Tuesday, October 02, 2012

god exists; therefore god exists

It's nice to see In Our Time back on Radio 4 on Thursday mornings, though it may mean that my Thursday morning punctuality may suffer as there will be a temptation to hang back so as to hear as much of it as possible (and goodness knows I need little enough encouragement to do that as it is).

Last Thursday's was a little bit of a shouting at the radio moment, though, and crystallises some of my reservations about Melvyn Bragg, otherwise wholly admirable as a broadcaster and general force for intellectual good - reservations previously expressed here.

The subject of the programme was Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, which goes a little something like this:
  • God is great. No, really reeeaally great. In fact you literally can't think of anything greater, even if you try. Think you've thought of something greater than God? Well, you're wrong, and you've clearly not understood just how great God is, because he's totes the greatest thing there is, or ever has been. End of.
  • That being the case, let's imagine that he doesn't exist. That would be a bit rubbish, wouldn't it? It would certainly ill befit the greatest ruddy thing ever. Existing would be far better. 
  • We've already established God's status as the greatest thing ever in every respect, and that clearly includes in respect of the question of existence as opposed to non-existence.
  • Therefore, God exists.
  • Allelujah, praaaaaiiiise him, etc. 
No, it really is that stupid. And it's interesting, in a way, to reflect on how pernicious and corrosive to clarity of thought religion and its general unthinking acceptance by society is that this laughable tosh is still being discussed by at least semi-serious philosophers to this day. To be more accurate, I suppose it's really a reflection of how successfully the entirely vacuous discipline called "theology" has glommed itself onto the coat-tails of the occasionally woolly but in general legitimate discipline of philosophy.

In general there's quite a lot of interesting discussion of the historical context in the programme, and certainly not an unthinking acceptance of the validity of the argument, but still, the reverence accorded to it is all a bit Emperor's New Clothes. Really this is about at the level of one of those old schoolboy mathematical proofs that 1 = -1; no-one actually came away from being shown one of those having really been convinced that 1 and -1 were equal, even if they couldn't immediately see the problem (usually a sneaky square root calculation or a hidden division by zero). And while one can unpick the problems with Anselm's argument (general incoherence of definitions, unevidenced assertion, special pleading, circular reasoning, its similar application to unicorns, the perfect cheese sandwich, etc.), it might be better to ask the question: has anyone, ever, been converted from atheism to theism by exposure to it? I strongly suspect the answer is no, or at least vanishingly rarely. The RationalWiki article I linked to above makes the interesting point that in Anselm's time convincing people of the existence of God wasn't really the point, because everyone already unquestioningly believed in him anyway, it was more about providing a bit of faux-respectable intellectual backing for what you already believed. That remains its primary purpose today, even when inflated to astonishing levels of obfuscatory bafflegab by the likes of Alvin Plantinga.

The other thing that the theologians do, of course, like the sneaky little weasels that they are, is to morph from talking about the God of the ontological argument, about whom (even if you accept the argument) nothing is known save for his existence, to talking about the Christian God of the Bible, about whom all manner of real-world claims are made (most of them entirely refuted by reality), without showing their working for all the intermediate bits. Generally the trick here is to tailor which God you're talking about depending on who your audience is.

Anyway, I assert that there is a glass of whisky greater than which no glass of whisky can be imagined. Clearly, in whisky terms, it would be greater not only to exist rather than not to exist, but also to be in my whisky cupboard rather than, say, in someone else's. Back in a bit.

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