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Ontological Argument

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Can you imagine something that is not? Easy enough, but can you imagine something that is beyond anything you have ever seen or experienced before? That  is to say we may be able to imagine things that do not exist by recombining aspects of many things that do exist, but we cannot imagine something that has no conceptual or experiential relation to anything in reality.

This statement is far more significant than it first seems. It has repercussions for conceptualization in the social science, for the study of politics, for the construction of society … That is we cannot make sense of the world except through categories that have some foundation in experience even if the category is a combination of parts of different experiences, no part can be something that has no corresponding equivalent. So we can imagine a unicorn but we have seen horses and horns. We can imagine flying dragons but we have seen lizards and birds and scales and armor and teeth etc… This is why it is so difficult to imagine what alien life would look like, the Discovery Channel brought together several experts on alien life to model what it could look like and they came up with weird four winged birds. Even in movies, aliens always seem to be recombinations of existing things. Therefore I believe it is correct to say that we cannot think outside of experience.

I could take this analogy to a number of places but today I want to discuss the Ontological Argument with this in mind. The Ontological argument is a proof for the existence of God first put forth by Anselm in 1078. Basically Anselm confusingly argues the following: That God is defined as a being of which no greater can be conceived. That this being exists in the human mind (we can think God) and that a being that exists in the mind and reality is greater than a being that only exists in the mind. Therefore God must exist in reality because we can think of it. When I first came across this argument I thought it was extremely stupid. Common counter-arguments are, I can think of an excellent invisible flying Unicorn but just because I can think of it does not mean it exists. Same for God, just because I can think of it, does not mean it must exist. Aquinas argues that humans cannot conceive God. In any case for a long time this argument made very little sense to me until I thought of it in different terms to how it is presented.

Let us say that God is omnipotent and omniscient. How am I able to conceptualize or imagine such a being with such characteristics if I have not come across these characteristics in my experience before? If we accept the first paragraph, that we cannot imagine anything that has no correspondence in reality, then we cannot imagine omniscience or omnipotence either. But both  of these are cohesive and whole characteristics. One cannot be partially omniscient or omnipotent. Therefore I could not have patched up this concept from different parts like I would have with a unicorn. I must have experienced these things in order to imagine them and because they only exist as wholes (or as perfect) then they must have existed so that I could think them. Therefore a being with the characteristics of God must have existed and possibly continues to exist.

This is not to say that I agree with this logic, but I recognize it. Whereas I could not get a grasp on what Anselm or Descartes were really saying when they said if I can think of a perfect being it must exist.

In way of objections, one could say that simply because we experience something, this does not mean that it existed, many times our senses can betray us. We may have experienced our parents as omnipotent and omniscient as children but this was merely an illusory experience. We may have experienced actual omnipotence (again with the parents example) without this necessarily meaning that it was God or omnipotent. (One is on sense betrayal another is on sense accuracy but conclusions being wrong about the nature of the being). More problematic is the claim that we can actually imagine omniscience and omnipotence as wholes. We may imagine them by constructing them from parts, someone who knows math and another who knows physics etc… and we come up with a concept of omniscience. But I would argue we do not imagine them as wholes, we can think them by cobbling together their parts and making a leap of imagination. We cannot think of perfection (Aquinas’s argument).

This is not quite the ontological argument, but it is a way to think of it.

 

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