11 February 2012

Verbosity (or, the ontological argument part deux)

Philosophy is a mixed bag for me. I ate up (not literally) Dan Dennett's excellent book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which talks about the philosophical implications of evolution. But I'm also sympathetic to Stephen Hawking's controversial quip from The Grand Design: "philosophy is dead". Hawking's being hyperbolic, especially since his books tend to deal with philosophical implications of physics. I think that what he means, though, is that it is science which is on the forefront of human discovery. We can talk about how science is changing our view of the universe and our place within it, but philosophy cannot reveal any new truths.

I'm convinced that a lot of philosophy – especially religious philosophy – exists only for masturbatory purposes, so that academics can feel impressed with themselves. Remember my criticism of the ontological argument? Well, an alert reader brought to my attention an even more verbose wording of the argument – William Lane Craig's take on Alvin Plantinga's argument. It's a monster:

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

When you get past all of the pedantic bullshit, this isn't even an actual argument. It's literally nothing more than the bald assertion "God exists". Or, more specifically, "God, by definition, exists". A few problems, in handy bulletin format:

  • The concept of a "maximally great being" is entirely vague and empirically meaningless. "Great" is a qualitative description, not a quantitative one. 
  • The first and second premises are redundant. Both are saying the exact same thing, which is, "It's possible that God exists."
  • The fourth premise is a fallacy of composition. It's saying, "If it's possible that God exists, then God exists." That's the crux of the argument, and it's a failure. It's based on the fallacy that "existence" is a property; it's not – existence is what you have to have in order to have properties in the first place. Otherwise, you're just talking about conceptual abstractions, not actual things.
  • The fourth, fifth and sixth premises are all saying the exact same thing.
Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig aren't stupid. They're both very well educated. But all they've done is concoct a ludicrously elaborate fallacy. It's a great example of intelligent people making embarrassingly stupid arguments. But the language is phrased in such a way that any layperson who reads it is going to say, "Um.... what?" To which the theologian replies, "Aha! See, you cannot refute my sophisticated argument! If you were educated in sophisticated philosophy like I am, you'd see that this is a powerful argument that proves the existence of God!"

This isn't unique to the ontological argument. The cosmological argument is similarly confusing with its sneaky equivocation fallacies. It's really important to be clear about what the words we're using actually mean, so when an argument is designed to be superfluously verbose and/or uses vaguely defined terms that allow for subtle equivocation, it's a sure sign that you've encountered some bona fide philosophical bullshit.

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