It’s Good Friday, an excellent time to prove—I use this word in its logical sense—that many people come to religion through rational argument.
We earlier this week examined the so-called “Reason Rally“, a gathering of non-theists who joined in their belief that belief in God is unreasonable and irrational, that anybody who believed in God was making an appeal to emotion, an obvious fallacy, or because they choose to believe in improbable, even demonstrably untrue, physical events; that the religious are equivalent to “pastafarians.” These notions are staggeringly false, gross ahistorical distortions, all the product of willful intellectual laziness and no small amount of arrogance.
To prove my claim, let’s examine St Anselm’s “ontological” argument, a proposition which has led many to believe in God. This version is from William Placher’s eminently readable A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. There are pithier entries, but pithy doesn’t always equate to intelligibility (all marks original):
1. “Something than which nothing greater can be thought” exists in the understanding. [Even the atheist knows what “God” means.]
2. It is greater to exist in reality than merely to exist in the understanding.
3 Suppose that “something than which nothing greater can be thought” existed only in the understanding. Then it would possible to think of something even greater, namely, an entity otherwise identical which also existed in reality.
4. But this is impossible, since by definition it is impossible to think of something greater than “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”
5. Therefore “something than which nothing greater can be thought” must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.
6. Since God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought,” God exists in reality.
A rebuttal to this is not, “This is stupid”—or any variation on this which substitutes another disparaging word for stupid—nor is it an objection to say that, “Philosophers reject this” because, of course, while that is true, it is not a refutation, because it is equally true that “Philosophers accept this” (both propositions imply a prefixed Some or other measure word). And whether or not any philosopher accepts or rejects any argument, it is not a proof of its validity or falsity. Thus, because St. Aquinas rejected this argument (which he did), this empirical fact is not a refutation (though the argument he provided might be).
You are also disallowed the “It’s obviously false”, which I hope you agree is a cheap dodge. It is also invalid to say, “You only believe this because you want to” because even if it is true that I want to believe this, even if I want to believe some false thing, I can also want to believe any number of true things. My belief does not change the argument’s validity. Lastly, you cannot merely “link” to somebody and say, “This guy showed it’s false” because that action (of yours) does not imply that you understand both St Anselm’s and the other guy’s arguments.
You must make the mental effort to see why this argument is true or why it is false; but not just that. For you must also understand its force, true or not. If it is true, then other truths may be deduced from it, like these truths or not. If it is false, and you can show why, then you will have understood something deeper.
In short, to say why it is false, you must provide a rational argument. And to do that merely concedes the argument which began this essay: many paths to religion are rational. For it cannot be denied that this version of the ontological argument—and there are others, just as there are many other logical arguments for the existence of God—is a rational argument. It was posited from pure reason; there is no emotional appeal; there is no call on revelation. It is apolitical. If somebody believed in God because of becoming convinced by this argument, then even though the argument turns out false (though obviously he were not aware of this), he will have committed a rational act. And then, the argument might be valid…
Counter-arguments can certainly be offered. Not all are convincing; what some thought to be a major counter-argument was turned around and became itself another argument for the existence of God. I’ll begin the thread of just one objection, leaving as homework you to finish it and to find others.
Now, Placher said that when people first read this argument they are struck by its elegance but can’t escape the feeling that the wool has been pulled over their eyes, but identifying the specific fallacy that produces this feeling eludes them.
Perhaps an error lies in Step 2: why is it greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in thought? Well, I can imagine Barack Obama losing his bid for election, but better would be for him to lose in reality. Many other examples will suggest themselves: this step appears fine. So instead focus on the word existence.
What does it meant to say something has existence? Any thing has a list of traits. Take a Benelli Vinci shotgun. It traits include a gauge, it is camouflaged, it has a recoil pad, in-line inertia driven action, and so forth, a list to which we can add “existence.” Is adding “existence” necessary to understanding this fine hunting tool? Isn’t “existence” implied by all these other things? Well, you can’t be camouflaged if you don’t exist, even in thought. Can we strip away all other attributes and be left with existence alone?
Which is where I’ll stop and leave you to your reason.
Update A reminder that what I am claiming is that some people come to religion because of rational, reasonable arguments. I am not arguing that this version of the ontological argument is true.