Monday, March 7, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Ontological Arguments

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


Brozzly writes,

Broseph, want to cover the ontological arguments? They're clever, but I always feel like something's a bit off with them. Keep it up, Brocrates. You should be a brofessional bro-it-all.

Sure thing, bro. The brontological argument is definitely the philosophical argument with the highest controversy/word ratio in history - Anselm's, the original, clocks in at just 75 words in Latin, but holy shit do people love to argue about it.

So, here’s the breakdown of the original. God is the greatest bro we can think of, right? Well obviously He has to exist. I can think of a bro with all the qualities God has, and who also exists, and obviously it's way better to exist than to be imaginary. So if God is the greatest bro we can think of, but he doesn't exist, I can think of a greater bro, and that shit is a contradiction. God can't be the greatest and imaginary. So obviously, God has to exist.

The thing is, if this argument works, it only works for one being, and that's the greatest being. Some bro named Gaunilon wrote a rebuttal in the form of a reductio that said, "Hey, imagine there's a greatest imaginable island. But obviously a greatest imaginable island would exist, since an existing island is better than a non-existing island. Atlantis is real, bro!"
Anselm was, as you can imagine, not amused by these Antlantian shenanigans. He argued that no island fit his argument. For example, take the best fucking island you can imagine. Now add another foot of beaches. Now what if the island were alive and provided food to its inhabitants? 'But then it's not an island.' Are you sure? Ancient civilizations did indeed conceive of island gods and living lands - it's conceivable that the island is divine, even - but Anselm's god is even greater than island gods. The key to Anselm's argument is that nothing greater than God can be imagined. Since God also has the property of being greater than everything else, you can't imagine a second greatest conceivable being, bro. You're just picturing God.

Well, Aquinas came along and said that we can't actually conceive of God's existence. Sure, we can conceive of God existing, but we can't grasp his essence, which for a bunch of complicated reasons was also his existence. Consider this: even if we all agree that 'God' names the greatest being, we all disagree over what that entails. Christians think He's a Trinity; Muslims think He's not a Trinity; Pastafarians think He is primarily noodles. So what, exactly, do we conceive of? And even if we do manage to agree on a list of properties, it just doesn't follow that because we name something 'greatest fucking thing imaginable,' it exists - our imaginations are imperfect, bro, and maybe they go farther than reality can - what about a square circle? I can imagine that, even if I can't picture it; I can definitely imagine a God who can make a square circle, and a God who can actualize contradictions is definitely greater than a God who can't. That doesn't mean that God can actualize contradictions - Aquinas thinks He can't, and almost every serious philosopher of religion agrees with him on that. Aquinas is the Ron Burgundy of the Middle Ages, and most people thought that he pretty much dealt with Anselm for good. 

Descartes had his own version of the ontological argument which he hinted at in the third and developed more fully in the fifth Meditation - he said "Look, bro, I have this notion of a perfect being. Just because I don't grasp the essence of that being, or see the fullness of its nature, doesn't mean I don't get the idea of perfection. God has all the perfections: He knows everything, He's everywhere, He always flips the cup in one flip, He makes an incredible risotto, and He has existence. QED, bitches."

Does that work? Well, Descartes just says, "I can think of a perfect being, and he would have the property of existing." Bro, I can think of a Martian, and he would have the property of being from Mars. That doesn't mean a Martian exists, just that if he did, he'd be from Mars. Sure, a perfect being entails existence, but he would have to exist first. So, Descartes is going in circles, or, as we philosophers like to call it, 'being a dick'. 

Gottfried Leibniz had his own version of the ontological argument that depended on possibility instead of conceivability. He completely avoided Aquinas' objection about our failures to properly imagine God and said, "God is the greatest possible bro, and the greatest possible bro would exist." So as long as God is possible, God exists - and Leibniz saw no reason why God couldn't exist. There's a contradiction in a God who can make contradictions true, so that version of God is impossible, but a God with all the perfections doesn't present any obvious contradictions, and we can't assume contradictions where none show themselves. 

Then Kant came along and put what a lot of people thought was the final nail in the coffin of the ontological argument, no matter what form you took it in: he said 'being' isn't a real property of things. "But Kant, obviously some things exist. How the fuck could 'being' not be a real property of those things?" Kant responds something like this:
 Bro, properties are things we can ascribe to things, right? So when I say, "My, that's an attractive sister you have there, Descartes," I'm ascribing the properties attractive, Descartes' sister, and standing there to a thing. Some things are Descartes' hot sister, and some things aren't. But when I say something is, I'm not ascribing a real property to it; of course it exists. If it doesn't exist, it can't have properties to begin with. So when I say "Descartes' hot sister exists" I'm not giving her the property of existence, I'm really saying "All those properties belong to one thing." I'm saying something about the properties themselves - I'm saying "the properties of being Descartes' sister and of being hot" are shared by a thing. So you can't say "God exists because he has the property of existing" - all you're really saying is, "The properties of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. are all had by a thing." But that's what you're trying to prove, asshat. It doesn't fly.
And that was pretty much the end of the ontological argument for a long fucking time. Recently, though, a bunch of bros have gotten around Kant's objection by focusing on the property necessary existence, instead of existence itself. Even if existence isn't a property, necessary existence probably is. These proofs take their cues from Leibniz, but use modal logic, the logic of necessity and possibility, which itself makes use of possible worlds - ways the world could be. It's possible that Philosophy Bro could have been born in the 1800s; it's  necessary that he's fucking awesome. It's possible that Justin Bieber could have been a boy. It's possible that OJ did kill those people. It's even possible that the Earth could have never existed. These are all parts of possible worlds, though the 'worlds' themselves are best understood as complete specifications of universes. Something is necessary if it is true in every possible world, and possible if it is true in at least one world. Alvin Plantinga has the most famous modal ontological argument, and it runs something like this: "God would have the property of necessary existence if he exists. Now, He is possible, so He exists in at least one world - but if He exists in that world, he has the property of existing in every world. So God possibly necessarily exists, so he necessarily exists, so he exists. Problem?"

Obviously the controversial part of that is, "God possibly necessarily exists" - are we sure God is possible? How would we go about proving that? Leibniz assumed it was true because he we couldn't prove that God was impossible, but can we prove that God possible? That's a tall fucking order, one bunches of smart fucking dudes have failed to meet. "Imagine a possible world in which God exists" - yeah, asshole, but only if He's possible. It begs the question in a difficult way to get around. "Imagine a world in which God doesn't exist." What does that world look like? How could you imagine a world in which an invisible, nonphysical being definitely doesn't exist? You might be imagining a world in which He just hasn't revealed Himself to anyone. You can't just define God out of a possible world any more than you can define Him into a possible world. Plantinga himself admits that he doesn't successfully prove that God exists, but claims he does provide an argument for rationally believing in God if one believes that God is possible. Rational belief, way outside the boundaries of the Pride Lands for today. Sorry kids.

So there's a brief overview of the history of the ontological arguments, bros. There are versions I didn't cover - especially Godel's - and formulations that I didn't mention, but they all revolve around one idea - the idea that God must exist a priori, provable from reason alone.

As usual, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent treatment of the history and status of the Ontological arguments.

Thomas Williams' translation and commentary of Anselm's original argument and the ensuing riposte with Gaunilo is available on Amazon: Proslogion, with the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm

Alvin Plantinga lays out his modal ontological argument, as well as a complete metaphysics of modal logic and his response to the Problem of Evil, in his seminal 1979 work The Nature of Necessity

I have a t-shirt that references this! You know, just in case you were interested. Whatever. 



  1. Whoa, whoa, possible necessity and all that stuff I get, but did you just imply that Justin Bieber is not a Bro?

  2. A compact and informative summary, Bro. Very sweet.

  3. "Aquinas was the Ron Burgundy of the Middle Ages". I'm gonna use that!

  4. Imagine the symbol of the Masonic compass, or a holy Cross, or star of david, or any gnostic sign. Hell, just imagine shapes in your mind.

    Now, consider:

    The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

    The shortest distance between three points is a triangle.

    The shortest distance between four points is a square.

    Synthesis of triangles and squares reveals the right-triangle.
    (A * A) + (B * = (C * C)

    When Side 'A' is held parallel to a plane and Side 'B' is held perpendicular to a plane, Side 'C' can be rotated like a *compass* through extended space to form a cone.

    Cones can be used in calculus. Cones can be used to find orbitals.

    The base of a cone is a circle.

    Synthesis of triangles and circles reveals trigonometric functions, and therefore much of geometry.

    Congratulations! You just proved, entirely in your mind, the existence of Synthetic a priori knowledge by using Reason, the Logos.

    p.s. Here are some other interesting ideas that use this knowledge:

    St. Augustine, Immanuel Kant, and other philosophers have argued that the existence of Synthetic a priori knowledge implies the possibility of a supernatural entity or essence.

    Other philosophers have argued that the possibility of a supernatural entity necessarily implies the existence of a supernatural entity. These theories take different forms but are called Ontological Arguments for the Existence of God.

    St. Anselm of Canterbury made an Ontological Argument in 11th Century AD. Others to do so include scientist Rene Descartes, mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, mathematician Kurt Godel, and philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

    In "The Age of Reason," Thomas Paine writes during his analysis of The Bible: "I know, however, but of one ancient book that authoritatively challenges universal consent and belief, and that is Euclid's Elements of Geometry; and the reason is, because it is a book of *self-evident* demonstration, entirely independent of its author, and of every thing relating to time, place, and circumstance." A priori.

    Pythagoras was born in 570 BC and visited Egypt in his youth.

    The Great Pyramid of Giza was built in 2540 BC.

    Some have argued that the pyramids and monuments of the ancient civilizations were primitive means to collect electricity from the sky.

    Look at some of the symbols on a $1 Bill.

    Benjamin Franklin taught us much about electricity simply by flying a kite. He was also a Mason.

    An object set in motion by a linear force will travel in a straight direction unless it meets resistance or is acted upon by a force in another direction.

    Electricity, energy, follows the path of least resistance, the shortest path.

    Electricity conducted through an open air wire travels at nearly the speed of light through a vacuum.

    Electricity is transferred through the interaction of photons and electrons. Einstein wrote much about these phenomena.

    Some philosophers have argued that all knowledge is reducible to sense-data, which are simply electrical signals travelling along various arrangements of nerve and neuronal pathways. These logical positivists made this argument in the 20th century to try to disprove the existence of synthetic a priori knowledge and ontological arguments in favor of atheism.

  5. From :

    "Empirical approaches to philosophy seem unable to do away with appeal to intuitions as the grounds for believing some conclusion follows from the premises, to support ampliative inferences that go beyond observations to more general claims, or to discover the essence of concepts that non-natural kind terms express. Pragmatic approaches to philosophy seem to require reliance on intuitions to determine relevant epistemic goals and to stop a threatening regress. In the past it was widely held that a priori knowledge could only be of necessary or analytic truths, and that all necessary truths were capable of being known a priori. Similar things were thought of a priori justification. In light of developments in the last half of the 20th century, all of these claims about the relation between a priori knowledge and justification on the one hand, and necessity and analyticity on the other, seem false. Further, a priori justification is fallible, and both it and a priori knowledge are defeasible, both by a priori and empirical evidence. Kant seems right in arguing that not only analytic propositions can be justified, and known, a priori, though many reject his account of how synthetic a priori knowledge is possible as obscure and unconvincing. Perhaps philosophers were mistaken in thinking that if there is an explanation of how a priori justification, and knowledge, are possible it must be of just one type. Maybe at least two different accounts must be given, one in terms of concept possession; the other, in terms of the inability to find counterexamples."

    Is there more than one shortest path between two points? Is there a counterexample to Euclidean plane (priori) geometry that can be understood intuitively? Non-Euclidean Geometries that require observation of the universe a posteriori to understand necessarily are already under the influence of universal forces; they are also so non-intuitive that it took man thousands of years to discover them; and how does one 'discover' a priori truths if they are by definition self-evident? Intuited Euclidean geometries are Platonic.

    In other words, if there was no supernatural essence, there would be no synthetic a priori euclidean geometry, you never would have put the square block in the square hole as a child, and you wouldn't even be able to read these words as you would have no justification to distinguish letters and fonts from one another without priori access to euclidean understanding.

    L - right angle
    l - straight line
    O - circle

    1. 'Intuitive understanding' is where a problem arises for what you say. Perhaps what are intuitive are useful approximations to the way things are so that we might better survive and thrive. A priori reasoning seems austere, but the way we come to it might depend on certain natural dispositions. What the cause of these might be is rather a different question.

      Axiomatically, hyperbolic and elliptic geometries aren't in some essential way more 'difficult' than the Euclidean (by which I mean, for instance, consistently higher complexity in the computations involved); the Euclidean was simply useful, and it took mathematics time to warm up to more formalist thinking and wonder about playing around with the postulates (originally to try and make them more efficient, but on failing came about non-Euclidean systems).