Defining God Into Existence

One of the more slippery arguments for the existence of God is the ontological argument. It goes roughly as follows:

  • God is the most perfect being imaginable.
  • A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t.
  • Therefore, God exists.

The details vary from one apologist to the next, depending just how much circumlocution he wants to employ, but that’s the gist of it.

A lot of people can see that there’s something wrong, but like a stage magic trick, it’s not obvious what the problem is.

It’s easy to show that something’s wrong, by the way: just replace “God” with “ideal beer”:

  • The ideal beer is better than any other beer.
  • A beer in my hand is better than a beer that isn’t.
  • Therefore, I have an ideal beer in my hand.

It’s exactly the same argument as before, so if it worked, there should be a beer in your hand. And yet, somehow, there (most likely) isn’t. (You can also do this with The Ultimate Plague, is 100% communicable and 100% fatal. But it can’t kill anyone if it doesn’t exist. Therefore, the Ultimate Plague exists, and we’ve all died of it.)

So how is the magic trick done? Basically, it plays fast and loose with language.

It starts out well: the first line defines what we mean by “God”, and the second line sees what follows from the definition. In other words, if we define “God” as meaning a perfect being, then it follows that anything that falls under that definition must also exist.

At this point, some people object that existence isn’t a property like having a brain, or being bigger than a breadbox. I’m not picky. I’ll accept anything that can be answered with Yes/No/Maybe/Dunno as a property. If you show me something and ask if it’s a quadruped, I’ll count its legs and if it has four of them, I’ll say yes. Similarly, if you show me something and ask whether it exists, I’ll say yes.

Definitions are useful, not simply for what they include, but also for what they exclude: if I define a cat as a four-legged mammal, then you can look at a pencil, see that it doesn’t have four legs, and therefore isn’t a cat. You can look at an iguana and see that although it has four legs, it isn’t a mammal, and therefore isn’t a cat (same with four-legged tables). Then you can look at a horse, see that it has four legs and is a mammal, and therefore falls under my definition of a cat. Fair enough. I shouldn’t have made the definition so broad.

And then we get to

Therefore, God exists.

Did you notice the ol’ switcheroo being pulled? Up until now, we’ve been talking about the definition of the word “God”; now we’ve switched to talking about God him/her/itself. If we wanted to be precise, we should write

  • Let us define “God” as the most perfect being imaginable.
  • A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t.
  • Therefore, if an entity matches the definition of “God”, then that entity exists.

Actually, I guess this argument is a deepity: it has two readings, one which is true but trivial; and one which is false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

Or, to put it another way, the ontological argument reduces to “Show me a god, and I’ll show you an existing god.” It tells you which properties an entity has to have to be considered “God”, but doesn’t show that there actually are any entities that match that definition. Ditto the ideal beer and the Ultimate Plague.

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