Monday, August 24, 2009

Ontological argument via cartoon

Our friend Nathan Schneider has a blog entry on NYT on the Ontological argument for the existence of God. He explains it well - and even adds a helpful cartoon (drawn by Nathan himself):
A proof for God’s existence came to Anselm in the dark of early morning, under the solemn sound of psalms, echoing against the stone walls of the church. It was the year 1077, at the monastery of Bec in what is now northern France.

All the other proofs he knew depended on observations about the world: the order of nature and the physics of cause and effect. Anselm, instead, gunned straight for the dream of the Greek philosophers: a God of pure, abstract reason, a secret God of the inner life, which the wise can recognize everywhere they go, sufficient onto itself. Aristotle called it the self-thinking thought.

The proof, which would come to be called the ontological argument, purports to demonstrate the existence of God from ideas alone: the concept of a God that doesn’t exist wouldn’t be much of a God. A true concept of God, “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived,” would have to be a God that exists. Therefore, God exists.

Yes - it does seem like a sleight of hand. However, Nathan points out correctly what Anselm was really trying to do:

The whole thing dissolved away, along with the sense of certainty. I started to remember the echo of Kant’s devastating complaint against Anselm: existence is not a predicate. God seemed to disappear. But I read on. I was reminded it wasn’t God’s existence that plagued Anselm — of that, he had no doubt — it was the phrasing. Modern arguments and evangelists and New Atheists have duped us into thinking that the interesting question is whether God exists; no, what mattered for Anselm was how we think about God and about one another.
I think this last point is central: for a 12th century monk, of course, existence of God is really not in question. A 21st century frame (heck - or even a 17th/18th century frame) thus looses some of the original meaning and the purpose of the argument (by the way, there were critiques of Anselm's argument even during his own life time - so don't think that all of his contemporaries - also believers in God - were simply blown away by his logic).

Read the full article here. By the way, if you want to learn more about the Ontological argument, check out the link in this earlier post: God and Philosophers I: The Ontological Argument.


Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

I am finally starting to understand the criteria about proving the existence or nonexistence of the creator.

The creator's existence can be proven "scientifically" (as the creator himself should not be outside the realms of nature and creation) if we can see the creator with a hammer and anvil like something, measure its length and mass and note its temperature, and create a log of its "physical" characteristics over a certain period of time. Creator should be something within the parameters of physical laws as laws create him and not vice versa.

However, formation of a few simple amino acids in a highly sophisticated and controlled experiment is enough evidence to lead us to a final conclusion that life (including the infinitely complex structure of cell, or say, neural network of brain) came into being...that is, by itself, hence it is sufficient to infer that there is no creator.

If, however, you find it difficult to gulp and digest that how universe came into being alongwith all its infinitely complex yet ultimately perfect laws, from nothing and nowhere, please take refuge in theories like Multiverse, String theory etc.

Welcome to my church of the new dogma, the Sciencism. All you need is a complete faith in elements, to walk through its dark corridors.

Salman Hameed said...

hmm...yes. Except the bit about testability etc.

By the way, no one is making any claims about testing the existence of God by scientific means (unless there are claims for physical world manipulation - then, yes, it does fall in scientific purview). However, one can infer what does not require a supernatural intervention - and of course, one has to be careful about "God of the gaps" argument.

In any case, the Ontological argument is not related to any scientific methodology - and it is fine within a particular frame of thinking. I think this is the point that Nathan is trying to make in his article - that this particular aspect boils down to faith. To add to that, even Anselm was not using it prove the existence of God - rather of showing how to think about God. I find this interesting for historical reasons (a cool 12th century intellectual idea) - not for any iron-clad proof that it provides for or against the existence of God.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Where do I coin the term God in my entire argument? The concept of "God" is an ever changing one in human history...from thunderous Zeus to Quoaoar who danced the universe into existence, to the white bearded oversized male God of Christianity to more omnipotent one of Islam without any physical form and gender etc. My view of a creator is one of an even more powerful agency than our historic understanding or speculation of God...something humanity might never be able to comprehend.

Salman Hameed said...

ok, sure. I see the use as one and the same - one can add incomprehensible to either God and Creator - and make the same point. So sure, replace God into Creator from my response :)