The Ontology of God

by Michael Szul on 2008-05-27 08:44:51
tags: god, ontology, philosophy

Philosophy can be disbursed into many subdivisions of scrutiny (logic, epistemology, socio-political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, rhetoric), but no such category reposes so much substratum for contention and controversy as that of ontology. And no ontological question has been given more cognizance than that of the existence of God.

But can God veraciously be proven to exist? Can we really put pen to paper and jot down cogent statements of non-controversial premises and come up with a “eureka” of a meditation that places no incertitude on God's actuality?

First, let us begin with probably the most illustrious of all arguments, the ontological proof. Made prestigious by the Catholic monk Saint Anselm, the ontological proof purports to prove the existence of God in merely a few lines:

God is that which nothing greater can be.
It is greater to exist in reality than to solely exist in the mind.
If God did not exist, we could think of something greater; namely something with all the qualities of God, but which also exists.
Since God is that which nothing greater can be, if God did not exist, this would form a contradiction.

Therefore, God exists.

Rene Descartes later echoed Anselm's vigorous extrapolation during his endeavor to manufacture a concurrent metaphysical foundation for his scientific works. After his famously expounded Cogito, Descartes proceeded to dilate his refined truth about his own existence and set forth a criteria to substantiate God's existence. His ontological proof (his second main attempt) dealt a little more with semantics:

By definition, God, if he exists, has all perfections.
Existence is a perfection.

Therefore, God exists.

Both these proofs demonstrate a proficiency over language. Inauspiciously, neither truly accomplishes what they set out to do. Anselm's proof ultimately fails because it first defines that which it is trying to authenticate. Anselm first tells us what God is in his own words, and then easily fashions a logical proof around this definition. Anselm also comes under fire by articulating that it is better for something to exist in reality than to solely exist in the mind. This is a false premise. Ambrose Bierce once said “[Accomplishment is] usually followed by disappointment” (Bierce 3). Isn't it the case than many times certain things never live up to their expectations? Doesn't this show times when a conception of an event in the mind is actually greater than the occurrence in reality? This isn't always the case; however, there are some instances in our lives when the fantasy does end up better than the actuality.

Descartes, too, fails in his semantical flight into creatorial philosophy. Though it may be true that God has all perfections. It is not necessarily precise that existence is a form of perfection. In fact, be honest, how many things in this world are truly perfect by definition rather than interpretation? Even Immanuel Kant, a gallant theist, put up a disagreement with this scenario. Kant retorted that existence is not a property that can be thrown about like peculiarities such as hair color, eye color, etc. (Lawhead 341). Think of a scenario similar to thus: Envision a person named John. Give John red hair. Make John six feet tall. Give John a suit as clothes. Now give John existence. Notice that in each of the cases John mutated in some way, he gained some peculiarity or property, with the exception of existence. When you say that John exists, it doesn't metamorphosize your image of him at all because existence is not a property that enhances an idea in any way. So how can existence be a property of perfection?

The next most redoubtable proof of God's existence is noted as the argument from causality. This argument, though not as well known as the one above, is perhaps the most antiquated of all logical constructs of God's existence. This millstone was first inaugurated by the grandfather of modern logical thought: Aristotle. Aristotle first made the divine known in his inquisition into the Unmoved Mover.

Aristotle contended that motion was eternal (Smith). Motion cannot begin without the anterior existence of something to transmit motion in another object (Smith). There must always be something in motion since something at rest cannot cause motion in another thing at rest (Smith). In addition, if motion were not eternal, then time would not have ceaselessly existed since time is the measure of motion, but according to Aristotle, no one would be willing to say that time has not always been in duration (Smith). Also, Aristotle argued that motion cannot cease, since to do so, something must first cause it to cease, but then the thing that caused motion to cease would require something to cause its cessation and the process would continue perpetually (Smith). Aristotle concludes, that there was never a time that there was complete motionlessness, nor would there be a time that there would be this motionlessness (Smith). However, what first started this very first motion? To Aristotle, this was referred to as the Unmoved Mover, or the Prime Mover (Smith).

During the Medieval Synthesis, Saint Thomas Aquinas (an adversary of the ontological proof of Saint Anselm) paced forward with not one, but five proofs of God's actuality. All five though are incontestably agnate - or related - to causality, thus we will only address two of them.

The first proof needs no explanation since it is a verifiable simulacrum of Aristotle's Prime Mover.

The second proof takes the first and puts an almost contemporary scientific spin on it. Aquinas states, “In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God” (Aquinas 107). Austerely conveyed, every effect has a cause, and if we go back to the very commencement, there must be a first cause of everything. This cause is God.

A little earlier than Aquinas, a Jewish philosopher named Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, who also accrued influence from Aristotle, forged his own example of the proof of God's being, a specimen that was later extrapolated in Aquinas' third proof. Maimonides declared that at one point everything that was in existence was out of existence; and at one point everything that is in existence must go out of existence. However, this infers that there must have been a time where everything was out of existence, which is impossible since something cannot come from nothing, thus there would be no existence right now. Therefore, there must have been something that always was and always will be. That is God.

All of these proofs, though given disparate names of identification and using dissimilar wording, are nonetheless proofs of cause and effect. The nature of their logic is contingent on the laws of causality, of something affecting something else. Lamentably, these proofs also fall short of their ultimate intention.

David Hume, the diligent master of cause and effect, was a huge detractor of this causality. Hume contended that the only unequivocal truths in this world are truths based on semantics or what he called “relations of ideas” (Radcliffe 17). These are things that must be true simply because they are true by definition. It is always true that a yellow lemon is yellow based on the definition of yellow. Yellow will never be another color other than yellow. All other conjectured truths, according to Hume, are “matter-of-fact truths” (Radcliffe 17). These are truths that humanity is believed to be based on cause and effect, but Hume relates that in actuality, they are based on nothing more than habit. It is not true that the sun with rise tomorrow. We only expect it to because habit based on experience has brought us to that conclusion. We build up our beliefs based on causal reasoning; however, Hume persists that there is no conclusive evidence that a certain cause will have a certain effect in the future. We can only say that our past experiences have shown us that in this particular case, with these particular controls, a certain thing has happened. And that it is possible in the future such a thing may occur, but it isn't certain.

Hume would surmise that proof of God's existence based on such causality is unfounded. The argument of the Prime Mover is invalid because we cannot truly show that motion must be caused by motion. Aquinas' and Maimonides' arguments are invalid because, for one, it isn't necessary to assume that things can't stretch back into infinity, or that at some point everything must be out of existence; and for two, if cause and effect are ruled as inappropriate measures for ontology, then chain causes, such as those that appear in Aquinas' work, are far from valid.

In addition, modern day quantum physics does actually support the notion of acausal events, events which come about on their own without any prior cause. This revelation alone is enough to doubt any logical proof based on cause and effect and brings into serious doubt the philosophical principle of sufficient reason.

These causal proofs are by far more effective than their ontological brethren; however, they involve too much confidence on a priori knowledge, especially the postulation that every effect has a cause. Proving the existence of God needs to triumph over not only atheism but skepticism as well. The skeptic will interrogate everything, especially that knowledge can be anything other than empirical. In this situation, one must do either of two things: either prove that a priori truths are possible, or start only from an empirical standpoint. The argument from causality accomplishes neither of these.

The last particular classification that arguments of God's existence plunge into is referred to as the argument from teleology. Most of the time, these proofs resemble nothing more than allegorical narratives that present some sort of pattern or design (hence, teleology). This pattern, with an affinity of order, is designed to demonstrate God's existence.

The most potent and cunning of these proofs is William Paley's The Watch and the Watchmaker: “In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there for ever; nor would it perhaps, be very easy to shew the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place. I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew the watch might have been there[…] the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker – that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use[…] ” (Lawhead 330). Paley compares the watch to that of the universe. He infers that the watch must have had a watchmaker. This allegorical watchmaker is, of course, God.

Paley's proof is beauteous in its execution, however, is cannot be a terminal end to the problem of God's existence. It is, after all, allegorical; and allegorical tales are more suitable in assisting someone to learn concepts rather than proving those concepts. Allegories are ways of transmitting knowledge through indirect communication. They effect different people in different ways, so although Paley's proof may be enough to cause an epiphany in one person and have them realize God's existence, someone else like Hume, would see it as nothing more than a pleasant story. Allegorical stories are too open to interpretation.

Paley's main argument was that the cosmos was obviously based on some sort of order. This isn't an authentic argument, however, since modern science now has a magnifying discipline based on chaos theory, which tries to show that the universe isn't as ordered as our mind perceives it. It is our mind that imposes this structured feel and not necessarily the universe itself.

What does this leave us with? Are we stuck in a Humean skepticism destined to never escape? Maybe the best we can do is follow Pascal's advice and weigh the options, take the wager, and believe because it gives us the best possible outcome.

Could it be that the best reason we can come up with to believe in God is: “What do you have to lose?”

Logical proofs offer us no corroboration of God's existence because we first decree our own anthropomorphic ideals on God and then use them to demonstrate God's existence. Essentially we are arguing in a circle when you boil it down. Causality has been hurled out of the window as well, and let us not forget that existence is merely a word that humanity formulated to espy between those things that we deem real and those things that we deem imaginary. In truth, existence is based on discovery through sense perception, and non-existence is based on non-discovery through sense perception. Non-existence is really nothing more than something that is undiscovered or imperceived for the moment, even though it may have already been conceived mentally.

However, the American Heritage Dictionary refers to existence (or exist) as “to have actual being” (AHD 234). This is strikingly different from what was elaborated on earlier. From the above we see that the actual meaning of existence is different than our common usage of the term. The actual meaning has nothing to do with our sense perception. It is the object in itself, existing, without any sense perception necessary. Naturally this means that we can never experience this form of existence of an outside object since our experience comes from sense data; however, we are able to experience existence ourselves, since to experience ourselves “being” does not require sense data, it only requires consciousness.

We see that existence, as it is truly termed can accurately be experienced, thus empirically, we have knowledge of it; however, what about its opposition? If existence is “being”, then non-existence is “non-being.” The only way that we can experience “non-being” is if we ourselves “were not.” This is obviously not possible; therefore, empirically, we have no true knowledge of actual non-being.

To say that something does not exist, then, is absurd, because if we are creatures of empiricism, then we must be able to experience non-existence before we can fathom it. We have never experienced non-existence. We can only experience when something is not currently present through sense perception. If senses cannot be trusted to tell us if something exists, then neither can it be trusted to tell us that something does not exist. In any event, we can fathom existence whether it is through Descartes' Cogito, Kierkegaard's subjective truth, Sartre's awareness, or any other number of philosophical attempts that we may support. But can we ever truly understand non-existence? We spend so much time trying to prove that something exists that we never look to seriously examine the issue of non-existence and whether or not it is possible.

When we say that a yellow lemon is orange is this showing us non-existence? In essence, we can use Hume's theory of “relation of ideas” and “matters-of-fact.” Hume speculated that the only truths we can be certain of are relations between ideas. This was mentioned earlier in our critique of the argument from causality. Applied to our existence / non-existence theory, this show us that if we form a contradiction based on terminology we could possibly have a case of experiencing non-existence. However, for the moment think in your mind about a yellow lemon that is orange. What kind of impression do you get? Does your mind not try to synthesis these concepts into something that you can understand? Because what you are essentially saying is that “this concept of a lemon that I have, has a property of the concept of the color yellow; and I am now giving it the concept of the color orange.” Your mind will attempt one of two things: It will either replace the concept of the color yellow with the concept of the color orange, or it will attempt to synthesize the two colors into an orange-yellow mix. This shows the mind attempting to break through the barrier of language blocks and conceive of an idea. Even with a contradictory idea, your mind will establish an impression of it simply because non-existence has no grounding. Your mind does not simply go blank when you attempt to think of contradictions.

Furthermore, even if we assume that this shows a case for non-existence, it is only in the relation of ideas that form contradictions. It is only semantical. To say that “God exists” doesn't form a contradiction. To Hume, this would be a matter-of-fact truth and can never be proven. But with our current train of thought, we can conceive of God (even if God is only a complex construct of other experienced ideas) and we can conceive of existence. We cannot conceive of non-existence. So to say that “God doesn't exist” not only cannot be proven, but it also is an attempt to use a concept that cannot be conceived of based on our empirical experience. The best that we can say (using the misconception of non-existence based on sense perception presented earlier as undiscovered / imperceived) is that “God cannot currently be perceived or is currently undiscovered at the moment.” This is not to say that God does not exist.

In truth (getting back to the point of personal being) we cannot be certain of anything except our own existence. Descartes tried to bridge the gap between self-awareness and the awareness of exterior objects by first proving that God existed and then moving on to his proof of “clear and distinct ideas” (Thomson 50). However, we have already refuted Descartes' proof of God, so we are still only left with our own existence and the empirical knowledge that we gain through sense perception that may or may not be true. We have considered non-existence and ruled it absurd, but even if everything existed, we still probably won't satisfy the skeptics with this statement; and they will contest that the only thing we have put forth so far is that personal existence is the only certainty. If we continue with their line of thought, how do we escape this skeptical cycle and be certain on anything other than ourselves?

Let us not forget the Copernican revolution of Immanuel Kant. Kant acknowledged that reality as we know it is shaped by the perceiving mind. If reality is shaped by the perceiving mind, and the perceiving mind believes that God is existent, does this not make God real? Especially since non-existence is a concept that cannot be understood. All we can ever truly say is that God is not currently present in our perceived reality. But presence relates to positioning and not existence, therefore it has no bearing on whether something exists or not.

According to Kant, it would seem that everyone of us shapes the reality around us, since reality conforms to our minds. Can we not each perceive reality in a different way? If one person perceives one thing and another person perceives something else, which one is correct? What do we usually do in that situation? Don't we usually get another person's opinion? Does this not suggest that reality to the masses is a consensus opinion?

How is this consensus opinion formed? Even from our youth, we are taught to perceive things a certain way. We call this education. We are told what things are. We are taught a language. If we see things a different way, we are “corrected” by a teacher or a parent. Reality exists the way it does because our perceptions were trained since youth by those that came before us.

How does this fit into our theory? The human mind receives sense data and formulates a structure for this. Reality then conforms to this structure. Many of those that believe in God are capable of perceiving God through some sensation or another (even if it's just a feeling from strong belief). This means that when reality conforms to the structure of the mind, reality will contain God. Since most of our ways of perceiving are now taught to us from parents, teachers, etc., we become built to perceive things the way our ancestors did until we decide, if ever, to change a few of these perceptions. Since the vast majorities of people in the world are raised to believe that God exists and are somewhat capable of perceiving this, consensus opinion again rules when it pertains to the reality of the masses; therefore God exists based on the theory that reality conforms to the mind.

Summarily, we have deduced that the current norm for proving that God exists is inadequate. We have dismissed the argument from ontology, the argument from causality, and the argument from teleology by providing a sufficient critique of proofs that lie in those categories. But just to show that these current proofs are inadequate is not enough to say that God does not exist.

Based on empiricism (the tool of many a skeptic) we have shown that non-existence remains an unfathomable concept:

Knowledge comes only from experience.
To know about non-existence requires us to experience some form of it.
We cannot experience non-existence.

Therefore, non-existence is an ill-conceived and misperceived concept.

This scenario is merely meant to use empiricism as a tool against skeptical inquiry. Should we assume that all knowledge is a posteriori, like many skeptics do, we run into the problem of trying to conceive of what exactly non-existence is. We cannot truly conceive of this concept, though we can conceive of existence. With this said, and from an empirical standpoint, it seems that it is invalid to say that God does not exist, since this non-existence is unfathomable.

After tossing this existence / non-existence argument around, we move on to a salute and support of Immanuel Kant's Copernican revolution. Based on Kant's theory that reality conforms to the mind we are able to show how this reality has a place for God in it:

Reality conforms to the mind.
Humans are social creatures.
Conflicts in opposing views of reality are solved by mediation or general consensus (The result of the second premise in lieu of these conflicts).

Therefore, the reality of the masses is formed by general consensus.

Here we have established the Mass Reality Theory of reality in general conforming to the consensus opinion of the minds of the masses. We then move from this point to place God into the picture:

Reality of the masses is formed by general consensus.
The general consensus is that a God exists (Based on belief or knowledge that includes perceptions, impressions, and / or passions).

Therefore, God exists in reality.

We are now able to place God into reality based on Kant's Copernican revolution and the Mass Reality Theory.

Proof that God exists lies in the faculties of the human mind, and how we perceive things even from a skeptical perspective, especially when non-existence is noted as being a concept that the human mind cannot truly fathom. God, as a being greater than ourselves, exists. We did not, however, take the assumption that God created anything, or that God rules our lives. If we asked if it is possible that God existed before we did, that is an entirely different story.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. An Aquinas Reader. Intro. Mary T. Clark. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil's Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.

Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey. New York: McGraw - Hill Higher Education, 2003.

Radcliffe, Elizabeth S. On Hume. Belmont: Wadsworth / Thompson Learning, 2000.

Thomson, Garrett. On Descartes. Belmont: Wadsworth / Thompson Learning, 1999.

Smith, Barry D. “Aristotle.” Atlantic Baptist University RS3000: Philosophy of Religion. (21 March 2003).

Works Consulted

Aquinas, Thomas. Selected Writings. Ed. Ralph McInerny. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999.

Cahoone, Lawrence E. From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (Oxford Philosophical Texts). New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. New York: Penguin Classics, 1995.

Rae, Alastair. Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Thomson, Garrett. On Kant. Belmont: Wadsworth / Thompson Learning, 1999.

Twersky, Isadore. A Maimonides Reader. New York: Behrman House, 1989.

Want, Christopher. Introducing Kant. New York: Totem Books, 2001.