Seminar: Can You Break the Ontological Argument?

As discussed in the last post, I believe an important task in teaching philosophy of religion is being able to identify the difference between an unphilosophical attack on religion in the manner of Dawkins and the philosophy of religion itself, where the former seeks to understand religion in its own terms regardless of its decision on the question of the existence of God.

I’ve found a good way of teaching this, presuming the students tend to view religion within the locus of Dawkin’s allegation that religion is irrational, is by teaching the rationality of religion. This makes the discussion relate to them and meets the desired learning outcome.

A fun way of doing this in a seminar is to discuss the ontological argument. The discussion takes the form of a challenge: prove to me that this argument is invalid. There are some prerequisites for making this work.

  • I unashamedly stack the odds in my favour by not teaching them the classic refutations (Aquinas / Hume / Leibniz / Kant) beforehand.
  • Some famliliarity with the arguments for the existence of God will help (recalling A level should be sufficient)
  • But, again, I wouldn’t encourage them to do too much preparation for this debate. It spoils the fun

Now, you may say this is a bit of an odd tack to take. But, the point of this seminar is not actually for them to refute the ontological argument, but experience the frustration at being unable to refute it. As my college critical thinking teacher taught this argument: the ontological argument is one of the best arguments in history because everyone hates it, everyone wants to refute it but noone can agree on exactly what’s wrong with it.

The most authentic objection to the ontological argument is just a vague sense that there’s something funny about it. But, this sense is not a rational sense, it is an irrational dislike of the way the argument operates, which is itself ultra-rational. As a Heideggerian, I tend to interpret this as a pre-intellectual sense that the meaning of being is misunderstood in this argument. This follows his reading of Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument. By saying that Being is not a real predicate, Kant is saying that the meaning of being is misrecognised in this argument abused. But, that is by the by.

As a continual reminder that no one says anything new, students only really come up with the same three or four objections. I will present these in a table, because I like tables. Before doing so, it is only fair to remind you of the premises of this subtle and intensely annoying argument.

P1 – We all can conceive of a perfect being

P2 – Existence is a perfection

– The perfect being exists

Complaint        Response
But it depends on what you mean by perfection doesn’t it! Well, no. Perfect is a technical philosophical term that means a “complete” being, a being that has all positive predicates as part of its being. Just as the perfect pizza does not have anything lacking, the perfect being lacks no positive property whatsoever. So, that argument doesn’t work.
Yes but that’s not what perfections means to me That doesn’t matter, it’s what perfection means to the person making the argument. Playing around with definitions won’t refute the argument. Try again.
Well, you can’t prove the existence of something just using logic. Why?
You just can’t!!! Well, Hume said that, but he didn’t actually justify it. The entire point of the ontological argument is that it purports to prove that the one matter of fact that can be settled by reason is the existence of a perfect being. You have to say why that’s incorrect

And on it goes. The first time I tried this I did feel like the students were about to attack me, they were that wound up. But, it is an important lesson. By refuting every argument they have, they are forced to simply say the don’t believe it, which is itself an irrational response to the rational argument.

To calm them down, I tell them Kant’s refutation which, for me at least, does solve the issue. But, remind them that if we follow Kant we are admitting that the problem of national religion is not that it is rational, but that it is too rational. Reason believes it has the ability to deduce the existence of things but it is unable to because reason is not a property at all. It certainly gives them something to think about.