Tuesday 9 October 2012

The ontobollocksical argument is not one of my favourites

A link to BBC Radio 4's In Our Time was posted in the Unbelievable? Facebook group, as it dealt with the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. In a fit of snarky dismissal I posted the following comment:
This was followed by some disingenuous (I felt) puzzlement, which led me to expand on my remark:

  • Paul Jenkins My objection to the ontobollocksical argument is that it's entirely about concepts. A concept is something that exists only in minds, and no matter how much you conceive of an entity — or its maximal greatness — there's nothing to make that magical transition from concept to reality.

    Of course it's possible for something to exist as a concept as well as existing in reality, but these are two different things than can be causally related in only one direction: from the real thing to the concept of that thing — not the other way around. For a concept of an entity to have a causal relationship towards an actual entity something else has to be involved. The concept alone is not enough.

    The ontobollocksical argument is no more than a fancy and roundabout way of saying, "I can imagine something, therefore it must exist."
Yet further responses asserted I was wrong about this, and suggested I should deal with the premises of the argument — something I felt disinclined to do at the time, given that attempts were being made to shift the burden of proof on to me by mere assertion.

Nevertheless I stand by what I posted, and in case anyone's still interested here's how I deal with said premises. The ontological argument goes like this (from Wikipedia):
  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.
Premise 1 is fine as far as it goes — you can conceive of God any way you want. But is it really possible to conceive of ultimate greatness? I think not, other than as a label for what is frankly an inconceivable nebulosity. Can you, for example, conceive of infinity? You can have the idea in your mind of a very big number, a number so big that there isn't any number above it — but can you hold that concept in your mind as a number, rather than as a label for something that is, in actuality, inconceivable? Saying — in the St. Anselm formulation — that God is a being than which no greater can be conceived is of no use because you can't actually conceive of even that. You can give it a label, but it's a label that cannot be attached to anything.

So the ontological argument falls at its first premise, proving only that it is — as it has always been — bollocks.