St. T-Rex’s Ontological Argument

Continuing what is apparently Webcomics Week here at No Forbidden Questions, here’s a panel from Dinosaur Comics that I’ve been meaning to highlight and talk about. You can click the image to see the whole strip (it’s amusing), but it’s not really important as far as the discussion I want to have right now is concerned.

Anyhow, check it:

Dinosaur Comics

I hope that all of us here can get together and agree that “momentum-increasing trampoline rooms” do not exist. For this reason, T-Rex’s anguish in this comment is so absurd as to be humorous. However, serious people have been making exactly this argument for the existence of their gods for at least a thousand years!

The ontological argument for the existence of (at least one) God has come in many different wordings over the centuries, but the basic idea remains the same. We begin by defining God as the greatest being that we can conceive of. It is better to exist than not to exist, so “the greatest being we can conceive of” must exist. (It would be a strictly worse being if it did not, and therefore not the greatest conceivable.) Therefore, ta-da, God must exist. Convinced?

I hope not! Objections to the ontological argument began rolling in almost immediately after Anselm of Canterbury published his version. I could go into detail with various criticisms, but T-Rex has illustrated what I think is the most glaring one for us already. This just obviously isn’t how the world works! Whatever you can imagine clearly does not magically manifest itself in reality. The best possible [whatever you like] does not necessarily exist. The best possible … oh, I don’t know … cheesecake would be one you could eat forever without gaining an ounce, and it would also cure cancer. Does such a cheesecake exist? A calorie-free, cancer-curing cheesecake that does exist is strictly better than a calorie-free, cancer-curing cheesecake that does not exist! But … so what? I can imagine a lot of alterations I could make to the world we live in that would be strict improvements over the status quo. That doesn’t mean they’ve already happened. No matter how disappointing that might be.

You might sense a tiny bit of frustration in my tone here. That’s because real, live philosophers continue to play with formulations of the ontological argument, and they’re acting all serious and professional about it. People seem to be treating them as serious professionals, paying them salaries, making them spiffy engraved nameplates for their office doors, and the like. I’m essentially writing off academia as a possible career path because my field is too competitive and I don’t think I can make the cut, but meanwhile, philosophy professors don’t have to bother themselves with silly things like making sense or reality. Their work can be refuted by a panel from an absurdist webcomic where the pictures don’t even change at all from strip to strip (no offense, Ryan North, I’m just sayin’ it’s no Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which I think we agree on). I mean, good grief, this is the sort of thing that makes me want to give up on humanity and become a hermit.

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  1. I actually got my best answer to this from a real live philosopher (Daniel Dennett). It’s that the arguer is making a “use-mention error”.

    To explain this, I’ll use a horse as an example. When you think about a horse, you carry an idea of a horse in your head, which has certain characteristics which may or may not relate to an actual horse. We can think about and discuss this mental construct, “horse”, without actually saying anything about real horses. If we get a “horse” and a horse mixed up, we quickly run into nonsense arguments.

    So the ontological argument is getting the mental construct “god” that people carry around in their head muddled up with an actual god.

    Or, my other favorite response:
    God is that which has every perfection.
    Existence is a perfection.
    Deliciousness is also a perfection.
    Yahweh is not delicious, but the Flying Spaghetti Monster is.
    Therefore the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists and is god.

  2. Your agony over philosophers was a main point in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Adams had the same thought about how they get paid for seriously discussing the source of navel lint.

  3. Lurker111

     /  April 22, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Imagine the greatest chicken fajita you could ever imagine …

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