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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Monday, December 01, 2008

    Return to the Ontological Argument for God's existence

    It's been awhile since I have written anything for this blog, but it's not for lack of activity. Instead of writing essays, I've been on the ground organizing for Buffalo Allies of Bozeman.

    However, returning to my roots in philosophy, I've recently been discussing God with my dearest friend. I recently remarked that I've always been impressed with a version of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. This, perhaps, may surprise some of you who may only know me for my anarchist writings. It's certainly anarchist heresy to be a theist and an anarchist. But, perhaps, that's another part of what makes me eclectic.

    My father is a United Methodist minister back in Ohio. He always taught us that Christianity is a radical religion, that love in particular is the most radical concept the world has ever known. Unfortunately, little about Christianity or love in practice is all that particularly radical. However, we were always taught that in Christ there was no male or female, for instance. That, God's kingdom resided principally within the hearts of the community of believers, that the "kingdom" was an anti-kingdom where the last shall be first, and God was first servant of all. The language of hierarchy was used to invert and subvert hierarchy. The only thing that mattered was the practice of love to each other. "What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me."

    That sounds in some sense Quaker, for those of you familiar, and to some extent it is. However, culturally, I've always felt more at home with non-Christians, with those who preferred to make a lot of noise, with those who weren't afraid to identify with trouble making and subversion - who weren't afraid to embrace the radical aspects of virtue. So, perhaps, most of my friends have been agnostics of various types, pagans, and other kinds of spiritualists.

    And, yet, all that being the case, I am firmly a theist.

    In that context with one of my agnostic/atheist and dearest of friends, I have tried to explain why it is I believe in God and what I mean by that.

    Here is most of the recent letter that I sent her, covering my arguments for the ontological argument and then moving beyond that, trying to bridge the implications of the ontological argument, the implications of my experience as a being, with faithful adherence to a theistic view of God.

    This is only the start. If people want to chime in relevant comments, they are welcome to do so. You can find some very old writings by me on the subject at Defending the basis of these views is at the heart of everything I do and has taken up many years of my life. No doubt you can find many online arguments I've had with people just by doing some Web searches.

    Here is my letter written today:

    Aneslm's version of the ontological argument.

    Define God as "that than which a greater cannot be conceived."
    "That than which a greater cannot be conceived" includes the concept of existence because a "that than which a greater cannot be conceived" would not be a "that than which a greater cannot be conceived" if it lacked existence.
    Therefore, God exists.

    Critique: The argument does not prove that existence is necessarily greater than non-existence. That is, if one denies that existence is not something that necessarily makes a concept greater, where is the contradiction in that? Therefore, God's existence would not depend upon the definition of God, it would depend on knowing the value of existence to a concept. So, it is incomplete.

    Leibniz's version of the ontological argument.

    Define God as "necessary," that is as "that which cannot be conceived not to be."
    If God is possible, then God exists. That is, if the concept of a "that which cannot be conceived not to be" is logically possible, that is - without contradiction -, it must exist because nothing can limit it from being.
    God is possible. That is, there is no contradiction in conceiving of a "that which cannot be conceived not to be."
    Therefore, God exists.

    It follows from this that this is the only sort of being whose existence follows merely from considering the definition. That is, I don't exist by definition because I might not have been and might not be. That is, one could posit the non-existence of anything that is not necessary.

    A "that which cannot be conceived not to be" is little different than positing the law of noncontradiction, not merely as a law of our thought, but as an existing being in its own right.

    But, why call this God? What would it have to do with the God believed in by the churches or the various religions of the world?

    Let's consider this more. However, let's note this first. One thing that religious people certainly mean by God is a being that cannot be conceived not to be. The existence of God must be the most pre-eminent axiom of a religion, but whether what necessarily exists bears any other likeness to what people call God than mere existence is a pertinent question. Why not simply call a "that which cannot be conceived not to be" simply a law of reason, or a law of being, required for reason, required for understanding reality, but not an active being in its own right, not a good being, not an all powerful being, not an all present being - as is required by theism.

    Certainly, if we simply stop with the law of noncontradiction, we merely have God as an empty tautology. The philosopher and logician Fred Sommers called the ontological argument by Leibniz a sound argument; however, he said that it implied that this notion of "God" was purely negative. It suggested that God was simply the domain of discourse, or the domain in which we make assertions about objects in the world, but was nothing else in its own right. To suggest that God was more than a domain of discourse would lead to paradoxes that philosophy is not (yet) equipped to deal with - namely others like Bertrand Russell argued, how an object could be a member of its own class. How could we make assertions about God - defined first as a necessary being - if God is the domain in which all assertions about God must be considered.

    So, to say as theists do that God is all powerful, all knowing, always present, and all good would be, according to this view, to make claims about God that cannot be applicable to the concept of God.

    Therefore, we need to look more closely at the question of what else can be known about God; we also have to understand how tautologies of any type can be incarnate, so to speak.

    Just as there is one thing that can be known to exist by consideration of its definition - that is, necessary being (a "that which cannot be conceived not to be"), there is at least one being that can be known to exist through the consideration of experience. Descartes's great dictum whereby he recognized his own existence because he was not able to escape the notion that it was he who was thinking it. When he tried, it was he who was trying. In fact, I do exist. I might not have existed; I may not exist. However, I do in fact exist right now. That I exist, I who am thinking, who might have been otherwise. My existence, however necessary to acknowledge right now, by force of the inescapable experience of my existence, am not a logically necessary being. That is, I can be conceived not to be, at least in terms of what I am, even if I am unable to conceive of it as I am thinking it right now in terms of my experience. This is what Leibniz in part meant by calling a being contingent. Logically, a contingent being, as opposed to a necessary being, is one that can be logically (essentially) conceived not to be without contradiction. However, in one sense, my being is necessary, in that I cannot escape the conclusion that I do in fact exist. That is what Leibniz meant by hypothetical necessity. That is, it might not have been the case that I exist, but that I exist is surely a necessary conclusion. It does not follow from my essence, however. It's not the same nature as a "that which cannot be conceived not to be." That is a being that necessarily exists in fact and also by logic. There is nothing hypothetical about it. The existence of a necessary being does not depend upon me conceiving of God's existence; in fact, it's the other way around.

    So, here I am, a being whose existence is contingent. It might not have been; in my definition, I don't contain within me the reason for my own existence. What then is the reason for my existence? To suggest that there is no reason for my existence is nonsensical because the lack of sufficient reason for my existence is precisely what makes me distinct from that of a necessary being. To deny a sufficient reason is to deny my own existence, which we cannot in fact do. Thus, we have unearthed another principle of reason, one that follows from considering the distinction between necessity and contingency. That is, there is such a thing as a principle of sufficient reason. There must be a reason that explains what a thing is - either that thing is necessary, in which its existence is explained from within its own definition, or a thing is contingent, in which its existence is explained by something else.

    What explains my existence? Perhaps, it is another contingent being. Maybe, we are like a jigsaw puzzle, not one of us is explained in ourselves, but we are explained by the sum of our parts fitting together. In that way, our sufficiency is a sum. But, then the reason - the sum - is still something which is distinct from a consideration of the parts themselves. Even if we considered existence a sum of parts (a problem for infinite reasons), the sum itself is not reducible to a consideration of the meaning of the part. That is, the existence of contingent beings cannot be explained by contingent beings, no matter how many others there are, and no matter how they fit together. The sufficient reason for anything contingent must have its reason arise from something necessary. Out of the nature of necessary being then, my own existence arises.

    This leads to more questions. How can what is necessary implicate the reality of my own existence, which we know is contingent? This is an important question, but we cannot deny that we have reached the point where we cannot doubt that the question has a rational answer to it even if we are not there. One thing we must realize is that there is a connection between my own existence and the existence of necessary being, and this also is something that is consistent with what we find in the religions. But, we must admit its also what we find in philosophies like materialism, which teach that we arise out of the material of the universe. If the universe is that material, and that material is necessary, then we who are less than the sum of the universe nevertheless find our reality from the attributes of universal matter, according to this view. This is not something the religions generally would subscribe to. It doesn't bring us to a theistic notion of God, but it brings us now closer to understanding the connection. Notice that what I've done here , though, in considering the nature of sufficient reason, is give a version of the cosmological argument. It is an argument that derives its force only if the ontological argument is sound. If it is not, then the cosmological argument cannot hold weight. If one can truly deny that a necessary being exists, then there is no reason to posit a principle of sufficient reason.

    I'm going to stop here. I've taken a lot of steps; do we need to backtrack? Is there something to this point that you don't find ironclad convincing? We need to stop and look over that. That starts with the ontological argument.

    Where have I gone amiss, if I have gone amiss? I have not considered Kant's objections here, either. Should I go over those before I move forward?


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