The ‘Ontological Argument’= busted

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Originally posted 2014-01-17 01:32:12.

This is sometimes called the attempt to define god into existence, and was first proposed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033—1109). This original version was busted by Kant and Hume amongst others, but lo and behold, it resurfaced after several reworkings. While modern apologists are mightily proud of the shiny new gloss this has given the argument, it still devolves to the same thing:

A thing that can be imagined to exist, must exist, if it is imagined to have certain properties.

Clearly this is nonsense. However the dense fug of philosophical obscurantism is, as usual, used to hide the central argument, so let me expand what it says:

God is a being greater than which none can be conceived (unsubstantiated premise.)

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The existence of god can be conceived in the imagination

The existence of god can be conceived in reality

It is clearly greater for a thing to exist in reality than only in the imagination

Therefore, since god is the greatest thing we can conceive in the imagination, then it must exist in reality.

Let me simplify: a thing which exists in the imagination must be real, if we can imagine that no greater thing than it can exist, since being real is ‘greater’ than being imaginary. So a thing having the property of [that than which nothing greater can be conceived] must necessarily exist. (Note: not possibly: necessarily.)

This kind of logic belongs in the schoolyard, yet some real grown-ups actually believe it. To call it anthropocentric drivel is an understatement.

By the way, this is not a Christian argument, though Christians often use it and it was developed by one. There’s nothing in there to suggest it’s the biblical god that we’re talking about. This is not even a deist argument, since we could assign the property [than which nothing greater can be conceived] to anything. Try working through the argument using an orange, and you will ‘prove’ the actual existence of an orange than which no greater orange could be conceived, and that therefore such a citrus must exist. It is semantical balderdash, and a good example of how useless this sort of Philosophy is at helping us to understand reality.

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However, should you find yourself having to debate one of these twerps, the above doesn’t work and security won’t let you bat him (or her) about the head with a shovel till he (or she) grows a brain, then you might find the following useful.

Anselm begins: ‘We believe that thou (god) art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.’

This is a stipulation; it is the start point of this argument. And it is a great big whopper. Anselm’s entire argument shows the clear hallmarks of having been worked in reverse, that is, from its conclusion to its beginning, which alone should rule it out of bounds. Well, it would in science, but apparently not in philosophy. Apparently that sort of stuff is quite OK in philosophy. Leaving that aside for a moment, let us pursue our snark, and note the following:

The stipulation is completely unsupported and Anselm provides no logical or empirical base for it. It just is so because he says so.

Frankly, he could stop there and just say that god exists because he believes it does, and save a lot of fannying about, but no, not this one. Anyway, Anselm’s target for his rhetoric—the invented and passive method by which he pretends he can demonstrate his ‘proof’, is an educated atheist, whom he calls the Fool. He says:

‘But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak – a being than which nothing greater can be conceived – understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.’

This is the first part of Anselm’s trick. Anselm is not developing a logical hypothesis concerning the existence of a deity, but a piece of declamatory rhetoric which he hopes will persuade the listener. This is why he uses the term ‘Fool’ which of course, is pejorative. Its use here is to deflect us from Anselm’s sleight of hand; he has made a second unsupported assumption, that it is possible to understand what ‘a being than which nothing greater can be conceived,’ actually is.

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Well, is it possible to actually conceive this being? What are the properties of such a being? Does it have mass? Does it have energy? Is it sentient? Where is it? Where did it come from? ‘Conceiving’ an entity means much more than just accepting an unknown value and proceeding for the sake of argument; it means assigning real, actual values—which in this case is impossible, since the being in question is allegedly infinite, and we cannot conceive an infinity—which is why we have the term in the first place; it’s a usable substitute for something we can’t understand or know, which we use to allow the argument to develop.

Anselm’s ‘being’ here is actually equivalent to the term ‘x’ in mathematics: we may not know what ‘x’ actually means, but we can still use it. Similarly we don’t know what Anselm’s being actually is—we can’t conceive it—but we can allow its hypothetical use without that, for the sake of the argument. So in this approach, Anselm’s ‘being’ = x, an expression of unknown value.

This is completely different from conceiving a being such that we can comprehend the properties of that being. This is what we were unable to do earlier, and we’ll call it y.

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Anselm’s trick, which he is about to use, is equivocation: he uses the term ‘being greater than etc’ interchangeably to mean an expression of unknown value which we have called ‘x’ which is trivial, and ‘y’ actually being able to conceive of this being, which we see is impossible. Sometimes he uses one and sometimes the other, but he acts as if they were both the same. He has to do this, since if he were to be honest with his argument, then it would already have failed, because if he accepted that there is no way we can actually conceive his being, then the whole logical train would collapse. On the other hand, if he accepted that his ‘being’ was just a symbol, then his argument would have no weight. He has to cheat, in other words. Proving this is complex, but not hard.

Anselm goes on with some predictable piffle which is intended to show that there is a difference between something existing in understanding, and understanding that thing to exist. This is obvious. The Flying Spaghetti Monster exists in my understanding, that is, it is an idea in my head, but I do not understand it to exist as a real physical entity.

However, this is a straightforward bait-and-switch. We are given the above, a perfectly reasonable statement, because we are about to be slipped another huge porky and Anselm is determined we should not notice—because if we did, then his ‘argument’ crashes and burns. Again.

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Here’s the bait: he restates his stipulation in different terms:

‘And assuredly, that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone’

Once again, he is deliberately equivocating between the symbol x above, which represents god, with an actual conception of god y, which is something totally different, and hopes we won’t notice. He then adds the next line of his whopper, which is to say that god (that which etc) ‘cannot exist in the understanding alone.’

Why not? The Spaghetti Monster does, with no difficulty. Anselm’s reason is that this is because to exist in reality is greater than to exist in imagination, and we already (due to his unsupported first premise) got stiffed with the definition of god as that ‘than which nothing greater can be conceived.’

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And here’s the switch:

‘it can be conceived to exist in reality, which is greater.’

Clearly, it is indeed greater for a thing to have a real existence than to be a figment of imagination. But Anselm has switched from using x, a symbol referring to an unknown value, to using y, a real conception of such a being, in all its glory, which we have already seen we can’t do anyway, which is why he had to use the x-symbol in the first place.

This allows him, in total, barefaced duplicity, to say:

‘Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible.’

So having got you to accept a simple x-symbol for an unknown quantity, he now says that this is actually a real conception of the being than which etc, and since if we could conceive of such a being existing other than in the imagination, ie in reality (here he’s using the x-symbol) then such a being must really exist (using y, the real conception) because it would be greater than one which exists only in the imagination:

He seeks to prove that a being than which none greater can be conceived can be conceived to be greater than it is, which is obviously impossible, and the only possible conclusion is that the being must exist.

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I’ll do that again, using x to symbolise the unknown value and y to refer to a real conception, a known and understood value:

It is greater for x to exist in reality than for x to exist in the understanding alone. Yet if we take x to exist in reality, then we are saying that x is greater than x. Since we have agreed that nothing greater than x can be conceived, this appears impossible, (switch) so we conclude that y must exist in reality. The bait-and-switch is obvious.

However, we have already seen that the ‘being’ is incomprehensible. It is perhaps best understood as infinity, which is similarly impossible to conceive. It has no understood value at all, other than being ‘greater than we can conceive’ But that is not what Anselm wants to ‘prove’; he wants instead to prove that a real, actual god exists. So what Anselm is actually saying is that if we can accept x (an unknown value) to exist in imagination, then y (a known value) must exist in reality. This is claptrap.

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This is why he had to use that weird definition or stipulation in the first place, because by a combination of a peculiar and misleading first premise and simple bait and switch equivocation, he has now deceived you into agreeing that his being must actually exist in reality. Note that proving that the unknown value x exists in the real world is meaningless: all you have said is that an unknown value greater than any known value must exist. Well, possibly, but that would give us no clue as to its nature. Anselm is not interested in that, he wants to prove a deity exists, and his deity at that. So what must exist (for him) is not x, an expression of unknown value, but y, a god with the qualities of godliness that Anselm accepts.

So the point to remember is that you must remain focussed on the definition of ‘being’. It is either x above, or it is throughout a real conception of this being, y; Anselm’s switch is not allowed.

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However, whether or not we accept the definition of ‘conceiving the being’ as x (a token formula) or y (actually conceiving the reality of a god) does not change the outcome, happily.

Our apologist may accept that x was what was meant throughout, so you can say that he has not proved god exists, but only that an unknown value x exists in reality; now he has to define what it is, which puts him right back to proving the properties of a god, since you, like a good atheist, will insist that he does.

The apologist will probably see that one coming and insist, despite all the evidence, that what was meant all along by ‘being greater than’ was NOT an expression of unknown value x, but a real understanding of the nature of this being, y. This is actually useful to you, because Anselm’s trickery had a flaw, which is contained in his stipulation that god is a being ‘than which no greater can be conceived’.

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Here we must ask a simple and legitimate question: ’Is such a being greater in every sense than a human?’ (Do try to sound innocent.)

If the answer is ‘no’, then the apologist has now reduced his god to being within the compass of a human mind. He has limited it to human scale in at least some parameters. This god is not infinite, transcendent or unimaginable; it’s no greater than a human. If the apologist does not concede defeat at this point, then we can hold his feet to the flame and insist that he explains in which parameters his being is greater than a human and in which it is not, and why. If he is unable to do this, that means he is unable to fully conceive of the being, and is using an expression of unknown value for it, x, which debunks his position under the first part above—meaning that Anselm MUST have performed a bait-and-switch. Either way, our apologist is in big trouble and it’s time to press home the dagger.

On the other hand, if the answer is ‘yes’, Anselm’s being is indeed greater in every sense than a human, then it follows that its power to conceive is also greater than a human’s, so it must be able to conceive of an even greater being than a human could. This means it can conceive a greater being than itself, which in turn (following the ontological reasoning) means it cannot be the greatest being, since that which it can conceive must also exist in reality. Well, according to this loony-tunes philosophising anyway. This immediately turns into an infinite series of regressions, with an infinite number of beings all greater than the one that conceived them. This is clearly a ridiculous logical fallacy: you cannot define a ‘being than which no greater can be conceived’ in a way that any such being can easily conceive a greater one. Honestly, this is playground stuff.

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At this point, your man has no choice but to concede, well if he’s honest—they usually aren’t. If he now attempts to insist that what he meant by the ‘being’ was actually a hypothetical entity of unknown value—x—all along, then he has contradicted himself, and in any case all that he might have proved is that an unknown value of unknown properties exists in reality and is greater than any other unknown value of unknown properties—yahoo, could it be space itself?—and if he insists that ‘conceive’ means to actually understand what the term really means, then he is hoist by his own petard, as he looks at a trail of ever-greater beings disappearing up the bottom of his absurd philosophising.

It is a neat dilemma, on the horns of which to impale. Do not let him (or her) wriggle off it, either.

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