Friday, June 4, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Ontology, Foolishness and Beauty

In the next section of "The God Delusion" Dawkins addresses the ontological argument for God's existence. The ontological argument goes like this: We can conceive of a being that is the greatest conceivable being. This being may or may not exist in reality. However, a being that exists in reality is greater than one that exists only in the imagination. Therefore any being that exists only in the imagination cannot be the greatest conceivable being. Therefore, the greatest conceivable being must exist in reality as well as in the imagination. Therefore, God exists.

The ontological argument is an interesting argument. Dawkins quotes Bertrand Russell, who said, "The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies." This is precisely what makes the argument so fascinating.

The problem was eventually identified by Immanuel Kant. Kant pointed out that the argument relies on the assumption that existence is a property. Based on that faulty assumption, Anselm is able to make the claim that objects that have this property, the property of existing in the real world, are more perfect than objects that don't. Still, Kant's refutation of Anselm's argument wasn't published until almost seven hundred years after Anselm originally made the argument. When Russell said that it is hard to figure out exactly where the fallacy is, he wasn't kidding.

Of course Dawkins is never convinced that the argument has any validity to it. He finds it absurd to think that such grand conclusions could follow from a simple logic puzzle. He even chastises Russell, who was, for a brief time, convinced that the ontological argument must be sound. He compares the ontological argument to Zeno's proof that Achilles will never catch up to the tortoise*. He says that Russell should have realized that the ontological argument was bogus, just like the ancient greeks realized that Zeno's proofs were bogus.

There are a couple of problems with Dawkins' comparison. First of all, the fact that Achilles will actually catch the tortoise is self evident, whereas God's nonexistence is not. Secondly, Dawkins claims that Zeno's contemporaries simply labeled Zeno's argument a paradox and waited for later generations to solve it. Dawkin's ignores the fact that Zeno's contemporaries found his arguments troubling. Zeno's arguments showed that there was a flaw in how they understood the universe.

Dawkins' line of thought here seems a little bit troubling. He seems to be suggesting that God's nonexistence is obviously true. He's also saying, if you encounter some evidence or line of reasoning that might lead you to believe that God exists, it's probably just a trick. You should ignore it and go on believing that God doesn't exist. Dawkins routinely takes religious people to task for advocating that people should believe in God whether or not logic or the evidence supports it, but that seems awfully close to what he's implying here. That people should believe that God doesn't exist whether or not logic or the evidence supports it.

One thing Dawkins brings up as he's talking about the ontological argument is that Saint Anselm makes the claim that atheists are fools. Anslem makes this claim based on the first verse of Psalm 14, which says, "The fool says in his heart there is no God."

For once I'm going to stick up for Dawkins, and point out that Anselm is misusing scripture here. Psalm 14:1 isn't saying that all atheists are idiots. For one thing, the word for "fool" in Hebrew doesn't refer to an idiot, but rather someone who lacks moral character. Secondly, the verse doesn't say that atheists are fools. The verse isn't about atheists; it is about fools. Finally it says that fools have said, "In their heart," that there is no God. These fools might be very religious on the outside, but deep down they do not really believe in God. The claim this Psalm is making is when people behave immorally, they deny the existence of God. If you read the entire Psalm, it's clear that this is what the Psalmist is getting at.

Now that I've straightened that out, let's move on to the next section. This next section deals with the argument from beauty. In this section Dawkins doesn't even bother to explain what the argument from beauty is, he just says that he isn't convinced by it. I'm a little disappointed that he doesn't even bother to restate the argument. He should at least try to understand the argument being made before he dismisses it.

Still, in his own way Dawkins has been addressing the argument from beauty since the beginning of the book. In the opening chapter he talks about the transcendent beauty of nature. He talks about how that same feeling of transcendent wonder that inspires some people to pursue God, inspires Dawkins to pursue science.

The argument from beauty, in a nutshell, is that feelings of transcendent wonder indicate the existence of something transcendent. Dawkins seem to be saying that such feelings merely indicate the wonder of nature, or the beauty of a particular work of art. None of it points to a higher cause, which is the source of all things wondrous or beautiful.

* The paradox is this: In order for Achilles to catch the tortoise, he must first reach the tortoise's starting location. Once he does that, the tortoise will have moved, so Achilles will have to reach the tortoise's new location. Of course, by the time he does that, the tortoise will have moved again, and so on ad infinitum. Therefore Achilles can never catch up to the tortoise.

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