The ontological argument (again)

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll takes on the ontological argument (i.e., God is perfect, anything perfect must exist since existence is a essential criterion of perfection, therefore God exists), and dissects it with formal symbolic logic.  As you might expect, he finds it wanting.  Carroll sees the argument as logical but unconvincing because its premises are dubious.

Most of us have a vague feeling that one can’t demonstrate that something exists by logic alone, but Carroll hits on one of the critical flaws in this particular “demonstration”.

The basic problem is that our vague notion of “perfection” isn’t really coherent. Anselm assumes that perfection is possible, and that to exist necessarily is more perfect than to exist contingently. While superficially reasonable, these assumptions don’t really hold up to scrutiny. What exactly is this “perfection” whose existence and necessity we are debating? For example, is perfection blue? You might think not, since perfection doesn’t have any particular color. But aren’t colors good, and therefore the property of being colorless is an imperfection? Likewise, and somewhat more seriously, for questions about whether perfection is timeless, or unchanging, or symmetrical, and so on. Any good-sounding quality that we might be tempted to attribute to “perfection” requires the denial of some other good-sounding quality. At some point a Zen monk will come along and suggest that not existing is a higher perfection than existing.

We have an informal notion of one thing being “better” than another, and so we unthinkingly extrapolate to believe in something that is “the best,” or “perfect.” That’s about as logical as using the fact that there exist larger and larger real numbers to conclude that there must be some largest possible number. In fact the case of perfection is much worse, since there is not single ordering on the set of all possible qualities that might culminate in “perfection.” (Is perfection sweet, or savory?) The very first step in the ontological argument rests on a naive construal of ordinary language, and the chain is no stronger than its weakest link.

Another problem with the argument is that God may not be perfect.  Some people may find perfection an essential property of a deity, but lots of liberal religious people don’t necessarily buy it.  And of course earlier and now-discarded deities, like the Greek gods, weren’t perfect by modern standards.

I’m still amazed that anyone finds this a convincing argument for God’s existence.  For other problems, see the excellent discussion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

160 Comments

  1. locutus7
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” -Voltaire

  2. Jer
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I’m still amazed that anyone finds this a convincing argument for god’s existence.

    That’s because nobody does. The folks who claim to think it’s convincing are all believers, whose biases play right into Anselm’s argument.

    It’s like “Pascal’s Wager” or Lewis’s “Lunatic, Liar or Lord” arguments. The only people who actually find them to be convincing arguments are the folks who already believe in God and therefore don’t need to be convinced. Folks who aren’t believers can generally spot the holes in the argument, but can’t get believers to admit that they’re holes. (Anselm’s argument is particularly bad precisely because of what Sean points out – the premises are crazy. But the premises of the argument are crucially exactly what believers believe – that it is possible for a perfect being to exist – so of course they find it to be a convincing argument).

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I’m still amazed that anyone finds this a convincing argument for god’s existence.

      That’s because nobody does.

      I SO hope you’re right! If this isn’t a classic case of nude emperorism, I don’t know what is. It boggles the mind that anyone wastes time with such BS.

  3. Steve Zara
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    “Most of us have a vague feeling that one can’t demonstrate that something exists by logic alone,”

    Yes, I have had this confirmed by a friend who is a well-qualified philosopher. Ontological arguments may get to answers that are true, but that is quite different from answers that are about reality. You can’t feed “real” sensibly into axioms.

    There is always a missing step at the end of such arguments:

    N + 1: Now go into the laboratory and take a look.

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      There’s a (not-so-)good reason why that last step is always missing.

      Nearly every religious claim is testable, and every significant testable claim is trivially falsifiable. The Flood story, the Jesus incident, the existence of a powerful entity primarily concerned with fighting evil — if any of these theories were true, certain unmistrakable evidence would result, and yet all such evidence is perfectly absent.

      All this sophisticated theology is exactly as applicable to the real world a a schematic diagram of the Enterprise, and for the exact same reason.

      If wishes were fishes, Jesus handing out free bread wouldn’t be nearly so impressive a story.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Steve Zara
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        I love the Enterprise comparison.

        There is something rather sad about all this theology. The writing of the arguments is like some kind of prayer. There seems to be a hope that if the arguments are chanted enough time, God will slowly appear.

        • MadScientist
          Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:26 am | Permalink

          People have been chanting for about 2000 years hoping that the mythical Jesus would return … 2000 years on and they’re still chanting, hoping, and predicting the end of the world.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        such evidence is perfectly absent

        perfectly?
        :)

  4. harrync
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Somewhere – maybe even this blog – I saw this: “Imagine a perfect proof that god does not exist. Since the proof is perfect, it must exist. Thus god does not exist.”

  5. Dominic
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Yes! Exactly! Empty semantics. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    • Dominic
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Here is another one – a Greek whose name I cannot recall –

      “Whatever I say is true, for when I say something I say that which is, & when I say that which is I say the truth”

      • MadScientist
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

        Or another from Charles Dodgson’s Hunting of the Snark:

        “Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
        As he landed his crew with care;
        Supporting each man on the top of the tide
        By a finger entwined in his hair.

        “Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
        That alone should encourage the crew.
        Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
        What i tell you three times is true.”

  6. Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    The other problem with the argument is that you can use it just as easily to define into existence literally anything you like, so long as “perfection” is one of its attributes.

    The perfect ham sandwich is one that my county attorney friend has gotten a jury to indict; therefore, lunch today is ham sandwiches.

    I’ll have mine on a San Francisco sourdough baguette with smoked gouda, chipotle mayo, extra-crispy thick-sliced bacon, and baby spinach greens, thankyouverymuch.

    Cheers,

    b&

  7. Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Watch out. William Lane Craig used the argument in a debate with me March 2010 in Corvalis. It surprised me; I expected his usual cosmological argument, but he knew I could handle that. Fortunately I remembered a counter I heard somewhere. “Just because you can talk about a perfect pizza, that doesn’t mean there is such a thing.”

    • Steve Zara
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      I beg to differ. We can order “Perfect Pizza”s from anywhere in the UK! The tuna topping is particularly perfect.

      I have yet to see a company supplying perfect beings though. I wonder if tuna would be involved in that too?

      • Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        They exist in Nashville too: http://www.pizzaperfectonline.com/

        Ergo the ontological thin crust epiphany.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        so if perfect pizza is by definition godly, then what is

        Hell Pizza

        absolute imperfection?

        • Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

          Despite the apophatic disposition of contemporary, radical, and progressive Pizzaiolis. Orthodox doughmakers have known for years that there is only One True Pizza that ye shall defer to. Perfection is baked by fiat.

          In Crust We Trust.

          • Grendels Dad
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

            Praise the lard! (OK, I stole that from my favorite Mexican restaurant in Boulder.)

            • Posted March 10, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

              Isn’t it supposed to be, “braise with lard”?

              As I understood it, that’s the preferred way to prepare the holy meal of Christianity. You know? “Cheeses fried, lamb with cod.”

              The first time I heard that, I got all excited, imagining some sort of exotic dish with ground lamb, ground cod, and shredded cheeses all mixed together and then fried in lard. Sure, it sounds like a heart attack on a plate, but it also sounds pretty tasty.

              …and then they instead brought out stale crackers and cheap wine and started playing “let’s pretend we’re cannibalizing a zombie,” so I figured maybe they really were as crazy as they seem, after all.

              Still, when I get some time, I fully intend to investigate authentic Christian cooking. I mean, how could you possibly go worng with cheeses fried in lard? Maybe with a reduced red wine dipping sauce and a sourdough French bread loaf fresh out of the oven…then, for the main course, equal servings of lamb crown roast and baked cod….

              Cheers,

              b&

        • palefury
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

          I have eaten hell pizza and it is pretty close to perfect, ironically I have not eaten “perfect pizza” but what could be better than pizza named after the seven deadly sins – Lust is my favorite, but Envy comes a close second!

      • Helen Wise
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Good god.

        There is no “perfect pizza” that is topped with tuna. There is something wrong with you if you thought there was.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          Steve Zara might, in fact, be a cat, and his picture a sockpuppet.

          • Helen Wise
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

            I’ve long suspected this was so.

            • locutus7
              Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

              Yes, Steve is the sockpuppet of a chap who calls himself Zarbi. A clever fellow, I must admit.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:44 am | Permalink

        Nemesis to Perfect Pizza: Ray’s Hell Burger

      • NMcC
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink

        Well, my company is called Perfect Print. And I can assure you that that is exactly what we deliver – every time. Though an unkind friend – a Christian to boot – has dubbed us As Near As Makes No Difference Print. One customer once wrote a cheque made payable to Pervert Print. Worryingly, the bank promptly paid it into my account without as much as a batted eyelid.

        I’m not sure what Anselm would make of all that!

    • 386sx
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      A pizza by its very nature could not be perfect. Not even the best imaginable ponies could be perfect. You have to go beyond those and imagine the most perfect thing of all things everywhere in all categories. Uhhhh, just because I said so. Lol.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      Funny…my favorite reply to the argument has always been…

      “What’s better than a perfect god? God with a pizza. What’s better than a perfect god with a pizza? God with a pizza and a 6-pack of really good beer.”

      And on and on, until the arguer “gets” that you can’t define perfection in any way that is anything other than conditional.

      Perfection is an irrational concept. It is better to be a rational concept than an irrational concept, therefore, the concept of a perfect god is irrational and such a thing does not exist.

      I could probably formalize that into logic, but I rarely have to go beyond the “pizza” stage to make my point.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        I love that. Much better than the biggest number trope.

    • sasqwatch
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      You physicists are always sooo literal. I’ll try to reformulate this simple argument in a way that even you might be able to understand.

      1) God is perfect.
      2) Nothing is unstable. (you said so yourself)
      3) by analogy, nobody is unstable, but
      4) Nobody is perfect.
      5) ergo, God exists.

      I run rings around you, logically.

      • sasqwatch
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        …or God is nobody. (?)

        Shit. Back to the drawing board.

      • sasqwatch
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        …trying again.

        1) Nothing is unstable.
        2) A critical mass is also unstable.
        3) Nothing is what I want.
        4) I am nothing, if not critical.
        5) I am what I want.
        6) ergo, I am what I am.
        7) Therefore, I am Popeye.

        Either that, or I am unstable.

        Damn it. This is tougher than I thought.

        • Tacroy
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

          See, Sasqwatch, what you’re doing wrong is you have to assume your premises first, and then see where the logic takes you – like going to Disneyland wandering around a bit, and then (surprise!) realizing you’re in Disneyland!

          If you don’t assume your premises in the proof, God only knows where you might end up – Kentucky or something, probably.

          • sasqwatch
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

            *sobbing… taking another pull off the whiskey*

            I’ll never be smart enough for this stuff. It’s hard. I guess it’s back to sociology for me.

    • abadidea
      Posted March 12, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Funnily enough, “perfect pizza” was the first thing that came to mind while I was reading this blog post. Possibly because I am eating pizza, but it is not perfect – it would need more bacon.

  8. Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I’ve never encountered a believer who made this argument. It’s usually the Cosmological Argument (First Cause) or Teleological Argument (Order in Nature).

    I would say that the Cosmological one is the hardest for me to counter-argue. Any Jesus and Mo cartoons about that one?

    • Sajanas
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Of course, neither of those imply Jesus, Moses, Mohammad, or any others without jettisoning all of the historically believed holy book explanations for the world.

      I find it hard to understand how people arguing for a deistic clockwork God are motivated to go to church. It just seems like an argument tactic rather than something they actually believe in… its why those Rabbis we’ve been talking this week about have studiously avoided mentioning anything they actually believe.

      • Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        You can have some fun with them, though, by granting them that the all-powerful god they think they’ve proven really is Jesus.

        It goes something like this.

        Contrary to reality but in compliance with popular mythology, let’s pretend that Jesus really is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything. You know the story.

        And a vital part of that story is Satan, Jesus’s arch-nemesis.

        Well, let’s say that Satan comes to Jesus one day and claims to have seen the light. Satan’s heart has been melted by the flame of Jesus’s love, however you want to express it poetically.

        Jesus is naturally skeptical, so Satan asks Jesus to judge him with a test. Judgement being Jesus’s main gig, he really can’t refuse, so Jesus complies.

        And the test that Jesus really wants to perform is to see what Satan would do if given the keys to the kingdom. Would he rule wisely, or would he wrap the Heavenly Hotrod ’round a lamppost after a drunken orgy on the palace lawn?

        Of course, it would be quite unwise to trust Satan before the completion of the test, so Jesus needs to put Satan in a simulation of sorts where Satan thinks he’s the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything, but he’s really just in charge of this small little corner of Jesus’s imagination.

        Jesus — by definition — is perfect, so everything he does is perfect. That includes Satan’s simulation. As far as Satan is concerned, he really is the all-powerful yadayada.

        And that’s the point that the whole edifice comes a-tumblin’ down. Because Satan is no fool, and the very first thing he’s going to want to do is check things out to see if it’s live or Memorex.

        Either Satan uses the exact same means to determine if he’s living in somebody else’s dream as Jesus would and thereby discovers that he’s being duped, or Jesus isn’t giving him the full, perfect experience — he’s given Satan a flawed magic dream decoder ring. With both options, Jesus has failed to deliver perfection. Try as he might, such perfection is beyond even him.

        But wait — it gets worse. We now know that Satan has no way of knowing for certain that Jesus isn’t yanking his chain, but Jesus also has no way of knowing that The Invisible Pink Unicorn (MPBUHHH) is the one who’s yanking Jesus’s chain.

        And if Jesus can’t even know whether or not he’s the omni-yada, of what sense does it make to pretend that he actually is?

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

          Have you perchance discussed this with Christopher Nolan before?

          • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

            To be honest, I had to Google him just to find out who he is….

            No, this line and similar ones came from my own contemplation of set theory, especially the various famous forms of diagonalization such as Turing’s Halting Problem and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

              Ah, well your explication above about Jesus’ dilemma is very similar to the unresolved ending of Inception, complete with the “flawed magic dream decoder ring” (it seems to work almost too well) and the viewers left not knowing if the hero’s reality is “real” or just a “dream” or even if the hero is really a hero or the actual villain.

              • Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

                I’m hardly surprised that there’s been yet another movie made on the subject. It’s the same basic premise as The Matrix…as well as the Red King in Alice in Wonderland and Lao Tzu’s famous butterfly. One could make an argument that Plato was playing with the idea in his cave.

                I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to find more examples. If Star Trek never used the holodeck for this particular theme, they missed out on a golden opportunity.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kevin Alexander
                Posted March 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                I recall an episode where the Sherlock Holmes simulation in the Holodeck went wrong and gave Moriarty so much intelligence that he gained the awareness that he was a fictional character. He decided that he wanted to be a ‘real boy’ so he took control of the Enterprise to force his way out of the Holodeck.
                In the end he was duped into thinking that he had escaped when they led him into a self contained computer, a simulation of a universe all his own.

            • Dominic
              Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

              You made me feel a dimwit in one sentence there!

              • Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                Oh, I hope not!

                None of those concepts are particularly hard to grasp.

                Diagonallization is the technique by which we know there’re more irrational numbers than rational numbers (even though there’re an infinite number of both). If you’re not familiar with the concept, look it up. It’s straightforward, and the basic technique is useful in so many areas of logic — especially when infinities are involved.

                Turing’s Halting Problem is easy enough to understand if you’ve done enough computer programming to have had to deal with recursion. There’re lots of excellent resources out there that describe it. However, if you followed the basic gist of my Jesus testing Satan story, you’ll have no trouble making sense of the Halting Problem.

                And the Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is really just another variation on the same theme. I like to summarize one of the popular less-formal proofs in a single line of iambic pentameter: “All but God can prove this sentence true.” If God were to prove that the sentence is true…he’d merely prove that he’s incapable of performing such a feat. Therefore, he’s incapable of proving the sentence is true. We, however, just proved that God is incapable of proving that the sentence is true, thereby proving that the sentence is, indeed, true.

                Of all the weapons in the atheologian’s arsenal, I can think of none more potent than diagonalization. All of the omni-properties fall before its blade. For example: “Tell me, God, ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ will you answer, ‘no’?”

                Cheers,

                b&

            • gillt
              Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

              You’re familiar then with Douglas Hofstadter?

            • Posted March 12, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

              You’re not the only one: Patrick Grim has some work along those lines.

        • simbol
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          Ben

          Jesus don’t need to “test” satan. He knows a priori what would satan do in every situation. Remember he is omniscient.

          On the other hand, philosophers usually defeat this type of argument (there are a dozen or so Ontological Arguments including Godel’s)demonstrating that “existence” is NOT a predicate, perfection or part of perfection (as implied in the argument), but the necessary condition prior to any discourse on attributes or predicates (Kant)=; an also that some “perfections” are contradictory between them: you cannot be at the same time perfectly just and perfectly benevolent. If you are perfectly benevolent you cannot send people to Hell not even for 10 seconds. But if you don’t punish bad behavior you are not perfectly just. Leibniz knew this weak flank and premised by fiat that the perfections of god are not contradictory.

          • Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

            Jesus don’t need to “test” satan. He knows a priori what would satan do in every situation. Remember he is omniscient.

            First, whether or not it is necessary for Jesus to test Satan is completely orthogonal to Jesus’s ability to test him. Besides, if Jesus is unable to test Satan because he lacks the will to do so, Jesus is still powerless to test Satan — thus making him decidedly less than omnipotent. Whether it’s his psychological makeup or simple logic that keeps him from doing something makes no difference; the impossible-for-him-to-breach barrier remains.

            Second, such a definition of omniscience blatantly flies in the face of the traditional concept of Freedom Willies. And if Jesus is thus holding our Willies captive, then that removes even the pretense of the excuse Christians so love to give for all the evil out there.

            Look, it ain’t my fault that the godbotians have fallen in love with a bunch of square triangular circles!

            Cheers,

            b&

          • gillt
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

            If you are perfectly benevolent you cannot send people to Hell not even for 10 seconds. But if you don’t punish bad behavior you are not perfectly just. Leibniz knew this weak flank and premised by fiat that the perfections of god are not contradictory.

            I believe this is addressed by the concept of free will gifted us by god. Jesus doesn’t punish or send us to hell. Instead, should we end up in hell, it is because we’ve freely and unrepentantly chosen to reject god and desire to spend eternity in hell where, by definition, god isn’t. Those in hell desire it, apparently.

        • locutus7
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          Tracie Harris on the most recent Atheist Expereince TV show made this counter to a theist who was employing the First Cause (Kalam) argument: “Even if I grant that your premises and conclusion are true, what does that have to do with reality?” Or words to that effect.

          I think the caller said he placed logic over empiricism.

      • Dominic
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        People in general don’t think, that is the problem. They accept what they are spoon-fed rather than going through the tremendous effort of having a view based on something evaluated & considered. Or so it seems to me.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

          I suspect a good number of people essentially can’t think, in the way we wish they could. I suspect there’s adaptive benefit to a cognitive social animal such as us in having a significant portion of the population predisposed to being good, unquestioning followers.

          /sociobiologist

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      The First Cause argument is actually trivially easy to counter.

      Its entire premise is that everything needs to have been caused by something else, that nothing could have been its own cause.

      If one accepts that premise, then it’s a logical conclusion that the Big Bang was caused by Something™, and that Something’s name might as well be, “God.”

      But the premise says that everything needs to be caused by something else and that nothing could have been its own cause. Therefore, there must be a Bigger Something that caused God; call it Grand-God. And an Even Bigger Something caused Grand-God, namely Great-Grand-God.

      Theists often stop you at that point and claim that God is an exception, and that God is its own cause. Well, now — according to the revised premise — we know that entities come in two forms: those that were caused by something else, and those that caused themselves. And, before we can go about speculating what caused a particular entity in question, we first must determine if it belongs to the class of entities that was caused by something else or the class that’s self-caused.

      That’s about the point that Bible Bleaters either change the subject or discover that they’re starting to fall behind on their doorbell-ringing quota.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        The response is usually that Cause/Effect is a natural thing, that is irrelevant to supernatural things. Therefore, if God is a supernatural thing (or at least outside of our laws of universe) then he can be the first cause.

        It’s like looking at it as if there’s concentric circles.

        And then the conversation usually turns into “how do we know that we’re just not part of God’s computer program?” yada yada

        It can be very tiresome to have these debates. I’m glad you gnu atheists are so eager to take them on. :)

      • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        Yeah, the usual response is to assert that “God” is the exception, a self-existent entity, and self-caused cause, whatever. For no good reason whatsoever.

        Since this god is imaginary, it can have whatever properties they assert, and you can’t prove otherwise (even if you actually can). Nah, nah na nah nah!

        Of course it’s a non-argument, but that’s never stopped religious folks from depending on it.

      • Kevin
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        In addition, the first premise “everything that exists has a cause” is faulty.

        While in “meat space” it’s generally agreed that things generally have causes, in quantum space, this is no where near true.

        LOTS of things are non-caused. Virtual particles pop in and out of existence all the time. We’ve known this for decades — I’m pretty sure it won the Nobel prize in 1953.

        What “causes” radioactive decay? Nothing. A particle just decays.

        What “causes” atoms to continue to vibrate even at the coldest temperatures it is possible to reach and not violate one of the laws of thermodynamics? Nothing (except the intrinsic property of subatomic particles as quantum wave forms).

        In addition, as we have been told just recently on this blog by Tor, in a relativistic universe, energy is not conserved. So, new energy is being formed from nothing.

        Also, one can extrapolate the total energy of the universe and will find that it amounts to zero. In fact, this proves that we came from ‘nothing’.

        The argument fails on those grounds alone.

        But finally, this is yet another example of making a HUGE leap from “everything has a cause” to “a supernatural all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving deity with a beard, a fondness for human male foreskins and an aversion to pork was the cause of the universe.” Proving one point does not in the least prove the other.

        I commonly invoke invisible green alien monkeys shitting the universe into being out of their red monkey butts. You can’t prove my model is false. Therefore, it must be true. (It’s usually at this point that I’m accused of being sarcastic and my opponent refuses to play anymore. But I assure you I’m dead serious. If you want to prove your god hypothesis using the First Cause argument, FIRST you have to disprove mine. Go ahead, try.)

        So, the argument is turtles all the way down, I’m afraid.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      When someone tries the Cosmological Argument on with me I simply point out that invoking a deity to create the universe merely pushes the problem further back since the same argument can be used about the existence of the deity.

      In otherwords the argument solves nothing.

  9. Grendels Dad
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I’m sure this objection is so obvious that apologists must have dealt with it already, but I haven’t seen a response.

    Due to the atomic nature of this universe a perfect circle is impossible, so perfection and existence can be mutually exclusive. So any premise requiring perfection to exist is obviously flawed. Isn’t it?

    • Kevin
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      I think the fundamental error is assuming that anything that can be imagined is something that of necessity must exist.

      Which is just silly. I can imagine myself pitching a perfect game using just 27 pitches to get 27 outs; when in truth I can’t even hit the strike zone. And if I did, I’d get hammered.

      It’s just an outgrowth of Platonic ideals. When was the last time someone argued that there existed on a different plane of existence a perfect table or chair?

      You’d think they’d update their arguments to at least this millenium…but NO!

      • What a maroon
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Blasphemer! Everyone knows that a truly perfect game would consist of 81 pitches to get 27 strikeouts.

        Repent, sinner, or I will burn you at the stake and feed your entrails to my dog.

        After I get a dog, that is.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          Isn’t 27 fly outs more perfect?

          • Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

            Especially if it was the pitcher who caught ‘em all!

            b&

          • Kevin
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

            My point exactly…saves wear and tear on the arm.

  10. Badger3k
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Perfection is blue…therefore Papa Smurf is god? Wow! I am convinced. My Church will get started on that tax exempt paperwork right away!

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      No, no, no — you’ve got it all worng.

      Perfection is blue, therefore John Belushi is Krishna, and Arkanoid is his Profit.

      Don’t you see? It all made perfect sense about 2:30 this morning….

      Cheers,

      b&

  11. CRS
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    This is a perfect example of what it actually means to “beg the question”.

    God can’t be perfect unless he exists. So, “God is perfect,” is not actually the first assumption in this logical proof. Before one can assume God is perfect, one must assume that God exists. So the overall argument goes : “God exists. Therefore, God exists.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beg_the_question

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      As I like to put it:

      God is that which must exist.

      Therefore, God exists.

      Ray (not a philosopher, but who might have a go if it paid better)

  12. Steve Zara
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I tend to use a different approach these days, rather than trying to counter such arguments.

    My approach is this: If you are having to resort to philosophical arguments to somehow shoehorn God into whatever space is left by science in order to make him real after having had thousands of years to come up with the goods, then there could be no better sign that you are seriously screwed.

    The fact of you having to resort to such an argument for a supposedly omnipresent and all-powerful god is compelling evidence for his non-existence.

    • locutus7
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Yes. The Greeks (Aristotle, Plato) thought you could divine the secrets of the universe by pure reason. But this was pre-scientific thinking so one could forgive them. Surely theologians realize we have made some progress in our modes of enquiry in the last 2000 years….

      • Gabrielle Guichard
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        “Surely theologians realize we have made some progress in our modes of enquiry in the last 2000 years”
        We have made…, but they haven’t.

  13. JS1685
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if “perfection” is incoherent so much as it is context-dependent. Certainly, when people invoke “perfection,” they haven’t always completely thought through what, specifically, is the definition of “perfection” in that context.

    “Perfection” arises out of our experiences with various phenomena. It can’t be used as a premise, as though it is eternal and universal.

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      As a trivial example: for many, the perfect ice cream dessert would be a banana split. I can’t stand bananas; for me, the perfect ice cream dessert would involve a waffle cone, and there’d probably be mint ice cream in it. For somebody who hates mint, that’d be far from perfection. And the lactose-intolerant would head for the pie table and bypass the ice cream altogether.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        A good example for me would be my perfect beer.

        Well I do not have an absolute perfect beer. It all depends on what I have been doing, what kind of mood I am in, what the weather is doing, what I have eaten, am eating and am about to eat, where I am and many other factors as well.

        Sometimes I like a really intense dark stout will lots of bitterness and plenty of body. Other times I like something much lighter, less alcoholic.

        So what is perfect changes.

        And never once has imaging the perfect beer resulted in it magically appearing in front of me. Now if that ever did happen I would be seriously impressed!

        • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          But you must admit that all worldly beers are but reflections of that True Beer ideal, which even the gods long to taste.

          Platonic Ray (cue Python’s “The Philosopher’s Song”)

      • Grendels Dad
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        At least we can all agree on one thing: Death to the Pake eaters! That is just not natural.

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      I would call it even more arbitrary than context dependent. I would call it subjective. At some level, the perfect must become “good enough for me”. What is perfect to one person may not be perfect to another regardless of the context. And actually, that fits gods rather well since gods do have a way of morphing into whatever it is that godbots like.

      • JS1685
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Well, I didn’t want to take it all the way to subjective because of things like skyscraper design. You wouldn’t want to realize the design of a tall building contained some imperfections because you suddenly found yourself heading toward the ground at terminal velocity surrounded by tons of wreckage.

        But a “perfectly safe” skyscraper design only makes sense in the context of, well, skyscraper design. What sense would it make to say: “god is a perfectly safe skyscraper design.”

    • Sal Bro
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know if “perfection” is incoherent so much as it is context-dependent.

      But doesn’t context-dependence imply imperfection? For example, wouldn’t a truly perfect beer (or ice cream) be completely satisfying in any situation?

      I just bring this up because I think it’s more in line with how a lot of believers view capital-G-god — perfect in all ways to everyone. Attributes of a Truly PerfectTM god just seem contradictory to us because we don’t understand perfection. Seriously, this is how it’s been explained to me by believers. It’s logical road apples.

      • JS1685
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        All I meant is that “perfect” is a perfectly (!) serviceable idea we can use to describe something that fulfills all the functions it is meant to fulfill, in the ways it is meant to fulfill them.

        As you can see, for the idea of perfection to be intelligible, all the specifics of the context have to be defined. Which is exactly what the ontological argument doesn’t do (and “perfect in every way you can imagine” doesn’t count – that’s a cop-out).

  14. Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Most of us have a vague feeling that one can’t demonstrate that something exists by logic alone,

    For me, this goes beyond a vague feeling. In fact, I assert that any claim demonstrated by logic (or other pure reason) alone, unsupported by empirical data, is inherently suspect — even if the relevant empirical data is impractical or impossible to obtain — because without empirical confirmation there is just no way to have reasonable confidence that you don’t have any mistaken assumptions.

    Don’t get me wrong; conclusions arrived it by logic alone are highly useful, and may even turn out to reflect reality. But you just can’t have any confidence in them at all, because even the simplest premises contain boatloads of hidden assumptions.

    To someone well-versed in Newtonian mechanics, I feel I could give seemingly bulletproof logic-based arguments that both relativity and quantum mechanics are self-contradictory and could not possibly be true. The hidden assumptions are so non-obvious from a macroscopic earthbound perspective…

    Which, by the way, is one reason I have moved away from the Logical Problem of Evil in favor of the Evidential Problem of Evil. The former is chock full of hidden assumptions, and all you have to do is dispute one of the premises (e.g. “God is omnipotent in the sense that She can even do logically contradictory things”) and the argument falls apart. The Evidential Problem of Evil on the other hand… The hidden assumptions are things like, “Innocent children slaughtered by the tens of thousands in a random tsunami — that’s a bad thing.” If someone wants to dispute that premise, hey, be my guest, go ahead and make that argument…

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      The other advantage to the Evidential Problem of Evil is that it doesn’t just demonstrate the non-existence of omni-whatever gods, but also of much more pedestrian gods.

      Jesus is supposed to be the ultimate muse, inspiring countless Christians to create art. So why couldn’t he have inspired Hitler to become an artist rather than a politician and eventually a war criminal? Even the lowliest of the Greek Muses could have pulled off that trick, and we’d instead live in a world with an additional grand master of German expressionism rather than millions of people brutally murdered. And such a scenario doesn’t require the capturing of a single free willie, the favorite Christian mantra in response to the question.

      Christian apologists display such an appalling lack of imagination when defending their fantasies. It’s really quite pathetically sorry.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Kevin
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, James, there’s a commenter over at science blogs by the name of Heddle who argues just that.

      It’s god’s universe and anything it wants to do within that universe is of necessity a good thing — even the senseless slaughter of millions of innocents.

      There is nothing more amoral than a Christian who thinks he’s one of the chosen few who are going to heaven. (Heddle is a Calvinist, convinced that he knows the apartment number of his post-death digs.)

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        He did admit to be once that he cannot be certain is not experiencing delusions. It is just a pity he does not concede that it is almost certain he is suffering delusions and seeks help.

        • Kevin
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          Yes, he is quite certainly among the scariest of theists I’ve come across.

          Wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see that name connected with the bombing of an abortion clinic or whatever else he gets into his tiny misshapen lump of a brain as a “calling” from Quetzalcoatl.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        well, I can’t seem to post the link to it for some reason, but Heddle flounced spectacularly from PZ’s place recently.

        He says he won’t be back.

        uh huh.

        • Kevin
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          He’s quite the regular over at Ed Brayton’s blog.

          He also appears to be a virulent self-googler, so I would not be surprised if he showed up here in 3, 2, 1…

          • Sigmund
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

            “He also appears to be a virulent self-googler,”
            Enough with the euphymisms!

  15. Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Plantinga’s “modal” ontological argument would be the one doing the rounds now eh? I don’t know it, but Plantinga is pretty good at creating cheeky lil arguments, re: “the evolutionary argument against naturalism” so I expect it’s complicated to say the least…

    • SAWells
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      No, it’s just stupid. He says that a being can be maximally great in some possible world; then defines maximal Excellence as being maximally Great in ALL possible worlds. Then, and this is the stupid bit he asserts that “There is a possible world in which a maximally Excellent being exists”.

      Do I really have to point out why that doesn’t work?

    • Steve Zara
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I have never understood the respect for Plantinga. His evolutionary argument is so daft it can be trivially dismissed. He doesn’t seem to even be a good philosopher. For example, “maximally great” is meaningless, the term “great” is simply undefined. If it were defined, then “maximally” is problematic assuming “great” is quantifiable.

      • SAWells
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        He’s a terrible philosopher but he keeps the theists happy by telling them that logic is on their side. He’s a fraud.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

          A philosopher and a fraud? Is that even possible? ;)

          • locutus7
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

            A tautology?

  16. Tulse
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Perfection is unchanging. The Christian god changes (e.g., has moods, talks to humans, performs miracles, etc.). Therefore the Christian god is not perfect.

  17. sasqwatch
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    In my field, social networks analysis, there are two kinds of “perfect” networks in a combinatorial/entropic sense: networks where every connection is represented between all actors, and those where there are NO connections between any of the actors involved.

    Everything… or nothing… take your pick. Taking perfection to imply a lowest entropy combinatorial would, I suppose, make the ontological argument take this form:

    I can imagine perfection, therefore God exists… or not.

  18. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Perfection would necessarily include the elimination of the ontological argument, or minimally, elimination of discussion of it.

    • CRS
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Any perfect argument for god would convince everyone who heard it. Since this argument has not convinced me, it must not be perfect. If it is imperfect, then it must have flaws. Therefore, this argument is flawed.

      • Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Similarly: if there were an all-knowing all-powerful god that wished me to believe in its existence, it would know exactly what it would take to convince me and it would be well within its power to do so. The fact that I don’t believe that any such critters exist is, ipso facto proof that, at the very least, if any such critter does exist, it most certainly doesn’t want me to believe that it does.

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Tulse
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        Any perfect argument for god would convince everyone who heard it. Since this argument has not convinced me, it must not be perfect.

        And the same must be true for any perfect being in general — a truly perfect being would be obviously perfect, and should not require any argument at all. The very fact that the Ontological Argument exists demonstrates that such a being does not exist (at least in our world).

    • sasqwatch
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      I can conceive of perfect idiots. Therefore, theologians exist.

  19. Egbert
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Premise: Anything perfect must exist since existence is a essential criterion of perfection.

    Possibly the most stupid premise ever to exist while keeping a straight face.

  20. stvs
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Sean replicates Gödel’s ontological proof, which Gödel would not publish for fear that “others might think that I actually believe in God”.

    Paraphrasing,

    VLADIMIR: I thought it was he.
    ESTRAGON: Who?
    VLADIMIR: Gödel.
    ESTRAGON: Pah! The wind in the reeds.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Funny…Waiting for Gödel.

  21. Sastra
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Competing views of perfection are already apparent in how people think of God. Which version of God shows God as more “perfect?”

    1.) God is an indescribable mystery of eternal and infinite essentiality which can never be grasped by the imagination, transcending all our human attributes and categories by virtue of its perfect and immutable nature.

    2.) God is a loving person who cares passionately about us and understands our problems, helping us to be the best we can be, and live the best life we can live: He is everything you would want in a perfect friend, companion, parent, and king — rolled into one.

    It can’t be both. Though, of course, they try. God really IS the first one, but we have to think about God as the second because that’s how we have to think about God.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I repeat myself. What’s more perfect than either definition 1 or 2?

      1 or 2 with a pizza (no pineapple).

      • Helen Wise
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        or tuna. For crying out loud.

        • Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          I dunno.

          Canned tuna would likely be disgusting on a pizza, but I imagine a talented chef could do something interesting with sushi-grade tuna and a soy-based sauce rather than a tomato-based sauce.

          Whether or not that would still meet your own personal definition of “pizza” would be another topic of discussion.

          Going even further afield, it’s sometimes interesting to contemplate how universal certain foods are. The slavic piroskhi is the same idea as the Chinese bao, for example, and a taco sauve is indistinguishable save for the sauce from a pita. Add more water and change the spices a bit and a Puerto Rican arroz con pollo becomes an Ashkenazi chicken soup with rice. A burrito is a sushi (not sashimi)roll with a tortilla wrapper instead of a seaweed wrapper. Coming full circle, a tostada is but a pizza with a fried corn base instead of a baked wheat base — and the Navajo make a fantastic wheat-based fry bread which they top with savory items as often as sweet.

          I’ll leave you with this observation which I’m afraid I’m unable to properly attribute: “A pizza with the radius z and thickness a has the volume pi*z*z*a.”

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Helen Wise
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

            yesbutBen, the part you’re spectacularly failing to consider is that tuna is fish. No thinking person tops fish with cheese, and if they do, who wants to know them?

            • Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

              Who says a tuna pizza needs to be topped with cheese?

              I’m thinking of something like this:

              The crust would be Neapolitan style. Next you’d apply large, inch-sized cubes of top-quality raw sashimi-grade tuna. Lightly drizzle a thin sauce made of soy sauce, sesame paste, sugar, hot chili oil, and minced fresh ginger. Bake the pie on a stone in a super-hot oven just until the dough is done. Remove it from the oven, add some sushi-style pickled ginger slices, garnish with chopped green onions, and serve. Fresh bean sprouts might make a nice addition, and there might be a fresh mint that’d work as well.

              Unless I miss my guess, the tuna will be seared, but still pink and only warm inside. If not, you might be best off baking the crust by itself, searing the tuna on a grill, and adding all the toppings to the baked crust.

              See? It’s not so awful.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Helen Wise
                Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                That’s what you’re going with? “It’s not so awful?”

              • Ichthyic
                Posted March 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

                actually, that tuna pizza sounds pretty freakin’ good!

                I think I’ll try that, but substitute something a bit less pricey, like blue warhou.

                yes, I see some interesting possibilites here…

              • Posted March 12, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

                It does sound quite good. But how is it a pizza? Surely baked ingredients on a bread slice aren’t sufficient for pizza …

            • Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

              What?! You would seriously reject a tuna salad, pickle, and cheese sandwich? Madness!

              • Posted April 9, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                Did your mom make those, too?? Wow– I thought my mom just made those up :-)

                And, yes– tuna on pizza is very popular in Japan. I make a toast version of sometimes for kids’ breakfast (mix mayo & brown mustard–spread on bread. Top with tuna, corn nibbles, and shredded mozzarella….)

            • Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

              “Canned tuna would likely be disgusting on a pizza”

              It is wonderful. My favourite recipe for pizza is to put canned tuna on a very thin pre-cooked pizza base covered by diluted tomato puree. Cover the pizza with anchovy strips, add black olives and a good scattering of dried oregano. Sprinkle with grated mild cheese and oven cook at 220C until cheese is really bubbling.

              Perfection.

              Well, not quite. I have recently started a period of vegetarianism, so tuna is no longer part of perfection. There is a moral in there somewhere.

              • Helen Wise
                Posted March 11, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

                There certainly is. You may not be trusted with a can opener :-)

          • Tacroy
            Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

            Well – all humans everywhere have similar digestive systems and taste buds; why do you think we adopted the Japanese word “umami” so quickly? Thus, it stands to reason that given relatively similar climates* and available ingredients, humans will converge on similar recipes.

            I just took a class on this sort of thing, and it really surprises me how much other classes on anthropology emphasize the differences between different human cultures, when if you really look at it and re-examine the apparent outliers you find that, on average, we are way more similar than we are different.

            The differences between the most divergent human cultures are literally nothing compared to the differences between any human culture and chimpanzee culture, for instance – and that’s definitely not the sort of thing you get out of most anthropology classes.

            *local climate will occasionally affect cuisine; there is, for instance, a slight correlation between hotter climate and spicier food, which is believed to be due to the fact that foods will rot faster in warm climates; spicy additives have a preservative effect, and also mask the taste of rot, allowing you to use food that is still good but unpleasant.

  22. SAWells
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Anyway, suppose we concede that God is perfect, AND we concede that whatever is perfect, exists.

    Fine.

    Now, if there actually IS a God, then it exists, being perfect.

    But if there actually isn’t a God, then it doesn’t exist.

    And asserting that “God is perfect” doesn’t establish that there is a God; it’s still a fictional concept until proved otherwise.

    So ontological arguments prove only that, if a god exists, then it exists.

  23. NoAstronomer
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    “God is …”

    Stop right there. I’ll need evidence that this object you’re calling ‘god’ actually exists before you can assign any characteristics to it.

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      To hell with evidence. Let’s start with a definition, and then try to figure out if said definition is even self-coherent.

      Without a definition, even if we can point to a phenomenon, we don’t know if said phenomenon is or isn’t evidence of what we’re talking about because nobody has a fucking clue what anybody’s talking about.

      I’ve yet to come across a theist who’d take more than one pass at that hurdle, and most won’t even step onto the track.

      b&

  24. Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Surely, the best course is still Kant’s. He just denied the first premise. If existence is not a predicate (and it isn’t), then perfection does not necessarily exist. Even if, per impossibile, we could come up with an unambiguous conception of the perfection of what we would take to be god, it would not follow that this concept is instantiated, for it is not true that if we had a true statement about god’s perfections that that god would necessarily exist. Premise 1 is still the problem. It’s not true.

    • Posted March 12, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately there are logical theories in which there are perfectly good (groan!) existence predicates …

  25. Kevin
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Of course, Dr. Stenger dismissed this as a serious argument in his book “God: The Failed Hypothesis”, but warned us against getting too smug in our dismissal of it.

    As he noted, if you change the conditions so that god is just only slightly less than perfect, you’re back where you started.

    If god is not benevolent, but evil, then you’re really screwed from the perspective of a rational argument. Because then, god could not only deliberately hide from nonbelievers, it would joyfully send those nonbelievers to hell for not playing the game of hide-and-go-seek. Or for guessing wrong about which flavor of deity it was.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Or for guessing wrong about which flavor of deity it was.

      What…

      is your favorite color?

      • Grendels Dad
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        What color are African Swallows?

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      While true from a logical perspective, those cautions are entirely irrelevant from real-world debates.

      Damn few theists these days are willing to concede that their gods are anything less than the ne plus ultra, and I’ve yet to come across any that admit to worshipping a monster. And both positions would fall absolutely flat on anything other than the tiniest of stages: it’s damn hard to come down off the heights of omni-everything, and being evil is a good way to get yourself shunned or incarcerated.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Kevin
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps, but it certainly comports with description of the pork-averse sociopath we especially see in the pages of the OT and Koran. Way more than the omni labels that have been appended to it.

        Plus, I have Isaiah 45:7 on my side.

  26. Chuck
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I am pretty much amazed at all the arguments for the existence of god and how people use them to elevate their beliefs. I’m cool with Jamesian pragmatism as long as you keep it to yourself and don’t demand I respect it as anything other than your personal coping mechanism (heck, I need to use a little of the old “Let go and let God” mantra now and then) but to offer up wishful thinking as explanatory of anything is annoying to me.

  27. Brian
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “Most of us have a vague feeling that one can’t demonstrate that something exists by logic alone,”

    I think Hume summed it up quite well a few centuries ago. The only way you can prove the existence of something from concepts alone is if it’s denial leads to a contradiction. The denial of God’s existence, there is no God, doesn’t lead to a contradiction, thus you cannot proved God’s existence from concepts alone.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Existence. Reality. Existence exists; reality is real.The denial of either statement is a contradiction.

      But there’s nothing interesting there. “Existence is the thing that MUST exist” is a tautology, and a darn vague one at that. It also smacks of reification, an abstract concept made into a thing. And yet this is the place where they try to prop up God, with all its baggage and mind-like attributes.

      Is existence “perfect?” What would that even mean? Of course, you could not add a pizza to “existence.” If the pizza exists, then it is already included.

      • Brian
        Posted March 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

        The denial of either statement is a contradiction.

        But I didn’t deny that existence existed. I denied that a thing didn’t exist.

        • Brian
          Posted March 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

          double negatives! Ahghghgrrrrr
          doesn’t matter.

  28. Posted March 10, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    To save time, theological arguments and their failures can be dealt with in one handy super-argument:

    The Evolutionary Ontological Cosmological Cosmological Pascal’s Argument for the truth and morality of atheism:

    The Cosmological Argument is that God has to be the first cause. However, all arguments need to be backed by evidence, which is the foundation of the Cosmological Cosmological Argument for atheism: There has to be a cause for the Cosmological Argument. The cause is the need for theology to try to prove God without evidence. Therefore, theology is acknowledging the possibility of atheism.

    Now, the Ontological argument applied to this means that there is a Cosmological Cosmological argument of maximum effectiveness in all possible worlds, which means that the amount of evidence for God is as negligible as possible.

    The Evolutionary argument is that to survive, theological arguments simply have to include some idea of God, but there are vastly more false ideas of God than true ideas. So, the chance of a theologian having any idea of the God they are trying to prove is vanishingly small.

    So theology demonstrates not only that God almost certainly doesn’t exist, but that theologians haven’t any idea what the word ‘God’ means anyway.

    Finally, a more modern version of Pascal’s Wager. As theologians don’t have a clue what God is, if you are a believer, you have almost no chance of being able to worship the correct God to get to heaven. Even if you did decide to have a go a believing in a God, he would not like the deception, and it’s off to Hell. Seeing as you are going to Hell anyway, you might as well try and arrange a better time there by schmoozing the boss, so you should worship Satan. It doesn’t matter if you don’t really worship him honestly, as dishonesty is admirable to him. So, if you are a believer, being as wicked as you can while worshipping the Devil is the only sensible strategy to guarantee a decent time in the afterlife.

    And so, theology not only virtually destroys theism, but insists that non-believers will be vastly more moral than any who continue to choose to retain belief.

    My work is now done.

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Dear sweet Jesus on a pogo stick.

      That’s brilliant! I’m…god damn, but that’s amazing.

      We are not worthy!

      b&

    • Kevin
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      Bravo.

    • Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      Exceedingly well played Steve.

      Hail Satan!

    • locutus7
      Posted March 11, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      I agree with Polly-O. Well done, Steve.

  29. Insightful Ape
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    As so many before me have mentioned, the most amazing thing is that theologicians can get away with this crap. I mean, it starts with “god is perfect”. But in order for something to be perfect, first it must exist. You can’t prove anything’s existence by first assuming it is/would be perfect.
    Here is a parallel: Atlantis was a perfect civilization. Everything that is perfect must exist, because that comes with being perfect. Therefore Atlantis existed.
    Would anyone ever accept this as proof of existence of an historical Atlantis?
    Here is another example: the passion story is false. Because Jesus was the perfect person. But any perfect person would necessarily immortal, otherwise they wouldn’t be perfect. This means Jesus couldn’t die. If he never died, he could not have been resurrected. So the story is all made up.
    Take that, theology.

  30. Myron
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    “I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.
    It is pretended that the Deity is a necessarily existent being; and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist, as for twice two not to be four. But it is evident that this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as at present. It will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist; nor can the mind ever lie under a necessity of supposing any object to remain always in being; in the same manner as we lie under a necessity of always conceiving twice two to be four. The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent.”

    (Hume, David. /Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion/. 1779. Part IX.)

    • SAWells
      Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:29 am | Permalink

      Now there is one shrill and strident Gnu Atheist! :)

      Wonderful quote; it’s clearly time I read Hume.

      • Brian
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

        1. That was the point I was trying to make above, but executed poorly.

        2. Because of the times he lived in, where being anti-religious meant real problems, Hume had his dialogues published posthumously. But we have no way of saying he was an atheist or no. We could anachronistically term him an agnostic. But what’s the point? The man well said that if he hear a man was religious, he though him a scoundrel. ;)

  31. msironen
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Here’s something I recently read concerning logic vs empiricism and how the former supposedly trumps the latter, as in the Ontological Argument.

    1) All cats are green.
    2) I am a cat.
    3) Therefore I am green.

    Now, this is a completely valid syllogism. It’s also obviously false, but the only way you’d know that is through empiricism.

  32. MadScientist
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I don’t see any need to say much about the ‘ontological argument’ except that ‘ontological’ seems to mean ‘thinking with one’s butt’. The ontological argument is of the general form “I can imagine that something like this may exist, and therefore it *must* exist right now.” Forget logic, the so-called argument simply defies reality.

  33. M'thew
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    Perfect being? God created a perfect being: the kitteh. Methinks professor Coyne wouldn’t argue with that.

    And since the bible says that god created man in his own image, that means god has to clean the litter box.
    Every day.

    • Brian
      Posted March 11, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      The litter box of ceiling cat?

  34. Ichthyic
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    OT, but in case anyone isn’t asleep, there was a massive earthquake (8.9) near Japan a couple hours ago, and there is now a Tsunami warning for the entire Pacific Coast.

    it’s worth keeping up with the latest warnings if you live near the coast.

    you only have a few hours to prepare.

    • Sigmund
      Posted March 11, 2011 at 3:09 am | Permalink

      I hope our Japanese located regulars are OK.

      • domtheobscure
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 3:29 am | Permalink

        http://yokohamayomama.blogspot.com/

        I cannot seem to work out how to leave a comment but Yokohamamama is in the US unable to contact her family & obviously distressed.

        • domtheobscure
          Posted March 11, 2011 at 3:30 am | Permalink

          Yes – Dominic – I was trying to work ot the whole wordpress thing…

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

            I just Skyped her and as we were talking a Skype from her husband came in. He was home from work in Tokyo, fortunately, taking care of a sick kid. He and all three kids are fine, and their apartment is undamaged. She is much relieved, as you might imagine, but all flights to Japan have been cancelled and she can’t get back until they resume.

            She is posting updates on her website, yokohamayomama.blogspot.com, and you can leave messages or questions there.

    • MosesZD
      Posted March 11, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      I just read that… As bad as it was, they were lucky. Had it been an onshore earthquake, the death toll would have been much, much higher.

      • Dominic
        Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:41 am | Permalink

        Yokohamamama is in the US but is very stressed & cannot get hold of her family due to the pressure on the phone sysyems

        http://yokohamayomama.blogspot.com/2011/03/sendai-quake.html

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted March 11, 2011 at 5:00 am | Permalink

          See right above; she’s heard from her family and all are okay–her in-laws too. Her apartment also survived unscathed but she’s tuck in San Diego until flights to Japan resume. She’s posting updates on her website.

        • Posted March 11, 2011 at 5:35 am | Permalink

          Yes–they are fine. No injuries. My husband’s parents are also fine, but we haven’t heard anything from his brother yet (in Tokyo/Chiba). Yokohama just got power back, that’s why he was able to skype me–Tokyo may still be out of power. They are still under Tsunami warning–as is the whole west coast of the US/Canada/Mexico until 8 or 9am Pacific time (I’m in San Diego and my sister is in Portland). I can’t go home at this point–all flights are cancelled. I’ll update on my blog.

          I can hardly bear to think how many people have been killed in Sendai–a city of over a million people, plus all the coastal towns. They had virtually no warning. The waters of the tsunami move 500miles an hour. The quake hit at 2:46pm–when kids were still in school or just starting for home.

          I can hardly bear to think about it.

          • Posted March 11, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

            I haven’t slept at all. I forgot to say thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to be concerned about my family and me.

            If you could see me, I am on the floor bowing in thanks to you for your kindness. Thank you.

  35. mesenchymal
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised that a group as nerdy scientifically literate atheists will use the ontological proof to sarcastically argue for a perfect cookie or a perfect unicorn, but I’ve never seen anyone point out that a detective that exists is superior to a non-existent detective and therefor, Batman, the worlds greatest detective, must exist.

  36. MosesZD
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Ah, the paradox of the nature of ‘perfection.’ In our house we call it the “Bacon or Chocolate” dilemma.

    That is, what is the perfect food? Which we have narrowed down to bacon or chocolate.

    The dilemma is if you had a plate of the best bacon imaginable (thus being the perfect bacon) and a plate of the best chocolate imaginable (thus being the perfect chocolate) available, which would you choose if you could only have one?

    The answers get interesting when we get into the details… I almost always choose bacon, but only if it’s crispy-fried bacon. If it’s soft and fatty, which is ‘perfect bacon’ for some people, I think the chocolate is better.

    But then if ‘perfect nougat’ is put into the chocolate, I go back to the bacon because ‘perfect nougat’ is a sin against nature and chocolate, in no particular order. Further, if the chocolate ante is upped and it’s in perfect Godiva Truffle form, bacon may fall to the back seat.

    Quantity is important, especially to my daughter. A large plate of bacon triumphs over a large plate chocolate every time because she knows more than a few pieces of chocolate will start producing a negative experience. (I got her sick once by giving her 72 Ferro Rocher hazelnut truffles. She ate 36 in one day and has never abused candy since… Or eaten another of those truffles…)

    We discuss if we could combine them. Bacon truffles… Chocolate covered bacon… We’re in agreement that both would bad ideas, even if the components were perfect, the combination would be bad…

    And we have other discussions about our choices. And how they apply to religious, social and beauty/body concepts. Such as this silly idea of ‘perfection.’

  37. Gayle Stone
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Anslem died over 900 years ago and so did the ontological ARGUMENT. Why RESURRECT it? All it does is start another argument.


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