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October 23, 2006

The Ontological Argument: Holt vs. Dawkins

The ontological argument for the existence of God -- based only on the logic of "being," not on evidence -- dates back to Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. His "logic" (streamlined a bit) runs as follows: God is...

something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought....Something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind....Surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater....Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.

Hence: God.

A different version of the ontological argument was provided by Descartes, but it is hard to see that it is any stronger:

Certainly, the idea of God, or of a supremely perfect being, is one which I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number....Hence...I ought...to regard the existence of God as having at least the same level of certainty as I have hitherto attributed to the truths of mathematics.

In his new book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins dismisses such arguments as "infantile" and "dialectical prestidigitation." In a New York Times review, Jim Holt, a writer on science and philosophy I respect (though he is getting less funny), criticizes Dawkins for being too cavaliere here:

He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute.

The potential "sophisticated modern versions" of this argument that I am familiar with (thanks to Nicholas Everitt in his useful book, The Non-Existence of God) are by Plantinga, Malcolm and Hartshorne. Here are a few of the steps in Hartshorne's effort (as outlined by Everitt):

(i) Either it is necessarily true that a perfect being exists or it is necessarily true that such a being does not exist. (ii) It is not necessarily true that there is no perfect being. So: (iii) It is necessarily true that there is a perfect being.

Everitt collapses Hartshorne's argument into the following:

(i) If it is possible that God exists, then he exists. (ii) It is possible that God exists. So: (iii) God exists.

It is hard to see that Hartshorne has taken us beyond Anselm and Descartes -- in essence: God is too perfect not to exist. We could discuss exactly how such arguments fail (part of the problem, writes Everitt, "is the assumption that existence is a quality that things can be said to have or lack"). But it's hard not to agree with Dawkins' characterization of the ontological arguments. Holt's criticism of that characterization, unless I am missing some compelling new versions of those arguments, seems unfair. Here's Schopenhauer -- writing, to be sure, before all that modern "sophistication":

When considered generally and impartially, this famous ontological proof is really a most delightful farce.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at October 23, 2006 7:12 PM


(wow, get busy for a couple days and all kinds of fun stuff happens here ;) )

All these silly mathematical-sounding proofs that pose as philosophy contribute *nada* to this discussion, at least in my view. Try this instead: ontology "seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign": 'man' is "the name of that being who, through the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology--in other words, through his entire history--has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play" (Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" [1978]: 292)...

In other words, Descartes's famous formulation ushers in the shift from the 'theo-logo-centric' to an 'anthropo-logo-centric' era that, like its medieval (and ancient classical onto-logo-centric) paradigm suggests, is still longing for a center 'elsewhere'--a raison d'etre that provides the teleological foundation for existence, that takes temporality out of human finitude and offers a dream of access to the metaphysical or eternal. It was bunk in the imperial ancient era. It was bunk during the medieval christian era. It's still bunk in the era of humanism.

Posted by: JM at October 23, 2006 9:27 PM

I am fascinated by the need people have to try and talk a god into existence.

God concepts seem to be an emotional relationship one has with oneself.

Posted by: beepbeepitsme at October 24, 2006 7:22 AM

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it comes down to what your definition of "exist" is. If it is a mistake to assume that "existence is a quality that things can be said to have or lack" then don't you need to think just as hard about justifying an assertion of God's non-existence as one of Her existence?

Posted by: mark shulgasser at October 24, 2006 11:00 AM

Just how aware of what we do not know must we be before we admit we cannot make any determination about everything?


Posted by: Jay Saul at October 24, 2006 12:29 PM

That's a really big jump that Descartes made. The same argument could be used to say that there are monsters under little kids' beds because they think there are.

The truths of mathematics are on an entirely different footing because they are derived directly from logic. Logic is in a sense a study of the things we can't imagine--Descartes seems to think the opposite. I.e., logic will tell you that A and not A can never be true at the same time because we can't imagine them to be true at the same time. In theory at least, the fact that there are infinitely many primes just follows directly from this fact and a few definitions (integers, multiplication, addition, prime).

Posted by: Noah SD at October 25, 2006 10:00 PM

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