meinong’s distinction is not obviously or simply wrong. There is something to the idea. It is, however, metaphysically controversial and it remains unclear exactly what subsistence is, when contrasted with existence. For example, if subsistence is less demanding than existence, does this mean that logically or metaphysically impossible things — like the square circle — can subsist, even if they cannot exist? If so, the ontological argument might be in trouble when it tries to make the leap from subsistence to existence. Similarly, we can ask questions about whether subsistence really makes sense. Do objects pass in and out of subsistence on a whim? How stable and reliable are our intuitions about subsistence vis-a-vis existence?

The bottom line, then, is that Premise (2) is questionable and controversial. It is not something we should simply accept and move on from. (Brief aside: Peter Millican has formulated a version of Anselm’s argument that focuses on the instantiation of a perfect nature, as opposed to the existence of a perfect being. This focus on instantiation as opposed to existence could be taken to sidestep the debate about Meinongianism, although similar(ish) questions can be raised about the distinction between an instantiated and uninstantiated nature. In any event, it is worth noting that Millican thinks his reformulation of the argument reveals a ‘fatal flaw’ at the heart of Anselm’s argument: it is crucially vague on this notion of instantiation and what it means. It is too complex to cover here, but worth reading if you are interested extended criticisms of the argument)

Premise (3) is uncontroversial since it is the conclusion drawn from (1) and (2). If there is a problem with it, it lies in the preceding steps of the argument. This brings us to premise (4) as the next potentially controversial one. This premise claims that if God exists/subsists in the understanding, then he can be conceived to exist in reality. On an interpretive note, I should point out that I don’t find this premise in Anselm’s text. As best I can tell, he does not say anything approximating it. Nor, as best I can tell, is the premise logically necessary for the argument to go through. The middle step of the argument seems to work without it. Nevertheless, several credible philosophers have argued that something like this premise should be added to the argument. For example, Graham Oppy and Tyron Goldschmidt (both ontological argument experts) include a variation of this premise in their reconstructions of the argument. Who am I to question them?

Granting that the premise is needed, there are objections one can raise to it. Indeed, both Oppy and Goldschmidt raise some. The crucial objection brings us back, again, to the difference between mental existence and existence in reality. If something can subsist in the mind without many of the demands or restrictions we place on existence in reality, then is it really possible to conceive of the object existing in reality? Perhaps not. It is tempting to speak of square circles again but consider a different example. Can ghosts be conceived to exist in reality? It is obviously the case that people think about ghosts, write about them, depict them in fictional media (books, films, paintings) and so on. If anything is a plausible candidate for subsistence, it seems like ghosts are. (And yes, of course, I know that some people think they exist in reality as well.) But even if we can conceive of ghosts in our minds, can we actually conceive of them existing in reality? Anyone that tries to do this quickly runs into problems.

Ghosts are typically conceived to be immaterial, ethereal beings. They are not bound by ordinary physical and biological laws and represent the souls or spiritual essences of deceased beings. But then we can ask: if they are not physical material beings, why are they often depicted as wearing clothes? Do clothes have souls or spiritual essences that can exist in an immaterial realm? How do ghosts generate noise if they do not exist in the physical world? Sound requires the compression of air waves. Can ghosts do this? If ghosts can pass through walls and other material objects, why don’t they just fall through floors or, more dramatically, the ground? How is it that they can sometimes physically interact with the world? How can they do this selectively? Questions of this sort abound and they are not unique to ghosts. We can ask similar questions about concepts such as time travel (specifically into the past) and faster-than-light transportation. We commonly conceive/imagine these things, but can we actually conceive of them existing in reality? This is much more debatable.

The problem with premise (4), in a nutshell, is that even if we accept the notion of mental existence/subsistence, it does not automatically follow that objects existing in the mind can be conceived as existing in reality. When we make the leap into the real world, even in our imaginations, we might find that the concept breaks down. Arguably, this is one of the things that happens when we start to think of God as existing in the real world.

We thus move on to premise (5). This is the last significant premise of the argument. Premise (6) is just the conclusion drawn from (3), (4) and (5), and premise (7) seems pretty unobjectionable since it is just a restatement of the stipulated definition of God (the greatest possible being). Premise (5) is the lynchpin of the argument. Without it, the reductio in the final step would not work. It makes an axiological claim to the effect that existence is a great-making property: it is better (greater) for things to exist in reality than for them to exist merely in the understanding. It then weds this to the notion that God is the greatest possible being so, if he is to satisfy one of the axiological conditions of his existence, he must exist in reality, not just the understanding.

There are a few problems with this premise. First, it is not obvious that existence in reality (whatever that means) is a great-making property. Again, Kant’s general observation that existence is not a predicate is worth mentioning here: if Kant is right, existence adds no value to a thing since existence is not a property that can be added to a thing: it is already presupposed in the concept of the thing. I don’t quite follow Kant on this point, but it is an influential critique and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. More plausible, to me, is Graham Oppy’s objection that for us to accept premise (5) we would have to able to compare two things that it is not obvious we can compare:

This claim [premise 5] can only be true if we can make sense of counterfactual claims about what objects that exist in reality would be like if they existed only in the understanding. But it is not entirely clear that we can make sense of such claims if we suppose that objects that exist both in the understanding and in reality have the very same properties in the understanding that they have in reality. 

(Oppy 2011) 


As is typical of Oppy, the point is complex and densely stated. Let’s unpack it a little. For Anselm’s argument to work we need to be able to evaluatively compare an object that exists only in the understanding with the very same object if it existed in reality (or, vice versa, an object in reality if it only existed in the understanding). But then what properties does an object that exists only in the understanding have? Does the mental version of the object have all the same properties as the actual version? More specifically, does the mental version God have all the properties we associate with the greatest possible being: omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience etc? If so, it is not clear what differentiates Him from the version that exists in reality? It’s neither clear that the comparison is a meaningful one, nor, if it is, that existence has made God greater.

To push the point a bit further, it is at least somewhat plausible to suppose that mental existence alone could be superior for some kinds of things. For instance, the love affair I have with Scarlett Johansson in my mind is, I suspect, a lot better than the one I would have in reality. The messy imperfections of the real world would mar and undermine the idealistic triste I can imagine and re-live, over and over again (just as, sometimes, our memory of what happened to us is superior to what actually happened). This might sound like a trivial or irrelevant example but I would argue it is prima facie plausible and, if so, it undercuts the general principle implied by premise (5). Existence in reality is not necessarily greater than mental existence alone.

This is just one line of objection to premise (5). Another, more influential, one is that if existence is a great-making property, weird things may follow. For any X, if we stipulate that X is the greatest conceivable instance of its kind, X must exist in reality too since, if it didn’t, X wouldn’t be the greatest instance of its kind. But this means we can arbitrarily pick or stipulate any X and prove its existence in the same manner. That cannot be right. 

 This is the objection that underpins the famous parodies of the ontological argument. These parodies are sufficiently important and influential to warrant a separate discussion.

3. Parodying the Argument: Gaunilo’s Infamous Island

As noted, Anselm’s argument has always struggled to win acceptance. People were suspicious of its apparent logical trickery from an early stage. The earliest and perhaps most influential critic was from Gaunilo of Marmoutier, a fellow Benedictine monk. In his response to Anselm — cleverly titled ’In Behalf of the Fool’ — Gaunilo parodied Anselm’s argument by suggesting that the very same logic could be used to prove the existence of the ‘greatest possible island’ (or, indeed, any other ‘greatest possible X’).

This island (so the story goes) is more plentifully endowed than even the isles of the blessed with an indescribable abundance of all sorts of riches and delights…Suppose someone tells me all this…and so I understand it. But if this person went on to draw a conclusion and say “You cannot any longer doubt that this island, more excellent than all the others of the earth, truly exists somewhere in reality. For you do not doubt that this island exists in your understanding, and since it is more excellent to exist not merely in the understanding, but also in reality, this island must also exist in reality. For if it did not, any land that exists in reality would be greater than it. And so this most excellent thing that you have understood would not in fact be most excellent.” — If, I say, he should try to convince me by this argument…I would think he was joking. 
(Gaunilo, translation from Goldschmidt 2020, 15-16)


Gaunilo’s parody can be construed as a specific objection to the idea that existence is a great-making property but also a more general objection to the logic of the ontological argument. It is a reductio (a reductio of a reductio, as it were). If you take the following as the definition of Gaunilo’s Island:

Gaunilo’s Island = The greatest possible island - an island greater than which no other island can be conceived.


And then go back into the version of the ontological argument that I formulated above, you can replace each and every instance of “God” with “Gaunilo’s Island” and end up with a logically identical argument. But there must be something wrong with this latter argument. Anyone that proffered it as serious proof of the existence of Gaunilo’s argument would have to be joking or irrational. In other words:

  • (9) If the ontological argument for God were sound, we would have to accept the ontological argument for Gaunilo’s Island.
  • (10) We ought not to accept the ontological argument for Gaunilo’s Island (the argument must be unsound).
  • (11) Therefore, the ontological argument for God cannot be sound.

In principle, Anselm and his defenders could bite the bullet and reject premise (10). They could argue that, yes, the perfect island must exist in reality too. But, as far as I know, no one does this and it is easy to see why not. If you did, you would have to start accepting the existence of an indefinite (infinite) number of greatest things. That would be ontological extravagance run amok. Instead, they reject premise (9) and the purported analogy between the greatest possible being and the greatest possible island. There is, they argue, something about the concept of the greatest possible being (God) that makes the argument sound in His case, but unsound in the case of the greatest possible island. What might that be?

Charles Hartshorne and Alvin Plantinga have presented the most commonly cited objections to Gaunilo’s parody. Patrick Grim, in his 1982 article ‘In Behalf of ‘In Behalf of the Fool’, offers cogent responses to both. At least, I think they are cogent (indeed, Grim’s article is a paragon of clarity and rigour, something that I find rare in the brain-melting world of the ontological argument). I will briefly summarise the back and forth between Grim and the two critics.

First up, Hartshorne argues that the parody doesn’t work because islands are contingent things, not necessary things. Indeed, islands are, in some sense, essentially contingent things. But since Gaunilo’s parody implies that there could be a necessarily-existent island, it cannot be right. Beings, on the other hand, could be necessarily existent. So there is a critical difference between the ontological argument for God and the ontological argument for Gaunilo’s island.

There are three problems with this reasoning. First, it’s not clear why we should accept the view that islands are essentially contingent. What’s the argument for this? Grim suggests that the only available evidence is our knowledge of islands in our world. We know, for example, that Madagascar and Iceland are contingent. By induction (or maybe abduction) we can reason that all islands must be similarly contingent. But then why doesn’t the same reasoning hold for beings? All beings we have encountered — human beings, animals, etc — are contingent. Based on our experience of beings, there is no reason to think that there could be a necessarily existent being.

Second, Grim argues that it is possible to construct a version of the ontological argument (and, by proxy, the Gaunilo parody) that does not rely on necessary existence. I’m not sure I agree with this: as best I can tell, ontological arguments must, at some point, lead to the notion of necessary existence. Nevertheless, in his article Grim does construct a version of the argument that uses the concept of a locally maximal being, where this is defined as having magnificence (specifically, the three omni-properties) in the actual world (not all possible worlds). Maybe this ‘locally maximal’ version has the same structure as the traditional ontological argument. If so, it can be parodied by an argument for a locally maximal island, without relying on the idea of necessary existence.

Third, even if islands are essentially contingent, it would be possible to construct a parody that relied on the concept of a necessary being that lacked some perfection. For instance, ’Shmod’ could be defined as a necessarily existent being that lacked the property of omniscience (could even be ‘maximally ignorant’). We have the concept of this being (sort of - at least as much as we have the concept of God). Therefore, Shmod exists in the understanding. Therefore, we can conceive of Shmod existing in reality. But if it could exist in reality, given its necessary existence, it must exist. Therefore, Shmod does exist. This is as effective a parody as Gaunilo’s original. 

Grim also points out that it is possible to construct a parody that presumes multiple necessary beings. This would be a polytheistic parody of Anselm and it could work too (though only if we follow Hartshorne and insist on necessary existence being the focus; it doesn’t work if we focus on the idea of a greatest possible being).

Plantinga’s critique is marginally more complex. He argues that the concept of a ‘greatest possible island’ is fuzzy and imprecise in a way that the concept of a ‘greatest possible being’ is not. More precisely, he argues that there are no upper bounds or limits to the properties that could be possessed by a greatest possible island. Therefore, the concept is vague and indeterminate. It would be a push to say that it even existed in the understanding. To illustrate, Plantinga considers a property that a great island might be thought to require. He uses the examples of ‘Nubian maidens’, ‘dancing girls’ (h/t to sexism in philosophical thought experiments), ‘coconuts’, and ‘palm trees’. He argues that there is no limit to the number of these things that can be added to an island to make it greater. You could always add one more (in your mind) and imagine a greater possible island. God, according to Plantinga, is not like that. There are inherent limits to the properties of ominscience, ominpotence, and ominbenevolence. For instance, an omniscient being is simply one that, for every proposition P, knows whether or not P is true. That seems like a well-defined property. 

So there are two aspects to Plantinga’s critique: (a) there is no real concept of a greatest possible island because there are no inherent limits to an island’s greatness; and (b) there are inherent limits to God’s greatness. Both aspects can be challenged.

For one thing, as Grim argues, Plantinga seems to mistakenly assume that the greatest island is going to be the one characterised by having the most number of X (where X is something like dancing girls or coconuts), and that since numbers are infinite there cannot be such a thing. There is, however, no reason to think that ‘greatest’ is equivalent to ‘maximum possible number of X’. A more appropriate characterisation would be something like:

Greatest X = The version of X with the optimal number of each great-making property P1…Pn


So, in the case of the island, there is an optimal number of coconuts. If you go beyond this, the island ceases to be great. We may not know what that number is, but it is intuitively plausible to suppose that each great-making property as an optimal number. This is, after all, the idea that is at the heart of the economic doctrine of diminishing marginal returns: eating a Mars bar is nice, eating two is even better, but once you eat the third or fourth you start to feel sick. There is an optimal number of Mars bars you should consume. If you go beyond this number, they no longer have the value you desire.

The other problem with Plantinga’s argument is that it is not clear that the concept of God avoids this alleged issue. Consider, for example, the property of omnibenevolence (which I would argue is the most important of the traditional ‘omni’ properties). Plausibly, this could be defined in terms of the number of good deeds an agent performs. But is there some upper limit to the number of good deeds that can be performed? No matter what number you posit, it seems like you could always add one more and thereby imagine an even greater being. Similarly, Grim argues you could always imagine a being with a little bit more power. One aspect of power could be the number of people that a being rules over, or has authority over. And you can always imagine a world with more people that God could rule over.

Plantinga, in other words, may be hoist on his own petard in his critique of Gaunilo.

This does not mean that Gaunilo’s parody completely undermines Anselm’s argument. As noted, you could just bite the bullet and accept that the argument works for some other greatest possible Xs. Furthermore, as Grim notes, the success of each parody depends on whether the people accept that X could, conceivably, exist in reality. In principle, this could be denied for each and every parody, but retained for God (ignoring, for now, the problems discussed above regarding God’s possible existence). What the parody does show, however, is that there are significant consequences to granting the possibility of existence and assuming that existence is a great-making property.

The image below provides a complete map of the original argument and each of the criticisms discussed in  this article.

Click for a larger clearer version

4. Conclusion

Anselm’s argument is intriguing. Its original statement takes up a paragraph of text and yet, from this humble beginning, it has entranced and bewitched philosophers and logicians for more than a millennium. Would that we could all achieve such citation impact. Nevertheless, as I have suggested in this article, there is a lot to question about the argument. It relies on dubious presumptions regarding the conceivability of a greatest possible being, the difference between mental and actual existence, the possible existence in reality of a greatest possible being, and the great-making function of existence in reality vis-a-vis solely mental existence.

I think Goldschmidt sums up the fate of the argument best when he says:

… where there are many assumptions at work in the argument, there is an asymmetry that puts opponents of the argument in a better position. Their success depends on any one of the metaphysical questions turning out the right way for them. One successful objection is enough to sink the argument. But the success of the proponents depends on all the metaphysical questions turning out the right way for them. 
(Goldschmidt 2020, 23)


Add to this the fact that many of the underlying metaphysical questions are not capable of being satisfactorily answered (by humans at least), and you can see why it is easy for the Fool (the atheist) to resist Anselm’s charms.

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