Jesus ‘n’ Mo tackle the Ontological Argument

February 23, 2011 • 6:34 pm

In some corners of the website-osphere, people are implying that the Ontological Argument for the reality of god is an argument of great theological subtlety—that people like Richard Dawkins simply fail to grasp why it’s so powerful a tool for inferring god’s existence from reason alone, without recourse to data.

Bosh. The argument is dumb, perfectly capable of refutation by anyone with more than a few neurons.  The  Jesus and Mo artist shows its intellectual vacuity:

93 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo tackle the Ontological Argument

  1. Guinness FTW. I am a big fan of Jesus now, and The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), because they like my favourite beer.

  2. Well, I say non-existence, rather than existence, is a property of perfection.

    therefore, god does not exist. can we all stop talking about him now?

    1. I think that’s backwards, though, seriously. Perfection may be a necessary property of existence. This is David Hilbert’s idea of mathematical existence being equivalent to freedom from contradiction. That is, mathematics is necessarily perfect. Then add the idea that physical existence is but a special case of mathematical existence and you have a working explanation for existence that’s noncircular and supported by all observation, but doesn’t require or even allow a creating deity. (There is no design freedom in mathematics.)

      If there’s anything interesting about the ontological argument, it’s that it attempts to tie the idea of perfection and existence together. It just does it incorrectly. It’s actually a profound argument against deity, if stated properly. See Tegmark.

      1. Mathematics is perfect for platonists. In reality, not so much.

        First and foremost because without platonism, we haven’t invented and/or discovered the math yet.

        But even believing in platonism we botch proofs, which are heuristic devices anyway. Or we have many proofs for the same theorem.

        Or we have none – Gödel proved that much! If we have theorems that are true but there is no existence of a proof, are they “perfect” then? Maybe _they_ are gods.

        There is no design freedom in mathematics.

        Disproof: Chaitin’s constant.

        Chaitin proposes that since the effort to get to the next bit (in binary) increases out of bounds, eventually you can as well throw a coin to decide. Quasiempirical math with “design freedom”, besides the heuristics we use to prove theorems.

        Anyway, the way we construct math has plenty of design freedom in it without even considering quasiempirical methods and heuristics. The invention of zero made math much more practical, don’t you think?

        you have a working explanation for existence that’s noncircular and supported by all observation,

        But platonism, or this ad hoc if you not agree with my characterization, is not falsifiable. They are philosophies, not facts.

        Newton’s third law (classical observation, if you will), more generally quantum observation, provides an empirical validation of existence (realism).

        1. I agree that it’s philosophy, not science. But, it may simply not be possible to obtain the explanation for existence through traditional (falsifiable) science.

          On the other hand, supposing a purely mathematical system can be shown to reproduce all observation, at least in principle, do we really need falsifiability? Seems to me, not unless there is a working competing explanation. Goddidit is of course not a working explanation, as it is either circular or provides no actual explanation.

          Do you really think the concept of zero as is used in say, the field of reals, has a possibilty of differing from a zero concept in the equivalent structure as used by (say) Alpha Centaurians? That zero is a discovery and not an invention seems simply obvious to me.

          That a lot of different variants of a mathematical structure might exist should not be mistaken for design freedom. I think this also obviates the anthropic problem.

          I don’t understand what point you’re making in your final paragraph.

    2. Was about to say the same thing! If it is perfect, by definition it cannot exist.

      On the other hand, as the universe is indifferent & ‘good’ & ‘evil’ are mere human ideas, ‘perfection’ & ‘imperfection’ must also be mere human ideas, without any true ‘existence.

  3. I don’t know the history and work already behind the Ontological Argument, but I will definitely check out that link for it.

    But here are my off-the-cuff thoughts on it. My problem with it is they are simply declaring a property that part of it is the existence of that thing with the property. You assign a property to something that you have yet to prove exists. Can you assign a property to it then? This is like logical equivalence, if god exists then it’s perfect, and if it’s perfect then it exists. So (god exists) iff (god is perfect). Another way (god exists) (god is perfect). So to prove one you must prove the other, but often the god is perfect is simply stated.

    An example I made to illustrate the absurdity of this is Jerry the 18 foot purple rabbit in blue overalls. Jerry has the property of being floopdid. I made that property up, I won’t go into the details of what it means, but one thing it means is whatever is floopdid must exist. Since Jerry is floopdid, he must exist.

    1. I think it was Russell who postulated “the existent round square”. Since it’s defined as existing, it must exist, therefore there is a round square.

      He then nailed it in five words: “Existence is not an attribute.”
      (a predicate, a property)

      Existence is not something an entity can have or not have like redness or weight. And something that does not exist, can not, by definition, do anything to make itself exist.

    2. A more basic (but obscure) problem with Anselm’s argument is that it assumes the ordering relationship is necessarily a meet-semilattice, such that a maximal necessarily exists. If the ordering relationship is not a meet semilattice, there may not be a universal maximal over the whole set.

      It’s probably related to Cantor’s set-of-all-sets problem on some level.

  4. A
    (1) Heaven is the most wonderful place, a place where nothing goes wrong and happiness is unbounded.

    (2) If heaven did not exist, the heavenliness of heaven would be diminished. If there were places that were not part of heaven, if heaven were limited in its extent, then the heavenliness of heaven would be diminished.

    (3) Therefore, heaven exists and it is everywhere.

    (1) Hell is the most dreadful place, a place where nothing goes right and despair is unbounded.

    (2) If hell did not exist, the hellishness of hell would be diminished. If there were places that were not part of hell, if hell were limited in its extent, then the hellishness of hell would be diminished.

    (3) Therefore, hell exists and it is everywhere.

      1. Now is Hell landed here upon the Earth,
        When Lucifer in limbes of burning gold,
        Ascends this dustie Theator of the world,
        To joyne his powers: and were it numbred well,
        There are more Divels on Earth then are in Hell.

  5. There are people who still take the Ontological Argument seriously? In this century? Why? It refutes itself. You could literally use it to prove anything you wanted to by simply changing the definition of “perfect/greatness”. You should just walk away from anyone who thinks it is a convincing argument.

  6. Not sure I understand the ontological argument. Is this it?

    I can imagine a perfect engine that is 100% efficient. Since I can imagine it, it exists.

    Is that it??

    1. Pretty much. It’s the all-encompassing arrogance of imaginative consciousness assuming an objective state of perfection exists necessarily (albeit capriciously subjective). It’s the ultimate form of quixotic cognitive temerity — the bullshit superposition principle of infinite possibilities.

    2. Let’s go Plantinga with your engine.

      1. Let’s presume the awesomest engine exists only in your imagination but not in reality.

      2. An engine that has all the properties of the awesomest engine plus existence is even awesomer, because you can actually use it.

      3. But it can’t be awesomer than the one that you imagined, because that one was supposed to be the awesomest. That is a contradiction.

      4. So it is not true that the awesomest engine exists in your imagination but not in reality.

      5. But it is true that it exists in your imagination, because you are imagining it right now.

      6. Therefore, it must exists in reality, too.

      See? The awesomest engine that can be created already exists in reality! We just have to find it. It must be hidden somewhere.

        1. Why of course, my good fellow!

          (*thinking really hard*)

          There you go.

          What? It isn’t there? Well, I mean, this is an nuanced, sophisticated notion. It’s not supposed to be taken literally! What are you, some kind of fundamentalist? This concept of existence is deeper than just mere physical instantiation. Yeah.

    3. I don’t think that’s it. You have to think of the greatest of all possible things. An engine is not the greatest of all possible things. A puppy, for example, would be far greater than an engine. A puppy would still have its limitations though. It still would not be the greatest most perfect thing imaginable. You have to think of something that is the greatest most perfect of all things.

      1. IIRC, that was pretty much Anselm’s answer to Gaunilo (the dude with the lost island). It only applies to God because it only applies to (roughly) “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”. And, by definition, that be God.


        Nope, nothing wrong with that…

  7. 1. Let’s imagine something that is “an existent God”. We can conceive it alright.

    2. Saying that an existent God does not exist is a contradiction.

    3. Therefore, an existent God exists.

    4. An existent God is a God.

    5. Therefore, God exists.

        1. You can define god into existence so long as you don’t bother about any actual attributes. This tree is my god, so god exists. It’s all a ridiculous waste of time.

  8. I can imagine a perfect circle. Due to the atomic nature of our world a perfect circle can’t exist. All of the most subtle arguments so far have failed to change this.

  9. Perfection is imaginary.
    If it existed, it would be perfectly imaginary.

    Tim, “non-existence” cannot be a property, by definition (“non-existence” means: no properties, nothing to have properties, zilch), and “existence” cannot be a property, because a property has to exist; and “existence” only means “something is”. The Ontological Argument is a game of words. It’s useful, though, because it shows how we can be confused by the structures of language.

  10. I honestly thought the Ontological Argument was a joke when I first heard it. Learning that it was meant to be serious made me depressed about humanity. Honestly, it’s bizarre enough that anyone even thought it up and thought it a good argument in the first place, and it’s more bizarre that they didn’t immediately dismiss it as nonsense within five seconds of thinking it, but it just blows my mind that it has been repeated and taught by so many for so long.

    The Ontological Argument really is a test of my respect for the human race. I won’t even rebut it; I just refuse to dignify it like that.

    1. I know.. Every time I think I have wrapped my head around how dumb humans are, I realize I havent. Its as if the dumbest being I can imagine actually exists..

    2. I honestly thought the Ontological Argument was a joke when I first heard it. Learning that it was meant to be serious made me depressed about humanity.

      Eggszactly! Paging child who called out birthday-suited emperor…

      Kudu–ack–so it DOES work in reverse! (Well done!)

  11. Well the most perfect being I can imagine would be female, and fantastic in bed. I guess I learned something about god tonight.

    1. Sleeping Beauty was literally “fantastic” in bed.
      Not my cup-of-tea as a partner, I’m afraid!

  12. A lot of smart people have taken the ontological argument seriously over a lot of centuries. What’s up with that?

    1. There is a difference between being:
      1) smart
      2) educated
      3) wise
      4) honest
      5) a dick
      6) a braggard
      7) dominating

    2. A lot of smart people have believed a lot of crazy things over history … you can still be smart and believe something silly.

    3. The Ontological Argument, as absurd as it is, had a certain mysterious power for those who tend to rely on pure reason. The Argument turns out to be no argument at all; it is pure vapor. You can’t punch vapor. By the same token, a fallacious but relatively linear argument from A to B to C can be easier to attack than something like the Ontological Argument.

      For many of us, I think, our knee-jerk reaction to the OA is, “Wow, that’s incredibly stupid.” The next reaction is, “Look, I can use that to prove the existence of literally anything, so it can’t be right.” But pointing out what is actually wrong with it is very tricky. In fact, it being before 8AM, if someone challenged me to do it, I don’t think I could. I’d rely on the reductio ad absurdum, that it can’t possibly be right because you can apply it to “prove” the existence of all sorts of crazy things.

      So if you are one of those “great thinkers” whose first inclination when hearing an interesting logical argument is clearly stupid, but you can’t put your finger on just why it’s stupid, if your first reaction is, “How fascinating!”, then it would be easy to get taken in by the OA.

      1. Why is pointing out what’s wrong with it tricky? I had that question about the same claim in Aikin and Talisse’s book, too. I don’t get it. And I mean I don’t get it, not I don’t get it so I conclude it’s all nonsense.

        Why isn’t it enough to object that the premises are absurd?

      2. Well here’s my offering on how to refute it:

        If someone claims to be able to conceive of a supremely perfect being, then let him list the attributes of that being (otherwise the claim is unsupported).

        Is “actually exists” on the list of attributes?

        If not, then the ontological argument fails immediately.

        If so, then the ontological argument is fallacious because it is circular: it assumes that which it claims to be able to prove.

      3. No, it’s really easy to refute. There’s a bit where they claim that this God of theirs “exists in the imagination” or “exists as an idea”. You respond: no it doesn’t. The idea of their God exists as an idea. The God itself doesn’t exist at all.

      4. Not sure it’s all that difficult…

        1. Existence isn’t an attribute.

        2. Stipulating that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” doesn’t make it so.

        3. Word games do not reality make.


  13. Apparently the most perfect being in the world lets people be trapped in rubble in New Zealand.

    Can you imagine a perfect being who walks by on the other side?

    1. And seems to have taken a particular delight in zapping churches – the grander the zapp’der. I just learnt that he even got the little shopper’s RC chapel in Chancery Lane.

  14. I come from a mathematics background, and I never could fathom why anybody would even bother with the “ontological argument”. It presupposes that anything you can conceive(isn’t that the same as “think”) of must exist. Now I can surely think of a number that is larger than every other number. Also, such a number does not exist(unless you change your axioms and postulate the existence of such a number and call it ‘Infinity’).

    1. Yeah, I think the ontological argument is just a word trick. Even a child knows that imaginary things are not necessarily real.

      Now, if only theologians could catch up with the kids!

    2. No, no, you’re missing the point! If we can conceive of it, it must exist, and since we can conceive of anything, we’re actually omniscient!

      The problem is, we then conceive that we’re not actually omniscient, whereupon we’re not. It’s the failure to firmly conceive only the positive things that introduces evil into the world.

      All it takes is just one person to make the whole thing fail, though – if only one conceives of imperfection, then it must exist, which trashes the efforts of everyone else. Therefore, to achieve perfection, everyone else must die.

      So my dog says, anyway…

  15. I’ve seen it suggested that the ontological argument wasn’t originally intended as a proof of God’s existence but rather as evidence of His necessity or evidence of His nature. This doesn’t make it any more convincing, but it ought to remind us that the argument was first put forth in an intellectual environment we can scarcely imagine.

    The issue isn’t why anyone took it seriously then, which is nearly impossible to evaluate; it’s why anyone takes it seriously now. Pointing and laughing seems appropriate.

  16. I can conceive of a very rude and annoying Gnu atheist.
    In order to be really rude and annoying this Gnu atheist would have to exist (and go around shouting forced laughter at haplessly mild ministers at conservation events!).
    Therefore Tom Johnson was right after all!

  17. Woah, fifty comments already.

    It’s also worth remembering that pure reason does not have a great track record at discerning factual truths about the real world. One can make some rather appealing (though ultimately fallacious, of course) arguments against quantum mechanics, or even relativity, based on pure reason.

    I’m not diminishing the endeavor using pure reason to think about our world. It can be very useful, especially when empirical data is not available. But if pure reason relying on logic and philosophy brings you to a claim that is in plain contradiction with empirical observation — I know which one wins.

    1. That sort of answers the question I just asked you above. The premises are “absurd” (as I put it) because they are in plain contradiction with empirical observation.

      But wait, it doesn’t answer the question, because it was why don’t you think that does the job? Why is it hard to say why the OA is wrong?

      1. “The premises are “absurd” (as I put it) because they are in plain contradiction with empirical observation.”


        Thanks, Ophelia. Well put.

  18. The Ontological Argument is perfectly fine for demonstrating that, if a perfect being exists, then it exists.

    But it doesn’t exist. So it doesn’t exist.

  19. What I find especially fascinating is that no lesser a figure than Kurt Gödel not only took the Ontological Argument seriously, but actually formalized it.

    As somebody who lived and breathed diagonalization, it should have been trivially obvious to Gödel that conceptions of gods as the ultimate anything are as meaningless as a ten-year-old-boy babbling about the largest number and “infinity plus infinity times infinity an infinity times!” Yet, Gödel studiously read the Bible, believed in a literal Heaven and Hell, and the rest.

    Go figure.



    1. Does anyone know what the diference is between the Ontological Argument and the Transcendental Argument? They seem similar to me, both neo-Platonist in nature.

      Theologians sure loves them some Plato!

      1. The Transcendental Argument is different, though at least as idiotic:

        1. Knowledge is possible (or some other statement pertaining to logic or morality).
        2. If there is no god, knowledge is not possible.
        3. Therefore God exists.

        Of course, #2 is an unabashedly blatantly unsupported assertion. Good luck even pretending to support that one without Bible Babble.



      2. Kant invented the idea of a transcendental argument. Basically, a transcendental argument aims to show that the very claim or argument being made presupposes some state of affairs.

        So, I could claim that using reason and logic to disprove God will fail because the very existence of reason and logic presupposes God. Ergo, atheism is self-refuting.

        Or I could claim, along the lines of Searle, that talk about the existence of the real world presupposes a real world. Whatever real turns out to be.

        I’m not sure of the status of transcendental arguments, but the idea is that they transcend any one claim, and presuppose of that type of claim.

  20. Plantinga’s version is even worse. He defines maximal excellence as being maximally great in every possible world. Then he claims that there’s a possible world in which there is a maximally excellent being.

    Can you see the illegitimacy? “There is _a_ possible world in which P is maximally great in _every_ possible world.” No there f’ing isn’t.

  21. When I first encountered the ontological argument I found it amazingly silly. Upon some further reflection I found it amazingly clever, and was almost convinced by it. I’m proud to say that, in my stupidity, I was in no lesser company than Bertrand Russell himself, who at some point thought the argument valid.

    Finally, I was thoroughly convinced by Raymond Smullyan’s refutation: the ontological argument hinges on an equivocation, namely the ambiguity of “an”. True, the ontological argument shows that “an” existing God exists, if we take “an” to mean “whatever has the property of”; but it does not show that “an” existing God exists, if we take “an” to mean “at least one”.

      1. I’m not familiar with Sobel. Now you’ve piqued my curiosity, and I’ll have to buy his book. I expect a full refund. Expenses note to follow.

  22. If existance is a property and nothingness is that which has no properties then nothingness doesn’t have the property of existance and therefore doesn’t exist. Something from nothing?

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