I want to establish a thread for those who might be interested in the philosophy of religion. A good place to start is with the classical arguments for God’s existence, and why, in the opinion of most philosophers, they fail. I realize that most religionists do not believe because of these arguments, but I am interested in what can be said about the nature of reality. To assert that God exists is to make a major truth claim, and I am interested how such a truth claim has been defended over the centuries. Even though, as I said, I think these arguments fail, there is much to be learned about philosophy and what we can claim to know from this classical discussion.
There are several arguments for the existence of God advanced by theologians and theistic philosophers. For now, let’s look at the Ontological Argument. The Ontological Argument is an argument that is not based on any observation of the world; instead it is based on principles of what is known as a priori reasoning(reasoning not based on experience but on pure abstract principles).
The Ontological Argument is most often associated with the Medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). To simplify a bit, it goes like this: If it is possible to conveive of a Greatest Possible Being, such a being must exist; it is indeed possible to conceive of such a being; ergo, such a being must exist.
Come again? Don’t worry if this sounds confusing at first, because that is the reaction most people have. What Anselm wants to argue is that a Greatest Possible Being must exist in objective reality and not in the mind only. If the being of our conception exists in the mind only, it is not really the Greatest Possible Being, because a being which does exist in objective reality would be greater. Thus, if we really are conceiving of a Greatest Possible Being, that being must exist.
I doubt if anyone is impressed with this, and there is no reason to be. This is a grammatical game — but more on that in a moment. First, it is worth considering the first refuation of the ontological argument presented by a monk (yes, a Christian was actually the first to refute the ontological argument) named Gaunilon. In his treatise, Anselm had quoted the biblical passage that says, to paraphrase, “the fool says there is no God.” Gaunilon began his rebuttal: “on behalf of the fool.” Gaunilon basically said that it is possible to conceive of a Greatest Possibe island paradise. After all, if it is indeed the Greatest Possible island paradise, it must exist in objective reality and not just in the mind! But does the fact that we can conceive of such a place mean it really does exist? Hardly.
But the decisive refutation of the ontological argument came from the great eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Recall that we said above that the ontological argument is a grammatical game. Kant showed why this is the case. Without getting too techncial, Kant pointed out that for a predicate to be meaningful, it must say something about the subject. To use my own example, we might say: “the car is red.” In this case, we are clearly saying in the predicate something about the car which is not implied in the subject. The car might as easily have been blue or green or yellow, but the predicate tells us that it is red. But what if I were to say: “the car is a car.” I am then saying nothing about the car in the predicate that is not already stated in the subject.
Ok, don’t worry, we do not have to get any more technical than we already have. Let’s now return to the ontological argument for God’s existence. What Kant said is that the concept of “existence” is already contained in “Greatest Possible Being” or “God.” So to say that a Greatest Possible Being (God) must exist, is to say that a being which must exist, must exist. This is just like saying a car is a car. (Yes, but tell me something I didn’t know)! It is a form of what is known as a tautology. And, while on a trivial level, every tautology is true, they tell us nothing about actual existence. For example, let’s say that centuries from now no more actual cars exist — maybe humans have moved on to a Jetson-like style of life. It would still be true to say “a car is a car.” But the statement is meaningless as a description of what actually exists. The same is true if we say “a being that must exist, must exist.” It is trivially true, but it is just language — it doesn’t prove there really is a being that must exist. One philosopher has argued that we could just as easily concieve of a unicorn which must exist. Well, a unicorn which must exist, must exist. Does that mean there really are unicorns?
So much for the ontological argument. In future, I will discuss the cosmological argument, the teleological argument (argument from design), the moral argument, and the argument from religious experience.