"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Ontological Argument

(This is hopefully the first in a series of posts going "back to basics")

One of the many “proofs” of God's existence put forward through the years has been the 'Ontological Argument' – an attempt to demonstrate the existence of the divine through logic alone.

Although there have been many versions of the argument, I believe the gist of it can be summarised as:

God is the most perfect being in the universe

The most perfect being in the universe must exist

Therefore, God exists


(This is, admittedly, a rather simplified take on the many versions of the argument put forward by the likes of Anslem and Descartes.)

A number of objections have been put forward against the ontological argument – the strongest being that it's an essentially analytic argument and can therefore provide no empirical facts about the world.

The above argument can be summarised as: The most perfect thing in the universe exists. While this is clearly true (being a tautology) it says nothing about the nature of that thing, which remains an open definition: In a universe consisting of only three beings (Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, for example) the argument will still hold, as one of those three will be the most perfect being in existence.

Discuss.

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28 Comments:

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

"The above argument can be summarised as: The most perfect thing in the universe exists"

Not quite. The idea (at least in one form) is that it's better to exist than not exist: a marvellous cake is no good if it hasn't actually been made. Thus, the most perfect being possible would have to be a being that really existed.

So, the fact that we can imagine such a perfect being proves that it exists - because if it didn't exist, then it wouldn't be perfect. But by definition, we're imagining perfection.

(I'm also simplifying in spades.)

The trouble is that this treats 'a being' in one's imagination as something that does exist in some sense and is comparable with other, non-imaginary, beings. But when we're talking about the realm of the imagination, properties are attributed to things only as a matter of hypothesis and not in a way that involves reference to real-world entitities.

Thus Sherlock Holmes's genius isn't diminsihed by the fact that he was fictional: all discussions of him take place under the assumption that you're talking within the domain of Conan Doyle's stories.

Ontological arguments are great, because you can see at once that surely, it must be rubbish. But explaining exactly why is much harder. I've given a pretty simplistic version of what I think is the best response here...

9:18 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

the most perfect being possible would have to be a being that really existed.

Isn't that just a rewording of what I wrote?

The most perfect thing/being in the universe must exist, because if it didn't exist it wouldn't be perfect.

As I see it, the ontological argument merely establishes a category (most perfect X) rather than a specific thing/being.

Thus Sherlock Holmes's genius isn't diminished by the fact that he was fictional

I think it is.

An actual genius is better than a fictional genius: as if I say "my brother's a genius" it means much more than "I've created a cartoon character who's a genius".

9:49 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"the argument will still hold, as one of those three will be the most perfect being in existence."

Yes, but only from a single subjective viewpoint of each of them. They will likely have their own opinions about what constitutes "perfection", and so taken together you will have more than one possibility as to "the most perfect being". There certainly cannot be an objective idea of perfection; it's a value judgment.

10:11 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Tom said,
"Thus Sherlock Holmes's genius isn't diminished by the fact that he was fictional"

Matt said,
"I think it is.

An actual genius is better than a fictional genius: as if I say "my brother's a genius" it means much more than "I've created a cartoon character who's a genius".


I think Tom was saying that Holmes is only fictional in our universe; in the reality created by Doyle, he exists and therefore is a genius. Umberto Eco spends a lot of his time exploring this idea in his novels. I think Robert Anton Wilson calls it "consensus reality".

10:16 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Matt, I may have missed a trick. It struck me that this:

The most perfect thing in the universe exists. While this is clearly true (being a tautology) it says nothing about the nature of that thing

was saying something quite different from 'the most perfect thing possible would have to exist', which isn't trivially true but is the contentious context-switching bit of the ont. arg.

Incitatus,
I think Tom was saying that Holmes is only fictional in our universe; in the reality created by Doyle, he exists and therefore is a genius.

Yep.

10:58 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Yes, but only from a single subjective viewpoint of each of them.

I decided to pass over the fact that "perfect" can be defined in different ways. My head was hurting enough as it was.

I pretty much agree with you - though I think that if you define perfection along the lines of: "That which cannot be criticised" etc. you might be able to come up with something that satisfies everyone - leaving the subjectiveness to judging whether a particular idea meets such a stringent definition.

I think Tom was saying that Holmes is only fictional in our universe

Look: This is complicated enough without bringing the notion of fictional universes into it.

In OUR universe, a fictional genius is less impressive than an actual genius. I have no idea what that says about the ontological argument - my brain is hurting again.

was saying something quite different from 'the most perfect thing possible would have to exist', which isn't trivially true but is the contentious context-switching bit of the ont. arg.

Thinking about it, the "possible" seems to radically change the meaning: The most perfect dish in the universe (a category) must exist. The most perfect dish possible (a specific concept?) can exist, but doesn't necessarily do so.

11:25 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Matt said,
"In OUR universe, a fictional genius is less impressive than an actual genius."

Agreed. And Holmes' genius is more impressive to Watson than that of the person reading the story... and back to the red and the blue pill. One of them's bound to make your head feel better ;)

12:42 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

And Holmes' genius is more impressive to Watson than that of the person reading the story

Well... fictional characters operate in a sort of pseudo-reality and as such only have pseudo-attributes - which would mean that Watson's impressedness(?) cannot really be compared to actual... impressedness (is their an actual word for what I'm trying to say?), as they are, in reality, two quite different things.

Does anyone have a blue pill handy?

9:39 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

This is all besides the point. On his worst day, Dirk Gently would be possessed of a greater amount of fictional impressivocity than Mr. Holmes could ever hope of conjuring up.

10:19 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Clearly his pseudo-impressiveness will depend on the exact nature of the symbols used to express it - if the author states that his impressiveness exceeds that of Holmes then in that particular fictional universe it will. However, as Dirk Gently doesn't exist in the fictional universe of the original Sherlock Holmes, from that POV his impressiveness is null.

However, I fear we may be heading further and further from the original point of this thread - which is now merely a dim speck on the horizon.

10:34 AM

 
Blogger Sir Philip Johnston-Higham said...

The old atheistic three card trick again and they nevr get bored with playing it.

The onus, of course, is on them to disprove the huge body of evidence of His existence and continuing ministry in the world but the atheists neatly sidestep that.

4:35 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Present the "huge body of evidence" and we'll talk about it.

1:05 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

I disagree quite sharply with Tom about the ontological argument. It's not surely unsound -- it's not surely anything!

As usual, the Stanford Encyclopedia has a good article on the topic. Some of the formulations of the argument, such are quite sophisticated. For example, Ed Zalta's reading of Anselm's classic argument, available here, deploys complex logical machinery. The reason for this is that the ontological argument raises difficult questions about existence, predication, modality, definite descriptions, and related issues in philosophical logic.

While I am skeptical that we can make an ontological argument work, I do hesitate to say it can't be done. So, forgive me for this, but let me say that we should try to take it slow with the ontological argument. (I'm afraid it's all about details here.) Perhaps Matt could select a form of the argument he finds most compelling?

5:50 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Timmo,

"I disagree quite sharply with Tom about the ontological argument. It's not surely unsound"

In the strict logical sense of 'unsound', I agree. There are, as you say, some very subtle versions around. What I was getting at was the sense - pretty common, but I accept not universal - that the notion of establishing a real, concrete existent from just the idea of such a thing seems very deeply suspect.

But mounting a thorough counter-argument can be quite a differeent matter. Doing so, or just attempting to do so, forces one to think a lot more clearly about some of the issues you listed.

2:51 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I'm glad to see this discussion has taken off again.

Perhaps Matt could select a form of the argument he finds most compelling?

The reason I'm glad is that the ontological argument (in its many forms) remains slightly mysterious to me. I like to think I can follow a logical argument when it's clearly laid out, but somewhere along the path of the OA I lose track of it and can't quite figure out where.

If someone could put this...

No one who believes that that than which no greater can be conceived exists in the understanding can reasonably believe that that than which no greater can be conceived exists only in the understanding.

...into English-for-idiots I'd much appreciate it - it seems to me to be the crux of the argument and yet I read it as nonsense.

5:09 AM

 
Blogger mutleythedog said...

I agree with Matt - also if one can imagine the perfect being thingy - God - why can't you imagine lots of nearly perfect ones like me for example?

Mutts is the second most perfect being in the Universe .etc...

7:20 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Matt,

”If someone could put this…into English-for-idiots I'd much appreciate it

I realise that what I’m about to do goes completely against the spirit of what I said earlier about this being a very complex area, but I just can’t resist the temptation. Plus, I'm bored at work. [Clears throat]

An Ontological Argument for the Existence of God in Words of One Syllable

Try to think of the best thing that there could be (not just the best thing there is, by the way, but the best thing there could be). That thought makes sense, right? Let’s call that thing ‘God’, as God is meant to be the best thing in the world (if he in fact is real).

So: you’ve got in your head this best thing that there could be. Well, that’s good – but it’s not great. How great can a thing that’s just in your head be?

If it weren’t just in your head but in the real world with the rest of us as well, then that would be quite a plus. That would be great.

But hang on: if the thing in the real world would beat the thing in your head, then the thing in your head can’t be the best thing that there could be, can it? We said at the start, though, that ‘the best thing that there could be’ makes sense. Now, for that to be so, then this best thing has to be in the real world – for real – and not just in your head.

So this best thing – God – is in the real world.

8:22 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Okay. That makes a little more sense now. Though I'm using "sense" in a very loose way there.

Just to make sure I've understood properly: Couldn't you use that argument to prove that Sherlock Holmes must be real?

'Think of the best detective that could be, etc.'

Or is it supposed to a specific property of the best thing (as opposed to the best X) that allows it to make the leap from 'I imagine' to 'it exists'?

It's that leap which keeps throwing me.

8:56 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I realised, a little after posting that, that I was going be obliged to write a one-syllable reply. Life is tough. I'll get onto it.

The suggestion that an OA could generalise to prove the existence of the best possible detective/island/pizza/etc is a common rebuttal. I think (and I'm really getting hazy here) that this objection is more successful against some versions of the OA than others.

I think the usual sort of move against this involves saying that the omniperfection that applies to God is something that transcends categories, like you suggest Matt. But there my memory dries up, I'm afraid.

9:33 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

If it helps, I could probably deal with words of two-syllables.

Three would be pushing it.

9:43 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

There's a great scene in one of the Tom Baker Doctor Who's where he's trying to explain to Leela how the TARDIS can be bigger inside than outside.

After he's run through the argument she just looks at him, unable to actually refute it, and says: "But that's just silly."

It kinda sums up my feelings about the ontological argument to a T.

9:47 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I think I've seen that scene, probably on one of those 'wasn't Doctor Who great' clip/talking heads shows that they churned out every few years during the long Who-less period. Heh.

Anyway, here's a monosyllabic counter-argument (I'm straining a bit at the end, but there you go):

No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. You’ve mixed up things and thoughts.

When you think of the best thing that there could be, you don’t then have that thing in your head. A phrase like that is just the way we tend to talk. What you do have in your head in this case is the thought of the best thing that there could be.

(And, in fact, as your head is in the real world with the rest of us, so your thought of this best thing is in the real world too.)

And what’s true of a thing need not be true of the thought of that thing. A frog is small and a whale is big, right? So is the thought of a frog small and the thought of a whale big? Of course not: thoughts don’t have size as things do.

Now, you’ve got the thought of the best thing that there could be (God, let’s say) in your head. How great does that thought have to be? Great, I mean, in the way that god is meant to be. Of course, the thought is just a thought – it’s fine as it is, but it need not be great in the way that God is meant to be great (or big in the way that a whale is big, and so on).

Sure, if you think of God then you can think of him both as real and as the best thing that there could be. What’s more, you can think of him as the best thing that there is, for real. And, as far as your thoughts go, that’s fine. But this does not mean that we can put your thought of him (which is real) on a par with him (who is just thought of as real) and say that what would be true of God is in fact true of your thought of God.

There’s a phrase that goes (give or take): ‘if a wish were a horse, then those who beg would ride’. But a wish is not a horse. And a thought is not a God.

9:54 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

I'll try to post a little later, but, in the meantime, enjoy this ballad of St. Anselm.

11:21 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

That's a great song!

4:37 AM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

That's weird, I coulda sworn I posted something here earlier. Here's what I said in short:

Why isn't anyone discussing Plantinga's modal ontological argument?

Secondly, does anyone want to comment on Kant's objection to the cosmological argument, that it relies on the ontological argument?

My take on that is that the ontological argument succeeds in showing us that if a necessary being exists, it exists necessarily. Fairly trivial claim. But it's enough to answer the "But who made God?" objection to cosmological arguments.

12:50 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Why isn't anyone discussing Plantinga's modal ontological argument?

From the look of it, it suffers the same objections as the versions we've discussed.

it's enough to answer the "But who made God?" objection to cosmological arguments.

It's true that a necessary being must exist - else it wouldn't be a necessary being. But can you prove that God is necessary without first proving that he exists?

9:36 AM

 
Anonymous merkur said...

"Try to think of the best thing that there could be (not just the best thing there is, by the way, but the best thing there could be). That thought makes sense, right?"

No, it makes no sense at all.

There goes your argument, I guess.

11:44 AM

 
Blogger Davidlind said...

Using our little heads and logic to discover God may be like using a clown mask to get a date with a beautiful woman and then get all her clothes off.
It's not going to happen. But it's a fun exercise anyway.

4:34 AM

 

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