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.