Sunday, January 12, 2020

On Medium: Real by Definition: The Ontological Proof of God

What happens when we take our concepts too seriously? As this article explains, we think we can define God into existence. But the subtext of the "ontological proof of God" is that God and idols may be socially and psychologically necessary.


  1. Your psychological argument for God is dead on & at least some theists, if you push them far enough, will concede as much. When I was growing up & started asking questions the elders in my church couldn't answer, their definitive response would always be "We are Jehovah's Witnesses. This is what we believe." The final argument, the unanswerable argument for God's existence, is that we depend upon Him for our very identities. Descartes argued in his 4th meditation that only God possesses unalloyed being; all else is suspended between God's absolute being & the non-being of nothingness. It follows, then, that without God, we are nothing.

    Concerning your grounds for dismissing the ontological proofs: you seem to be saying that since our concepts undergo constant revision as our knowledge of nature increases, we shouldn't expect nature to conform to our preconceptions. I agree with that (to a limited degree), but notice the form of your cosmicist rebuttle to the ontological argument (and correct me if I'm misrepresenting it):

    Humans have thoughts.
    Nature is inhuman.
    Hence, nature has no thoughts.
    (And so humans can have no true thoughts about nature.)

    That's a syllogism (though an invalid one). The problem I see here in relation to the ontological argument is that the theist could turn around & dismiss your dismissal by making the same claim about God that you are making about nature:

    "God does not need to obey your quaint common sense since He created logic along with everything else. An infinite, all-powerful being is under no compulsion to obey any rules - not even His own - and so any criticisms you can level against his existence or qualities are ipso facto meaningless."

    Of course, in doing this the theist would obviate the need for any argument for God's existence (ontological or other), including the one he just made.

    I think the only way to truly defeat the ontological argument is to challenge it on its own turf. The theist wants us to believe that her God is logically necessary; we must demonstrate that He isn't. It does no good to say that rationalism & empiricism are mutually exclusive, since the theist isn't making any empirical claims about God to begin with (unless she's a Mormon & believes God lives on planet Kolob). You can't win at chess by deriding it as a silly little game.

    1. I don't think that syllogism quite represents my argument. My argument is that unless our thoughts are driven by experience, our thoughts can't dictate how the world should be, even if our nature drives us to think a certain way. The root of it is a conflict between cosmicism and anthropocentrism.

      The main problem with your syllogism, I think, is its conclusion. My point isn't that none of our thoughts can inform us of the facts; I'm saying the world doesn't have to match the way we're driven to think (unless our thoughts are perception-based, which they're not in the context of the ontological argument).

      The ontological argument is anthropocentric; specifically, it assumes the principle of sufficient reason, which implies not just that everything has a reason, but that everything has a reason which humans can understand; otherwise, the appeal to "reason" would be vacuous, as in the appeal to God's mysterious ways. The optimistic assumption there is that our minds are potential mirrors of reality (to put it in Rortian terms). To assume that is to assume a miracle which already virtually implies theism.

      I agree you can't win chess by calling the game bad names (or by throwing the pieces across the room). The question is what the rules of the game are, which determine whether a victory in that game might be Pyrrhic. If the rules of human thinking include the anthropocentric principle of sufficient reason, the victory, that is, our being forced to deduce a priori that a necessary being exists in reality would be Pyrrhic. The world itself wouldn't have to match that entire, mere human way of thinking, since the anthropocentric presuppositions could themselves be false.

      It's like living in the Matrix: the victims might be forced to have certain beliefs about the nature of their world (which turns out to be merely a virtual reality), but their whole of thinking could be parochial.

      The theistic response you suggest would be the reversion to mysticism, which should be fine with the atheist. As I've said in several recent articles, mysticism is consistent with atheism. Once you say God is beyond our comprehension, you concede the irrelevance of the analogies we use to understand God by way of personifying (humanizing) "him." Once those analogies are gone, you lose theism itself. Mysticism isn't theism at all. The philosopher's God is mysticial, which is why it conflicts with the gods of folk religion (the comforting, literalist creeds most religious folks actually care about).

    2. Well, if our reason is fundamentally just not up to the challenge of understanding ultimate reality, then any proof or, for that matter, disproof of God would be pyrric; in that case the only thing we could be certain of is that we don't know & can never know. Then the only good-faith positions would be agnosticism or an existential leap of faith in the direction of either theism or atheism (or mysticism). So it seems that it isn't the faith of theists that is so offensive to you, but their attempts to defend that faith rationally. Theists (and atheists too) should have the humility to concede their cognitive limits & admit their faith rests on nothing but hope, desperation, awe or some other raw emotion.

    3. You're leaving out the important distinction between the two types of reason: empirical or analytic (a posteriori or a priori). I do think reason can be used to understand ultimate reality--but through the senses, that is, through science.

      The ontological argument means to bracket science and the senses and deduce God's existence through the a priori analysis of concepts. That's where my criticism applies. If you're only doing analysis of concepts, the real world doesn't have to correspond, just as it doesn't have to conform to the rules of our various games or fictions. For example, the real world doesn't have to be like Star Wars. The cosmicist point is just that the real world also doesn't have to correspond to any a priori analysis of metaphysical concepts.

      A priori disproof of certain gods is still possible because of the difference in the burden of proof. If we analyze the concept of God and discover internal contradictions, we can be pretty confident there's no such God. That wouldn't be an empty victory, since we'd be knocking down a real contender.

      But yes, the arrogance of many theists and atheists is annoying. I am also arguing for humility and existential authenticity--not because I'm going for a centrist, agnostic middle ground, but because the nature of ultimate reality _as uncovered by science through observation_ is humbling by way of being inhuman and horrific (not to put too fine a point on it).

  2. You're leaving out the important distinction between the two types of reason: empirical or analytic (a posteriori or a priori). I do think reason can be used to understand ultimate reality--but through the senses, that is, through science.

    The ontological argument means to bracket science and the senses and deduce God's existence through the a priori analysis of concepts. That's where my criticism applies.

    But how could anyone be expected to prove the existence of God empirically? God, by almost any definition, is not a physical object. I'm afraid you're setting up an impossible criterion of proof that could never be met even if God did exist. I'll admit that the ontological argument is guilty of presuming what it's attempting to prove by utilizing God-given reason to prove God's existence; but to demand scientific proof of God seems misguided at best. I suppose God might choose to reveal himself to us through some miracle - which would be an empirical demonstration of something - but it still wouldn't prove God's existence since what seems like a miracle to us might actually be an elaborate hoax or super-advanced technology. I literally can't imagine what an empirical proof of God would look like.

    Concerning a priori versus a posteriori reason: it must be admitted that science depends upon the former to attain the latter. At the heart of the scientific method is the idea of causality. A scientist learns by doing things & observing the effects of his actions. But as Hume went to great lengths to demonstrate: causality is analytic; there's not a shred of empirical evidence that any phenomena could 'cause' another - for all we know things just happen - it's the human mind that attributes causation to correlated events, not nature. The observation "Where there's smoke, there's fire." can never prove that combustion is the cause of smoke because causal relationships can't be perceived. All genuine synthetic knowledge - not the percepts that we use to attain it - depends upon analytic assumptions like causation, identity, etc. So it seems to me that we can't dispense with analytic reason if we want to retain any kind of knowledge - even empirical knowledge.

    1. God wouldn't be a physical object, but that doesn't preclude indirect empirical evidence for theism. Likewise, there are theoretical "natural" objects in physics which we can't sense directly, but we can support hypotheses about them with indirect evidence. Religious evidentialists like William Lane Craig and Cleanthes from Hume's Dialogue on Natural Religion, say it's the same with any matter of fact including the question of God's existence.

      We can be led astray here by the oxymoron "empirical proof." The concept of proof has connotations that come from mathematics which aren't strictly relevant to the kind of probabilistic arguments that are proper to science and to the kind of indirect evidence provided by our senses.

      But I agree that the prospects of supporting the rationality of theistic belief based on scientific standards are remote. As I say in "The Irrelevance of All Philosophical Proofs of God," the whole enterprise of making religion compete with science to appear rational is wrongheaded and irrelevant to what genuine religious people most care about.

      But don't blame atheists for holding out this standard. Blame the religious evidentialists for taking the bait or for being jealous of the success of science-centered reason.

      I think you're mixing up a couple of things regarding Hume. Causality isn't analytic for him. Hume's Fork applies to knowledge. Analytic truths are tautologies and matters of fact are empirical, meaning they're based on sensation. Hume's point about causality is that we can't justify our claim to know anything about necessary connections in the world. To avoid complete skepticism, Hume defends the talk of causality by appealing to a third principle of authority, namely custom or habit. Hume explains our belief in causality in implicitly psychological or social terms. In short, Hume appeals to pragmatism. Kant formalizes Hume's conclusion and dresses habit up as a condition of possible experience.

      So Hume would say that science starts off not from tautologies (semantic games of analysis and deduction) but from habit or from the psychological and social inspirations for hypotheses. Science tests those nonrational sources by subjecting them to the rigors of experiment.

      Again, personally I'm alright with a dose of pragmatism in my epistemology. I think lots of scientists presuppose pragmatism. For example, the logic of methodological naturalism is pragmatic.