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Why the Ontological Proof of God's Existence is Bullshit

OK, I've stomped on science and empirical theories of meaning and found the former quite irrational and the latter meaningless, which was all great fun. The anti-scientists have doubtless been chortling and rubbing their hands together as I bash all the nasty things given as reasons that their personal religion made no sense.

Time to balance the equation. Religion and magic and miracle (and human experiences of all of the above) are actually not exempt from the stomping - if anything, they tend to be even deeper - piles of you-know-what from the point of view of being rational. Note carefully that I make no statement at all about whether or not they are reasonable or whether an intelligent person might or might not have faith in a Deity much as they might have faith in the Laws of Physics. I will make such a statement, but later, only later.

Religion itself is way too big to be adequately whacked on with just a few little subsections - it gets a chapter of its very own elsewhere. Here we'll stick to picking on certain specific arguments advanced in what might be called rational religion - attempts to prove the existence of God as a logically necessary thing, for example, or to argue that science itself should lead one to conclude that God Exists on the same foundation that it leads one to conclude that Gravitation Exists.

We'll begin by drowning a baby kitten, as supposedly ``rational'' proofs go - the Ontological Proof for God's existence attributed to Saint Anselm. Saint Anselm wishes to convince a fool who can understand the idea of God as a being greater than which cannot be conceived that disbelief in God is logically inconsistent with their understanding. He attempts to do this using premises that are axioms of the ``self-evident'' sort - axioms that cannot sanely be questions as being obvious truth.

Of course they are nothing at the kind.

Let's go over the argument itself in very rapid summary. Then we'll go over the usual objections to it, as they're fairly humorous in and of themselves. Then we'll crush it without mercy.

  1. Let us suppose that you (the ``fool'', by implication the rational fool who understands the idea of God but refuses to believe in God, sorry) understand the concept of God as a being that is the greatest possible being. By this you have to understand that it is not possible to conceive of a being greater than God.

  2. (The idea of) God thus ``exists in your understanding''.

  3. You can conceive of this being existing in reality, that is, not just in your understanding. If you can understand the idea of God, you can imagine that God Exists outside of just your understanding.

  4. But (hang onto your logical hats, folks) something that exists in reality is greater than something that just exists in your understanding. Therefore either you couldn't really conceive of the idea of God in your understanding (a possibility that doesn't seem to have occurred to Saint Anselm or most of his critics but that seems pretty reasonable to me) or...

  5. God must exist in reality, because a God that exists in reality is greater than one that exists only in your understanding and God is the greatest thing you can conceive of.

I'll now pause for an ellipsis for you to go to the refrigerator and get a cold beer to clear your head...


Let's see, counterargument. First of all, let me note that most traditional counterarguments lose enough of the game that they fail to convince a rabid St. Anselmite. That is because there are a slew of premises and axioms buried in this argument that are by no means self-evident, but if you try to address the argument itself instead of the premises you've already half lost. So perhaps his argument might convince - a fool.

Let's give an utterly simple counterargument that actually is logically quite sound.

  1. Suppose that God does not exist and in fact is a contradictory concept in reality, just as ``infinity'' is not, actually (in reality) a number because it does not obey the same rules of arithmetic and logic as the other numbers. This possibility has to be admitted or else the argument above begs the question13.29.

  2. Let us suppose that you think you understand the of God as a being that is the greatest possible being. By this you have to understand that it is not possible to conceive of a being greater than God, just as one understands that it is not possible to conceive of a number greater than infinity13.30.

  3. However, it is not possible to actually conceive of contradictory concepts in reality - they are inconceivable. So in fact, one really is a fool this time as one is simply wrong.

This latter argument doesn't disprove God's existence (remember the initial conditional statement). It simply shows that there isn't anything contradictory about God not existing and a fool being able to conceive of something that he thinks of as God. The fool could simply be mistaken.

This is really a fairly powerful argument. After all, if there is no God in reality, then our imagination of God isn't going to ``make'' there be one! And in case an St. Anselmite out there wants to challenge the metaphor of infinity and claim that it actually is a number that exists (just a different kind of, um, bigger number) permit me to say that no number exists outside of our imagination! Numbers aren't externally real, dummy, they are an entirely semantic construction that exists only inside the mind. Show me ``the number one'' out there in nature. Catch one in a ``number trap''.

My favorite imbecilic counterargument (one that gives up far too much, for all its good intentions) is the following:

  1. Let us suppose that you (still the fool, sorry - I hope you don't mind...) understand the concept of a Vampyre as the worst possible bloodsucking undead being that could ever be conceived

  2. (The idea of) Vampyre thus ``exists in your understanding''.

  3. You can conceive of this Vampyre existing in reality, that is, not just in your understanding. If you can understand the idea of Vampyre, you can imagine that the Vampyre exists outside of just your understanding.

  4. But gee, a Vampyre that exists in reality is worse than (more evil than) something that just exists in your understanding, incapable of giving a single living being a single undead bite. Therefore either you couldn't really conceive of the idea of Vampyre in your understanding or...

  5. The Vampyre must exist in reality, because a Vampyre that exists in reality is Eviller than one that exists only in your understanding and Vampyre is the Evillest bloodsucking undead thing you can conceive of.

This attempts to convince the St. Anselmite of the absurdity of the argument by counterexample, but of course it fails because the St. Anselmite considers the theoretical limit in ``greatness'' to be accessible (by God) but that you cannot, in fact, imagine the greatest (worst) possible Vampyre because no matter how wicked or more horrifying and bloodthirsty a Vampyre you imagine there can always be a wickeder one imagined (and eventually portrayed in yet another Ann Rice novel). Limits such as these (they say) do not converge to something inside the set of all things that exist except in the case of God.

Needless to say, to normal human beings (especially those with some mathematical talent) this is completely absurd. It is akin to saying that if you apply an inductive process of successively adding one to any finite number you can imagine to create a greater one, the limit of this process reaches $\infty$ in the $+x$ ``good'' direction - where $\infty$ is considered to be a number in spite of the fact that $\infty
+ \infty = \infty$ where for all actual nonzero numbers (no matter how large) $x + x = 2x \ne x$. However, in the $-x$ direction, sorry, the limit point is outside of the set of numbers - $-\infty$ doesn't actually exist.

You can make variants of this argument that apply it to anything you like. Books, coffee tables, bottles of fine wine, sex godpersons of whatever gender you prefer. No matter what X you can imagine, you can at least claim to imagine the greatest possible X (I spend a fair bit of time contemplating the greatest possible sex goddess, for example). In all cases, greatness in real existence of a sex goddess is clearly superior to greatness in imagination. Furthermore, greatness in real existence of a sex goddess who has made herself my humble slave is better still!

So where is she? Why isn't a bottle of the finest wine at my elbow, why aren't my feet propped up on the most perfect coffee table? Ontology clearly demands that all conceivable superlatives be real just as I imagined them but on steroids, right?

A big pile of cow-flop, that's what this is. Actually, the biggest conceivable pile of cow-flop! Now that's ontology!

Still, because of the focus in both of these counterexamples is on the argument instead of the premises and structure, the argument (in any given real philosophical forum) invariably ends in a draw. The kind of ``draw'' that exists only in bad western movies and in children's back yards, that is. A crackle of caps simulating gunfire, and then the eternal: ``I shot you first.'' ``Did not.'' ``Did too.'' ``Did not.'' with neither side ever conceding defeat and with both sides utterly irrational as they both embrace a prior, unstated and utterly indefensible premise the question itself can be meaningfully addressed with logic either way.

Let's try to do better still.

At this point it is pretty easy. Let us simplify this argument and reduce it to the following two statements:

  1. God is the greatest thing that can be referred to in a proposition like this one.
  2. Real things are greater than things merely stated in propositions.
Therefore God exists as a real thing, Q.E.D. This strongly resembles:
  1. This statement is truer than any other statement that has ever been proposed.
  2. Real truths are truer than statements that are merely true propositions.
Therefore the first statement is true! In fact, it is the truthiest truth that has ever been stated!

Not. What is this ``truer'' of which I speak? All true statements are equally true - a thing is true or it isn't13.31. Both statements are simply self-referential assertions where neither statement is correct however much they assert otherwise.

A light dawns. The Ontological argument is a Gödelian knot! With a boatload of unwritten premises (describing what the simple term ``greater than'' means takes a fair amount of work in pure mathematics, which is vastly easier than it is in the case of deiological enquiry). Premises or knot13.32, we should expect problems with consistency or completeness from arguments of this type independent of the underlying premises.

Ultimately, there is something almost creepy about the ontological argument - it smacks of ``magic'' dressed up as logic. Saint Anselm was effectively claiming that merely stating something (or ``understanding'' it or ``imagining'' it) could somehow make it real, if only we could imagine a superlative attribute such that real existence is greater than nonexistence in the space of the attribute. The creepiness is our mind unconsciously and intuitively recognizing a Gödelian knot when it sees one and blowing a juicy raspberry.

St. Anselm was sadly mistaken. No, we cannot lift ourselves up on logical bootstraps to a knowledge of God, any more than we can lift ourselves up on real bootstraps down here on the level of the mundane. As anyone older than roughly three years of age knows, the sensory stream they identify as ``reality'' is not precisely the same as the one they call ``the imagination'', and tantrums in the one gets you no more than wishful thinking does in the other13.33.

There are many more ways to attack the argument. Yes, we can imagine God any way we like, and as we are doing it God exists in our imaginations, but there may well be no ``reality'' outside of our imaginations for God to exist in - we certainly cannot prove rationally that there is one however profoundly we may believe that there is. Again Saint Anselm's ``proof'' fails, as his assertion that a thing that exists in reality is greater than a thing that exists only in your imagination is clearly incorrect if there is no reality outside of your imagination. Whatever you believe here, you are left without anything like rational certainty.

Or, if you prefer, take the ``understanding'' of God by the fool. A Logical Positivist would argue that in fact the statement ``God exists'' has no rationally provable meaning unless we can imagine empirically proving that God exists by means of some experiment. As Hume pointed out very convincingly, we cannot prove the existence of an external omnipotent omniscient omnipresent God by any experiment - we are limited in our experiments in space and time to the finite reach of our senses in finite time, and any finite quantity vanishes in comparison to the Infinite. We can no more measure God by experiment than we can measure the volume of infinite space with a teaspoon, infinite time with a single turn of an hourglass. Arguments about whether an infinite God exists are no more meaningful than the question ``is the Universe infinite'' to a Logical Positivist. That is, both are totally meaningless. Whatever you think about the arbitrary axiomatic basis for Logical Positivism, that's a far cry from rationally proven as clearly alternative assumptions for ``meaning'' exist that - however consistent or inconsistent they may be - nullify the argument.

Of course this too is Bullshit, as is the whole discussion. Axioms, axioms, everywhere, and not a fool can think - at least not ``rationally'' - without them. The absolute truth of the matter is that we can certainly try to conceive of God. We can try to conceive of infinity. In both cases that which we try to imagine is beyond the reaches of our immediate perceptions, even those perceptions of our own thoughts and sensory input - they are doggedly concrete, and finite, and real (however fancifully so).

You, of course, must draw your own conclusions, but I feel justified in saying that this fool, at least, does not fully understand either one. Noting carefully that while I'm not the world's greatest expert on infinity, I can and have done quite a bit of algebra and calculus involving infinite sums, infinite limits, the need to carefully take ordered limits because infinity is more of an operational description of limit taking than it is an idea. So I'm far from being a math-averse dummy as far as infinity is concerned as well. In the case of both God and the Infinite, my imaginings, as part of my overall perceptions, have no logically necessary connection with any presumed Reality except that those perceptions themselves exist - in my mind as I'm perceiving them - without doubt.

Here's a bit of pure personal opinion, unbuttressed by anything like a rational argument however much you may or may not find it reasonable in an undemanding and intuitive sort of way. If we are to find God in the Universe, there is quite literally only one place to look. That is the only place we can look, the ``place'' where we see.

Western Philosophy (and religion) has only tried half-heartedly to look there, being distracted by scripture and political power and concern with the external world. That place is at the core of our own being, the spot where the experience of reality is undeniably happening in a way that is beyond all logic13.34.

Note that I do not attempt to rationally prove this.

Nevertheless, if you (dear reader) actually exist, and are reading these words in a continuous perception of light, and touch, and sound, and taste, and smell, and are thinking about them, and hold them in your mind, you exist as you are experiencing your existence, your thoughts, your total Universe at every instant of the now.

This is beyond all need for rational proof, as you will readily see the first time you are whacked in the head by an overripe banana so that the pulp oozes down into your face and makes you look and feel all silly and not at all the person you have carefully clothed yourself in flesh and possessions to be and - for an instant - precisely centers you in the here and now of your own existence, naked even of your body.

Where you go from there is literally up to you.

next up previous contents
Next: Why the Intelligent Design Up: Critique of Specific Philosophies Previous: Why Logical Positivism is   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17