The New York Times has gone all faitheist

What’s up with the New York Times?  In a single day they published not only Robert Wright’s accommodationist op-ed, but also a piece by Nathan Schneider on Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God.

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.

This is one of the dumbest of all arguments for God, though many theologians (and a few readers of this website) seem to find it pretty sophisticated.  But not Schneider, who demolishes it in just a few words:

I started to remember the echo of Kant’s devastating complaint against Anselm: existence is not a predicate. God seemed to disappear.

So did this make Schneider an atheist? No way!

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.

Ah, those nasty New Atheists again, duping us all by claiming that the question of whether God exists really matters to people!

And Schneider shows handily that if you don’t like the answer, the best strategy is to change the question and obfuscate:

Setting off for a new place, I was saddled in the past, in what I had been and done. My conversion, and with it God, is not a thing I can live down, but something I’ll always have to live in, through and around. The very fact of it, that it happened at all, is a proof for its own ongoing existence.

____________________

UPDATE: Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse is equally puzzled.

50 Comments

  1. Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    The silliness of the ontological argument can be seen by applying it to anything other than “God”, as Dawkins applies it to the Great Stinker in TGD.

    Or as I might put it,
    “I can think of the greatest thing ever.
    “To be the greatest thing ever, it must be real.
    “Therefore, whatever I just thought of is real.”

    But the fact that such silliness is still trotted out as “proof” after all these centuries shows that theism just has nothing to say anymore. It never did, really.

    • Cathy Sander
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      From that argument, it seems all too much like wishful thinking. Words become things, as if words were magic. No wonder the Ontological Argument sounds rather childish.

  2. Mike Barnes
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    The sound of believers clutching for straws is getting ever louder. This kind of thing is SO ridiculous one wonders about their sanity.

    A few days ago the Archbishop of Canterbury appeared on a Brit TV documentary. Mostly it was soft soap and soft questions. Then he was asked where the souls of an Alzheimer patients go to. His response was such a cop-out for someone of his supposed importance, I wrote it down:

    “What happens isn’t that body’s left and something goes somewhere else, but that god may very well be dealing with people at levels we can’t begin to imagine or understand. It’s the best sense I can make of it…”

    Another example of religion addressing the big questions (= that science can’t) and coming out with a vacuous pile of steaming nothing.

    • Posted August 25, 2009 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Lordy. So if he realizes we can’t begin to imagine or understand, and that’s the best sense he can make of it, then what kind of thing is it that he is the head of?

  3. newenglandbob
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    My god is bigger than your god, so there.

    /snort

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 25, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Exactly my reaction to this ‘argument’ when I first heard it.

      On a related matter, when will “special pleading” be listed as “aka the theological fallacy” in Wikipedia?

  4. Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    The more ‘sophisticated’ a religious argument becomes, the more like an elaborate Sokal-type hoax it sounds.
    I suspect we are currently missing a verb sufficiently adequate to describe this type of verbal gymnastics, where the speaker deftly leaps from facts to untestable metaphysical whimsy at a moments notice.
    How about ‘bunting’ (to bunt, he will bunt, they bunted, is madelaine bunting again?)

    • Jeremy
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      I second that motion! “Bunting” it is!!

  5. Hansen
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    For me the ontological argument reads: “God exists because I say so!”

    Maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough.

  6. ivy privy
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    My conversion, and with it God, is not a thing I can live down, but something I’ll always have to live in, through and around. The very fact of it, that it happened at all, is a proof for its own ongoing existence.

    Wow. So every religious view to which someone has converted has “proof” of its accuracy, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, Jim Jones-ism, David Koresh-ism, Raelism, and, yes, atheism. How can they all be accurate? It’s a mystery.

    • ivo
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:27 am | Permalink

      so that is the “Mystery of Faith” Catholic priest always talk about…

  7. ivy privy
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Anselm’s Ontological Argument was shot down Reductio ad absurdum almost immediately by Guanilo’s Perfect Island. Anselm’s response was special pleading.

    This is one of the dumbest of all arguments for God…

    Pascal’s wager is also in the running.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, but I think we have to disqualify Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that it’s not technically an argument for the existence of god. It’s an argument for pretending to believe in the existence of god. In the hopes, presumably, of “fooling” an omniscient entity. So it’s certainly got the “dumb” part locked up.

      • Posted August 25, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        It’s more an argument for deciding to believe in the existence of god, on prudential grounds – which in a way is much more absurd than an argument for pretending to.

  8. gingerbaker
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    “Setting off for a new place, I was saddled in the past, in what I had been and done. My conversion, and with it God, is not a thing I can live down, but something I’ll always have to live in, through and around. The very fact of it, that it happened at all, is a proof for its own ongoing existence.”

    Isn’t this the first paragraph of Charles Manson’s autobiography?

  9. Woody Tanaka
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    God is a perfect being.
    A being made of pork is more perfect than one not made of pork.
    Therefore, God is made of pork.

  10. Janus
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Even if the ontological argument was proof of the existence of a ‘perfect being’, it wouldn’t be of much help to theists, or even deists. After all, a God isn’t merely a perfect being, it’s a perfect being that has created (or ‘sustains’, or whatever) our universe. So if the ontological argument was convincing, we’d have to believe there’s a perfect being somewhere out there in the vastness of reality, but with no good reason to believe It has anything to do with us!

    • Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Not to mention that this supposedly perfect being clearly created an imperfect universe.

  11. Tulse
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I can conceive of a Perfect Refutation of the Ontological Argument. Since an argument can only be perfect if it exists, such Perfect Refutation must exist. (I of course can’t specify the actual details of such refutation, but ineffability doesn’t seem to bother theologians, so it doesn’t bother me.)

    • Jeremy
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Outstanding!

    • ivo
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:42 am | Permalink

      LOL!

      There’s a technical name in mathematics for this kind of argument: it’s a nonconstructive proof, where something is shown to exist, but no method is given to actually find it.

      But here there’s an added twist: the proof itself is shown to exist, though it is not displayed.

  12. Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    There’s a good discussion on the ontological argument on skeptico.

    As for Schneider’s article, it appears he’s saying that the ontological argument is not proof of anything, but just a bit of mental masturbation for people who already believe in God. Sounds about right to me.

  13. Andrew Alexander
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I think the Ontological Argument is very silly.

    I do not think that Pascal’s wager is silly.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      “I do not think that Pascal’s wager is silly.”

      I agree, which is why I worship Odin, Ahura Mazda, Quetzalcoatl, Zeus, Brahma, Wiracocha, Amon-Ra, and Tom Cruise. When the afterlife is at stake, one simply can’t be too careful.

    • ivy privy
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      I do not think that Pascal’s wager is silly.

      Perhaps, after you die, Thor can beat some other thoughts into your head with his hammer.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      Your response was 5 words too long.

  14. Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I started to remember the echo of Kant’s devastating complaint against Anselm: existence is not a predicate. God seemed to disappear.

    In Anselm’s time this appears to have been suspected, but not certain. And actually, in Boolean logic, existence is again a predicate, but not in the same sense as it was in Anselm’s day.

    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.

    Oh my, an 11th century cleric didn’t doubt god’s existence? What better argument for god could I possibly need?

    That’s the proper answer, but the fact is that Anselm did appear to wrestle with “god’s absence,” which is about as close as an 11th-century cleric could come to doubting god. This is how he prefaces his “ontological argument” that god has to exist:

    Come now, insignificant man, leave behind for a time your preoccupations;
    seclude yourself for a while from your disquieting
    thoughts. Turn aside now from heavy cares, and set aside your
    wearisome tasks. Make time for God, and rest a while in Him.
    Enter into the inner chamber of your mind; shut out everything
    except God and what is of aid to you in seeking Him; after closing
    the chamber door, seek Him out.1 Speak now, my whole heart;
    speak now to God: I seek Your countenance; Your countenance, 0
    Lord, do I seek.2 So come now, Lord my God, teach my heart
    where and how to seek You, where and how to find You. If You
    are not here, 0 Lord, where shall I seek You who are absent? But
    if You are everywhere, why do I not behold You as present? But
    surely You dwell in light inaccessible.3 Yet, where is light inaccessible?
    Or how shall I approach unto light inaccessible? Or who will
    lead me to and into this [light] so that in it I may behold You?
    Furthermore, by what signs, by what facial appearance shall I seek
    You? Never have I seen You, 0 Lord my God; I am not acquainted
    with Your face. What shall this Your distant exile do? What shall
    90 Proslogion 1
    1See Matthew 6:6. Isaiah 26:20. 2Psalms 26:8 (27:8). 3I Timothy 6:16.
    he do, 0 most exalted Lord? What shall Your servant do, anguished
    out of love for You and cast far away from Your face? 1He
    pants to see You, but Your face is too far removed from him. He
    desires to approach You, but Your dwelling place is inaccessible.
    He desires to find You but does not know Your abode. He longs
    to seek You but does not know Your countenance. 0 Lord, You are
    my God, and You are my Lord; yet, never have I seen You. You
    have created me and created me anew and have bestowed upon
    me whatever goods I have; but I am not yet acquainted with You.
    Indeed, I was made for seeing You; but not yet have I done that
    for which I was made.

    cla.umn.edu/sites/jhopkins/proslogion.pdf

    The problem of god’s existence, let alone god’s presence, was indeed a great deal of what Anselm was addressing.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  15. Matti K
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Has anyone ever Sokaled theologists?

    • MartinDH
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Why bother? They do it to themselves *ALL* the time.


      Martin

    • Chayanov
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      It would be like a Poe, in that you could never tell the difference between the fake and the real thing.

  16. bucephalas
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    How about:
    – God is an idea (like “equality”).
    – An idea exists because we believe in it (faith).
    – The fact that it has no physical manisfestation (does “equality” exist) is irrelevant.
    – As long as people believe the “affect” of God is real.
    – As soon as the last person stops believing God will be dead.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      Terry Pratchett beat you to it.
      See “Small Gods”.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      Tinker Belle is god?

  17. Jeremy
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Oh, but for the definitive proof of God’s existence, one simply must read Russ Martocci’s devastating masterpiece, “One Plus One Equals God”.

    And for some added philosophical name-dropping, it’s even subtitled “An Ontological Proof”!

    Hahahahahahahahahahahah

  18. I.Strange
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Modern arguments and evangelists and New Atheists have duped us into thinking that the interesting question is whether God exists

    No, it’s just the most relevant question.

    • Posted August 25, 2009 at 4:11 am | Permalink

      Yep. It’s the question we need to answer to determine whether we are engaging reality or else something on par with The Lord of the Rings.

      Not that I find fault with the latter, but it’s important to know one is into fantasy if one is.

  19. Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, how are you planning to spend the afternoon of this coming Saturday, October 31st?

    In the Max Palevsky Theater listening to
    2:15-2:55  Joel Kingsolver (University of North Carolina):
”Strength and Mode of Selection in Natural Populations,”

    or in the 3rd Floor Theater enjoying
    2:15-2:55  Michael Ruse (Florida State University):
”Is Darwinism Past Its ‘Sell-by’ Date? The Challenge of Evo-Devo”?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 25, 2009 at 5:21 am | Permalink

      GUESS! Actually, I am co-organizer of this conference.

      • Posted August 25, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        I know you are – I got your email via EvolDir. I tried to guess, but I really don’t know. Are you so interested in Kingsolver’s talk and despise Ruse so much that you choose the former, or are you going to confront Ruse at his talk?

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted August 25, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        Naah, not interested in confronting anyone, though Ruse might, for he likes to do that. I’m just more interested in the science stuff than in the history & philosophy stuff, though I will go to some of the latter talks. The sessions are simultaneous.

      • Posted August 25, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        I would choose the same, but must admit that you going to Ruse’s talk would provide better blogging-material.

  20. Posted August 25, 2009 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    “The important question is not whether unicorns exist, but what the proper way is to think about unicorns and man’s relationship with unicorns.”

    The Unicorn Test: Works every time.

  21. Ken
    Posted August 25, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    The puzzle of Pascal’s wager is why it is so unsophisticated given his major contributions to mathematics and interest in gambling. Despite this he treats the bet as a simple either/or, when some sort of accumulator or spread-betting system would have to be used just to keep up with all the variations in christian doctrine, let alone all other possible religions.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 12:05 am | Permalink

      Pascal also presumes a ‘perfect’ god who’s incredibly cruel to non-believers but is too damned stupid to tell the true faithful from those who only pretend just in case there’s a god.

    • I.Strange
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      The either/or aspect, I think, results from the infinities involved. Infinite heavenly benefit – finite earthly cost = infinity. Similarly, infinite heavenly benefit * non-zero probability (because heaven is unfalsifiable) = infinity.

      No, I’m not convinced either, but it is interesting to think about. How should a rational cost-benefit strategy handle unfalsifiable propositions of high magnitude?

  22. MadScientist
    Posted August 26, 2009 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    “Ontological arguments” (now there’s an oxymoron) are so damned stupid I can’t even classify them as infantile – they must be deliberately stupid.


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