I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument in valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: “Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.”—Bertrand Russell, “My Intellectual Development”
A week ago, I wrote a bit about numbers. I tried to express the amazing experience of the infinitude of numbers, discoverable using only introspection. It’s a great feeling to understand such things; it’s greater yet to experience them.
I’d like to walk you through an ontological argument. This argument uses pure introspection alone, and seems to prove the existence of God. Relax, this isn’t going to lead to evangelism in my blog. What I hope is that you can experience Russell’s thrill of feeling the soundness of the argument.
(Spoiler: Russell was a committed atheist for almost all of his adult life; but he felt the power of an ontological argument. I had a similar experience as an undergraduate, sans tobacco tin.)
I will not present technical or historical details; they are easy enough to ferret out for yourself.
The strategy is similar to the proof that there is an infinite number of whole numbers. We’ll make an assumption, apply a small amount of logic to it and end up with a contradiction, forcing us to acknowledge that our original assumption is false.
Before we get to the critical assumption, let’s make a definition. God is the greatest being imaginable. We may have to spend some time working out the details of greatness, and check for logical consistency, but let’s go with the general idea of God being the greatest being of which we can conceive. What that means is if we can come up with ideas of greatness (mercy, benevolence, power, goodness, just, and so on) they all apply maximally to God. Notice that this conception of God doesn’t give little details like gender or whether God has a body.
Ok now, we have a definition and it involves our ability to conceive. As we conceive of greatness, the greatest exemplars must be properties of God. Here’s the crucial step. Let’s assume that God does not exist. All we have is a definition, and idea of God as the greatest, but, alas, such a being does not exist. And here is the contradiction. It’s easy to add “and he exists” to our list of greatnesses. A God that exists is surely greater than a God that doesn’t exist. Our assumption that God doesn’t exist contradicts our definition of God. Therefore it cannot be the case that God does not exist. God exists.
This blog is not the place for me to explore the philosophical niceties of the argument in detail. If anyone is interested, please post in the comments, and I’ll dedicate another entry to the details. For now, the important thing is to feel the argument. Let it get under your skin. If you are at all typical you already have strong feelings about the existence or non-existence of God. Don’t worry; this is not about challenging your most deeply-held beliefs. Take the time to feel the beauty of the argument. Take the time to get a little confused. Take the time to lose yourself in thought. This is the Power of Wonder, after all.
I urge you not to start reading up on what other people have to say about the argument. Not yet. If you’re still feeling the twists and turns of the logic in a few weeks, then go ahead. There is much available. Immanuel Kant gave what was considered the strongest objection to the argument at the end of the 18th century. The development of modal logic in the 1970s challenged Kant’s objection. Richard Dawkins dismissed the argument in a couple of sentences, revealing that he didn’t understand it. Sometimes we educated types overplay our hands. Again, don’t rush out and read this stuff. Feel the argument, debate with yourself. If you’re lucky, you’ll be immersed in the ideas for a while.
The ontological argument has haunted me for 30 years. I love it.