The Ontological Argument

Most of you probably know what the ontological argument is. Technically, an ontological argument is a proof of the existence of God from reason alone, but in practice, the term is more specific. It originates with Anselm’s argument that there must be a being, a being greater than which cannot be conceived, but is more famous in Descartes’ form, in which he likens theology to geometry. Just a we are certain that a triangle’s angles add up to 180 because we cannot conceive of triangle with other angles (any such object would not be a triangle), so too we can be certain that a perfect being exists, because we cannot conceive of a perfect being that does not exist – because existing is part of being perfect.More generally, we might call something an ontological argument if it tries to prove existence from a definition. Another argument is the more recent one drawing on impossible objects – just as we know that all round squares are round, whether or not we believe them to be possible, just so we can know that all existing Gods are existing, without requiring any preconceptions about whether God is real, or even possible.

These arguments have cropped up many times. They never go away. And they are continually refuted.

It occurs to me that both sides are missing the point. There is no need to argue over whether these arguments are valid. In my opinion they are, but this concession should not cost anybody anything.

Why do I think they are valid? Because I can’t see any reason to reject them that is not motivated by a dislike for their conclusions. In response to the argument “‘God’ means a perfect being. Therefore God is perfect. Not existing is a flaw. Therefore a perfect being cannot not exist. Therefore God, which is perfect, cannot not exist, therefore God exists”, many things can be challenged – but none unproblematically. Obviously there is the theological point about whether existence is ‘more perfect’ than non-existence, but that is easily avoided by specifying the meaning of perfection in advance, or using some similar argument that bypasses the term. That aside, we can:

a) Say that ” ‘X’ means a thing that is Y” does not entail “X is a thing that is Y” – that is, “1+1=2” is not justified by knowing that “2” means the number to which 1+1 sums. This, it seems to me, is an arbitrary assault on our use of definition.

b) Say that “All X things Y” does not entail “This X thing Ys” – in this case, ‘perfect things do not not-exist’ doesn’t entail ‘God, which is perfect, does not not-exist’. Again, an assault upon meaning.

c) Say that “God is a perfect being” is not true if God does not exist. This is failing to understand what ‘God’ means in the language. When people say “I love God”, they are thinking of a perfect being – they are not thinking that they love either a perfect and existing being, or else a being that does not exist and is not perfect. To demonstrate this further: if a person says ‘I want to try to be like God – perfect!’, a proof that God did not exist might dishearten him, but it would not cause him to think “oh, well God doesn’t exist, so now I want to try to be imperfect!”. Or another way: when people say ‘God’, even if they are thinking of a being that they think might or might not exist, they are not thinking of a being that they think might or might not be perfect.

d) Say that God not being non-existant does not entail God being existant. This, unfortunately, does not appreciate the meaning of ‘existance’. Either something exists or it does not. If something doesn’t exist, it’s non-existant, and that’s a flaw -and if it’s not non-existant, it exists, and even if there an intermediate state, this too would be an imperfection.

e) Say that we’re so annoyed by it all that we won’t let people say “God is perfect”, just on the off-chance of god not existing. That is, to say that we just can’t talk about non-existant things, or,with Russell, that anything we say about them is false. Now, first off, this is clearly an ad hoc stitch. Russell’s approach totally denies the reality of our language use: it says that ‘God is perfect’ and ‘God is not perfect’ are both false. That ‘pink unicorns are pink’ is false. That ‘the king of france is the king of france’ is false; that ‘no unicorn has ever been seen’ is false. That ‘Gandalf is a wizard’ is false. This theory is obviously false. There’s no reason to even think it up except as an answer to ‘how can we avoid the ontological argument (and some similar paradoxes that emerge in similar fashion)?’.

The first option there is a little better, but it’s still wrong. We CAN talk about non-existing things. We do it all the time. “Gandalf is a wizard” – look, there, I did it again! I said something, and what’s more it was true. And look, I can even build an argument on it! “Gandalf is a wizard. Aragorn is not a wizard. Nothing is both a wizard and not a wizard. Therefore Gandalf is not Aragorn.” That’s a pretty valid argument, despite it being about things that don’t exist. So why can’t we say “God is perfect”?

Because, let’s face it, it’s true. If you’re talking about something imperfect, you’re not talking about God. And we can’t replace it with something more cautious like “God is something that is said to be perfect”, because although that’s true, it’s insufficient – there are lots of things that could be SAID to be perfect without actually being God. And a person can still believe in God even if nobody says that anything is perfect. And if you use ‘something I believe to be perfect’ -well, the first objection still stands, and if a person says “I want to believe that the true God is perfect”, they DON’T mean “I want to that the being that I truly do believe to be perfect is perfect”. If that were what they meant, they couldn’t fail to live up to their desires! No, we just have to lump the fact that when people say ‘God’, they mean a perfect being.

Similar problems face the objection to the argument that “All existing things exist”. It’s pretty basically true that “All things that X, X”. Changing this to “All things that X and exist, X” is ungainly and arbitrary.

—–

No, people shouldn’t worry about showing that the argument is invalid. As Russell himself admitted, it’s hard to really say why – and such arguments have rarely, if ever, persuaded anyone who didn’t already not believe in God. No, we should just not look at validity as being everything.

If you don’t want to accept that God exists, don’t try to disprove the argument that “God is perfect, therefore God exists” – just don’t talk about God. An argument does not exist in the abstract- an argument has to be made. So don’t make it. And if somebody else does make it, say that you’re not interested in it, because the topic doesn’t concern you.

This isn’t advice about conversations – it’s not putting your head in the sand. It’s getting to the heart of why ontological arguments are divisive. They put the proof in the definition that is present in the premise – so to reject them, you must not accept that definition.

BUT: there’s more than one way of not accepting a definition. Traditional attempts to disprove the ontological argument rely upon “that’s not the right definition” – on the basis that definitions are right or wrong, and that’s that. Yet that is not always that. You can also simply refuse to define something in the way that people suggest. Think of a definition as saying “let X equal…” – at which point you should leap up and say “no! I won’t!”. Every definition is a request, and every request can be denied.

Or, if you want it put in terms of existence: say there are two types of existence. One meaning of “X exists” is “X is a valid term in our discussion”; another is “X is an entity within the real world”. The key feature of “God” is that if it is a valid term, it must refer to an entity within the real world. Likewise terms like “entities within the real world” – either the term is invalid, or it refers to entities within the real world. The ontological argument demonstrates this implication – but rather than take it down, we can also simply deny that “God” is a valid term. On what grounds? We don’t NEED any grounds. The word ‘alalss’ is not a valid term in normal English arguments. We could easily (in theory) take the word ‘fish’ out of our valid English terms, just by not using it. And so, if we no longer talk about God, it is no longer true that it must exist. If that sounds odd, rephrase that ‘it must’: if we no longer talk about God, we no longer have to accept that God exists. Where atheists go wrong is in agreeing to talk in terms of “God” at all – they’ve conceded the ground in their first step.

Again, this might sound very odd – but consider it analogously to discussions about morality. You are accused of being unchaste for having sex before marriage. Well, maybe you’ve given some thought to the matter, and might try to show that sex before marraige was unchaste – or, you could just say ‘don’t talk to me about chastity’. That’s not an admission of being unchaste, that’s simply denying that there’s any reason to talk in those terms. Denying the significance of those terms. You are accused: “you’re lustful!”. Rather than saying “well, being driven by a desire for sex isn’t lustful…” just say “why thank you.” Or “I don’t know what that word means”.

To make it clear: I’m not saying people should say “I don’t want to use the term ‘God'”. Obviously, this would just be sticking their heads in the sand. Because saying you don’t want to use the term admits that there IS a term. No, say “I’m sorry? What’s this ‘God’ word you’re using? I don’t believe you have the right to go around using those sounds as though they meant something.” Deny that it’s a word in the language.

And here I’ll bring in chastity again. You can not talk about chastity – or you can redefine it. Why redefine it? You only do that if you think there’s some valuable use of the word ‘chastity’ that you want to salvage. And if you don’t believe in God, what use of “God” would you want to salvage? Just throw the word away! Deny that it’s a word in the language.

But of course: theists will object: “but it IS a word in the language! Look, I’m using it! We’re using it!”. Well yes; THEY are using it. It is a word in THEIR language. But who said that that was your language? In a very real sense, people who believe in God are speaking a different language from the rest of us. Although, of course, that does not mean that people cannot be bilingual…

I would draw an analogy with mathematics. I can invent a new mathematical function, k, such that kX is undefined for even numbers. The proper response should not be ‘The k function doesn’t exist’ or ‘the k function cannot be applied to even numbers’ but simply ‘what the hell are you talking about this nonsensical ‘k’ for? What USE is that?’ And if I can’t show you any use, don’t bother being annoying by the undefined values, just don’t use the function in the first place.

Or to simplify: you can have a theist worldview or a non-theist worldview, but once you introduce the concept of deity as a meaningful, coherent, applicable concept, it has no coherent place other than at the top.

Now, it might be objected: but this doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t stop it being true that there’s a God when a theist says it. No, it doesn’t, that’s quite true. And I can’t even say ‘God doesn’t exist’ to counter it, because I can’t have that be true, unless I define ‘God’ in a way that’s got nothing to do with what the theist is talking about. But so what? There is no concession here. Because the ‘existence’ of God has no practical importance if you don’t believe in God.

Again, take mathematics. If I and my countrymen speak a language in which 1+1=3, my entire body of mathematics is going to look completely at odds with yours. But I can still admit ‘yes, accepting your definitions, 1+1=2′. That doesn’t mean I’ve got to abandon MY mathematics, because I don’t have to accept your definitions. And the ‘truth’ of your claim that 1+1=2 has no consequences for me – because the conclusions of your mathematics are all equivalent to the conclusions of mine, if we just translate from one to another by changing numerals. Your premise don’t add anything to my conclusions, they merely suggest that I rephrase them.Of course, to you, 1+1=2 is enormously important, and it’s the wellspring of your arithmetic.

Just so, saying that, accepting the definitions of theists, God does exist, has no implications for me. It has implications for theists, who base all sorts of things on it, but anything a theist says can be said by a non-theist as well. They can even say things for ‘the same’ reason – only with different phrasing.

The point, then, is that the existence of God is not a game-changer, even though its of vital importance to believers (and I mean genuine importance – not just that they THINK its important). An analogy: the keystone of an arch is of vital importance to the arch. Yet a different keystone could have been used, and then THAT keystone would have been vital to the (or rather, a very slightly different) arch. In just the same way, nothing can be derived properly by theists from the existence of God that could not be derived properly by non-theists from other premises.

And if to some theists that sounds rather dismissive – well, actually it’s dogma. As the Catholic Encycopedia puts it:

“The Church, on the contrary, recognizes the capacity of human reason and grants that here and there pagans may have existed, who had freed themselves from prevalent errors, and who had attained to such a knowledge of the natural law as would suffice to guide them to the attainment of beatitude. But she teaches nevertheless that this can only be the case as regards a few, and that for the bulk of mankind Revelation is necessary.”

That is: yes, the same conclusions can be reached by non-believers, it’s just harder for them. That is: the theistic worldview allows us more easily to arrive at the truth.

Well, that’ their viewpoint, and I think it’s hard to prove it one way or another – and in any case, what’s true for the many need not be true for the particular individual, so I’m happy to leave matters with Catholicism settled on that ground.

So, perhaps I’ll end with: before getting into any argument about whether things exist, first ask: what are the practical consequences of whether this thing exists or not? If there are none, perhaps you’re just disagreeing over what language to speak to describe the same things as each other.

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9 thoughts on “The Ontological Argument

  1. Hans says:

    Well, basically you seem to be saying “Don’t talk to believers about god and if you do, act as if you don’t understand what they’re talking about, because accepting to discuss god is ceding all important points to them.” Sorry for the crude summary, but that is how it sounds to me. That’s probably a fine strategy if all you want is to close the discussion and be left alone, but it doesn’t help you a bit if you actually want to be understood by them and maybe even convince them that you’re right. In that case, you have to point out the flaws in their thinking and the points that prevent you from accepting their beliefs.
    On the ontological argument itself, I’d like to make the simple point that perfect entities don’t exist, that perfection is an abstraction from reality – we can observe circles, but a perfect circle is an abstraction created by mathematical theory, that nobody will ever observe in reality. It exists only as an idea. In the same way, a perfect being is just an idea, an abstraction created by human thought, and for that reason doesn’t exist outside of our imagination. Now, as your Gandalf example shows, it’s certainly possible to discuss imaginary beings, but that doesn’t make them non-imaginary. The same is true for the abstraction called “God”.
    And that leads us to the second point – is the being that is called “God” and described in the sacred literature (mostly, in the Bible) indeed perfect? If you say “God is perfect by definition”, the question doesn’t make sense, but if you use definitions and measures of perfection that are not derived from the tatutology “God is perfect, so perfection is what God is”, you may arrive at a different answer. All this may not convince a believer who has closed his mind on these issues, but it makes for a fine discussion with those who are open to doubt, and those are discussions that I find fruitful and interesting.

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    On the first point: but my point is that convincing a believer that they are wrong to believe is not achievable by rational discussion of their arguments. I’ve never heard of any believer saying “oh, gee, I hadn’t observed that flaw in my logic, I guess I don’t believe in God anymore”. No, converting somebody (whether too or from theism) is not a matter of something that happens WITHIN a conversation, but of WHICH conversations people have. It’s not a belief, it’s a form of life, and you aren’t going to change that (nor should you be able to change that) by debating details when you share no commensurable framework of discussion.
    And in any case: WHAT flaws in their belief? How is the belief in God ‘flawed’? Sure, particular religious or moral views can be flawed, but the existence of God, per se, is not disprovable. (Nor provable, to one who does not believe).

    On the second point: the claim that no perfect entities exist is hardly an objection, because you supply no evidence. You give examples of occasions on which you have not found a perfect being – fine, but I didn’t see a tiger this morning, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It’s not like anybody claims that God is like a hula hoop you might find lying on the floor one day, so you woudln’t expect to find perfect beings any time you happened to draw a circle. And as for ‘not existing outside our imagination’ – even if that were true, it wouldn’t matter. Our imagination exists, after all. And if a being is all-powerful and controls the entire world, including the unimagined bits of it… well, the objection ‘excuse me mr God sir, but technically I ahve identified the locus of your spatiotemporal residence as being somewhere within a domain known as ‘imagination” doesn’t help you much, as he can still hit you with a thunderbolt. Leaving aside whether it really makes sense (hint: it doesn’t) to talk about things being located in our imagination at all, given that imagination is not a location.

    The final point, about Christianity, isn’t particularly relevant, in my opinion. Sure, belief in God doesn’t entail acceptance of any particular religion. That goes without saying, I think.

  3. Hans says:

    We obviously have different experiences in talking to believers. In my experience, it’s them who want to convince you, and make arguments like the ontological argument etc. So telling them that a) defining god as perfect and b) deriving the definition of perfection from what god is tautological is something at least some of the people I discussed these question with hadn’t thought about.
    I don’t get the point about an imaginary being striking me down – the entire point is that, if it’s imaginary, people have thought it up and it cannot strike anyone down, the same way like Gandalf cannot do any magic outside the literary universe of Middle Earth.
    On perfection – no, I’m not going to prove to anyone that perfect things don’t exist, because you never can prove the non-existence of anything. But I can maintain that we never have verifiably shown the existence of anything perfect ouside of imagination, and as long as we cannot observe even one verifiable instance of perfection (I’m not talking about the colloquial use of “perfect” in the sense of “exceedingly good / beautiful”), why should I assume that there is something like a perfect god? And it’s part of my argument that we can imagine things that don’t exist in reality, and that it makes sense to not neglect the borders between imagination and reality. We can imagine dragons or double-headed gods guarding the underworld or an alternative history where (say) Walt Disney became president of the USA, but that doesn’t mean that they are part of the real world, although they can be part of the sphere of our ideas and culture.
    On you last part – well, I never met any belief in god that was independent of a concrete religion. I can imagine that there is, but in my experience, the question of god comes up in a concrete tradition, and most people I discuss the question of god with don’t come from a position of “there is a perfect god” but “there’s a perfect god, and it’s the god of my church and / or the bible”. I don’t know (simply never looked into the question) whether Jews or Muslims use the ontological argument – where I have seen it used is by Christians or by people who maybe don’t count themselves Christians, but come from a Christian background and still carry that god around in their mental baggage.

  4. vacuouswastrel says:

    Nobody has ever said that Gandalf can use magic outside Arda – but people HAVE said that God can do things outside the imagination, so the analogy doesn’t really work. You can’t say “Gandalf can’t do that” as a reason why God can’t – God’s God. If God wants to ‘be imaginary’ (whatever that means, and you haven’t defined it) and still throw real thunderbolts at you, nobody can tell him that he can’t. The principle ‘imaginary things have no real effects other than through the minds of the imaginer’ follows from induction from experience, not logical deduction.

    I don’t think we can even observe perfection INSIDE our imagination. I can’t imagine a perfect circle, and I can’t imagine God, either. Part of the definition (almost) is that God isn’t experience except mystically. So the fact that we don’t experience things like God in non-mystical circumstances hardly is an argument.

    You ask why you should assume there is a God on the basis of the evidence – well, nobody says you should. Your argument is just ‘I see no reason to believe in God’, but that does NOTHING to show that other people shouldn’t believe in God. After all, the belief in God is not something that is rational. That is accepted by everyone, I think. The question is whether it is IRrational, in the sense of being actively contrary to reason.

    On the last part: we should be able to see beyond the specific to the general issue. That is, even if all the theists you know are Christian, you should be able to understand that theism and Christianity are two distinct things, or at the least that the latter is only one type of the former. Belief in God is not the same as belief Christ IS God.

    [And for what it’s worth, for me, pretty much ALL belief in God or an equivalent is independent of a concrete religion. Outside some Catholic family members, and even they’re pretty latitudinarian, I know only two or three Christians. But lots of “cultural Christians” who believe in “God”, “spiritual” people, Deists, and “agnostics” who are pretty theist in practice. In the UK, about 80% of the population is theist, deist, or otherwise believes in supernatural beings (40-50% believe in something they call ‘God’, but it’s hard to know how many of the others believe in something functionally the same as God but with a different label); meanwhile, there’s only about 10% of the population that’s Christian. Christ-specific religious questions are rather less salient than general theistic ones. [Between 50% and 75% of people identify as Christian, depending on the context of the question, but this is clearly an overestimate, because most people use it as a cultural, not a religious, label – as shown by the fact that a lots of those Christians are atheist, and there may be as many as twice as many ‘Christians’ as people who believe in God. Those who identify as ‘practicing’ Christians, and those who attend church regularly, are both around 10%.]

  5. Hans says:

    Obviously, we approach this question from very different bases. For me, being imaginary is not something an entity “chooses”, it’s a question about fact – if I say”God is an imaginary being”, it means that God does only exist in myth and cannot interact with reality; the people who believe in him can attribute actions and demands to him, but that’s not the same as a being existing in reality acting or demanding.
    When arguing against the ontological argument, my goal is not to show people that god doesn’t exist – again, it’s normally impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist. My goal is to show that their argument for the existence of god is not convincing, that it is based on two debatable premises: a) God is perfect (which is, in the versions that I know, either unproven or tautological) and b) that existence is a precondition for perfection, which I deny – perfection is a theoretical postulate, not something that exists in reality. (I’m ready to concede that we even may not be able to imagine perfect entities, but we are able to think that there are perfect entities. Still, that desn’t make them real outside the world of our ideas.)
    I repeat, my purpose is not to prove to people that there is no god. I don’t mind deists, theists, etc., because, in my experience, they don’t bother me trying to make me believe in god, to change my way of life because god wants me to do this or that, or telling me that I’m an amoral person because I don’t believe in god. The people who do that are, in my experience, practising Christians, and they’re not trying to prove to me the existence of some abstract perfect god, but of the god of their church / of the bible.
    I actually don’t have a problem with accepting the existence of some abstract, perfect god as long as his existence doesn’t have any consequences for me. I don’t see the assumption that such a god exists as a necessary explanation for anything concerning our real world, and if his existence doean’t have any consequences, I personally can’t see why people bother believing in him at all, but if it makes them vaguely feel better, fine – I’m also not rying to convince my mother that astrology is bunkum, except if she tries to give me advice based on a horoscope (which she doesn’t do any more).

  6. vacuouswastrel says:

    Unfortunately, while you deny the validity of their argument, your own argumentation rest on many unsupported beams. Some assumptions you are making include:
    – “Imaginary” beings do not choose to be imaginary
    – “Imaginary” beings cannot interact with reality
    – “Perfect” things do not exist “in reality” outside imagination

    None of these have been supported by secure argument, so far as I can see. And the argument really does require both of those last two. Regarding the last, you seem to be reasoning:
    1. All things you have encountered in the world are imperfect
    2. Therefore perfect things are not encountered in the world
    3. Therefore perfect things exist only in the imagination.

    For a certain value of ‘encounter’, the first is unobjectionable. The second only follows from the first by induction, not by deduction, but let’s grant it anyway. The third, however, seems very dodgy, as it seems to divide the world into “things I find lying around” and “things I imagine”. What about Mandelbrot fractals? You don’t find them lying around – and yet you can’t imagine them, either! And what about i, the square root of -1? That’s nowhere in my imagination. In fact, I can’t even ‘imagine’ 2 – the value 2, the entity, the abstract, though I can of course imagine pairs of things. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine the laws of physics, either – I mean, I can imagine written formulations of our attempts to understand the laws of physics, but the laws themselves, which aren’t even fully discovered yet? But on the other hand, I’ve never wandered along a shore and found the laws of thermodynamics nestled among the pebbles. You could say they are present in the world in every instantiation of them, but you could also say the same (and I assume a theologian would, in the platonist spirit) for a (perfect) circle. And for God. Certainly, an account that says that God exists in the same way that all the laws of physics exist wouldn’t be too objectionable to most reasoned theists, I don’t think. And all these unimaginable, incorporeal things do influence the corporeal world of experience. You might argue that they don’t ACT upon the world with consciousness – but a theologian would remind you that the ‘consciousness’ of God is only an analogy to what we normally mean by the word, and a logician would remind you that just because all the OTHER incorporeal things are non-agentive doesn’t mean that ALL incorporeal things are non-agentive.

    So your argument doesn’t hold up.

    —-

    Your two objectionable premises aren’t objectionable. The first, as you say, is a tautology, and thus can hardly be doubted. The second… well, part of the definition of ‘perfection’ of the deity is omnipotence. And omnipotence requires potence, and, again by definition, things that don’t exist cannot act. So God must exist to be omnipotent, and God must be omnipotent to be God.

    —-

    No offence, and I do appreciate your presence… but what are you doing here, then? I’ve made a post about the ontological argument, a purported proof of the existence of an abstract, perfect God. You’ve decided to argue with me about it because… “practising Christians” “bother you” by arguing that how you’re amoral if you don’t follow the Bible? And fine, you don’t see why people bother believing in God – which, ignoring the insulting phrasing, is actually kind of the point I was making – but why must you leap onto any vaguely religious topic to express your lack of interest? [And forgive me, there I was using ‘you’ in the plural, for the galling and impolite habits of atheists in general.]

    I’m not a practising Christian – not even a theist, in fact – and I’m not telling you to go and read your Bible. So what exactly is your objection?

    Oh, and sure, the ontological argument is not convincing to you – because you don’t believe in God!

  7. Hans says:

    Well, let’s start with why I’m discussing this – I’m interested in what you say, because it happens to have some relevance to issues I’m thinking about. So my interest here is in various things – clarifying my own positions, having an intelligent conversation, testing my ideas in discussing them with someone who is obviously an intelligent, well-read person. I approach this discussion based on my own experience – as I said, when I’ve encountered the ontological argument it has been used to convince me of the existence not of some abstract god whose existence doesn’t have any further consequence, but of a concrete god whose existence would have very concrete consequences on how I’m supposed to live. So that’s the angle from which I see your argument.

    You wrote: “And fine, you don’t see why people bother believing in God – which, ignoring the insulting phrasing, is actually kind of the point I was making – but why must you leap onto any vaguely religious topic to express your lack of interest?”
    That would indeed be strange behaviour. But that’s not what I was saying. What I don’t understand is people believing in god if this doesn’t have any consequences – if this doesn’t is either a necessary part of their explanation of the world or a basis for their behaviour. Why go to the lengths of proving god’s existence if the result is just a shrugged “well, so he exists, so what”? I do understand why Christians (or Muslims or Jews) would want to use this proof to support their beliefs, but what interest does someone have who is not an adherent of these religions (or other religions that assume a perfect god)?

    You wrote: “I’m not a practising Christian – not even a theist, in fact – and I’m not telling you to go and read your Bible. So what exactly is your objection?”
    My basic point was that in those discussions I normally have, the position you propose doesn’t really help – again, if I understand you correctly, you say the ontologcal argument cannot be refuted, so it’s best to ignore it. Obviously, in any discussion I can walk away and say “I won’t discuss that”, and then it would be over. But in a normal human discussion, the other side would then assume that they have won the argument. Additionally, if the discussion is not perfunctory, the other side does not just want to make points, but wants to convince me, and it’s simply the case that the ontological argument does not convince me.

    You wrote “Oh, and sure, the ontological argument is not convincong to you – because you don’t believe in God!” Well, what is an argument worth that convinces only those who already believe?

  8. vacuouswastrel says:

    Who does believe in God yet think it has no consequences for them? That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying that the consequences are distinct from the thing itself. Sure, if you believe in God, you’re likely to believe there are consequences – but WHICH consequences does not follow unproblematically from the mere existence of God. So if it’s the consequences you’re upset about, go deal with THAT argument, the argument about what God wants us to do and whether we should do it. That’s a very different argument from the ontological one.

    The result of proving the existence of God is a question: “OK, so what does that mean?” – and at that point, religious traditions part ways radically.

    What interest does any of this have to a non-believer? Well, a) I find things interesting all the time that have no significance for me, and b) this is my blog, not Pravda. I don’t feel I have to interest you, or anybody else. And if the argument doesn’t interest you, don’t have the argument.

    Regarding your continual arguments with believers:
    a) An alternative to saying that you won’t discuss it is arguing about WHY you won’t discuss it (because you don’t believe they’ve earnt the right to unproblematically use the word ‘God’, as the very use of the word presupposes a theistic preoccupation that you do not share).
    b) Yes, other people may think they’ve won an argument when they haven’t. This isn’t something I, or anyone, can cure. If anything, this is a good thing – perhaps it might encourage you to stop caring so much about ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in the eyes of other people.

    I don’t understand your distinction between making points and convincing people. If they’re convincing points, they’ll convince, or aid in convincing. If they’re unconvincing points, they’re not really points to be made at all. And sure, the argument doesn’t convince you – my point is that you should just accept that, and not try to justify it by recourse to reason, or to some imaginary flaw in the argument.

    What worth is an argument that does not convince everybody? Well, ALL arguments will fail to convince somebody. This is a very important point – there ARE no universally persuasive arguments. And in any case, here’s two good uses: psychological and formal. Psychologically, such arguments reassure people, and in particular reassure communities, both in their own faculties, and in their ability to be religious without abandoning reason. Formally, such arguments are equivalent to Russell and Whitehead proving that 1+1=2 after thirty pages of formal argumentation – they convince nobody who was not convince before, but they lay down a formal basis for further development.

  9. Late Commenter says:

    The trouble with the “ontological argument” is that it boils down to the following: 1. I define X as existing (and having the other attributes Y and Z). 2. Ergo, X (having the attributes Y and Z) exists by definition. This same logic can be used to prove the existence of anything, including pink unicorns, five-headed omniscient camels the size of an atom etc.. Obviously, if we are to think in a reasonable way, we should never make conclusions on the very existence of something purely based on its definition. Most people would agree on that and generally act in accordance with that in all cases – but here it’s applied to God, so people suddenly start acting as if it were to be taken seriously. By the way, perhaps we should also refrain from including the property “existence” in the definition of anything. In fact, any definition can be taken as implying existence (for example, “I define vampires as wraiths who suck the blood of humans; but since a non-existent entity can’t suck the blood of humans, vampires must exist by definition). To avoid this, one might also say that any definition “X is something having the property Y” should be interpreted as “X is something claimed (in this or that context) as having the propety Y”.

    Believing in something without a rational reason to do so is bad. For example, if I say that I happen to firmly believe that Chuck Norris will die on the 23rd day of whatever month he dies in, or that there is a person residing in a flat on the second floor in the georaphical centre of Singapore possessing a green lamp, going by the name “Archibald” and adoring shrimp – and if I say that I believe these things just like that, without having any particular reason to do so, people will think I’m mad, even though this belief of mine has no consequences whatsoever. At the very least, it creates a bad precedent and implies a bad thinking habit. Again, most people would agree on that and generally act in accordance with that in all cases – but for some reason God is supposed to be excepted from this and it is required that belief in him should be treated similarly to sexual orientation – something to be tolerated and not questioned. I don’t think any human conviction can be treated in this way, and I think that it would be appropriate that theists should be dissuaded from theism even if their belief per se had no practical implications.

    Why do many non-theists disagree with this attitude? Probably because they want to live in peace with their theist relatives and friends and with theists in general.

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