Friday, June 10, 2011

The Ontological Argument

The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God is quite an old argument, devised by St. Anselm around 1077 C.E. (revised in the 17th century by René Descartes; recently by Alvin Plantinga), that makes an attempt to prove the existence of God by making it inconceivable/logically impossible for such a being not to exist. This essentially is an effort to define God in to existence, which I think is deceptive and intellectually dishonest. I'm going to post more of the correspondence between me and Marc from Bad Catholic, because he seems to find the Ontological Argument particularly convincing. To be honest with you, I had no idea people even still used this argument. To me it seemed to be the most obviously flawed argument for the existence of God that I just figured everyone stopped using it, because I had never actually seen/heard anyone employ it until now. I may create a post that consists simply of my criticisms of it some time, but for now, I guess just enjoy the debate. Same colors as last time.

Note: This part of our conversation is still ongoing, so it may seem like it just stops at the end. I'll add more to this if we continue to discuss this subject.

I believe in God for the following reason, first posited by St. Anselm:

(1) God is that than which no greater can be conceived.
(2) If God is that than which no greater can be conceived then there is nothing greater than God that can be imagined.
(3) There is nothing greater than God that can be imagined.
(4) If God does not exist then there is something greater than God that can be imagined. (God who does exist)
(5) God exists.

I can't help but enjoy the logic every time I get to thinking about it. 

As far as I’m concerned, Anselm’s Ontological argument (not much different than Descartes’) is basically just a case of defining God in to existence, which, I think you would agree, is fallacious. This argument does a few things wrong and I’d like to point them out. One, the word “God” can be literally any god or being you desire e.g. Vishnu, Thor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a Unicorn, and the argument would prove the existence of that deity as well; just replace the word and you’ve done it. As long as you define God/Vishnu/whatever as that than which no greater can be conceived, you can prove its existence with this. Part of the reason this is the case is because the argument leaves existence up to the (failings of) human imagination. I can imagine really, really great things, but that doesn’t mean that they exist, or that they are intelligent. I’d like to provide you an example:

P1: A world without suffering is a world that no greater can be conceived.

P2:  If a world without suffering is that than which no greater can be conceived then there is nothing greater than a world without suffering that can be imagined.

.˙.   There is nothing greater than a world without suffering that can be imagined

P3:  If a world without suffering does not exist then there is something greater than a world without suffering that can be imagined.

.˙.   A world without suffering exists.

This is an argument that would be based on my idea of the word great (another problem with the argument; great can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people). Hopefully this brings some of the problems of the argument to light.

Now then, I believe you're quite wrong in your points against the ontological argument, though they are certainly reasonable. First of all, you cannot substitute God with anything else. Thor is not the greatest that can be thought, he has all sorts of faults and failings (especially in the latest really-bad movie). Much greater can be thought than a Unicorn, and Vishnu is one of many incarnations of God, so God still remains the greatest that can be thought. 

But the crux of your argument seems to rest on the idea that we just 'made up' the fact that God is the greatest that can be thought, that it is some sort of vague OMG HE'S SOO AWESOME that we throw up to make the proof work. We didn't, and he isn't. It is a definition.

This greatness (which I can see why you would think it could mean many things to many people) is not relative. It is based on the following claim: That every qualitative measure comes from nature, and God is supernatural. If someone is of great size, than it is a matter of atoms, of mass of width and height and all manner of natural measurements. If a thing is of great intelligence, than its intelligence is part of its relation to the natural world. If a thing is old, then it is a matter of time as a dimension of the natural universe etc. etc. etc. 

But God is outside of nature - because the universe contains all nature and he is the creator of the universe - and thus is called supernatural. He is outside of time and thus infinite. He - therefore - infinitely transcends every natural qualitative and quantitative quality that we - natural beings - can think of. (This is only sensible, for as natural human beings our minds are constrained by the limits of nature.) So God is the greatest that can be thought, simply because we don't have the capacity to imagine something greater than infinity. Something more powerful than INFINITE power. Something more intelligent than INFINITE intelligence. Do you understand? GREAT in this context is no adjective, it is the definition of that which is outside of nature. I'll save you some time and tell you; the only way to defeat the ontological argument is to think of something more infinite than the infinite, and it simply can't be done.

A world without suffering - though it could be, with a little tweaking, an interesting proof for the existence of heaven - doesn't work in this case, because it is not a world infinite in all respects. If it was, it would be heaven, and though it exists, it exists dependently of God, and thus a greater can be thought. Any, any, any replacement for God in the ontological argument will lead back to the simple fact, a being infinite in all respects is greater than ________ and thus________ does not necessarily exist. 

I still think you have a case of defining your god in to existence. Basically, we make a grievous error when we include existence as part of the definition of a particular thing. I know that directly, that’s not what you’re doing, but the implication through your definitions of ‘great’ and ‘infinity’, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Existence is not something we should be determining via definitions, but rather, it should be determined through experience and evidence. We can’t just say because we can conceive of something (or can’t conceive of something greater than a particular thing) that therefore that thing must exist, regardless of whether it’s inside or outside of nature, otherwise we are free to define things in particular ways and then conclude whether it exists or not without any real verification, including other gods. It doesn’t matter about the limitations of the gods I’ve provided you with examples with, even with your definition of what a god should be like. What’s preventing other people from having a god that is definitionally the same as the one you’ve defined, but be an entirely different entity (multiple gods like the one you believe in)? Because the only difference between these two is that you weren’t the initial person to define it; you inherited the definition from previous generations.

You asked me to explain my belief "that a god exists, the one traditionally spoken about in the Bible". Now the God traditionally spoken about in the Bible has certain characteristics, correct? For instance; he interacts with his people. Thus when I am considering my belief in God, I must consider whether he interacts with me and with the world. I must use the definition you have given. It would be ridiculous if, having been asked the same question by you, I had replied "I believe in God because he's never interacted with me or his people." It would be ridiculous if, having been asked to prove the existence of a blue dog, I presented you with a stellar proof of a red dog. 

So it is with the Ontological Argument. A definition of the God traditionally spoken about in the Bible is given. He is the I AM outside of nature. The implications of that definition are that He exists in reality, as you have seen.  Because you take unbelief as your base, I understand why this seems a logical circle, and thus: I am defining my God into existence. But I hold that it is a logical circle merely because it is true. If the logical progression is that a being of infinite greatness must exist in reality, I am not defining my God into existence, but following the logic of the definition given when you asked me to defend my belief.

After all, if there was a God, and all things came from Him, including our ability to use logic and reason, it would only make sense that we would experience these brain-wrenching paradoxes when we attempt to use logic and reason to discover Him. And it would only make sense that denying his reality would lead to an absurd statement: that the greatest existence does not exist.

As it seems you’ve put so clearly, the only reason it seems “the logical progression is that a being of infinite greatness must exist in reality,” is because it is a logical circle, which nearly hits the nail on the head, because while not really circular reasoning, it is basically a tautology. Saying “An existing pencil must exist,” is tautological, but not proof that my pencil actually exists outside of that statement; tautologies don’t prove anything as they are in reality, they only prove concepts. The way I confirm my pencil exists is through experience, independent confirmation (through my own senses and those of other people) of the qualities of it, if there are any, and the measurable effects it has in reality. It doesn’t require much to confirm it. However when I say “My pencil, of which no pencil that is greater can be imagined, must necessarily exist because no pencil greater can be imagined,” what you’re doing is saying: 1) It is greater to exist than to not exist, which is in fact a judgment call, because I’m sure many people would probably dispute that it's greater to exist than to not. 2) Since nothing is greater than to exist, since no pencil can be imagined to be greater than that pencil, that pencil must exist, for indeed it is the greatest imaginable, and it’s not possible to imagine something greater than an existing thing, which simply isn’t true. Essentially, what the argument comes down to, after it’s simply asserted (not demonstrated) that “something that’s the greatest imaginable must exist” is “My pencil must exist, therefore it must exist.” You may be able to think of a being who has infinite power, intelligence, age, etc., but that doesn’t make it exist. This disregards the fact that it’s not really possible to imagine infinity or something with qualities that are infinite because it’s not a quantity. Infinity is a concept of escaping zero and ever-growing in quantity. You can imagine seemingly really big quantities, but then you’re no closer to infinity than you were when you were at one. An “infinite amount” of intelligence or power is not possible, and it’s certainly not possible to truly conceive of this being, because there isn’t a true way to conceive of infinity, which undercuts the premise “God is the greatest imaginable being”.

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