Monday, January 14, 2013

The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

(This post is prompted by Chris Hallquist's 'The ontological argument in brief', posted on The Incredible Hallq, hosted on Patheos.)

The ontological argument for the existence of God is one of those arguments that truly perplexes post-Kantian thinkers. It does not attempt to prove the existence of God from any sort of observable phenomenon, i.e. any of the things of our mundane experience about which you or I might think, but from the act of thinking about the idea of God. In more common parlance, the claim of the ontological argument is that God's existence can be known by reason alone. To summarize St. Anselm's version of the ontological argument:
1) Since God is that being than which can be conceived no greater being, and
2) since existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind,
3) therefore, God must, by definition, exist.
For (the corollary argument goes),
4) if God exists only in the mind, then
5) it is always possible to conceive a a being greater, namely, one that exists in reality,
3) therefore, God must, by definition, exist.
At the end of the 18th century, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant ruled this sort of argument out of bounds by observing that to claim something exists adds nothing to the idea one has of that thing. The argument may be summarized with Kant's pithy, but opaque, statement, 'Existence is not a predicate'.

The specific example he used to illustrate the point was the Prussian equivalent of dollars (talers). To wit: The idea of $4 that I have in my head does not change if I add that these $4 actually exist. Regardless whether the money exists or not, the idea of $4 always stays the same. And, if the idea doesn't change when I add that the $4 also exists, the converse must also be true. Namely: that it is not possible to infer existence merely from an idea. Of course, the $4 might exist, and then again it might not, but there is no way to determine whether it exists from reason alone. The same consideration applies to unicorns, warp drive, my five beautiful wives (of whom only one actually exists), and the same goes for God.

What Kant's critique of the ontological argument underscored was that the existence of God--if he exists at all--cannot be the same sort of existence as the existence of the things of our mundane experience. Trees, tables, television shows, and the like, fall into this category. Kant did not seem to allow, however, that there could be another such existence, a divine existence, that stands apart from the things of our mundane experience. Most post-Kantian thinkers have followed Kant on this basic point, which should go a long to in explaining why today belief in the existence of God is a de facto subjective belief, without any objective content beyond its personal significance for the believer. Indeed, the intellectual deck is has been stacked against believers for the last couple of centuries, thanks to Kant.

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