Dawkins on the ontological argument

There is a section in the God Delusion (Dawkins, 2006) early on, where Dawkins’ addresses a certain confusion about how Russell had claimed in his early philosophical career that the proof of God’s existence by means of appeal to essence (namely, the Ontological argument) is actually valid. Dawkins then gives an anecdote where he gives a flippant variant of the ontological argument to prove that some trivial fact is necessarily true and he ends with the punchline: “They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong.”

While the remarks that Dawkins makes on the chapter concerning A priorist arguments treats the enterprise as fruitless and a joke; he does make a half-serious point. Gaunillo, as Dawkins rightly attributes, gives the case of the ‘most perfect island’ that must necessarily exist, if we are to accept the inference that Anselm wants to use to prove God. One common response is to give add some caveats to the thing that we are trying to argue into existence. Adding caveats like ‘most perfect being’ cannot refer to contingent beings and are necessary by definition may attempt to exclude. Anthony Kenny, in his exegesis of Descartes’ ontological gives a hearing to this view with some comparison cases; firstly, Russell’s notion of the Gold mountain and secondly the more thorny issue of non-existent objects.

There is a case, if we accept the theorems of S5 logic where we might say that the ontological proof of Good is valid (which banks on the S5’s Rule of Necessitation). We can say that a maximally perfect being exists possibly. However, valid as it is; it does require some metaphysical steps to infer that it is the man with the beard. Dawkins addresses the so-called ‘Einstein’s God’ which is mischaracterised by theists, and he states from the offset that this is not the notion of God that he’s attacking. It is, however, this very ‘Spinozan’ notion of God (deus sive natura) that the ontological argument apparently proves, and not the Christian deity. Most Christian apologists who argue with the ontological argument in public debates always use the religious experience/testimony argument concerning the historicity of Jesus, because the S5 compatible proof allocates a non-religiously-affiliated God. What I find most interesting about this proof is the metaphysical world that it would entail, given S5 modal conditions (such as the issue of natural kinds, worldhood and perhaps the issue of universals).

In closing. Modality is no flimsy subject matter but one that has serious implications in term of systematic philosophy. I suppose my irk with Dawkins concerns a distinction between the protestant and catholic atheist which is so-joked about. My Thomistic tendencies would emphasise the role of reason and the a priori in terms of structuring reality. Aquinas, in his conciliatory effort to bring Aristotle to Christianity, believed that the Aristotelian method and reason itself must have a place in elaborating our view of the universe. Later theologians debated between the notions of analogia entis and analogia fides; whether our comprehension of the divine comes exlusively through scripture (and its empirical connotations) or our rational attempt to structure ultimate reality. The comment made my Dawkins seems insincere to the a priorism that supercedes its theological origins. I find it amusing that there would be such a distinction between a ‘protestant’  (empiricist) and ‘catholic’ (rationalist – or, reason + experience) atheist.

Michael

The charge of (literary) elitism: Hitchen’s on God is not Great

I have been reading Christopher Hitchens’ popular book, God is Not Great. I must say, that I quite thoroughly enjoyed the book and thought that there are some particular strengths of it which may be construed as weaknesses, depending on the nature of the reader. This led me to have a certain realisation. Hitchens writes, perhaps, in a way that presumes too much of the reader. This is not a work written for accessibility, or in other words, it presumes a certain level of readingand educ ation, as well as, oddly enough, a knowledge of pop culture.

I find it quite odd how some books I think that few of my immediate peers would actually be able to understand certain references. I recently read Anderson’s ‘Free’, and in that, there are a lot of references to social networking, open source initiatives and bascially, very geeky things like google reader that most people will be baffled about.

Regarding the case of Hitchens, I think a more serious case can be made. I feel that it excludes a certain kind of reader, and I feel that, if a reader has already accomplished tasks like reading Hume, one really doesn’t need to read why ‘God is Not Great’. In other words, the aim of the book is to not preach to the ‘converted’, but convince a non-antitheist audience.

I have a certain fear of this book, that it is parasitic on other arguments and works. However, another take on this is that Hitchens knows the ‘other side’, namely, the arguments of his opponents, and he knows his Biblical exegesis quite well. I find a lot in common in my intellectual and literary sentiment. The namedropping involved in Hitchen’s book is part of his eccentric writing style and, given that he is not an academic but a journalistic writer, it is more a sign of pride than self-indulgence.

I find it unfortunate that Hitchen’s critics attack on the basis of ad-hominem. Hitchens does not deserve this, especially because there are lots of elements in his book that are unique, non-parasitic and signify that he is not trynig to be exclusive in rallying out old arguments and rehash. Hitchens, for instance, talks of his contact with the Sai Baba cult and how he is recognised as a minor prophet by Sai Baba followers (this is a particularly sad story, yet funny and disturbing at the same time). Hitchens also, through his journalistic pursuits has an interesting story about Mother Theresa which says more about the people trying to beatify her than any kind of religious insight whatsoever.

I did some homework on Hitchen’s bgraphy and it looks like any ignorant reader would find it easy to make an ad-hominem argument against him. Hitchen’s was part of a Trotskyist group and a writer for a socialist publication, and then he is later associated with having ‘far right’ views, like the support of the Iraqi invasion (which is quite an interesting perspective on the issue). I find myself quite liking Mr. Hitchens, and the fact that he is terribly knowledgeable for a man who wrote for Vanity Fair.

Michael