Ontological arguments and negative capability

Ophelia Benson doesnât 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 â that is, the ability to feel what theists are feeling, and with negative capability â 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 existsâand who are reasonable, reflective, well-informed, etc.âwith 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.

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Well, one way the ontological argument is "obviously" wrong is that it implicitly presumes the ordering relationship is a full linear ordering (or at least a meet semilattice) with a unique maximal, rather than a poset that may not have a unique maximal.

I don't get it either, because it's so easy to turn the argument around. Eg:

Nothing in the world is perfect. There are no perfect spheres, there are no exact measurements. Nothing in the world is perfectly white or perfectly obvious or perfectly true. No perfect justice. No perfect knowledge. And so on.

Fred conceives of 'God' as a being in the world, perfect in every way.

Therefore the object of Fred's conception has only an analytical sense: It doesn't exist.

Marshall, the fact that the ontological argument is wrong is easy to spot. As you point out, it can be turned around. It can also argue for the existence of any perfect thing, including things that anyone (theists included) would find ridiculous.

It's proven extremely difficult to pin down precisely where the problem is. That's just one of many reasons why philosophers have been looking at it for a millennium.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 08 Feb 2011 #permalink

The ontological argument has always seemed to me to prove both A and not A.

Take as your premise that there exists a thing that perfectly destroys/eliminates any object/concept/etc used as a premise for the ontological argument, and note that eliminating a thing before it exists is more perfect than eliminating it afterwards. Proceed with ontological argument, and you have proven that there exists a thing which causes itself not to exist before it existed.

But there's probably a hole in there somewhere...

Of course the ontological argument exists in valid forms.

It is not hard to make valid arguments.

P1. If I am a man you must give me a million dollars
P2. I am a man

-> you must give me a million dollars.

Look a valid argument.

Take Plantingas version as an instance. It is valid, or can be formulated in a valid version.

But as you say, only if you accept the existence of a deity will you find it a sound argument.

When I see Plantingas argument I question his premises, and his definitions, and then I disregard it completely.

If the premises are not obviously true, then I cannot bother to take it serious until the author of the argument does the footwork of explaining his premises.

For example he uses omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence in his definition. I am not convinced that it is logically possible to posses these three features at the same time, so any premise that rests on a definition of maximal greatness being possible I must refuse until I am convinced that the definition of maximal greatness and excellence is sound.

What people using these kind of arguments do, is that they try to prey on peoples willingness to suspend disbelief in order to facilitate social interaction.

as an example

Evangelical: Well I know we disagree, but won't you at least say that my God is at least possible, even though you do not believe he exists?

Doubter: Sure

Evangelical: Oh I got you if a necessary being possibly exists then it must necessarily exist if you are assume axiom S5. You are a theist, you are a theist!. Please pay your tithe now and give your child to pastor Brian now, he needs fresh meat.

Philosophical arguments in general have no ontological significance. Sorry philosophers, but reality is not amenable to argumentation. Just because you think something should exist, or even can construct a formally valid argument for why it must exist, does not necessarily mean that it actually does exist. This is why we invented science in the first place. Shakespeare wrote, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" - the converse is also true.

I don't think it is fair to criticize those who don't wish to engage the ontological argument down to the finest detail. The argument has been engaged by some very fine intellects, both theistic and atheistic and been found wanting and has historically failed to serve as 'proof' of anything.
Do you seriously think that the ontological argument is the reason why anyone believes in God?
Like the sophist tactic in Euthydemus, proving to a man that he is the brother of a puppy, it's a word trick that is hard to disprove since it is hard to understand the logic of the argument in the first place.

Philosophers v. scientists = words v. reality.

Reality wins. Every time.

I see that Dunc just made the same point, so I shall not expand on that.

As for how interesting or insightful the argument is: there is a difference between "interesting to me" and "interesting". You find it interesting, I think it's inane.

I suspect the Zeno's Paradox leading to infinite series is a Whiggish view of the history of mathematics, a pretty just-so story. No, I've no evidence for that, but it has that whiff about it. But the fact that philosophy can't sort out why the ontological argument is rubbish suggests that it's a discipline that has made little progress in the last few centuries.

"Philosophers v. scientists = words v. reality."

And the philosophy of science?

Aristotle thought flies have four legs.

One problem with the Ontological Argument is that it leaves out important details. Just like Pascal's Wager conveniently forgets that there are many, not just one, conceivable god, the Ontological Argument forgets all the other things that go into "Perfect" besides existence. No reasonable definition of a Perfect God would leave out at least omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but these cannot occur simultaneously by the Problem of Evil.

So: The Ontological Argument leads to some Conclusion (existence of perfect god) which leads to a Contradiction, i.e. there is something wrong with the argument.

(The above is a sketch, which can be made precise by someone who cares sufficiently. For instance, a particular definition of 'perfect' is used, so there may be a hole, but I would argue that the above argument at least rules out the Ontological Argument proving the existence of any god we'd want to have. Also, some people think there exists a workaround to the problem of evil, but I have yet to see any convincing argument to this effect. Regardless, as I said above, anyone who cares enough could fix my sketch to resist such objections.)

By Ketil Tveiten (not verified) on 09 Feb 2011 #permalink

I wasn't going to say anything (when a friend alerted me to this), because it's so futile, but really - I never once used the word "silly." Do stop putting words in my mouth!

I do not "think this is a silly standard because the ontological argument doesn't make sense." I blurbed the book; I don't think it's silly! And not only do I not think it's silly, I don't want hostile witnesses saying I do think it's silly. This is so typical - take a careful, qualified post, and translate it into dogmatic rudeness. I did after all say that I might be misunderstanding the OA - I said that more than once.

By ophelia.benson (not verified) on 09 Feb 2011 #permalink

I don't think any believer has ever been convinced about God because of the ontological argument. I think the cosmological argument is the only argument that could flip a muddleheaded agnostic to a deistic position (Anthony Flew comes to mind).

However, I'm pretty happy that empiricism in its modern form makes such rational arguments redundant, and yet they persist well past their sell by date.

By delivertome.email (not verified) on 09 Feb 2011 #permalink

Oh FFS, Ophelia, I meant no harm by saying "silly," and changed it to "imperfect." I don't think a quibble over one word would qualify as "translat[ing]" your post "into dogmatic rudeness," and I don't think anything else in this post qualifies as dogmatic or rude, either.


I actually mainly agree with you in this one particular instance. However, I certainly can't blame OB for reacting as she has, considering your history of misquotes/misreads of her and others that DID create that exact "dogmatic rudeness" impression. Her sensitivity is warranted. I appreciate your correction, however. You didn't make the equivalent change (as of last I looked) after you mistakenly said Coyne had made that (admittedly kinda dumb) picture.

I agree with a lot of what is said here but I think delievertome.email is right that the cosmological argument is a better litmus test than the ontological argument. Although the ontological argument is still discussed in philosophy nobody actually takes it as a serious argument for the existence of a perfect being. In comparison, the cosmological argument is invoked by most theists who care to argue about theism/atheism. Still, I agree that whatever argument is used it must be taken seriously enough to try to understand the theist's view before trying to argue your own. Screaming "words v. reality" and "science = reality" isn't going to convince a theist who already believes in supernatural beings and you will fail at your goal to change their mind (unless your goal was just to hear yourself talk).

By Jeremy Oxford (not verified) on 09 Feb 2011 #permalink

Jeremy Oxford: "I think delievertome.email is right that the cosmological argument is a better litmus test than the ontological argument. Although the ontological argument is still discussed in philosophy nobody actually takes it as a serious argument for the existence of a perfect being."

What makes the ontological argument a useful litmus test is not that it's taken seriously by a lot of theists, but rather that it's a challenge in and of itself to learn what's wrong with it. It's far less trivial to grasp than most other theistic arguments, such as the cosmological argument. If you've successfully nailed the ontological argument, then chances are that your other arguments against theism won't be half-hearted or slapdash.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 09 Feb 2011 #permalink

Yes, I can see now that is what the book's authors intended by making the ontological argument a litmus test. And, if you are taking this argument seriously then you definitely cannot be considered intellectually careless. But, it does seem like asking a lot of people who may have never studied philosophy. You are now talking about predication and other medieval ideas that are really abstract to modern readers. You start asking questions like "Can you really conceive perfection?" or "Can existence really be a predicate?" As a litmus test it is a bit strict.

By Jeremy Oxford (not verified) on 09 Feb 2011 #permalink

Jeremy Oxford: I would think, though I haven't seen the book yet, that it would not be necessary to offer a detailed analysis and history of the ontological argument's flaws, but rather that the test rests in an author's awareness of that history and his/her ability to respond to the ontological argument in light of that historic and philosophical debate. Presumably it would not suffice to call it "infantile," nor would anyone expect a multi-page dissection of the argument and the history of attempts to prove or disprove it. If such a multi-page analysis is attempted, as Dawkins did, one would prefer that it take that history and serious analysis seriously, as Dawkins did not (apparently the example used in the book is from Hitchens's book, which I haven't read and can't comment on).

Josh, read your first and last sentences in your latest comment.

I'm all for Sam C's take, especially the issue with "in due course ... the calculus." Reminds me of an old PBS/BBC show, Connections or something. It started with something like a watch, and connected it in small steps to nuclear fusion or something in one program. Anybody remember that?

I respectfully disagree with your description of Dawkins chapter on the ontological argument.

It is a silly and infantile argument, on the slightest consideration most nonbelievers will just dismiss the premises, and then the finer points of the argument are irrelevant.

Sure perhaps you need to think a bit before you realise that it is in fact a stupid argument, but that doesn't change the fact that it is.

You can spend a chapter going through the finer points and then conclude the argument is bunk, or you can just call it bunk.

Dawkins chose door number two, you would have chosen door number 1. And we all seem to agree that the emperor has no clothes in this instance, which is the impression Dawkins spend pages to underline, rather than introducing S5 modal logic or discuss whether existence is a true property.

Norwegian Shooter:

Reminds me of an old PBS/BBC show, Connections or something. It started with something like a watch, and connected it in small steps to nuclear fusion or something in one program. Anybody remember that?

You bet I do! One of my favorite TV shows of all time.

By Riman Butterbur (not verified) on 09 Feb 2011 #permalink

A point I haven't seen explored in this thread, Josh, is your interpretation of Aikin and Talisse.

Benson quoted:
"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 Godâs existence seriously must grapple with this fascinating argument. Those who simply cast it aside, or wield it indiscriminately, prove themselves intellectually careless."

You interpret this as:
"where they use the ontological argument as a litmus test for how seriously atheists are taking the thought processes of their theist opponents. "

I cannot see how you go from the quote to talk about taking the thought processes of theists seriously? They only talk about taking the argument seriously, which you yourself do not do - you call it awful.

What makes you make that leap?

Josh, now that you have corrected your slight on Ophelia perhaps you could correct the untruth you have written about Richard Dawkins. Have you even read the section on the ontological argument from 'The God Delusion'? From you piece above it is, at the very least, a gross misrepresentation of the six pages that Dawkins uses to address the issue. Did you get this characterization from a secondary source? For a start Dawkins did not mock Bertrand Russell. Furthermore he pointed out exactly the reason why the argument fails (the equation of perfection with existence). Your contention that a "problem which can genuinely engage a millennium of philosophers is probably not "infantile" fails to note that for the past few hundred years it has failed to engage secular philosophers who seem, by and large to be satisfied with the refutations offered by Kant and Hume. Yes, we should look at it and realize WHY it is wrong (something you cannot - or rather shouldn't have - accuse Dawkins of doing in The God Delusion), but once we have done that it is somewhat pointless to pursue the argument further - at least until theistic philosophers offer better reasons (and this includes better reasons than modal logic!) for regarding it anew.


I think the ontological argument is a good litmus test because of all of the more famous arguments it's the most purely philosophical/theological. If you can at least get a handle on the methodology and what's at stake, you'll be pretty well-prepared to handle more novel and more mixed arguments in such a way to understand the different commitments and methods of philosophy, theology and science. However, I don't think it too strict because it is, in fact, so famous. If you pick up a good introduction to Philosophy of Religion, it should outline at a basic level what's at stake in it and what's wrong with it. Mastering that would probably be enough to pass the test, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, too many people really do fail to master that. If you simple call it stupid or infantile, you've failed to master that no matter how much you've read.


Interestingly, I was going to use Dawkins as an example of how the litmus test works. If you read what he says in "The God Delusion", it's clear to me that he doesn't really understand the argument. The argument that is the strongest (we might be agreeing on this) is questioning whether or not it's really the case that something is more perfect by existing. Dawkins spends little time on this, and even less on Kant's reply about existence not being the right sort of quality that can work in the argument. If he really got that that was the key argument, he really should have spent more time on discussing it than on mocking it in the schoolyard conversation.

But what proves that he doesn't really understand what's going on is his example of his using the same logic to prove that pigs can fly. He first claims that the arguments are meant to show this: â⦠the existence or non-existence of God is too big a question to be decided by âdialectic prestidigitationâ â[pg 108]. The problem is that they aren't; they're meant to use the same logic to derive a ridiculous conclusion and show that, therefore, there's something wrong in the logic (even if we don't know what that is). So, when Dawkins notes that his opponents had to use modal logic to refute his claim, he should have added " ... thus refuting the ontological argument". He didn't.

Gasking's argument is of that sort and is trying to do just that. It overcomes the weakness of "perfect island" arguments by deriving a conclusion that no theist could bite the bullet on, as the whole point is to prove that God exists, so accepting a logic that proves that God doesn't exist won't wash. The hope is that the only way the theist can argue against Gasking's argument is in a way that also refutes the ontological argument. Unfortunately, "impressive" is not a quality of a thing, but a relational quality between the thing and at least one other thing. Thus, it's not the right sort of quality to make the link, and so Gasking's attempt fails. But he at least seems to understand what the ontological argument is about.

(Note that Kant's argument says the same thing about existence; it's not the right sort of quality to make that link).

"Your contention that a "problem which can genuinely engage a millennium of philosophers is probably not "infantile" fails to note that for the past few hundred years it has failed to engage secular philosophers who seem, by and large to be satisfied with the refutations offered by Kant and Hume. "

But in philosophy, that we're satisfied with refutations against an argument doesn't mean that it's right to call the argument stupid or infantile. It doesn't even mean that philosophers think it false. Philosophers just think that it doesn't demonstrate its conclusion, either because it isn't valid or because one of the arguments may well be false. Philosophers -- at least good ones -- also don't think people stupid if they try to alter it to resolve the problems. That's what philosophy DOES. They just don't see any reason to consider the argument deductively true, and thus demonstrate what it wants to demonstrate.

Note that this is one of the main differences between philosophy and science: there are no critical experiments in philosophy, and no theory or argument that's just wrong and dead, unable to be resurrected. Philosophers may be skeptical that any attempt will work, but they don't dismiss attempts before looking at them. Or, at least, philosophers worth listening to don't.

that the philosophers had to resort to modal logic to refute him,

Soren: I go on to talking about the thought processes of theists because I had also read their brief account of themselves at 3QuarksDaily. I call it an awful argument because it's not persuasive, a point acknowledged by all, but I then take it seriously by inquiring why it's been so popular, and so interesting to specialists, for so long.

Soren: I reread the Dawkins chapter before writing the post above, and it was as I remembered. My point is that just saying "it's bunk" is inadequate unless your goal is simply to stop someone who's trying to use it to use the argument against you. I don't think folks like Gödel, probably the finest logician of the 20th century, would have taken the argument seriously if he didn't think there was something interesting there.

Soren: As I noted in the other thread where you raised this issue, yes, I reread that section before writing these posts. The ontological argument has engaged, among others, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel â probably the top logician of the 20th c. Not sure how that squares with "failed to engage secular philosophers." As to Russell, I found Dawkins's treatment mocking, and you didn't, so we're at an impasse. Russell noted "The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies," which should oblige us to at least inquire into the nature of the claim and its appeal to serious thinkers â religious and otherwise â rather than just calling it infantile, parodying it as a series of schoolyard taunts, and moving on to internet lists parodying proofs of god.