Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ontological, Schmontological!

Well, the final presidential debate is over, and not a moment too soon. I'm so tired of stump speeches, negative campaigning, and cliché pandering I could almost go vote for Ron Paul ... almost. If all else fails, we can just get Joe the Plumber to run our country.

At the very least it would be nice to listen to a real debate. If I wanted to hear weak arguments employing poor logic that is essentially lost in semantics or word play, I'd go listen to a religious believer or deist try to convince me of god's existence using a classic ontological argument.

So, why is the ontological argument so silly? For starters, it's essentially a tautology - an argument that takes as a premise its own conclusion. Let's examine one of the more classic interpretations:

1) By definition, God is perfect and thus greater than anything a human being could imagine.
2) If you can imagine something, it would be 'better' or 'more perfect' if that imaginary thing were actually real.
3) Therefore God must exist.

Confused yet? It's saying that if you try and imagine a 'God', he's probably perfect (meaning lots of fun things like awesome, good, the best). The twist (and assumption) is that if you can imagine something incredibly crazy cool, wouldn't it be that much COOLER if what you imagine actually came true?! If 'God' is perfect, and a perfect real thing is better than a perfect imaginary thing, then by the definition that perfect is more perfect in reality 'God' must be real.

This is as much word play as it is anything else. The base assumption that something perfect is 'more perfect' if it is actually real rather than imaginary seems to us (in modern days) a very unwarranted assumption. I reckon that many years ago it did not seem so odd.

More importantly, if we were to apply this logic to other ideas many people would find it laughable. Take Santa Claus for example (SPOILER ALERT!). Santa Claus is a fictitious character (hope you knew that already) that is a part of many cultures - at least, most of you who read this will think that. But I'm sure someone out there will claim that, in fact, Kris Kringle is as real as you and me, and he has amazing powers at Christmas time. You might say that that someone out there is crazy. Until that someone looks you in the eye and says "Santa Claus is perfect/the best/awesome at delivering gifts to everyone at Christmas time." By the logic laid forth above, Santa Claus must be real since the mere construction of the belief in this kind of perfection dictates its reality ... by definition! We have our tautology and with that, we can begin to imagine all sorts of crazy things into existence. Go ahead, try it! I've always wanted a pink-eared, fuzzy-bottomed, lion-tailed, ostrich-winged goldfish as a pet.

If you want a really great explanation/discussion of this ancient play on words, visit the skeptics guide to the universe and download podcast #80.

Now, if only I could find a politician who could even explain what the ontological argument IS, much less refute it, I would at least feel comforted knowing the intellectual capacity of the person running my government is better than a bush. If I cannot have a more skeptical candidate, at least I can have HOPE.

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