left biblioblography: Anselm’s Ontological Argument – What Ought To Be, Isn’t

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Anselm’s Ontological Argument – What Ought To Be, Isn’t

Cross posted @ God Is 4 Suckers!

The consciousness of God is the self-consciousness of man; the knowledge of God is the self-knowledge of man. Man’s notion of himself is his notion of God, just as his notion of God is his notion of himself – the two are identical. What is God to man, that is man’s own spirit, man’s own soul; what is man’s spirit, soul, and heart – that is his God. God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love. – Frederick Feuerbach, The Essence Of Christianity

The ontological argument is one of those strangenesses of religion – it is indeed an item that illustrates the essential difference between believer and non-believer. The believer cheers! The non-believer says, you gotta be kidding.

In summary:

The argument examines the concept of God, and states that if we can conceive of the greatest possible being, then it must exist. The argument is often criticized as committing a bare assertion fallacy, as it offers no supportive premise other than qualities inherent to the unproven statement. This is also called a circular argument, because the premise relies on the conclusion, which in turn relies on the premise.

It is no wonder that the human animal thinks in circles. The world rotates: the sun goes down, the moon comes up, this reverses, and goes again. There are four distinct seasons, readily apparent (except for perhaps Manipoor, which has five), that come and go in intervals. Circles are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere.

This would also go to explain why we’re such a dizzy species.

Anselm’s ‘argument’ is as follows:

1. God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.
2. God may exist in the understanding.
3. To exist in reality and in the understanding is greater than to exist in the understanding alone.
4. Therefore, God exists in reality.

As ridiculous as that sounds, Descartes (of course!) comes up with some real head-splitting sophistry:

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
  2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Interestingly enough, some have employed Hume to dismantle this:

In David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the character Cleanthes argues that no being could ever be proven to exist through an a priori demonstration:

[T]here is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.

Though this criticism is directed against a cosmological argument similar to that defended by Samuel Clarke in his first Boyle Lectures, the point applies to ontological arguments as well.

I’m going to employ Hume in a little bit, in a different way (hence the title of this essay), but first, let’s expound on the problem of evil:

Classical theism states that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Ontological arguments, both old and revised, have also assumed this explicitly or implicitly. Many philosophers are skeptical about the underlying assumption, as described by Leibniz, "that this idea of the all-great or all-perfect being is possible and implies no contradiction."

For example, moral perfection is thought to imply being both perfectly merciful and perfectly just. But these two properties seem to contradict each other. To be perfectly just is always to give every person exactly what he deserves. But to be perfectly merciful is to give at least a person less punishment than he deserves. If so, then a being cannot be perfectly just and perfectly merciful.

To resolve and dissolve this, I’m going to employ Hume’s Is/Ought problem. Using the guillotine, we can pare this down accordingly.

We ought to live in a perfect world – but it isn’t. We ought to be perfect in some way (though this can digress into multiple subjective observations) – that is to say, we shouldn’t become ill, catch viruses, ever go hungry or homeless or jobless. Nothing’s perfect. Then again, perfection is a hollow fantasy, entirely contingent on the individual’s perception.

Perfection is, broadly, a state of completeness and flawlessness.

We ought to be complete and flawless, but we are (subjectively speaking) most certainly the opposite. And given that we live in a world where there are counterpoints, Yin to a Yang, hot to cold, solid to fluid, we assume that there has to be a polar opposite of our existence – in other words, a perfect being that has none of the flaws and foibles we manifest (and likely doesn’t drool in its sleep). But the other problem arises: perfection is static. It would have to be. Interaction with the imperfect would introduce flaws into the hypothetical flawlessness. Nothing escapes creeping entropy, after all. Even a hypothetical flawlessness would eventually be worn down to a sliver – and then the hypothetical flawlessness would be flawed, as that item or person would be much less than itself and ergo, not perfect.

And, as I am a non-reductive materialist, understanding (See Anselm’s #2) is entirely contingent on the physicality of the brain, and when that brain is gone, poof! so is the understanding. Not that imagining something makes it real (would that it were – Angelina Jolie materializing in my apartment dishabille would certainly make a believer outta me!), but humans tend to reify these illusions.

So hopefully, much of this (or I’d settle for some of it) has been useful to the gentle reader, and perhaps it can be used to mystify and stupefy any religious folks (usually pretty easy to do) who use this supercilious piece of fluff as a talking point.

Till the next post, then.

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