Saturday, December 27, 2008

Philosophers and the Existence of God

 
The existence of God is one of the exciting questions in philosophy. I firmly believe that all undergraduates should take a course in philosophy where they address issues like this and learn how to argue logically and rationally. Philosophy is the most important subject in university.

However, sometimes philosophers seem to get so badly off track that they fail to see the forest for the trees. The debate over the ontological argument for the existence of God falls into this category. I can't believe that modern philosophers would waste more than a microsecond on such a stupid argument.1.

Here's one version of the argument from Wikipedia.
  1. God is, by definition, a being greater than anything that can be imagined and is the cause of all things, but is not bound causally by anything (otherwise God would be ontologically dependent on something else which would in turn undermine "its" greatness).
  2. Existence both in reality and in imagination is greater than existence solely in one's imagination.
  3. Therefore, God must exist in reality: if God did not, God would not be a being greater than anything which can be imagined.
Alex Byrne wastes far more than a microsecond in the latest issue of Boston Review [God: Philosophers weigh in]. Check it out if you want to wade through some mind-numbing examples of tree-gazing. (There are other interesting bits in the article that might make it worth your while.)

Part way through that article, Byrne decides that philosophical arguments in general, and arguments for the existence of God in particular, are often not very significant. He says the following ...
A better complaint is that sound philosophical arguments with significant conclusions are as rare as atheists in foxholes: the track record of philosophical “proofs” is not exactly impressive, unlike the mathematical variety.
What the heck?

There have been millions of atheists in (metaphorical) foxholes throughout history. Does this mean there are millions of sound philosophical arguments with significant conclusions? Or does it mean that Alex Byrne is one of these people who think that atheists becomes believers whenever they're under stress, in spite of the fact that there are no sound arguments for the existence of God?

What a strange thing for a philosopher to say.


1. It's fun to debate the logic of the ontological argument and to try and construct proofs that it is false. That's not what I mean when I say that it's a stupid argument. What I mean is that it is stupid to actually think that such a clever twisting of words would actually cause someone to believe that a perfect supernatural exists.

[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]

29 comments :

  1. Hi Larry, This was in The Globe & Mail today: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20081227.LETTERS27-13/TPStory/Opinion/letters

    I was so shocked I had to send it to someone, enjoy, I did.

    Silent Night
    BROOKE LYDBROOKE
    December 27, 2008
    Toronto -- What about an Atheist Day
    In March or April or the middle of May
    For those of us who don't believe in God?
    There, I've said it. Are you shocked?
    Did you feel a rumble? Did the planet rock?
    On Atheist Day, we'll all have a feast.
    We'll confess to each other, instead of a priest,
    We'll discuss life and death and things in-between,
    And the wonders of Earth and the things we've seen.
    And we won't say a prayer to some Higher Being,
    But try to solve problems with a
    rational way of seeing.
    Yes, Atheist Day! I can hardly wait.
    I wonder if business will step up to the plate
    And sell Happy A-Day cards,
    Celebrate Life Without God!
    What do you think? What are the odds?

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  2. I firmly believe that all undergraduates should take a course in philosophy where they address issues like this and learn how to argue logically and rationally.

    If you want to learn how to argue logically and rationally, the last place you want to go is into a philosophy classroom. You're far better off studying an actual science.

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  3. the track record of philosophical “proofs” is not exactly impressive, unlike the mathematical variety.

    Philosophy is more about asking and defining questions, rather than answering them - exploring a problem-space that has little or no restrictions, if you will. Many of the better philosophical questions are quite meaningful to humans, but are difficult or impossible to analyze with math and science.

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  4. If you want to learn how to argue logically and rationally, the last place you want to go is into a philosophy classroom. You're far better off studying an actual science.

    I'd have to disagree with that. Philosophers are trained to identify fallacies and biases, something which is rarely mentioned in science class. That isn't to say students in the sciences don't know these things -- often, if they're good students, they'll be motivated to learn these things on their own.

    But just as an example, some Creationist uses the ol' "evolution, and in particular survival of the fittest, implies we should practice racism/eugenics," and it's shocking to see the number of people with science backgrounds countering with "no, no, haven't you heard of things like kin selection? We evolved to be nice/altruistic to each other, etc." Too many people with science backgrounds feel the need to argue back with something science-y when it's clearly unwarranted and straightforwardly fallacious. Someone with a (good) philosophy background would recognize that in this instance, both the creationist and the evolution defender are committing the is-ought fallacy; that is, confusing descriptive claims (the science of evolution) with normative claims (how it is we ought to treat each other). The former does not in any way, imply the latter. Survival of the fittest does not imply racism anymore than kin selection implies we should all be nice to each other.

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  5. Philosophy is more about asking and defining questions, rather than answering them - exploring a problem-space that has little or no restrictions, if you will. Many of the better philosophical questions are quite meaningful to humans, but are difficult or impossible to analyze with math and science.

    I think the problem is an observation bias, really. If philosophy stumbles upon something that is amenable to the methods of science, it ipso facto, becomes a science and is spun off into its own department at a university.

    Think about philosophy of mind for instance. If a philosopher of mind were to figure out how to link what we call "consciousness" to action potentials and neurotransmission, it would cease to be philosophy of mind and become a science of consciousness. This doesn't mean the philosophers are deliberately trying to deal only with questions and avoid answering them -- rather, once they are answered, it gets shifted out of the realm of "pure philosophy."

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  6. If philosophy stumbles upon something that is amenable to the methods of science, it ipso facto, becomes a science and is spun off into its own department at a university.

    I'll go along with that. However, even after they are spun off, there will always be domains-specific questions that are not amenable to direct scientific analysis, and you end you end with philosophy of biology, philosophy of mathematics, etc. And there are many questions that appear to have little hope of ever being completely spun off. Questions about God, consciousness, morality, etc.

    Think about philosophy of mind for instance. If a philosopher of mind were to figure out how to link what we call "consciousness" to action potentials and neurotransmission, it would cease to be philosophy of mind and become a science of consciousness.

    The key word there is "if" ;)

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  7. Questions about God consciousness, morality, etc.

    ...I would also add, last but certainly not least, that ontology and epistemology are even more fundamental in this category, subordinate only perhaps to consciousness. There are no verifiable putative properties such as "being", and no "knowledge" at all without consciousness, of which yours is the only instance that has ever been directly observed, so one could argue that all things and properties are contingent thereupon. An irrefutable argument, but that doesn't make it necessary "true" (whatever truth is).

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  8. There have been millions of atheists in (metaphorical) foxholes throughout history.

    Actually, there are no true believers in foxholes. Consider: if God is omnicient and omnipotent and even marks the falling of a sparrow and if God controls human destiny and every person dies at, and only at, God's appointed hour, what use is hiding in a foxhole? If you're time is up according to God, the deepest bunker can't protect you and, if it isn't, no matter how thick the hail of bullets, no harm can come to you. It's only those with little faith ... and atheists ... in foxholes.

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  9. The Barefoot Bum,

    If you want to learn how to argue logically and rationally, the last place you want to go is into a philosophy classroom. You're far better off studying an actual science.

    I've posted dozens of articles showing that the "logic" of scientists leaves a great deal to be desired.

    The current state of science is drifting far away from the rational enterprise that you seem to be imagining. To take just one small example, how many times have you heard scientists proclaim that the Central Dogma of Molecular biology has been falsified?

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  10. Philosophy is good. Sophism is bad. Where sophism is the use of philosophical forms to promote one side of an argument, rather than an honest search for the truth. Here's a characterization of Alvin Plantinga I enjoyed:

    Plantinga, like so many religious apologists, is a cargo-cult logician -- he uses the forms, but he doesn't actually understand their function.

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  11. I think Shakespeare did best at summing up philosophical discussion about the existence of God: Much Ado About Nothing.

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  12. ...and one argument, the “design argument,” has had a new lease on life as the intellectual underpinning of the intelligent design movement.

    Is there anyone who still believes that the underpinnings of the ID movement are intellectual, rather than political and religious?

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  13. I think Shakespeare did best at summing up philosophical discussion about the existence of God: Much Ado About Nothing.

    Um... except that Much Ado About Nothing is the title of a comedy, and there are numerous references to God and the supernatural in Shakespearean plays. Try Hamlet for a start...

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  14. Larry: I'm not saying that scientists are perfect. But I've been talking to professional philosophers and philosophy students for almost a decade, and I've found few philosophers and fewer students who understand logic and rational argumentation in a deep way. All too often, it seems, they learn how to hide a fundamentally irrational position in the trappings of rational argumentation.

    I'm fortunate that I began my own individual study of philosophy later in life (I'm 45 now), and I began studying philosophy with a professional background in engineering (computer programming) and a lifelong amateur interest in science. You can't bullshit a computer, and in the end you can't bullshit nature.

    I'm not saying that scientists and engineers are immune to imprecise thinking and outright bullshit. But it's been my experience that philosophers are mired in bullshit; barely one step above theologians.

    I think the fundamental problem of philosophy is the focus on ethics, and the project of coming up with an "objectively true" system of ethics. Without this project, 95% of philosophy is a waste of time, and 95% of philosophers would be out of work.

    I'm convinced this project is futile: at the end of the day, the foundation of ethics is just what we subjectively like and dislike. Thus philosophers must ignore this central futility and spend a great deal of their professional time covering up the hollowness of their discipline.

    Of course, there are some good philosophers out there, who can think precisely and carefully and who can identify not just the fallacies and biases in others' work but also in their own work, and make it better. And I think scientists would be well served to study "true" philosophy, and to think carefully and precisely about how they think, especially how they think about science.

    But today, as an academic discipline, I think philosophy is almost completely useless to the practicing scientist or anyone who truly wants to learn to think more carefully and precisely.

    The above is my personal opinion based only on my own experience. YMMV.

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  15. First time I see such an argument :-D

    Good thing that smart people still find time to ponder on such a Fundamental Issue (God).

    Mats

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  16. There's another subject that can teach logical thinking pretty well- law. Arguing legal cases needs a lot of pondering and thinking. More importantly it needs honing the ability to present your arguments well.
    As an aside I do agree that a good philosophy course taught by an insightful professor can shed considerable light on logical thinking and the art of logical debate.

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  17. There's another subject that can teach logical thinking pretty well- law.

    On the other hand, it is not uncommon to see lawyers overreach in championing the legal approach. After all it is about what is legal, whereas scientific or rational approaches are about what is true. Allow me to quote from the dust jacket of Phillip E. Johnson's book Darwin on Trial:

    Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson looks at the evidence for Darwinistic evolution the way a lawyer would - with a cold dispassionate eye for logic and proof.

    Is that what people expect from lawyers? Or do they expect them to passionately fight for their client's interest using every technicality and persuasive rhetorical trick they can muster?

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  18. "...in spite of the fact that there are no sound arguments for the existence of God?"

    These are no doubt fighting words to philosophers, doubly so cast as they are by a scientist. The arguments for the existence of God have been compared to some standard and found wanting, it seems. But which standard?

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  19. Philosophy is bunk, unless its principles, methods, concerns, conclusions, have some anchor in the real world. There isn't anything like god in the real world, so philosophical speculation on god is worthless! There you are! I find the likes of Alvin Plantinga - theistic philosophers - to be less than complete int their utterances. Their mission is to simply dress up belief in clothes of the real world. I would much rather have the deliberations of the Hedonists, the Samkhya thinkers, the Vaiseshikas, and the Confucians, than tripe like present day philosophy.

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  20. These are no doubt fighting words to philosophers, doubly so cast as they are by a scientist. The arguments for the existence of God have been compared to some standard and found wanting, it seems. But which standard?

    1) They are not fighting words to a philosopher if the philosopher is an atheist. Your suggestion otherwise equivocates philosophy with theism when they are not the same (the latter, at best, can be construed as a type or branch of philosophy)

    2) The standard is of rational and empirical consistency. That means no fallacies, biases or underdeterminations permitted. Now, if you plan to follow up on this by asking "why this standard and not some other?" then you are asking why one ought to be rationally and empirically consistent, to which I can only say that if you REALLY want to be irrational, that is your choice.

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  21. Philosophers mostly ask uninteresting questions. As Richard Feynman said about things he doesn't know, like whether it means anything to ask why we're here and what the question might mean.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taEw97brZis&feature=related

    He says, "I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, about being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it is as far as I can tell possibly."

    It is there in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. He also gives his criticism of the social sciences.

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  22. In law, the system as a whole is designed (imperfectly) to get at the truth, but individual lawyers (as Reginald notes) are trained to play one specific part within that system: advocacy, not seeking after the truth.

    Lawyers are trained to win arguments. Academic philosophers are trained to make arguments look rational. Neither is a particularly effective way to search for the truth.

    At the end of the day, scientists, however imperfect and human they might be, are trained to find the experiments and decide issues of truth by those experiments, not by rhetorical skill.

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  23. The Barefoot Bum,

    At the end of the day, scientists, however imperfect and human they might be, are trained to find the experiments and decide issues of truth by those experiments, not by rhetorical skill.

    That limits scientists to discovering only those things that can be discovered by experiments. Furthermore, I place a great emphasis on science as a way of *thinking*: that's the part that takes place *after* the experiments have been completed.

    My definition of science is that it is a way of knowing that involves evidence and rational thinking. I don't restrict "science" to doing experiments since there are many other ways of collecting evidence.

    The scientific way of knowing is the one that has been advocated by many philosophers over the past several hundred years. Philosophers are very good at telling the difference between truly rational arguments and those that only have the appearance of rationality. That's why undergraduates should take courses in philosophy—it should help them in all aspects of life.

    In my opinion, scientists are not much better than the average citizen when it comes to constructing rational arguments. The scientific literature is full of fundamental errors in logic, not to mention errors in the data.

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  24. "The standard is of rational and empirical consistency."

    And an excellent standard it is, to be sure. You've not explained, however, why the ontological argument for the existence of God fails to meet this standard. That it fails to convince you, AL, is apparent but that it fails to be rational is something you've not shown.
    None of this is new: philosophers have been batting this question around for hundreds of years with neither side being able to convincingly "prove" their point. If the ontological argument was unsound, it could be clearly demonstrated to be so, and this would all be merely an exercise in reading the history of philosophy. Instead, the argument is more properly called inconclusive: compelling to some, not so to others, and still subject to thought and debate.

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  25. Instead, the argument is more properly called inconclusive: compelling to some, not so to others, and still subject to thought and debate.

    The question is, do theistic philosophers believe in God because they find the ontological argument compelling or, rather, do they find the argument compelling because they already believe in God?

    The fact remains that the ontological argument is fundamentally flawed in several ways. One of its flaws is that it uses an assumption which needs to be proven true, namely that perfection requires existence. How so?

    Essentially, the ontological argument is but a sophisticated way of defining God into existence. I don't see how such an argument can be seen as compelling.

    Imagine the following reasoning:

    - A blopoukt is a living unicorn;

    - A living unicorn must be existent, for ortherwise it could not be said to be living;

    - Therefore blopoukts exist.

    Same reasoning:

    - God is a perfect being;

    - A perfect being must be existent, for ortherwise it could not be said to be perfect;

    - Therefore God exists.

    And NO! This is not a strawman! The argument does use the "perfection requires existence" premise. So you don't have this escape route at your disposal. ;-)

    Robert M.

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  26. Larry: Your experience with philosophers obviously differs greatly from my own.

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  27. Well, yes, finn, the ontological argument is discussed endlessly and there are still theologians today who feel it is tenable or at least salvageable. It is a fallacy of the golden middle, however, to assume that because people still debate it endlessly, it has a point. There are plenty of things that are debated endlessly when clearly one side is right and the other plain vanilla wrong. Look at all the people who debate the Monty Hall problem, for instance. You'll find even trained phd statisticians and probability theorists offering very elaborate takes on why it makes no difference to switch doors, but unfortunately, they are wrong. For another example, go to math forums (fora?) or newsgroups and try to have a discussion of whether or not 0.999... = 1. Once again, there is a correct answer by the standard of rational consistency, and then there are people who contradict themselves endlessly trying to rationalize the wrong answer.

    Don't confuse lots and lots of endless discussion on some "controversy" as meaning no one side is correct by the standard of rational and logical consistency.

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  28. I have not done a good job of explaining myself, it seems. It is not my intention to defend the ontological argument, per se. Professor Moran made a blanket statement that there are no sound arguments for the existence of God and I thought that would stir up philosophers as a shot at their field; I thought he was comparing their methods to those of an experimental scientist, a misconception he cleared up in subsequent comments. I believe that philosophy has value as a method of thought that helps us to gain knowledge, if not answers.

    "The fact remains that the ontological argument is fundamentally flawed in several ways. One of its flaws is that it uses an assumption which needs to be proven true, namely that perfection requires existence. How so?"

    Quite so, Robert. That is the flaw that I find in the ontological argument as well: it begs the question.


    "Don't confuse lots and lots of endless discussion on some "controversy" as meaning no one side is correct by the standard of rational and logical consistency."

    I am not doing so at all, AL. I do not see this question as a flat-earth type of dispute but rather as a case of neither side being able to definitively prove their case. And I do not believe that either side will ever do so.

    I consider "proof" to mean a conclusion that is objectively undeniable, unassailable; there simply cannot be another answer. Some questions cannot be answered in this way.

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  29. I consider "proof" to mean a conclusion that is objectively undeniable, unassailable; there simply cannot be another answer. Some questions cannot be answered in this way.

    No questions at all can be answered in this way, not even questions of internal consistency.

    To use your own examples, we cannot be absolutely certain you should switch doors or that 0.999... = 1. It is possible (albeit unlikely) we have made a systematic error in our application of logic. It is also possible that there is an undiscovered flaw in deductive reasoning itself.

    It is furthermore possible deductive reasoning does not accurately model objective reality, that it is nothing but a word game.

    Not that I take any of these issues particularly seriously: Deductive reasoning appears to work, and my own and others' capacity to reason deductively also appears to work, and I have no reason to believe otherwise.

    And that's the crux of the biscuit with beliefs about God: atheism works, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. But if that's not a good enough standard for believing that no God exists, then why should it be a good enough standard to believe that things fall when you drop them?

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