I’m currently reading Scott Aikin’s and Robert Talisse’s book Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief. I’m finding it a strange experience. I agree with most of their substantive points, but I always find it off-putting when writers start boasting of their own civility and respectfulness.
I had to smile, though, when I came to this:
We take the Ontological Argument as the litmus test for intellectual seriousness, both for atheists and religious believers alike. Anyone who takes the question of God’s existence seriously must grapple with this fascinating argument. Those who simply cast it aside, or wield it indiscriminately, prove themselves intellectually careless. The debate over the merits of the Ontological Argument has raged at least since the Middle Ages. Anyone who cares about getting the truth about God’s existence needs to take seriously this long-standing and ongoing debate. (79)
As it happens, I also use the ontological argument as a test for intellectual seriousness. For me, though, the test works the other way around. When someone tells me it’s terribly important to take the ontological argument seriously, I know that he is, himself, not someone to be taken seriously.
In his book The Nonexistence of God, philosopher Nicholas Everitt strikes the correct tone. Referring to the triumvirate of the cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments for God’s existence, he writes:
Of the three classic proofs, the ontological argument is in several ways the most peculiar. It would probably be true to say that of the purported proofs that we will consider, all but this one have functioned for at least some theists as the factor that initially convinced them of the intellectual defensibility of theism. No doubt many people accept one or more of the arguments after they come to accept the existence of God. The arguments then function for them as a post hoc justification for what they already believe — and they are none the worse for that. But nevertheless for some people, the arguments probably function as what initially persuades them of the truth of theism. But it seems unlikely that the same could be said of the ontological argument: it is difficult to believe that anyone has been converted to theism simply by studying the ontological argument.
That comports well with my own experiences. In discussing this subject with religious people of various temperaments, I find the design argument and the cosmological argument come up all the time. Never once has anyone mentioned the ontological argument. The simple fact is that the ontological argument is both far more complicated and far less convincing than any of the other classical proofs, making it surprising that Aikin and Talisse would put so much weight on it. Whereas the design and cosmological arguments provide food for thought even while ultimately being unsuccessful, the ontological argument is just an asinine word game.
Moreover, I think this is one place where an argument from authority is actually quite strong. The ontological argument is enormously ambitious. It seeks to establish God’s existence entirely on a priori grounds, with no reference at all to any contingent facts about the world. If any such attempt were successful, you would expect the philosophical community to be able to reach at least a near-consensus that the argument was solid. Well, the philosophical community has reached consensus, but it is not the one a theist might like. You are hard-pressed to find any philosophers, even those writing from a theistic perspective, who think the ontological argument is any good at all. Perhaps, then, the professionals having already done the heavy lifting, there are better ways for non-philosopher atheists to spend their time than in working through rigorous treatments of the ontological argument. Bertrand Russell was on to something when he remarked that it is easier just to dismiss the argument as obviously absurd than it is to try to pinpoint precisely where the argument goes wrong. The argument is obviously absurd, and it is a big pain in the neck to try to wade through a rigorous discussion of it.
The argument, as presented by Aikin and Talisse, is this:
In its simple form, the Ontological Argument looks like nothing more than another Presto! argument. Indeed, the Ontological Argument seems positively magical. The core of the argument is the claim that God, by definition, is supremely perfect. As a consequence of His Supreme perfection, God is perfect in every way and lacks nothing that could make Him better. If God lacked existence, He would not be perfect, because an existing God is a better God than one that does not exist. The argument concludes that God must exist, because He, by definition, is supremely perfect. Here is another way to run the Ontological Argument: God, because He is supremely perfect, is the very best thing possible. Let’s imagine an entity with all the relevant omniproperties (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence). Now we ask: is it more perfect to exist only in imagination or in reality? It is better to exist only in imagination or in reality? It is better to exist in reality, so God, because He is the most perfect thing, must exist in reality, too. Therefore, God exists. More important, God necessarily exists. It is impossible for Him not to.
That’s a surprisingly casual presentation, especially considering what Aikin and Talisse said earlier about how important it is to take the argument seriously. Still, it does permit us to make a few observations. The structure of the argument has us go from premises about what we can conceive to conclusions about what must exist in reality. We go from assuming that we can hold in our minds a certain conception of God, to the conclusion that this fact alone implies that God exists. That’s a mighty tenuous sort of inference. It is hard to imagine that any sound argument could have such a form.
In the present case, we can pinpoint another problem. It is terribly unclear what it means to say that a God that exists in reality is “better” than one that exists only in our minds. Here’s is Everitt, again, making the point very eloquently:
[Anselm's version of the ontological argument] suffers from a crippling confusion about what is involved in existing in the understanding. Briefly, what Anselm is assuming is (1) that there are two ways in which a thing might exist: either in the mind or in reality, and (2) that existing in the mind is an inferior way of existing. Both of these assumptions are false.
Consider the first assumption. Something that exists only in the mind does not exist at all, just as a non-existent tiger is not one kind of tiger. I understand the phrase `tenth planet from the Sun’, so that to use Anselm’s terminology, we could say that the tenth planet of the Sun `exists in my mind’. But that is compatible with saying that the tenth planet of the Sun does not exist at all — or more idiomatically, that there is no tenth planet. The situation is not, as it were, that astronomers have located the tenth planet in my mind, and then have the further task of locating it in the solar system. What is `in my mind’ is better described as a bit of linguistic competence, not a shadowy planet.
A parallel point applies to thinking of a being than whom none greater can be thought. That I understand the phrase does not show that such a being has at least one kind of existence, namely in my mind, and might possibly have another kind of existence, namely in reality. All it shows is that I have some linguistic competence.
So Anselm’s first assumption about two kinds of existence is mistaken. And since there are not the two kinds of existence which he supposes, it follows that he is mistaken that one kind of existence is superior to the other.
There are many other objections to choose from, so I think a general lack of respect for the argument is hardly a sign of intellectual unseriousness.
Interestingly, though, Aikin and Talisse take a different route. Here is their own refutation of the argument:
We start where the traditional Ontological Argument starts, namely, with the thought that God is, by definition, supremely perfect. It is important to notice what this premise means. If you’re affirming the existence of Really Good, Really Wise, and Really Powerful entity, you’re not affirming the existence of God. Similarly, if you’re denying the existence of an Extremely Powerful, Good, and Wise entity, you’re not denying God’s existence. That seems right to us. God is good, powerful, and wise all right, but His goodness, power, and wisdom must stretch beyond our inherently limited powers of comprehension. To see this, consider that God is not simply the best thing there is; He is the best possible thing. He is not simply the most powerful thing there is; He is the most powerful thing possible. He is not simply the wisest thing that exists; He is the wisest possible thing. Once we introduce these modal qualifications…, it becomes clear that we have no conception of what God’s supreme perfection consists of. In other words, supreme perfection is something that exceeds human comprehension. Perhaps we could conceive of a Really, Really Good Being, a being that is as good as we can imagine. But such a conception would necessarily fall short of capturing God’s goodness, for, again, God is the best possible being, not just the best we could imagine. …
And so it seems that if God exists, then created being must have no conception of Him or His perfection.
But here’s the rub. We do have a conception of God’s perfection. We say He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and so on. We don’t say his perfection entails instead, looking good in a sundress, making the best martinis, telling the funniest jokes, or having a winning smile. So we in fact have a conception of His perfection after all. And yet if He existed, we wouldn’t have a conception of His perfection; since we do, He doesn’t. Thus God does not exist. That’s the Ontological Argument against God’s existence What do you think?
I think that I can’t follow this at all. How on earth have they shown that God’s supreme perfection is inherently beyond human comprehension? Why can’t I picture God’s goodness, say, in the same way I think about the limit of an infinite sequence in calculus? I can picture a continuum of goodness from a complete wretch at one end, through basically decent people, and then saints, and then beyond. God exists as the limit of a sequence of better and better entities. What’s inherently beyond comprehension in that?
But let’s say they are right, and that we can only have a murky idea of God’s perfection. Why does that refute the ontological argument? Aikin and Talisse anticipate this, writing:
Anselm claimed that arguments such as ours turn on two different senses of the term conception: one meaning “to have ideas about,” and another “to have adequate ideas about.” And so though we have ideas about God and His supreme perfection, we don’t have adequate ideas about his perfection. Anselm may be right. But notice what his distinction does to the standard Ontological Argument. Once we say we don’t have an adequate conception of God’s supreme perfection, our confidence that such perfection entails existence should begin to wane. The only way to protect against our Ontological Arguent against God’s existence is to eviscerate the Ontological Argument for God’s existence.
Eviscerate? I don’t see why. Can’t Anselm reply, “Our understanding of God’s perfection may not be adequate, but it is nonetheless good enough to understand that He would be more perfect if He existed than if He did not.”
Time to wrap this up. To head off a few silly objections, let me note that I am aware, thank you, that some mighty impressive philosophers have thought the ontological argument is very worthwhile. I am also aware, thank you again, that the field has progressed since Anselm, that there is a whole family of ontological arguments, and that some modern versions based on modal logic are very complex indeed. I’m afraid that does not alter my assessment.
It seems like misplaced priorities to elevate an esoteric argument that has no existence outside of philosophy of religion courses to the status of a litmus test for intellectual seriousness. It is comparable to arguing that you can’t criticize creationism until you have mastered the technical literature in probability and information theory, and have personally dealt with the most mathematically technical versions of their arguments.
After all, how could can the Ontological Argument be if ti can be “eviscerated” in a mere two pages of casual prose?