About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
And you call this an argument??
One simple way to justify my criticism is a Dawkins-like attack: since theology is all about make-believe, there is no such thing as a good theological argument, no matter how convoluted such argument may be. In a similar fashion, it doesn't matter how complicated the mathematical computations and diagrams of astrologers are, they are still nonsense on stilts. I actually agree with Dawkins here, but I will not take that easy way out.
Instead, I will briefly discuss Plantinga's own version of the (in)famous “ontological argument” for the existence of god, which he rather immodestly calls the “victorious” argument. As is well known, Anselm of Canterbury wrote up his logical proof of the existence of god in his “Proslogion” back in the 11th century. It is remarkable how much traction such an inane idea has had throughout the centuries (of course, not as much traction as the even more inane idea of god's existence). Anselm started out by defining god as that of which “no greater can be conceived.” He reckoned that every fool (his words) clearly understands this concept of an entity of which no greater can be conceived (I have to admit to being a fool here, since the very idea makes no sense to me: no greater than what? By what measure?). Now, continues Anselm, surely such thing of which no greater can be conceived cannot exist only in understanding (i.e., in theory), but it must exist in reality as well (because being real is a necessary property of that of which no greater can be conceived). QED, god (the thing we've been talking about) does exist.
Wow. Besides the obvious problem that Anselm does not provide us with any criterion for establishing “greatness” here, it is also seriously disputable that existence is a “greater” quality than non-existence. In fact, fictional heroes (say, Spiderman) are obviously “greater” than any real human being, so god doesn't exist because that way he is even greater than if he existed. QED. You can call this the Pigliucci proof of the nonexistence of god.
Well, then, Plantinga, back in 1974 (in his “The Nature of Necessity,” published by Oxford University Press) took it upon himself to improve on Anselm's clumsy attempt. Here is our hero's “argument”:
1. An entity possesses maximal excellence if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. [Can you smell not just any god, here, but the particular Judeo-Christian-Muslim version?]
2. An entity possesses maximal greatness if and only if it possesses maximal excellence in every possible world.
3. There is a possible world in which there is an entity that possesses maximal greatness.
4. Therefore, there is an entity that possesses maximal greatness.
What? First off, the concept of maximal excellence is fuzzy and unquantifiable, and – many have argued – internally inconsistent, which means it is as useless as Anselm's original idea of “greatness”. Second, although the argument is technically valid (i.e., if one accepts the premises, the conclusion necessarily follows) it shows absolutely nothing about existence. This is because it can be rephrased as “it is possible that it is necessary that X (n. 3 above); therefore it is necessary that X (n. 4 above).” But this is a jump from logical possibility to factual existence. There is a long tradition in philosophy of attempting to gain knowledge about the physical world by sheer force of logic. It goes back to Plato, and it got to an abrupt halt with Descartes' utter failure to derive anything relevant from his famous “I think therefore I am” (he immediately had to invoke out of nowhere the existence of a god who would guarantee the truth of his intuitions -- something philosophers refer to as Descartes' vicious circle). Plantinga, if one wishes to be charitable, is at least four centuries late (if one opts instead for being uncharitable, then he is ten centuries late, and in fact even Anselm's “argument” would have probably been laughed at by real philosophers like Aristotle or Epicurus).
Perhaps surprisingly, Plantinga does in fact recognize that his argument doesn't prove anything, and considers it “victorious” simply because it establishes that it is rational to accept its conclusion, since it is rational to accept the premise. Some Pyhrric victory this one is. And besides, my dear Alvin, no, it ain't rational at all to even accept the premise of your argument, because the concept of maximal excellence is hopelessly confused (not to mention the deceptively intuitive idea of “all possible worlds”: how, exactly, is one suppose to go about enumerating them?).
It is sad to see smart people use their complex evolved brains to salvage a fairy tale invented millennia ago by their naive ancestors. And it is doubly sad when so many others take the words of such “philosophers” as if they contained deep truths about fundamental questions, while they are no better than Deepak Chopra's nonsense about quantum mechanical elixirs for perennial youth. Hope does indeed spring eternal, unfortunately.