Friday, May 21, 2010

The Ontological Argument (Part 1)

The ontological argument is the earliest and likely most famous (infamous?) argument for God's existence. It was originally formulated in the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury (later Archbishop and still later Saint).

Like Leibniz, who we discussed before, Anselm was wicked smart. But he was much less concerned with developing a complete philosophy of the world. Rather, he was mainly interested in developing his love for God (and helping his students to do the same) through the exercise of his reason and intellect. He called this "faith seeking understanding."

In fact, maybe the coolest aspect of the ontological argument is that it appears in the middle of the Proslogion, which Anselm wrote as a prayer.

The term 'ontological' was of course not used by Anselm himself, but was applied to it much later. In philosophical discourse, 'ontology' means basically the study of being as such (the root onto- means 'being').  To explain this, I'll borrow an illustration from one of my professors: A biologist's studies might at some point take him to a volcanic area to study some form of life that thrives in that environment. But the biologist does not study the volcano itself. This, rather, is the field of the volcanologist. The biologist studies the volcano for the organisms that live on it. The volcanologist studies the volcano insofar as it is a volcano.

Similarly, ontology is the study of 'being qua being,' or being insofar as it is being. This name has been applied to various arguments for God's existence, beginning with Anselm's, because these arguments all establish God's (necessary) existence from His very being, or the very concept of God itself. In essence (and far too simply), because we have a concept of God, He must actually exist.

Think I've pulled one over on you? Read on.

The argument: 

(1) God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. (Definition)
(2) God exists in the understanding but not in reality. (reductio assumption)
(3) Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone. (Premise)
(4) God's existence in reality is conceivable. (Premise)
(5) If God did exist in reality, then He would be greater than He is. [from (2) and (3)]
(6) It is conceivable that there is a being greater than God is. [from (4) and (5)]
(7) It is conceivable that there be a being greater than the being than which nothing greater can be conceived. [from (1) and (6)]
(8) It is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality. [from (2) through (7)]
(9) God exists in reality. *

Fun, huh?

So this argument works by way of what logicians call a reductio ad absurdum, which means that we assume a controversial premise (in this case, premise 2), and then we draw a contradiction from that premise. Since contradictions cannot be true, we then know that the premise in question must be false.

Anselm's controversial premise is that it is possible for God to exist only in our minds but not in reality. But if we understand God to be the greatest conceivable being (which we all intuitively do), then this is impossible, because it would be greater for him to also exist in reality. So, on pain of contradiction, God must exist in reality.

And all this because we have a (relatively) clear idea of God. Like I said, I love this argument.

Confused? That's alright; it isn't easy. I'll let it simmer with you for a while, and next time we'll deal with some of the major objections that have been given and I'll share what I think is the usefulness of the argument.

* This is roughly Alvin Plantinga's formulation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Silly Things to Say..."Who made God?" *

So before I start this post, I'd just like to extend a sincere thanks to the blog Apologetics 315 for adding blogGNOSIS to their notable Christian Apologetics Blog Directory. That can be found here.

So if any of you have read Richard Dawkins' God Delusion or even heard him speak, you are likely to have heard something along the lines of "But cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God just don't work because eventually you still have to answer the question 'Who made God?'"

This question has been forcefully thrown at the theist since long before Dawkins conceived of it, and unfortunately for him, it has been answered for just as long.

Given that we are in the middle of discussing the various arguments for God's existence, I figured it might be useful to take a break and discuss this frequent objection to many of them.

The problem is that the question doesn't make any sense.

Now before you object, "It makes perfect sense to me..." let me explain.

The Christian position is that God is self-sufficient in every way. What arguments for God seek to show, in fact, is that He is a necessary being. For example, the Kalam argument that we covered concludes that there must be a personal cause of the universe. Not that there might be one.

And further, part of the way it shows this is by showing that what philosophers call an 'infinite regress' is impossible. The chain, whether it be of causes or explanations, has got to stop somewhere. What the theist does is simply say, "Wherever it stops, that is God."

So when someone asks "Yes, but who made God?" what they're really saying is something like "Who caused the uncaused Cause?" or maybe "What explains the unexplainable?" When phrased this way, the error becomes clear.

The question also takes a couple other forms. For example, you may have heard someone say something like "But what was there before God made the universe?" or "What did God do for the eternity before creation?"

These, too, are simple misunderstandings of the Christian claim, and of modern science. Scripture teaches that God is an eternal Spirit and that He exists as a Trinity. While this concept is a post for another time, it is worth noting here that it serves to solve the problem of what God 'did' 'before' creation. He existed in communion with Himself--totally self-sufficiently.

Also, we know from modern cosmology that time and space itself began at the Big Bang along with everything else. So to ask what God did 'before' creation makes no sense. There was no 'before' in a temporal sense.

Also, Dawkins' own form of the question involves complexity more than causation or explanation. His argument is basically that regardless of how complex the early universe must have been, whatever caused it must have been at least as complex, and therefore demanding its own explanation.

This sounds clever until one thinks about it a little more closely. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that God must be complex in His nature, and in fact the church fathers (anticipating such an objection) nearly always maintained that He wasn't. Also, it is not at all clear why a cause must be of equal or greater complexity than its effect. And besides, we have already shown that the only type of explanation that makes sense for the universe is some sort of supremely intelligent mind. And this mind, if identified with God, needs no explanation.

God is unique in this respect. He is the only thing that is completely self-contained. He is Himself the ground of all goodness, morality, reason, life, and being. And He is necessarily so. To ask why He is is simply to misunderstand the point. It is literally a nonsensical question.

This will hopefully become more clear when we consider the next argument in our series: the ontological argument. It is my personal favorite and I love to talk about it, so bring your thinking caps. Stay tuned...

* If you were expecting Part 2 of the Leibnizian Cosmological argument for God, I apologize. It occurred to me after the first one that any real discussion of PSR is just too much for this blog. However, if you're really interested (and it would make me feel very good if you were), feel free to leave a comment to that effect on Part 1. Also, the picture I used is of course the standard Facebook 'no image' indicator. I hope I haven't broken any copyright laws. Sorry Facebook.

** Be sure to check out the new video in the 'Featured Video' section, where several very smart scientists discuss the fine-tuning of the universe.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (Part 1)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a 17th century German philosopher and mathematician, and he is responsible for the next argument for God's existence that we will deal with.

Leibniz was crazy. Crazy smart. But also just crazy. (That's him sportin' the awesome wig to the right...)

Many do not realize that he independently discovered infinitesimal calculus around the same time as Isaac Newton. Yep. He just figured it out. In fact, he and Newton had a notoriously rocky relationship, each accusing the other of plagiarism. Unfortunately for Leibniz, Newton apparently had a few more influential friends, and so aside from a few mathematical notations, Leibniz is remembered these days mostly for his philosophical work.

Fortunately for us, Leibniz' argument for the existence of God can stand independently from the rest of his philosophy. This is good because it isn't clear whether anyone in the world really fully understands his philosophy. Like I said, crazy.

So without further ado, the argument:

(1) Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in its own nature or in an external cause.
(2) If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God.
(3) The universe exists.
(4) The universe has an explanation of its existence. (From 1 & 3)
(5) The explanation of the existence of the universe is God. (From 2 & 4)

This argument differs from the Kalam is a couple significant ways. First, it does not rely on causal relations, but rather explanatory ones. And second, it does not need the impossibility of an infinite series of events to make its case. In other words, it would work just as well even if the universe were eternal. This makes sense, since in Leibniz' day we didn't have the compelling cosmological evidence for the beginning of the universe that we discussed in the last post.

For the fans of logic out there, it is clear that the argument is valid (for the others, that just means there's no mistake in how it is formulated). The question then is whether the premises are true. Hopefully, no one reading this doubts premise (3). The first two are a bit more controversial though.

I have already dealt with (2) in a previous post. As I showed there, once we consider what it really means to be the cause of the universe, it is not much of a jump to the theistic God. The same holds for an explanation of the existence of the universe (see especially the second argument I offered for a personal cause in that post).

I do want to point out one more interesting thing about (2): it is logically equivalent to a common atheistic response to the Leibnizian argument. When two statements are logically equivalent, it means that if one is true, so is the other, and vice versa. A popular response is that if atheism is true, then the universe doesn't have an explanation for its existence; it just exists. But in affirming this, the objector is also affirming the opposite of this claim, which is just premise (2). Thus, it seems that even the atheist tends to think that (2) is intuitively obvious. I wonder how many of them realize this...

What about premise (1)? This one, too, seems obvious to most honest people, regardless of their beliefs about God. It's rather difficult to imagine something existing totally inexplicably and our being okay with it. William Lane Craig offers a good illustration of this: Imagine that you and a friend are hiking in the forest when you come across a large translucent ball lying on the ground. You ask why it is there, and your friend simply replies, "What do you mean why is it there? There is no explanation. It's just there." Would you be satisfied with this answer? Of course not. And to make the analogy more interesting, the size of the ball has no affect whatsoever on the inadequacy of the response. We can imagine it being any size--even as large as the universe itself--and its existence still requires an explanation.

Premise (1) is a form of what has come to be called, since Leibniz, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). There have been whole books devoted to this principle (I know; I read one about a year ago). The discussions involved are very dense and technical, so I won't go into too much detail here. I will say that in the end though, I think that everyone's initial intuition about PSR is probably right.

I'll give some reasons for this and discuss a few of the major objections to the principle in the next post.