Ophelia Benson doesn’t see how the ontological argument for the existence of a perfect god even begins. The ontological argument basically argues that we imagine god to be perfect, and that something that doesn’t exist can’t be perfect, thus by imagining a perfect deity, we show that such a thing must exist. Or something. I’ve called it an awful argument before, and still think it is.
Benson’s post is in the context of a new book coming out from Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse (on which more soon), where they use the ontological argument as a litmus test for how seriously atheists are taking the thought processes of their theist opponents. Benson thinks this is a silly imperfect standard because the ontological argument doesn’t make sense.
I haven’t read the book (send me a review copy!), so maybe they’d justify this argument differently, but the argument makes sense to me, and here’s how I’d defend it. I’m guessing that the reason Aikin and Thalisse want atheists to engage the ontological argument has to do with empathy – that is, the ability to feel what theists are feeling, and with negative capability – which Keats described as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” at least long enough to hold someone else’s ideas in one’s head long enough to see how they got there before one starts taking those arguments apart.
In my experience, theology and theists in general tend to take the existence of god as axiomatic. Proofs of gods’ existence are best taken not as proofs, but as justifications for a prior belief in God. Bad apologists, because they lack empathy and negative capability, tend to think such justifications can serve as proofs, and cannot fathom why the arguments fail so consistently. I’d wager that at least some arguments offered against theism are ineffective because of a similar incapacity or unwillingness of the presenters to put themselves in believers’ shoes. This sounds like it’s the argument Aikin and Thalisse make in the book.
The point being that the ontological argument is silly to me and to Ophelia because we don’t share the premise that god(s) exist(s), nor that an existing god would be more perfect than one which didn’t, and so forth. Hence, we cannot see why anyone would find it compelling. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that this is generally accepted even by theists:
One general criticism of ontological arguments which have appeared hitherto is this: none of them is persuasive, i.e., none of them provides those who do not already accept the conclusion that God exists—and who are reasonable, reflective, well-informed, etc.—with either a pro tanto reason or an all-things-considered reason to accept that conclusion. Any reading of any ontological argument which has been produced so far which is sufficiently clearly stated to admit of evaluation yields a result which is invalid, or possesses a set of premises which it is clear in advance that no reasonable, reflective, well-informed, etc. non-theists will accept, or has a benign conclusion which has no religious significance, or else falls prey to more than one of the above failings.
Despite that, many theists find it compelling, and that’s interesting regardless. The SEP entry goes on to note that the formal structure of the ontological argument has not been refuted. Particular instances have, but despite extensive efforts, it hasn’t been found to be invalid for any formal reason independent of the premises chosen by a given author.* Which is a decent reason to at least take it seriously in its strongest form. Not because it’s necessarily right (at some point, you have to figure that philosophers have exhausted all the reasonable premises, and the argument is doomed to be inevitably trivial, invalid, or uncompelling), but because thinking about why believers find it interesting tells us something about belief, and we can use that insight to our advantage.
You’ll recall that Richard Dawkins referred to this argument as “infantile” in The God Delusion, parodied it as schoolyard taunts, and mocked Bertrand Russell for taking it seriously. He mentions some of the philosophical literature on the issue, noting that Kant and Hume both wrestled with it, as serious philosophers do today, and never seems to recognize that a problem which can genuinely engage a millennium of philosophers is probably not “infantile.” By trivializing the ontological argument, Dawkins deprived himself and his readers of a chance to grapple with the reasons that the argument remains so compelling to so many people, and that’s a lost opportunity.
If it’s wrong, it’s probably wrong in some interesting way (obvious wrongness would have been caught by now). In any event, its persistence should tell us something regardless of the argument’s validity. Perhaps it just reveals some cognitive bias that people are prone to, a bias that atheists should be aware of to help people overcome, and to avoid getting trapped by themselves. The bias might even be turned to their advantage.
Or maybe there’s something genuinely interesting at work in the ontological argument. Dawkins compares it to Zeno’s paradox, suggesting that the ancient Greeks should have dopeslapped Zeno and told him that Achilles obviously catches the tortoise so stop trying to figure out how. But trying to work out why the paradox was wrong led to important insights into sums of infinite series, and in due course to the invention of the calculus. I’d say that’s a good payoff for taking an obviously wrong idea seriously. Seemingly silly questions can lead us to interesting discoveries, and too quickly dismissing these arguments doesn’t help us get rid of them anyway.
* Ontological proof for the existence of a perfect ontological argument: we can conceive of the existence of a version of the ontological argument which has every perfection; those perfections must include validity and consistency, as well as an ability to convince others, and of course existence; therefore a valid, consistent, and compelling form must exist. Not convinced? Me neither.