Classic Arguments, Part III
Posted by That Other Mike on 19/11/2007
The Ontological Argument, or Perfect Being Argument – If we can imagine perfection, surely it exists?
The Ontological Argument, or Perfect Being Argument – If we can imagine perfection, surely it exists?
We all have a feeling of right and wrong, a conscience which puts us under a higher law. This universal moral urge points outside of humanity.
For this to be true, there would have to be a universal moral standard common to all human cultures. Needless to say, there isn’t.
Polygamy, human sacrifice, war, child mutilation (circumcision) and incest are all features of the Bible, as are drunkenness, theft, murder and rape. Yet, most of the time, God sits by and does nothing. He either doesn’t care, or he approves.
There’s also good reason to believe that moral absolutes cannot exist, simply because life isn’t that black and white.
This also leads us onto a famous dilemma posited by Plato, called Euthyphro’s Dilemma. It goes like this
- How does God determine what is good?
Usual answer: He knows because he is the source of all morality. But
- If God decides what is good based on a universal moral standard, why do we need to follow him to be moral?
Good point. It then goes on to say
- And if what is good is simply what God subjectively believes to be good, there cannot be a moral absolute, because it is changeable at the whim of an unknowable entity.
These are very valid points, and no theologian has ever been able to adequately answer them. If God decides what is good according to his own wishes, there are no moral absolutes; if what is good is decided is based upon a set of absolute standards independent of God, what need do we have of God as a moral exemplar?
If it all comes down to God deciding what is good, the moral example of God is just as subjective and relative as anything created by humans; in either case, why bother with him as a moral exemplar at all?
Pascal’s Wager, or the Safe Bet
Surely it is better to believe than to not, because if you believe and there is no God, you lose nothing; but if you do not believe, and there is a God, you will be damned. If you believe and there is a God, you will be rewarded.
On the face of it, this looks unassailable. However, dig deeper: what if you believe, and you find out after death that the Muslims were right? Or the Hindus? Or the Australian Aborigines? You’ll end up being punished then, so you lose out. Surely Zeus will be more annoyed with a Christian than an Atheist? After all, Atheists deny all gods equally, but a Christian denies the True God Zeus, and worships a false god! As Homer Simpson once put it,
What if we’ve chosen the wrong god, and every time we go to church, we make the real one madder and madder?
And, if you look at it, you do lose out if there’s no God. All those Sundays spent in church when you could have been doing something else to make your life more enriched and enjoyable. You could have spent your life enjoying yourself rather than feeling guilty for being “sinful”; rejecting religion is not symptomatic of losing something, it’s a sign of liberation. Thinkers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your mental chains!
What kind of loving God would eternally torment people who doubted his existence, when he himself is responsible for not leaving any evidence of his existence around?
Pascal’s Wager is not actually an argument: it’s an extension of Mafia tactics. It’s intellectual extortion. “Believe or bad things might happen when you die,” is a post-mortem threat in the same way as “Pay us or something bad might happen to your business,” is a threat in reality. To use a threat in place of an argument means that you have no argument to begin with.
The Ontological Argument
God is the being greater than which no being can be conceived. I can think of this being as existing as just a thought I have and as something in the physical/objective realm.
Since existing as a thought is not as great as existing apart from my thoughts/in the objective realm, it must then necessarily exist in the objective realm, or else something greater than it can, but by definition it can’t.
The flaw in this reasoning is to treat existence as an attribute which can or can not be applied to things in objective reality. If something exists, it exists. Things do not exist to greater or lesser extents based on their attributes. If it exists, it exists as much as anything else. Nothing can be great or perfect if it doesn’t already exist. This is a case of a cart/horse mix-up. See also the Kalam Argument above.
The objection posed by Immanuel Kant to the Ontological Argument is one of the most decisive in destroying it. Kant argued that the problem with the argument lay in its claim that existence is a predicate.
A predicate term describes something done by a subject; so, in the sentence “John is eating” the predicate “is eating” describes something that the subject, John, is doing.
Kant argued that existence cannot be a predicate because it does not add any new information to an understanding of the subject. To be told that John is bald, that he is eating, and that he is angry is to add three things to the stock of information about him. However, to be told that he exists does not genuinely communicate anything about him. Likewise with ‘God’. To state simply that God’s existence follows from thinking about him is to done nothing other than assert that God exists. Kant argued that nothing of philosophical consequence has been learnt. It is for this reason that many modern-day philosophers have held the ontological argument to be in error.
The argument commits suicide: God can be conceived to have infinite mass or infinite non-existence or infinite potatoey-ness or whatever. And how, exactly, does existence in conceptual terms transfer over to reality? If I imagine a seven-foot green monster called Boomerang McCheese III, does it now exist? No, for all of you reading this on acid.
Also: what if I said there was a perfect total lack of existence? Would the Universe instantly cease to exist? Let’s try it. There is a perfect void greater than which no void can be conceived. I can think of this being as existing as just a thought I have and as something in the physical/objective realm. Since existing as a thought is not as great as existing apart from my thoughts/in the objective realm, it must then necessarily exist in the objective realm, or else something greater than it can, but by definition it can’t. Has the Universe stopped existing? Well, looks like it actually has. You didn’t notice because you were trying to understand the above example.
Just kidding. I’d give you fair warning of the Apocalypse.
Finally: Bertrand Russell said all ontological arguments are a case of bad grammar; he was right.
God has revealed himself to me! You don’t have the spiritual understanding needed to understand, so you deny it. You’re like a blind man denying the existence of colours!
This argument fails on many counts. Firstly, it fails to satisfactorily explain how one can differentiate between sense data caused by ‘God’ and sense data caused by a hallucination of ‘God’.
Secondly, an extraordinary amount of these revelations seem to occur in private places where no one else can experience them, and they leave no evidence.
Thirdly, the sense used to determine the presence of ‘God’: what is it?
And finally, the blindness analogy (which is pretty common, hence the inclusion) is based on a false premise: blind people do not deny that colours or the sense of sight exist. The blind and the sighted don’t live in different worlds, and both can grasp the natural principles involved when they are explained. Light can be traced through a normal eye to the brain without any kind of special mental commitment involved. Frequencies can be explained and the spectrum can be experienced independently of vision. The existence of colour need not be taken by faith – colour can be definitively shown to exist.
Until there is a method of testing spiritual insight or experiences, they must be doubted. The reality of the experience is not at issue: the supposed supernatural explanation, however, is.
I feel like God exists. How else can you explain the feeling of closeness and warmth I get whenever I think about God? I just know He exists – I can feel His Love!
In answer to the question, how about gas?
Seriously, though, Warm Fuzzies work for anything – they could work for the fairies at the bottom of your yard, for Shiva, for Santa Claus and anything else mythological. It’s untestable nonsense, and shouldn’t even be considered an argument; it wouldn’t be here, but for the millions of Christians who insist on using it.
Numbers, or How can millions be wrong?
Millions of people believe in God. Do you think that you can possibly be right when so many people disagree with you?
Millions of people believe in your god, sure; what about the millions of Hindu believers? What about all the people who used to believe that the Earth was flat? Until relatively recently, the Catholic Church believed that the Sun orbited the Earth, rather than vice versa. What about them? What about the people who disagreed? Did the Earth orbit the Sun for non-Catholics, but the Sun orbit the Earth for the Catholics? By that logic, the Earth was at one point simultaneously flat, round, orbiting the Sun and having the Sun orbit around it. Do you really want to pursue this line of argument any further? If truth is defined by belief rather than facts, the Universe should be somewhere slightly under a third in accordance with Christian belief, about the same for Islamic beliefs, approximately 0.5% according to Jewish belief, about 12% belongs to Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu… Need I go on?
If we’re talking numbers, a Muslim has about the same chance of being right as a Christian, and slightly more than a Hindu. And guess what! Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world! Better start having kids, so you can make reality what you want it to be when you’ve brainwashed them!
Truth is not a democracy – votes do not count.